Monday, November 23, 2015

Interview with Thrity Umrigar on her book "The Story Hour"

One of the novels that I read this year that really stayed with me was "The Story Hour" by Thrity Umrigar. It was one of those novels that I devoured late at night and just couldn't put down. Each word seemed to reach out to me and touch my soul. Characters came alive in my head, and they were so familiar to me. I imagined their faces and their surroundings in pristine detail. There was something about this novel that really got under my skin. Not to mention, this is one of the few novels that I have read by Indian authors that features a masala intercultural love story - a Blindian couple! YES, YES, YES!!! This book is a must-read for anyone who is in an intercultural relationship.

Hands down, my favorite thing about the novel was Thrity's exploration of multi-dimensional female characters. The two female protagonists were complex and flawed, which made them even more realistic and likable. Boy, do I love a flawed woman!

The novel also touched on many important themes that effect our masala community, such as: arranged marriage, the struggles of immigration, culture and love, isolation, reinvention, marriage, mental health, forgiveness, betrayal, and the innate power of female friendship.

(Img credit: Robert Mueller)

Today I'm thrilled to feature an intimate Q&A with Thrity Umrigar about her book, "The Story Hour"!

I loved that the two main protagonists were both multi-dimensional, complex women, which made this book even more precious to me. The theme of the flawed woman is also present in your other novels. What fascinates you about the idea of the flawed woman?
Thrity: I attempt to write novels that are reflections of reality as I see it. And one thing I've learned is that life is complex and so are people. There is a gap between who we aspire to be and who we are. Indeed, our flaws are evidence of our humanity. So, by definition I create flawed characters. I am not interested in black-and-white representations of reality -- we can leave that to the comic books. I think most of us live in the gray and that's where I nestle my novels.

One of the main themes of The Story Hour is female friendship - two women from completely different backgrounds who form a very deep and complex relationship. Why did you choose to write about the power of female friendship?
Thrity: I'm not sure that I chose to write about female friendship. I just chose to tell the story I wanted to tell about two different women from different class and educational backgrounds and they ended up seeking out each other's friendship because each needed to learn something from the other. 

In the novel, Lakshmi is brought to the US by her Indian husband and finds herself trapped with no support system and living far away from her family. Do you think this is common for many Indian women who relocate abroad after marriage?
Thrity: I'm afraid that it may be true for immigrant women of a certain class background. If they are not in grad school or working outside the home, there is a possibility of them being very isolated. Who would they turn to for friendship? And since arranged marriages are still common in India, even their most intimate partner -- their husband -- may be a stranger to them. I would imagine that this adds to the isolation, especially if the man is domineering or abusive or they find that there is no compatibility between them. Or, even if that's not the case, the man would be at work almost the entire day, leaving the woman to fend for herself.

How can people rebuild their lives after moving to an entire different country? Do you think people who haven't made such a drastic uprooting underestimate how hard it is?
Thrity: Absolutely. I think the vile rhetoric that we hear about immigration from our presidential candidates at the moment would end in a minute if people really understood the magnitude of the emotional trauma that immigration engenders. I mean, we are not even talking about people whose migrations are fueled by desperation -- whether it be abject poverty and violence in Mexico or the upheaval in Syria. Their trauma is almost too unbearable to fathom. Even someone like me, who came for the happiest of reasons -- to go to grad school in the U.S. -- I can still cry when I think of that awful scene at the airport when I left my entire family behind for the first time. I was 21 years old, brimming with optimism and raring to see the world. And yet, it was heart-wrenching to say goodbye to all the people you love. 

The novel also touches on some mental health topics, like suicide and depression. Is discussing mental health issues is frowned upon in Indian culture?
Thrity: Not frowned upon so much as misunderstood. Among the lower classes, there's no real understanding of PTSD or panic attacks or depression. The binaries are stark -- either you're crazy or you're sane. And there's very little support system for someone suffering from depression etc.

Lakshmi is also trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage by her controlling husband. What made you decide to write about emotional abuse - which is often overlooked (and therefore allowed)?
Thrity: In my novels, I'm always interested in the "smaller," less dramatic stories. So, writing about physical abuse didn't interest me -- it's common and easily understood. But verbal and emotional abuse is so much more interesting in a literary sense because its secretive and subtle and can be much more painful and lethal to a person's sense of self and personhood than more overt forms of abuse.

This novel was also very much about marriage and how long-term love changes and develops over time - for both Lakshmi & Maggie. How is marriage viewed differently in India than it is in the US?
Thrity: I think people in India are generally less romantic about marriage than we are in the West. I'm not sure how much people believe in soulmates etc. like we do. But then, we have so many more options -- staying single, marrying for love, geographical mobility, entering in same-sex unions -- than people in India do. So many people, even young people, still have arranged marriages. The saying in India is that there, love comes after marriage rather than before. I find myself quite dubious of this but there you have it.

Do you think Indian men have different expectations of marriage than women do?
In my very limited experience of life in India today -- I have lived in America my entire adult life -- I would suggest that Indian men are much more conservative and traditional in their expectations of marriage than the women are.

Both Lakshmi & Maggie are married women, but are childless - which is a taboo in both Indian and Western cultures. Do you think this helped the characters connect on a deeper level?
Thrity: This is one of those instances when the reader is more intelligent than the writer. I guess I was so focused on the other connection that the two women share -- that they both lost their mothers at a young age -- that I missed the connection that you made. Lakshmi, of course, is young enough to yet have children.

Being in an intercultural relationship myself, I absolutely loved that Maggie & Sudhir were a "Blindian" couple - which is quite a rarity in our community! What made you decide to write about a mixed masala marriage?
Thrity: I just thought that giving Maggie an Indian husband would give her yet another point of connection with Lakshmi. But I also wanted to point out the limits of that connection. Sudhir and Lakshmi are both Indian, yes, but they come from such vastly different class backgrounds, that they don't have all that much in common. And at a crucial moment, Maggie finds that her knowledge of her husband's culture doesn't help her understand and comfort Lakshmi.

Many of my own Indian family are scared of African-Americans when they come to the US, much like Lakshmi's husband was towards Maggie. What made you decide to write about some of the racism and mistrust that some Indians have towards people who have darker skin?
Thrity: I wrote about it because it's something that has always puzzled and angered me. I've heard of instances of Indian foreign students, for instance, refusing to say hello to a fellow black student on campus. I feel embarrassed when I hear these stories. So I decided to explore this phenomena and perhaps even suggest a path forward. India is one of the most color-conscious countries on Earth and I'm afraid that we carry our prejudices with us when we come to another nation.

Both Maggie & Lakshmi have painful secrets from their past that they share in the novel. Do you think painful secrets tend to catch up with oneself? Do sharing these stories with others help the healing process?
Thrity: If a secret is shameful, if it is weighing you down or corroding your insides, the best thing you can do is set it free. Then, the worm becomes a butterfly. And sharing our stories with one another is one of the fundamental things that human beings do. It affirms our humanity.

I loved that you wrote Lakshmi's thoughts and dialogue in heavily accented English - it reminded me so much of how my Indian Mother-in-Law thinks and talks. Were you worried that readers who are not familiar with the Indian accent would have a hard time understanding it?
Thrity: Yes. I was terribly worried. Not just about readers not getting it but whether I was getting it right. I didn't want Lakshmi to sound stupid or ignorant. I didn't want readers leaping to that conclusion. And so I really struggled mightily to write her in the most authentic voice I could.

This novel was very suspenseful and many times I felt as if I couldn't put it down! When you set out to write this, did you have a plan? Or did the story take shape organically?
Thrity: I think it was a combination of both. I had some idea where I was going -- I think I knew early on what Lakshmi's big secret would be -- but everything that happens from that point on took shape organically.

Are any of the characters based on real people?
Thrity: No.

Where do you feel most inspired?
Thrity: Out in nature. And in my shower.

I noticed in your biography that you are a professor. What about the teaching profession appeals to you the most?
Thrity: Teaching is a creative endeavor, much like writing. And I like to "infect" my students with my love for literature.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers who are just starting out?
Thrity: I would advise them to write as much as they can for as long as they can. I'd tell them to write for the joy and love of writing, without any thought of publication. You have to get your 10,000 hours of practice in first.

What's next for you? Are you working on another novel?
Thrity: I'm actually working on two novels. One is a novel with an African-American protagonist -- no Indian characters! -- called Everybody's Son. The other is a sequel to The Space Between Us.


A huge thank you to Thrity Umrigar for sharing this amazing book with our readers. For more information about Thrity and her upcoming books, please visit her HERE. To purchase her book on Amazon, click HERE.



  1. Sounds like an interesting read. I hope the ending is not too scary:)

  2. Lovely interview. I will definitely check her out.

  3. Great interview, great questions!
    Well done, Alex!!

    I would be really interested to read this book, I am also a fan of flawed women and mental health issues are very close to my heart!

    On my list :D xx

  4. Sounds great. I must find time to read this book. - Pad


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