I’ve just returned from three lovely events in the Toronto area, including visits with large undergrad classes at York and McMaster who have honored me by reading my book—closely.
One of the most charming aspects of these visits was how unguarded, how candid, the students were. I myself opened the discussion period by asking them a few questions, instead of presuming it has to go the other way. I had given my best thoughts to them (in my book, that is) and delivered my best version in my reading. Now they told me what they found emotionally wrenching or curious in the novel.
At York, most students were not literature majors. While they asked questions on literary matters—about how I constructed characters, what inspired me, how I made choices—they also commented (in response to my queries) on how the book intersected with their lives, their families, their communities, their studies. There was the observant Sikh man who asked, in the question period, about Ashwin Rao’s sense of smell, and about what happens to the character after the book finishes, but who told me, when he came up to get his book signed, that he is involved in a student group working to get recognition for the government-sponsored violence against Sikhs in Delhi following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, which I describe at length in the novel. There was the young woman who told me she was majoring in disaster-management, and had passed my novel on to her profs. And there were the three aspiring writers at McMaster who asked if they could come to Arkansas to be my personal assistants. (We make coffee, they said. You’re welcome to come, I said, but I don’t drink coffee. We make tea, they said. It was a funny thought.)
So many of these interactions felt fresh, which is why, I suppose, I didn’t mind being asked the ‘why did you do this?’ questions that sometimes irritate me. I answer these questions, but I tend to feel these readers (frequently journalists, occasionally relatives) are in violation of some first principles of readership: readers don’t need to know why I did something; the fact is that I did. The matters of import are their experience and opinions, not my intentions. (Cf. Roland Barthes, “The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author.” ) I understand curiosity in these matters, but I don’t like my intentions to be privileged as some kind of last word on the writing. As those students found out, my intentions are often, by the time the book is finished, obscure to me.
Which is perhaps why this hilarious song by Josh Whedon—whose fame, fortune and style couldn’t be more different from mine—struck home a little. I am occasionally prone to wishing people could just read my books and talk amongst themselves, instead of asking me to explain. As does Whedon, though, I’m also prone to recanting, especially for the right occasion.