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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 12, 2002

Nepali writer draws praise for subtly crafted tales

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

'Tongues of Fire: Languages and Literatures of South Asia'

Readings from "Arresting God in Kathmandu" by Samrat Upadhyay

7 p.m. today, Korean Studies Auditorium, UH-Manoa campus


Of the nine short stories contained in Nepali author Samrat Upadhyay's groundbreaking book, "Arresting God in Kathmandu," two were written in Hawai'i, seven in the author's adopted home of Ohio and zero — zero — in Nepal, the country Upadhyay and his works have so powerfully come to represent.

"It is funny," Upadhyay said, long-distance from his office at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. "I write about Nepal, it's in my thoughts everyday, but I can't write there."

Upadhyay, who earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Hawai'i, returns to Honolulu this week for a special appearance at the UH Center for South Asian Studies' spring symposium, "Tongues of Fire: Languages and Literatures of South Asia" (see box, Page E6). The event is co-sponsored by Manoa, the UH literary journal for which Upadhyay guest-edited a recent issue.

"I'm very excited," Upadhyay says. "Hawai'i was tremendously good for me. I was very productive there."

In fact, Upadhyay's fortunes as a writer have been linked to Hawai'i since very early in his career. His first published story, "Kathmandu," appeared in Manoa while he was still a master's student at Ohio University. Another story, "The Good Shopkeeper," which Upadhyay wrote while at UH, was selected for the 1999 edition of "Best American Short Stories" edited by Amy Tan. That publication attracted the attention of an editor at publishing house Houghton Mifflin, eventually leading to the publication of "Arresting God in Kathmandu."

A child of government officials, Upadhyay was raised in Kathmandu and learned English at a Jesuit school. He left Nepal at age 21 to attend the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English.

With few Nepali role models to emulate, Upadhyay says he has often drawn inspiration from Indian writers such as Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul.

"I am Nepali and my material is about Nepal, but it's not in the Nepali tradition or the Nepali language," he says.

After completing a master's degree at Ohio University, Upadhyay worked briefly as an English teacher in Saudi Arabia and later as a journalist in Nepal. Eager to get back to creative writing, he entered the Ph.D. program at UH, where he honed his skills with the help of authors Ian MacMillan, Robbie Shapard and Paul Lyons.

In the three years since he graduated from UH, Upadhyay has found employment as a creative writing teacher at Baldwin-Wallace, joy as the father of 17-month-old Shahzadi, and renown as the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West.

Still, Upadhyay says he is wary of the way his work is received by certain audiences.

"It can be a little frustrating when people only look at my stories from a cultural perspective and don't want to look at the craft aspect," he says. "I'm more interested in the art and craft of storytelling."

Indeed, it's Upadhyay's subtle mastery of the language and his complex intertwining of sex, religion and community that have intrigued literary critics. Reviewers from the New York Times, the Village Voice and other publications have praised Upadhyay's ability to illuminate common aspects of human experience without sacrificing the finely rendered glimpses of middle-class Nepali life upon which they're built.

"I work like a poet," Upadhyay says. "I never have things plotted out. I am interested with images. I explore them, slowly, and characters start to develop. I let the characters decide where the story goes."

Upadhyay says his story "The Good Shopkeeper" — in which an accountant loses his job, endures mounting shame before friends and relations, and falls into a curiously redemptive affair with a housekeeper — grew out of a visit to Nepal during which he noticed the spread of computers in the workplace.

"It occurred to me that a person who didn't know how to use a computer could lose his job," Upadhyay said. "The story evolved from there."

With his latest project, the soon-to-be-published novel "The Guru of Love," Upadhyay was able to apply his "imagistic" approach to a broader canvas. The story deals with a teacher who falls in love with a student and is set in the days before Nepal's democracy movement.

"It started out as a short story, but when I sat down to revise it, it kept getting longer and longer," he says. "When it reached about 50 pages, I realized it wanted to be a novel."

The work is Upadhyay's third attempt at a novel. He dismisses the two predecessors as "practice novels ... not very good."

"I wrote this novel in a year," he says. "At first, I was intimidated by the form, but I went back to my strengths as an imagistic writer. There's a precision with short stories that you also need in novels. But with novels, you have a little more flexibility. It allows for an accumulation of images."

Upadhyay's work as guest editor for Manoa's Winter 2001 issue, "Secret Places," offered a different set of challenges. Upadhyay began work on the issue in 1998 at the invitation of editor Frank Stewart.

The issue highlights new poetry and prose from Nepal and includes a moving essay from Upadhyay, "A Kingdom Orphaned," written in the aftermath of the murder of the Nepali royal family by Prince Dipendra.

Upadhyay co-edited the issue with Nepal-based writer Manjushree Thapa, who collected much of the material.

"It was an entirely new experience," Upadhyay says. "We did most of it through e-mail, reading the material during the week and talking about it on weekends."