Madness, Exile, and Resistance: An Interview With Samrat Upadhyay

by
Mark Fabiano 
4.12.17

With frequent return visits to Nepal, you’ve made the United States home for your family. As an immigrant and a writer, how do you feel about the way this country seems torn over the issues of immigration, race, and even the Trump administration’s attempt at a travel ban?
This is a very sad and crazy period for America. In a way, everything that has happened feels like a dream. I worry about my daughter, a young woman of color, born and raised as a Nepali American. What will her future be in a country where racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny have been normalized by the highest holder of public office? Everything that has happened, and perhaps will continue to happen in the months and years to come, feels very anti-American. I keep telling myself, “This is not the America I know.” I get asked often when I travel abroad whether I’d have been a writer had I not come to the United States. Who knows the answer to that question? What I do know is that it was the American spirit of openness and inquiry and opportunity that enabled me to pursue my literary passion. When I first came here, I thought I was going to major in business, then I ended up taking classes in literature and writing because there were people doing serious study of literature and writing in this country. It was all very freeing and enriching, even though I was a financially poor student. And in a sense, I never looked back.

“I think the best thing we can do is to continue writing, unafraid.”

What do you believe writers, immigrant or not, need to do in response to such abrasive and anti-immigrant attitudes and policies?
I think the best thing we can do is to continue writing, unafraid. When I was growing up in Nepal, writing anything against the monarchy was punishable. After coming to this country, I saw how people had the freedom to be critical of even the highest political figure in the country. Literature is a form of resistance. No, it is resistance. Fundamentally, literature tells us that the world is not what it seems. And politicians, especially those with authoritarian bents, are always telling us that the world is a certain way. Literature asks us to probe into our everyday realities, and because it take us deeper into the human experience, that, in itself, is resistance against oppression, which is confining and belittling.

In its own way, Mad Country, written before Election Day, and certainly more relevant today, addresses immigration and the United States, particularly in “Freak Street” and “America the Great Equalizer.” How do these stories, and whole collection, mirror your own sensibilities and values about the current conflicts of immigration and race in this country?
I have never understood nationalism or racism, at least not the vitriolic kind surfacing in America right now. People don’t choose the place of their birth or the color of their skin. I believe that we are much more than the selves we embody right now, and to think of ourselves only as this race or that nationality is constricting and petty and conflict-seeking. Mad Country is about expanding our notions of who we are, breaking out of the straightjackets that we have trapped ourselves in. The two stories you mention in particular have characters journeying between America and Nepal and discovering new identities. The title story itself is a mad form of journeying, wherein the self completely transforms. I am interested in such radical rebirth.

Do you see any hope? Does writing about these issues offer you and your readers any solace?
Writing is certainly therapeutic. The I-Ching uses a wonderful image of nourishment: magic tortoise. To me, writing has always been my magic tortoise: It’s soothing, life-affirming, worldly and mystical, and ultimately, liberating. And certainly, my hope is that my work will give readers comfort and pleasure. But I also hope that it'll provoke and energize, and nudge them beyond the boundaries of their selves.

 

Mark Fabiano’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly, The Saturday Evening PostBest New Writing, Aestas 2016, Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The Long StoryGreen Hills Literary Lantern, and other publications. His awards include Editor’s Choice Award for Best New Writing, honorable mentions from the American Literary Review and Fabula Press, and an Ohio Arts Council Award for Individual Excellence in Fiction. His novel, The World Does Not Know, was a finalist in the Washington Writers Publishing House 2017 Fiction Contest. His nonfiction work includes interviews, reviews, and scholarly work that have appeared in r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary JournalMuses India: Essays on English-Language Writers From Mahomet to RushdieInternational Journal of Communications, FORUM: The University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and Arts, The Facts on File Companion to the American Novel, The Facts on File Companion to the American Short Story, and others. He has an MFA in fiction from George Mason University, an MA in English from Wright State University, an MA in International Affairs from Ohio University, and a BA in English from Ohio State University. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka, the setting for several short stories and his novel. He has taught creative writing, literature, and other courses at various colleges for over eleven years. His website is markfabiano.com.