Interview with Ginu Kamani, 1998
by Livia Tenzer
Livia Tenzer: Did the publication of Junglee Girl cause any changes in your life?
Ginu Kamani: Not only has the book changed my life, but in many ways it has made my life. Beyond the physical fact of having a book out in print, and laying claim to the category “published author,” what I deal with on a regular basis are the ripples that have spread out from negotiating intersections of culture, gender, sex and class in a public forum. Junglee Girl has very much fulfilled the role of the proverbial rock thrown into the bush, and has made room for me, as a thinker, doer, writer, on a spectrum of excavation, investigation, and activism that is more meaningful than any set of activities I had indulged in previous to the publication of the book.
Amongst the many concrete changes in my world, Junglee Girl is being utilized as a text in a variety of courses in literature, writing and the social sciences. I regularly attend classes where the book is being taught, and the application of intellectual investigation to the work provides a constant feedback loop that is stimulating and inspiring. Junglee Girl has brought me invitations to teach. Invitations to teach bring me opportunities to publicly expand on the cross-cultural, cross-discipline, and historical analysis I engage in privately as a matter of course.
Expanding on the cross-cultural, is for me, the final frontier, and it is thrilling to be engaged in such investigation, and to be culling my own canon of “Bibles” and “masterworks” in this area, works that are seminal for me in moving beyond bounded and controlled categories of knowledge and experience into the larger picture of human endeavor. Recently I’ve been asked to help formulate a course at Mills (where I teach) on the baseline fundamentals of cultural competency (when dealing with mixed communities like Oakland), how it can be conceived of and then taught at the college level. These are the sorts of broad-spectrum challenges that I now feel prepared to grapple with.
LT: Can you tell us a little more about your teaching? What kinds of classes do you teach? And how does your teaching affect your writing? Do you ever teach your own work?
GK: I was invited to teach at Mills, part-time, in ’97-98 as a Visiting Writer in Residence. That opportunity transformed into a full-time position for ’98-99 to help replace a faculty member away on sabbatical. I teach courses in Creative Writing—mostly fiction workshops at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, but also a literature course, “The Craft of Fiction.” The position of Visiting Writer is meant to pull in individuals who have been actively engaged in the “real world” as writers, so it feels appropriate to me. The last time I taught before Mills was as a graduate student ten years ago. I gravitated recently towards teaching precisely because writing is such a solitary activity. After working full time on a novel (still unfinished) for a year and a half, I was ready to take regularly scheduled breaks outside the house, and outside my head. Teaching creative writing does not, in and of itself, affect my writing, though it does stimulate many more parts of the brain, so certainly I can only personally benefit in the end. In my own Master’s program, I was exposed to a fairly traditional distant- master- writer/insecure-student-learner hierarchy in writing workshops, a set-up that has its limitations. For me, mentoring is an essential and profound aspect of learning, where a careful teacher’s goal should be to extract from students their highest capability, without taking (or needing) any credit for doing so, the expansion of each student’s ability being in and of itself the ultimate reward.
I happen to believe that anyone drawn to the process of writing already carries within them very many intuitive seeds of creativity, both in form and content, as well as the ability to analyze that is required to make learning possible. The question is how to re-direct those intuitive or differently contextualized energies to a situation of formal, controlled learning in a classroom where many individuals must learn simultaneously from the same set of materials. I have to learn to intervene on each individual’s subtext, both written and spoken, in order to manipulate the classroom environment to its highest level. This is a very challenging process, and at the end of each teaching day, I have a headache from concentrating fully on what my students are saying! I have not personally taught material from Junglee Girl. At Mills, several classes in the English and Ethnic Studies departments include the book on their reading lists, which seems quite sufficient. In general, I’m not a big fan of people teaching their own work in the classroom. Institutions of higher learning, like corporations, have an in-built system of hierarchy that needs to be respected and recognized as potentially damaging to the learning process, which relies on a fair amount of vulnerability and openness in students. I certainly get enough feedback from students every year, due to the number of classes in the area, and elsewhere in the country, where my book is used as a text.
LT: Most people think of writing as a solitary craft or art. As someone who now performs in public on a regular basis, have you developed a different relationship with your audience?
GK: Writing, the crafting of words, sentences, ideas, is definitely a solitary craft. But for a lot of writers, the process is even more isolating because of the fear of failure, of not sharing work in process because of the terror of negative feedback. I’m a collaborator by nature, and have sufficient distance between myself as a person and my project as a storyteller, to always invite— in fact, require—feedback on work in process. When working on the stories for Junglee Girl, I would Xerox a copy for anyone who asked—dozens of curious people read my work while it was in process. The fact that I allowed them to astounds a lot of people who would never dream of sharing anything but a polished product with outsiders. While working on my novel, this kind of indiscriminate sharing is not possible due to the length involved, but I still have my key outside readers.
When I first wrote the stories for Junglee Girl, I had never even read any of my stories aloud to myself. Partly this was because I was blessed to have a friend with unerring dramatic radar for my work, who read my stories aloud to me as though they’d been written for performance. These readings of his were an incredible gift, and this friend and I eventually took one of my stories, “The Smell,” to the stage. Once I began touring with the book in 1995, I had to assume the role of performer myself, and I remember the first time key people in my life—my husband, my sisters, my parents, my mother-in-law, heard me read aloud. Everyone wondered where this part of me had come from! I really try in my readings to bring out the tone and mannerisms of the voices that crowded my head while writing the stories, which includes putting on Indian accents and the highly emphatic manner of communication that marks Indian English for me. Now that I give readings on a regular basis, I feel pained at readings where the author clearly has a poor reading presence. With all the emphasis on the quality of the written word and the push to get published, very few authors actually work on any aspect of performance as part of their creative process. We’ve managed to forget in this time and age how crucial the storytelling process is, with all the emphasis on writing. For me, the engaging performance of a text can only lead the listener back to the book, which is the original point of bringing the work to a public forum.
LT: How would you characterize the kind of response have you tended to get when you do public performances?
GK: I’ve received a lot of positive, grateful, sometimes astonishing feedback in making my points about cross-cultural issues, or even answering questions based on my written work, I expose a lot of my own messy, or vague, or oddly-motivated personal experience, the particulars of my own way of handling difficult issues, and generally demystifying how one arrives at a position of “knowing” some of the big issues of life. I’m thinking in particular of a conference I presented at in April, which was structured as a dialogue between South Asian men and women, and one of the presentations I was asked to put together was titled “Sexual Chemistry: Relationships, Dating and Intimacy” where I was to highlight cross-cultural barriers, confusions and epiphanies in coming together around sexual chemistry. Instead of “lecturing” on the subject, I simply gave the low down on my first meeting and subsequent involvement with the Jewish American man I’m married to, because whether we wanted it or not, there were plenty of cultural assumptions, and misperceptions, zinging through the air, and actually caused for some intensely funny moments in our “courtship.” Candidly revealing my personal misperceptions and their consequences, as well as a retrospective analysis of where the misperceptions “came from,” to an audience of 150, on a subject already fraught with intense insecurity, ambivalence, even danger, ended up being far more instructive than if I’d simply laid out some detached “rules.” It threw a lot of people that I would lay out the details of my own experience in order to make a point in a public lecture.
LT: Has your writing process changed since Junglee Girl?
GK: Yes, of course my writing process has changed since Junglee Girl. While writing those stories, I had no advance idea of where they were headed, or how they would be received. Now, I am much more self-conscious, which is both a blessing and a curse, as I know a great deal of how the work is received, and how the particular intersections of ideas that I grapple with impact various kinds of readers. I’m also more aware of having tapped into universals, even with the stories being culled from a particular culture, often unfamiliar to my readers.
LT: Can you tell us something about your novel and any other current projects?
GK: I’ve been working on a novel for three years. I clearly took on a subject I didn’t know enough about, and it’s become an investigative process in the act of writing it. My one-line description for the book is that it concerns sexual betrayal and intimacy in three generations of a cross-continental Indian family. In a way I’m looking at the sexual genealogy of a family, which, in my opinion, should be right up there with anything else one would consider as part of “the family tree.” In terms of other projects, I have a fairly constant output of short stories, review articles, and personal essays that I do alongside everything else. I also give public presentations on aspects of cross-cultural identity and sexuality, what I have termed elsewhere “gender and sexual self-knowledge in the context of the dual identities of hyphenated American subcultures”.
LT: Do you see yourself as part of an international literary movement—do you identify most strongly with U.S. writers or writers based in other places?
GK: At this stage, with just one book out, I’m actually more interested in placing myself as part of an international activist movement, as opposed to any particular literary movement. I recently came across Allen Ginsberg’s response to a question asked by a young man at the end of a talk: “Mr. Ginsberg, how does one become a prophet?” Ginsberg replied, “Tell your secrets.” In Ginsberg’s response I hear the mandate to lift the covers on areas of shame, to expose the construction of our own social and cultural imprisonment, to work with humor and compassion with the “dirt” of culture, particularly, for me, sexual behavior and culture. In response to the spread of AIDS across the globe, there are numerous organizations and resources and information banks now evolving from the attempt to dissect the very complex area of human sexuality, replicated through rules deeply ingrained in all of us, that are well-bounded in shame, and psychically and emotionally difficult to access. This global effort to look deeply and squarely into the sexual “dirt” of our lives is an extremely vital and pressing issue for me. In the cultural constructions of sexuality I find incredible human complexities, all of which I’m hoping to explore in my work.
In terms of my identification with writers… it seems to me that in every culture there are writers who take risks, and writers who don’t. I try to locate writers in their various cultural contexts who take risks, whose writing reflects more than a reworking of the status quo, or ambitions for fame, or the creation of pretty language. I look up to writers that expose secrets, but this is no small task in an era of Hollywood-ization in publishing, big money, formulaic bestsellers, the career-ization of “writing” and a whole new class divide reminiscent of the turn of the century. Liberation movements come and go, but the old separations of race, class and gender seem to be chugging along with every new generation. In particular, issues of class are “invisibilized” in the US, with the overarching mythologies of equality, democracy and freedom broadcast at every level. I remember being struck by President Clinton’s statement that he wanted to see every family in America be middle class, and the inanity of such a fantasy—how do you form a ‘middle’ without some other layer bolstering it on either side? In other cultures, class is conferred at birth, is nakedly visible in society, and has lasting consequences on human life. In the US, it seems to be race that fulfills the function of class division by and large. The point of all this is that due to my upbringing in India, in many ways it is far easier for me to feel gut-level identification with writing and writers from other cultures besides the US, where the operating rules are similar to those in India. But I have no illusions about the fact that my work is very much informed by American culture, values and ideals, certainly in the area of breaking down hierarchies, opening up communication, and exposing secrets, if nothing else.
LT: Finally, a “tabloid” question: who is the most exciting person you’ve had the opportunity to meet, or community you’ve been able to explore, as a result of Junglee Girl?
GK: Many exciting individuals and groups have made contact with me since the publication of Junglee Girl. Some of the most enthusiastic responses have come from teachers and activists, who see in the book a valuable tool which they can incorporate into their many diverse projects. Also, editors of all kinds have contacted me for new material, so that since the publication of the book, I’ve had no lack of solicitations. But at a deeply personal level, the most exciting people I’ve “attracted” through Junglee Girl are Indian women like myself, whom I never thought I’d meet up with, who have very strong roots in India, but also very strong critiques, with very personal responses to these confusions, which have inevitably impacted their families and communities. Very few women get support for their “junglee” rule-breaking, and many have been isolated through a variety of social punishments, betrayals, or even being disowned. Growing up, many of us had the sense that there were no role models for us, that we couldn’t rely on any one other than ourselves, and that we were destined to a certain psychic and spiritual, if not physical, exile. Given the overwhelming cultural ideal towards group belonging, merging, and harmonizing, feeling isolated in a place like India through internal or external barriers has terrible consequences. It’s been wonderful and energizing to draw together a community of these women, one by one, and celebrate their astonishing risk-taking, barrier-busting lives, and frame this life path as healthy and productive, as opposed to the unhappy conformance that marked the lives of too many of our female elders. The fact that my book has played a role as a sort of divining tool in gathering together these women is thrilling. This community of women more than compensates for my earlier years as a loner.
Hands down, I have to say, the most exciting person I “met” through my writing is David Jenkins, the man I’m married to. Though the stories from Junglee Girl are not what he read first of my work, the fact remains that my writing (a screenplay) brought out a tremendous reaction in him, a feeling that he could trust me deeply and completely, and he brought that conviction, and his open heart, to our subsequent partnership with profound consequences. With his constant presence in my life, every event around my writing creates in both of us an excitement and a sense of wonder at the small miracles of life, and the satisfaction of being connected to the profundities of the larger universe.