September 28, 2015KR Conversations

Keya Mitra

mitra-microinterview-carouselKeya Mitra is currently an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at Pacific University and graduated in 2010 with a doctorate from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, where she also earned her MFA. In 2008, she spent a year in India on a Fulbright grant in creative writing. Her fiction is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Arts and Letters, Slush Pile, Best New American Voices, Ontario Review, Orchid, Event, Fourteen Hills, Torpedo, and Confrontation. She has completed a novel (under representation), short-story collection, and book-length memoir. An excerpt from her story “The Sacred Gifts of Cows and Cheetahs” can be found here. The full story appears in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “The Sacred Gifts of Cows and Cheetahs”? Did you begin with the setting? With a character? With a line of dialogue or description? 

I am truly delighted and honored to have this story appear in the Kenyon Review!

I began writing this story after reading a news article about a woman in India with the condition of uterus didelphys, or a double uterus. She gave birth to two sons conceived in two different uteruses one month apart from one another.

In her case the two sons were conceived by the same father, but the news story made me consider a scenario in which a woman torn between her Indian heritage and American influences might have the same condition, uterus didelphys, but end up giving birth to children conceived by two different men. The scenario made me think deeply about the complexities of race, relationships, and the conflicted allegiances often experienced by first and second-generation immigrants.

Could you tell us a little bit about the significance of the names you used for the figures in this story, which are clearly very carefully selected? 

Of course! The name Fraud has particular significance in relation to the narrator’s own fears about having a fraudulent identity. She is constantly questioning where she belongs in life—as a lover, as a mother, and as a daughter. Thus, she transfers her own fears and conflicts to her unborn child. I thought of the name Maude from the film Harold and Maude—one of my favorites. Maude is an unconventional choice for Harold in the movie and yet joyful, passionate, innocent despite her age, unique, and eccentric in the best possible way. I felt that the names Fraud and Maude captured the nuances of the narrator’s character and fears about herself.

Your story astutely and cleverly explores, among other themes, ethnicity and cross-cultural interactions. What are the particular challenges or particular opportunities that arise for you when writing about race? 

That is a great question. I find that it is so critical to write about race without representing any segment of the population as simplistic or caricatures. I strive to really capture the complexity of racial dynamics and characters in my work—therefore, even though the narrator’s Texan lover becomes associated with barbeque and a Southern drawl and clearly is possessive of the unborn child he has conceived with her, we understand the aspects of his character that remain unknown or unknowable to the narrator. He is an engineer who also has taught the narrator to walk barefoot upon the earth and appreciate the transcendence of nature. I find it important when writing about race to never overlook the complexity of individual characters and character dynamics.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to return to India after nearly twenty-two years in 2008 as a Fulbright Scholar in Creative Writing. I spent ten months in India, and the experience was life-changing for me. Before returning to India, my stories had often revolved around my vivid and yet limited recollections of India as a child—my conversations with relatives, the cricket matches with my cousins and siblings on the flat roof of the house, the markets and vitality of the people around me.

However, after my Fulbright, I felt that I had a stronger sense of India as an adult. My stories still often address both the joys and struggles of first and second-generation immigrants—the sense of longing and home seeking that often accompanies the experience of inhabiting two cultures. But I can write about India with a greater understanding of its complexities, though I am still so aware of all that remains unknown and mysterious to me.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?

My teaching. I am blessed to be a creative writing professor, and I am continually inspired by my students’ ideas and their dedication to writing, thinking, and revision. It is truly a gift to be around colleagues and students so dedicated to the creative process and to cultivating their imagination and craft.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

My first mentor in graduate school, Daniel Stern, got up during class one day during workshop. We weren’t discussing my story on that particular occasion, but we were discussing a story in which the central character was stuck in his head. The story resonated with me because I often wrote/write stories with characters contending with internal struggles.

Dan stood up and said “Get out of your characters’ heads!” He was such a warm and kind man, but his advice was passionate and spot on and stuck with me (and all of us in the workshop). I often give my students the same advice. While internal struggles on the part of characters in fiction are profound and essential to explore, we also relate most to characters who are grappling with issues involving identity and mortality while also being forced to live their day-to-day lives.

I have had amazing writing advice from other incredible mentors such as Robert Boswell, Antonya Nelson, Chitra Divakaruni, Alex Parsons, and Kathleen Cambor, but Dan was my first professor in graduate school, and his advice always stuck with me.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next?

I have been working for some time on a novel called Dead and Married about an Indian-American man who invents an online dating site for dead brides and grooms. The novel is based on the tradition of minghun in China, a practice in which a family would seek a dead bride for an unmarried, deceased son. The book incorporates the real-life serial killings that took place in 2007, in which women in China were murdered by farmers (because of the shortage of dead brides) and sold on the black market as potential ghost brides.