Kicking off our first Author Week: Charles Tan interviews Ekaterina Sedia about her latest novel, The House of Discarded Dreams!
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. The title The House of Discarded Dreams is apt. Which came first, the title or the story? What finalized this as the title of the novel?
Well, the idea of a place where forgotten dreams fester and take on a life of their own and sort of get away from their originators is a very appealing one to me – I played with it for a novel (now abandoned, but it might be resurrected as an e-novella, if all goes well) that centers around literal dreams. For HoDD, I took a more ontogenic, if you will, approach – taking dreams not just of individuals but of the collective unconscious as well, trying to blend the two together. So you can say that the idea came first, than the title, then the story. As to what finalized it – I don’t think there was ever any other option for the title, it came with the book.
When it comes to your published novels, each one is very different from the other. Could you share with us how The House of Discarded Dreams has evolved based on your experience with your previous books?
Well, I get bored easily. So I have to try something different with every book to keep myself interested. The downside of course is that every book is a first book in my case, so I get amused when reviewers talk about my potential to become as good as Somebody Famous. But really, this is it – there’s no unrealized potential, I’m not building up my skills with every book, since they all are different. There’s no linear progression (or any progression). Then again, I’ll probably never be like anyone else.
What made you decide to use African culture and mythology as a key element in the book?
I’m a huge fan of Dambudzo Marechera (a Zimbabwean novelist, terribly underrated) and Amos Tutuola (an amazing Nigerian author). (These two are familiar classics, but I do enjoy modern African literature – for example, Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina.) I can’t really say that there was a decision so much as a general desire to write about immigrant experience – but the one that only touched mine rather than replicated it exactly. One of my closest friends is an immigrant from Zimbabwe, so it seemed like a natural choice to me – something that was unlike mine, and yet close enough to it that I could at least try and get to some universality in it.
Did you find it difficult writing about African culture? What kind of research did you have to do?
Well, the main difficulty for me was to keep my boundaries. This is not the culture I can speak for, so I was careful to approach it from the point of view of someone who is not part of the tradition – the protagonist is an American, with immigrant parents. The question of who is entitled to a culture and who can consider themselves a part of it is an interesting one all by itself; in the book, Vimbai is emphatically not a part of her parents’ world, and thus she approaches some of the traditions as an outsider. So I felt comfortable writing her perspective, but I wouldn’t be doing so from the point of view of her parents. I’m talking about a culture rather than from inside of it, and that is okay, I think. On the other hand, I do understand that some readers will not be interested in this book because it was written by an outsider – and that’s okay too.
As for research – I of course read plenty of fiction and folklore. But my main (voluntary, I hasten to add) source was Tait Chirenje, the friend I mentioned. He was really invaluable in helping me with language as well as cultural references. Without him, I would probably put my foot in my mouth a lot more frequently. You will also notice that Zimbabwean is not the only culture I drew upon – there is a certain degree of amalgamation of cultures in African diaspora, and I wanted to at least touch upon that.
The author and Tait Chirenje
How much of your own personal experience was helpful in writing the novel?
It was helpful, because I do believe that the immigrants in the US share a certain host of experiences – especially those of us who carry ‘undesirable’ (ie, not Western European) accents. There’s also a common experience of being interrogated on your country’s policies, being asked to speak for your entire nation, people assuming that they know your biases without recognizing their own… basically, something Vimbai’s parents are more familiar with than Vimbai herself. So her mother’s frustrations were easier for me to relate to and to understand, I think, than for someone who hasn’t experienced that.
Some of the tension in the story is between the previous generation and the present. What made you decide to explore this kind of conflict and what were the challenges in writing it as such?
First and second generation of immigrants dynamics was always fascinating to me. I know several first generation families in which parents are baffled by the fact of having perfectly American children. Oftentimes, immigrant issues are ignored, because the assumption is that by the second generation they’ll be assimilated into at least the language environment – but it leaves the first generation out of it, as if everyone is just waiting for them to die so that their children and grandchildren are free to develop uncomplicated national identities. And second generation children are being pulled in different directions by society around them and their families. It’s a built-in conflict right there; another issue, somewhat less obvious, is that first generation immigrants often do feel guilt for abandoning if not their country than at least people and families they had there. These splintered identities and loyalties are not a small matter, and they’re far more complex than usual representations of nostalgia in first generation immigrants.
Memory plays a key role in the book. How important is memory in shaping one’s character and culture?
It’s everything. Memory is the tool by which we internalize cultural reference points. In some simplistic way, your identity, cultural or individual, is the sum total of your childhood memories: favorite foods, stories, cartoons – all of these build the basis of that sense of self. And going back to the disconnect between first and second generation: they are of different nationalities because they watched different cartoons as kids (or read different stories).
Additionally, the memory does become blurred and distorted with time. When immigrants write about their home, the memories of it are distorted by nostalgia, and simply by a passage of time. I wouldn’t say that every immigrant writer writing about their home is necessarily an unreliable narrator, but in many cases this is true. So memory in the book as I mentioned before is by necessity faulty and splintered, individual and cultural, reliable and not.
One of the characters in the book describes evil not as maliciousness, but single-mindedness. Could you elaborate more on this idea and why it made sense for the book?
Ha, I wish I could remember what I meant when I wrote that! But looking at it now, I think that the problems inherent in single-mindedness are two-fold: first, there’s a failure to consider how your desired outcomes affect others; secondly; there’s also a failure to consider other possible outcomes which might be just as satisfactory. Both of these serve to block the person off from other people/venues of expression, and such isolation can lead to disconnect and further advancement of one’s goals with greater and greater impacts coupled with lesser and lesser awareness of these impacts.
Anything else you’d like to share or plug?
Always! I have a new novel coming out this year, HEART OF IRON (Prime). Here’s the preliminary back cover copy, revealed here for the first time:
“In a Russia where the Decembrists’ rebellion was successful and the Trans-Siberian railroad was completed before 1854, Sasha Trubetskaya wants nothing more than to have a decent debut ball in St. Petersburg. But her aunt’s feud with the emperor lands Sasha at university, where she becomes one of its first female students—an experiment, she suspects, designed more to prove female unsuitability for such pursuits than offer them education. The pressure intensifies when Sasha’s only friends—Chinese students—start disappearing, and she begins to realize her new British companion, Jack, has bigger secrets than she can imagine.
Sasha and Jack find themselves trying to stop a war brewing between the three empires. The only place can turn to for help is the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, newly founded by the Taiping rebels. Pursued by the terrifying Dame Florence Nightingale of the British Secret Service, Sasha and Jack escape across Siberia via train to China. Sasha discovers that Jack is not quite the person she thought he was…but then again, neither is she.”
My collection, tentatively titled MOSCOW BUT DREAMING is scheduled for next year. Jeffrey Ford was kind enough to write an introduction for it, which was a thrill all in itself. And of course, there are anthologies I edit: BEWERE THE NIGHT is coming out in May 2011, and there are plans for more.