Shilpi Somaya Gowda interview

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The National, June 2016

It is not entirely an exaggeration to suggest that Shilpi Somaya Gowda is living the dream.

Like so many would-be authors, the Toronto-born child of Mumbai parents had toyed for some time with the idea for a novel – based on her experiences volunteering in an Indian orphanage.

The main stumbling block was finding the time to juggle the process of writing a sweeping epic story about motherhood, loss, identity and culture with being a businesswoman and bringing up two young children.

That, and having no real experience of the craft of writing.

Incredibly, Gowda swiftly overcame the obstacles to become an international bestseller – there are more a million copies, in 30 languages, of her book, Secret Daughter, on readers’ bookshelves around the world.

“I was writing by the seat of my pants,” she says. “I had no idea what I was doing. Now, though, I’m an author. Officially.”

Gowda finally feels like a bona fide author because, six years after her first novel, she is celebrating the publication of a follow-up, The Golden Son.

Like Secret Daughter, it is an accessible cross-cultural tale, this time about Anil, who leaves his Indian village to become a doctor in Texas, only to be called back home when he is expected to become the leader of his clan and arbiter of its community disputes.

It feels like a more confident book, too, as if Gowda now better knows which buttons to push for readers seeking family dramas that are entertaining, moving – and maybe even educational.

“Although there’s also a lovely beauty to writing without having to worry about what your agent or editor is going to say, it was actually much harder to write The Golden Son,” she says.

“That’s because the story I wanted to write – one that could deal with the individual journeys of two people who start off in the same place, take very different paths and then come back to each other – was probably above the level of my skills at the time.

“I had to revise and rewrite a great deal – and also I did need to bear in mind that I now had a readership, which I’d never expected to have, who might like a certain kind of story. This is why it took so long.”

It is rare that a bestselling author is quite so candid about their writing, but the time Gowda took to finish her second novel has certainly been worth it.

Anil’s childhood friend Leena was a minor supporting character in the early drafts but is a major figure in the completed novel, fleeing an abusive arranged marriage, much to the chagrin of a community obsessed by duty.

Gowda might lay the family drama on thick, but she has a lightness of touch while writing about the push and pull of tradition and modernity, and the lot of women in rural India.

“And yet in India I think people are tired of hearing about some of these issues – even if they recognise them,” she says. “But I have to say most of my readers around the world do ask me if the circumstances that come up in my books surrounding women do still happen.

“So while I don’t set out to educate people, I am fascinated by something that is so far from my own experience yet, but for a very small change of circumstance, could easily have been my life.”

As for Anil, he is the subject of the most heartbreaking line in the book. “Not only was it impossible to truly belong in America, but he didn’t fit in here [India] anymore either. He was a dweller of two lands, accepted by none.”

“As with all good stories, his own ambitions end up clashing with his family’s expectations,” says Gowda. “He’s torn. Home in India is comfortable but makes him feel restless. He’s drawn to America but it’s a difficult culture for him to navigate.”

Which, in a way, is the immigrant experience in a nutshell.

“Absolutely,” says Gowda. “You feel torn. You’re forced to make choices that make you feel uneasy. But you also learn to live with those choices. That’s what continues to intrigue me.”

Reading changed her life

In this Year of Reading, Shilpi Somaya Gowda tells how it changed her life.

“At every stage of life, right from a 5-year-old, reading has always been my favourite activity. After I finish a great book and put it down, when I look up the world genuinely feels different to me.

“Through the power of a strong story, an author can show me something about life that maybe I wouldn’t have really understood through a news article or conversation with a friend.

“There’s no doubt that reading changes who I am. I read Redeployment by Phil Klay recently, which won the American National Book Award for fiction in 2014. It’s such an intense collection of short stories about the Iraq War that I had to take a break in between each one. I’ve certainly never looked at war and servicemen in the same way since. It might only have been a loose approximation of what happened in Iraq, but that wasn’t the point really – it opened my eyes.”

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