Exclusive interview with the author of ‘The Paths of Marriage’.
By Asif Ismail
WASHINGTON, DC: Indian American author Mala Kumar’s debut novel, The Paths of Marriage, was released last month. In the book, the Los Angeles-born Kumar narrates the story of three generations of Indian American women dealing with their different identities and realities. A central theme of the book is LGBTQ rights. “The book tackles the issue head-on, with no apologies,” says the author.
Kumar is as an international development professional with UNICEF, which has taken her to Bujumbura in southeast Africa. Recently, she spoke to The American Bazaar by phone from the Burundian capital. Here are the edited excerpts:
Why did you write The Paths of Marriage?
A lot of reasons. I wrote it in part because the idea of intersectionality is not quite present in America. I think we have a lot of dialogue about what it means to be Indian, what it means to be black, what it means to be gay; but not what it means to be black and gay, or Indian and gay. With The Paths of Marriage, I wanted to show, culturally, what are the changes we go through over generations that lead certain cultural groups to do certain things, and how we can differentiate between what is culturally embedded in us and what is [not]. This book is largely about how Indian culture and being gay intersect.
Secondly, I am in international development. I talk about poverty reduction, economic empowerment and human rights on a daily basis. That is quite literally my job. In international development, you have to think about cultural influences in the macro sense, which makes the idea of cultural implications depersonalized. I wanted to show through one set of experiences what discrimination really means. I felt that writing a story was the only way I could get to do that.
How long have you worked on it?
I finished the first draft in May 2011, but it was terrible! I have no formal background in writing whatsoever. What I would consider a first real working draft happened in October of 2011. It took almost three years from the first working draft to the release of the book.
So when did you start writing?
I’ve been writing in some form for, I’d say, seven or eight years. I started a travel blog when I went to Togo in 2007, which is in West Africa, and I kept that up. I’ve had — not a ton of posts — maybe fifty posts over the past seven years, in addition to a few other blogs I keep on other topics
The Paths of Marriage is my first novel. This is the first story that I completely constructed from scratch.
How has the book been received so far?
Very well! All of the reviews and feedback I have had has been extremely positive. The top two comments so far about The Paths of Marriage is that it made the reader cry out of sympathy for the characters, and it would make a great movie. My Communications Coordinator and I are putting a lot of time into The Paths of Marriage social media, including Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr to keep up audience engagement. Of course, as a new author it’ll take longer to get the mainstream media attention I am hoping to secure.
Do you consider your book as the first work of fiction by a South Asian American author that addresses the LGBT issues in an up close and personal way?
I know of two authors who are also New York-based: Rakesh Satyal wrote a book called Blue Boy and Abha Dawesar wrote Babyji. Both books talk about LGBT issues, though neither directly say that the main characters are gay. The idea of queerness is definitely approached in both of the books, but it’s not explicitly said, as in my book. There is no ambiguity whatsoever of the sexual orientation of the characters in The Paths of Marriage. I would say in the sense of having LGBT South Asian characters, The Paths of Marriage is one of the first.
What does it mean to be a South Asian American writer?
It means a lot of things. When I grew up in central Virginia in the late ’90s, early 2000s, what it meant to be Indian was very different than what it means now. What it means to be South Asian in America has evolved so much over the past generation—not even the past generation—the past half generation, really. So many elements of Indian culture are mainstreamed into American society. I think a lot of the audiences of America are ready for a book like this, about what it means to be South Asian, what it means to be gay, or any kind of “intersectionality” within the South Asian community at a deeper level. A lot of South Asian cultural things that are present in the United States right now are the more superficial in nature. People associate yoga with the Indian culture, they associate curry, they associate very banal things compared to the intricacies of our culture, our religion, or what it means to come from an immigrant family, to struggle from a lower caste. I don’t think there’s a huge dialogue about the South Asian immigrant experience, but I do think that we’re finally at a point that people are ready to listen. In terms of The Paths of Marriage, what it means to be South Asian and American is just…[laughs] … good timing . The good timing behind the release of The Paths of Marriage will allow me to help bridge a gap between two cultures – South Asian and LGBT.
Do you think immigrant South Asian Americans are ready for something like this? Your parents’ generation?
I think it really depends on the person. I don’t want to generalize at all. My parents are completely open about the idea, a lot of credit for which goes to my mom. Just as the second main character in the book (Pooja), my mom actually did grow up in the States. My mother is more American than Indian. And because my father married someone who is more American than Indian, he has swayed over to what I would consider open-minded. I definitely think a more open attitude of South Asians in America to the LGBT community is coming in small strokes, one reason being because a lot of Indians who came over in the’80s/’90s now have adult children. Those adult children are doing well, and some of them happen to be gay. I think not only do we have a critical mass, mainstream society of America is now open. I think it’s easier than ever for LGBT people to function in their day to day lives and that the same openness will eventually come to our community. If more people come out and more people write stories like this and are just open about sexual orientation, it will definitely help. Those of us who are old enough and financially stable to survive without any without direct family recourse — I think we have a huge advantage — or a huge opportunity to open up the dialogue for the next generation. Of course, I know a lot of diaspora communities in the States are still very conservative, so I wouldn’t say that every single LGBT South Asian-American should absolutely come out. In fact, this is one of the ideas I talk about in The Paths of Marriage — how bravery is associated with coming out — yet coming out is really just not an option for a lot of people.
By profession, you are in international development, right? Could you tell us more about your day job?
It’s actually an interesting question because it very much depends on wherever I’m physically located. I am currently working with UNICEF. Before, I was with the UN World Food Programme (WFP). At WFP, I was with a young, dynamic team and I was based in New York, which made it much easier to be out to basically everyone on my team. With UNICEF, I am based in Central Africa, which is mentally exhausting because I can’t talk about it in my day to day life. That’s why for this interview, I’m secluded in my hotel room instead of at the office, and am having this conversation with a much weaker internet connection. In my head I have a ranking of needs, and here in Central Africa, we talk about the physiological needs that are just lacking in a country like this. People don’t have food, people don’t have water, people don’t have shelter, they don’t have basic sanitation, and it thus becomes even tougher for a lot of people to even conceive of an identity such as your sexual orientation. At the same time, most of the African continent tends to be very socially conservative, making it a huge challenge to go into the field. Writing about the issues of sexual orientation — regardless of my own sexual orientation — is a huge challenge.
You are leaving your job with UNICEF. Is there any reason you chose to leave the organization now? What are your future plans?
There are a lot of reasons I chose to leave my job with UNICEF Burundi. Overall, my fellow UNICEF staff have been great, though the policies of the UN offer inadequate protection. My job requires a level of interaction with the government and the generally socially conservative environment that has made my situation unsafe. The country is also extremely poor and one of the smaller African countries by population, which has made internet connectivity a huge challenge. Without being able to openly, safely or consistently promote The Paths of Marriage or talk about the issues I present in the book, I decided it was time to leave. I plan on moving back to New York City in early December. I’d like to take a month to work on my second book, whose working title is This Mourning, and then start a new job. I’m not sure what my next professional move will be, though it does seem I need to figure out a solution that speaks to my international passions while also keeping me safe as I write about LGBT rights.
You have mentioned that New York was a big influence on you…
Oh, yeah, for sure. I think there’s only a few cities in the world that have a true South Asian community in every sense of the word. South Asians, especially in the United States, have very interesting immigration patterns because most of the people who have come over, at least in the last two generations, have been doctors and lawyers and engineers. They’re professions that are needed pretty much anywhere, so a lot of people who came over took a job wherever they could go, and ended up being in the middle of nowhere. When I grew up I was the only Indian in my middle school class, and even when I went to high school, and I went to a gifted high school, there were only two or three Indians in my class. So, I think because Indians tend to be very spread out throughout the States, we’re omnipresent in a sense, but in smaller cities, we often don’t have a strong community that is truly diverse. However, you can go to New York and find Indians who are open and proud about other aspects of their lives, including being LGBT., You can find people of Indian origin who grew up all over the world, who are from the modern parts of India, poor parts of India, etc. You’ve got all these different combinations that being South Asian is just one element of your identity. People in New York, more than any other place I’ve ever lived or been to, I think, understand that just because you’re one thing doesn’t mean it’s mutually exclusive to something else. And I love that, there aren’t that many places in the world where you can truly find something like that.