The Academic Novel and My Current Writing Project

My current literary project is a collection of stories and novellas set at a fictitious research university.  The origins of this project are somewhat unexpected.  I had not set about to write a collection of stories, as I have always seen myself as a novelist.  However, the novel I had begun working on after my second round of graduate school had become too unwieldy; as much as I loved it and still do (it will be my next project that I complete, and I have returned to it from time to time), I knew I had to put it aside.

I had written a couple of short stories while working on the novel, and I felt that in order to do well at the novel, I had to master the shorter form.  There were things the shorter form could teach me (the act of completion, for one), such as technique and craft that were easier to see in a story.  I had also thought it would be fascinating to explore the emotional dilemmas of characters who are in different academic subjects were fields.  Where did emotion and the idea meet?  My reasons for doing this were indeed personal:  as a graduate student, I was more interested in a subjective response to “objective” questions.  Being in truth an artist, I always wanted to express my own ideas, and I found having to footnote and make citations frustrating and often derivative.  Just as an academic paper had to pose a research question and find an answer, I wondered why that couldn’t be done with an emotional question in a story.

So much of what I had seen, superficially, about academic novels involve a professor (usually male and often in the English department) in a midlife crisis and usually having an affair with a female colleague or graduate student.  Or, it involved a professor struggling with his career and marital problems.  To me, this seemed clichéd and the “been there, done that” of academic/campus novels.  Granted, I have only read a handful of books in this genre of writing, and have generally enjoyed these very much—-Lucky Jim, The Professor’s House (by my favorite author Willa Cather), the works of Jhumpa Lahiri (which often revolve around an academic setting), Lolita and Brideshead Revisited (which are nominally “academic”), and I believe I have even read Herzog.  I had begun McEwan’s Solar, as I enjoy his works very much, but somehow I was not able to get through it.  But I felt like there was something often unrepresented in this sub-genre.

Why couldn’t academia be used as a backdrop?  Didn’t academia have emotion to it?  At any given moment on any campus, I knew there were multiple personal questions, dilemmas, and emotions going on simultaneously. There might be an international student in the throes of a love affair with a fellow student, but who has to return home due to a visa’s limitations, while there is an associate professor up for promotion to full, but she is being blocked by colleagues, while there is a provost who has skeletons in his closet, while there is an economics professor who just won the Nobel Prize. Or, to continue the theme, there might be a student suffering from severe anorexia while a law student is deciding about dropping out while an entry-level administrator is having success as an artist.  Why wasn’t anyone writing about this? 

Given this current picture of academia, I felt that a lot of academic novels did not feel accurate:  they simply did not reflect the modern world as I saw it.  I am a member of the 1st post-civil rights/Title IX generation, which means that my generation is arguably the first to be integrated, gender-equal, and diverse.  Also, I have been fortunate to attend universities that are highly global.  My freshman dorm alone had students from Canada, Kuwait, Poland, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Spain, and Americans of every stripe and color.  Yes, it is entirely possible that my critics might say I am painting an elitist/ideal/atypical picture of college life in my book.  I can only be true to my own experience, which, I might add, involves coming from a very modest, middle/lower middle class college town.  To quote the funny cliché, “Well, it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it!”  American universities are very unique environments rich in a diversity of ideas, if not also types of people, and there is a reason they are renowned all over the world.

I wish to conclude with huge praise for one of my favorite short stories about a professor, which is by—-surprise!  Woody Allen—-called “The Kugelmass Episode,” about a professor of humanities who has an affair with Madame Bovary after being inserted into the novel by a magician.  Not only is it absolutely hilarious and brilliantly clever, but also it is also extremely well written, a good example of the arc of a short story.  So you see, I have had good models in learning how to write shorter pieces that merge academia and the form of the story.  There are always authors who remind us of the richness of the sub-genre of academic literature.


The World’s Greatest Democracy: The 2014 India Elections

Ladies and gentlemen, there is an official winner:  Gujarati Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP has been elected Prime Minister in the multi-phase Indian elections.  In a country of over 1 billion people, 80% of the people were eligible to vote, and a half 1 billion people did indeed vote.  This is especially inspiring when we think of countries in which there is a high degree of voter apathy (the United States), no or blocked access to voting (such as for women in Saudi Arabia), or a lack of multiple candidates beyond one self-serving dictator (North Korea).  When you factor in the number of different ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, it is quite extraordinary that India holds democratic elections at all. The best countries are, in my opinion, the ones that make voting mandatory.  Isn’t it a responsibility to participate in the system in which one has rights?

The people have spoken:  Modi was elected democratically, ousting the decades-long hold of the secular Indian National Congress (or, the Congress Party) that came to dominance with India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.  Nehru’s descendents Indira, Rajiv, and Rajiv’s Italian-born widow Sonia Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) have all continued the Congress party’s legacy, but this time around, voters opted not to elect the next generation in the form of Rahul Gandhi.  For however well meaning Rahul was, he simply came across as under qualified (or unqualified) in the eyes of many.  There has been much frustration expressed over his mother’s political role in the Congress Party, given that she is not ethnically an Indian and not highly educated.  Instead, India has elected a tea seller (in his teen years; the American analogy would be a hotdog vendor with a cart) who rose to power by developing his home state of Gujarat and rising in the ranks of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP.

I recently had the good fortune to visit Gujarat, and was quite impressed.  While I was only in the very developed, progressive Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad areas, and did not visit villages in the countryside, I found myself marveling at how well the roads were laid, the infrastructure, the cleanliness, the prosperity, and the organization.  I have visited 8 or 9 different areas of India, so I have a bit of a basis for comparison.  Gujaratis here in the US as well as around the world have a reputation for being highly organized, wealthy, and efficient business people.  There is a reason the “Patel Motel” stereotype exists, as many motels and hotels are owned by Gujaratis, although certainly there are many Gujarati professionals and doctors as well.

So what is the problem, then, with a Gujarati-born Prime Minister who developed his own state?  Who could very well develop a country of a billion people, some of whom are very wealthy and educated, but a large segment of whom are not and for whom basic sanitation, infrastructure, education, access to health care, etc. are still daily issues?  The answer is, his religion.  The BJP is conservative and notorious for anti-Muslim sentiment, and during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, Modi was sharply criticized for his lack of attention and assistance to the problem, and even accused of supporting the riots.  The problem is that India is always associated with Hinduism, and is approximately 80% Hindu.  But 20% of a billion still means 200 million, and that means 200 million people who are not Hindus.  Can a religiously-oriented political party still address the needs of those who do not follow their spiritual path?  Can they do so without a Hindu hegemony?  Modi’s first step ought to be to reach out to non-Hindus, to their political leaders and build bridges for cooperation immediately.  This is not only to be a measure of goodwill in a historically tolerant country when it comes to religion; it is also a necessary and preventative step towards avoiding violence caused by either Hindus or Muslims.

The Hindu-Muslim Partition from 1947 is something that is painful to think about even today.  As someone of Indian Hindu origin with Indian/Pakistani Muslim friends, it is very evident to see how my similarities there are between the two cultures despite the difference in religion.  In India, one can see shops selling various pictures and paintings of religious icons of all faiths—-perhaps the common denominator is often the glitz and tackiness of the representations!  The West often wants to draw a bigger divide between Indian Hindus and Muslims than truly exists, and many scholars, journalists, and politicians argue that was the origin of the problem in the first place.  To draw an American example, imagine drawing a line down Broadway on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and pushing Jews to the west of that line, and non-Jews to the east side of that line.  This arbitrary line would seem senseless in light of the fact that the people in this area would have always interacted on a daily basis, frequenting one another’s businesses, homes, etc.  Sadly, this is something that did often happen in Europe over the centuries, culminating in the horrible genocide of World War II that also exterminated Communists, the Roma, and others.

While I do not think it is appropriate to draw parallels between the Holocaust and the partition, as both are extremely different situations in terms of history, politics, and economics, it is important for countries and societies to acknowledge religious and other minorities that live among them. The Congress Party has tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to bring a secular form of government to India, being aware of the Hindu nature of India but drawing a line between religion and state, so to speak.  It was the party of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India, who was ironically murdered by a Hindu fanatic who felt Gandhiji favored Pakistan and Muslims.  A secular government is best for a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious country like India; we see the beauty of a not-dissimilar system here in the US, but there still arise many problems even with a secular government.  India does not have an official religion, though the BJP is very powerful and Hindus are the majority.

Perhaps it is impossible or unrealistic to think that there will never be any hegemony of one culture over the others, even if there is an exact split between the various groups in a society.  But India’s strength has always been inclusion, especially when it comes to religion.  Many Westerners are surprised and even astounded at the way religions live side-by-side in a relatively peaceful way, where cross-religious interaction is a daily occurrence.  This is especially profound, especially when one thinks of, say, Baptists and Lutherans not getting along in a community in the United States.  Many of the religious dilemmas and issues that seem to foment controversy in the United States are a non-issue in India.  It will be up to Modi and his administration to keep it that way, to keep India as a land of religious tolerance and peace.