The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Rajesh Parameswaran

If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we launched The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday through the end of August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week we spoke with Rajesh Parameswaran, whose debut collection of stories I Am an Executioner has been the subject of many literary discussions in our offices this summer. Parameswaran, who is incapable of constructing a dull sentence, has written nine inventive love stories told by narrators ranging from a Bengal tiger pining for his master’s affection, a railway-station manager who scolds the metafictional Rajesh, and the “beings” (read: UFO insects) of Planet Lucina in the collection’s sublime final story. Complex and often experimental, Parameswaran is never afraid to push the boundaries of the form; skeptics of short fiction need look no further. Read on for Parameswaran’s thoughts on unconventional love stories, the changing focus of ethnic writers, and the surprises that arise during the writing process.

Previously, ethnic writers in America were largely expected to write about ethnic subjects. It wasn’t until the last few years or so that a new generation felt the liberty to subvert that expectation. Do you see this as a growing trend in American fiction? Or rather: where does “ethnic lit” go from here?

It’s probably useful for a writer not to spend too much time thinking about what people might or might not expect from him based on his ethnicity, or about popular tastes and trends. I try to write the stories that compel me personally, and it’s hard to imagine doing otherwise. I would guess that American writers of previous decades did the same. Sometimes my stories do indeed involve my ethnic heritage, and sometimes they don’t — part of the fun of a short story collection is that you can do different things in the space of one book. But if there has been some change in focus among writers over the decades, maybe it’s in keeping with a changing social landscape.

The words “love” and “executioner” both appear in your collection’s title, which gestures to the gruesome ways love often demonstrates itself in your stories — an alien killing his mate after lovemaking, a tiger biting the neck of his beloved master. What about these unconventional desires interests you?

I hope the juxtaposition of the title and subtitle also points to some of the humor and irony of the collection. But your question is almost a paraphrase of a question I received after a reading in my hometown, in front of all my parents’ friends, although there it was phrased more like: “Rajesh, you always seemed like such a gentle boy. Why all the violence in your stories?” In my answer, I tried to say something to the effect of: love and death are basic, and it’s perfectly natural to write about them together. But I was feeling defensive and trying to get myself out of an uncomfortable spot.

You’ve said before that the similarities between your stories became apparent only after they were written and  compiled. Did the process of reading your work retrospectively reveal aspects about yourself of which you weren’t previously aware? Is that process ever surprising?

I think that one’s work necessarily looks different when it’s finished, and from a distance. You more clearly see the connections and the patterns and so forth. As for what the work reveals about me personally: I don’t think the connection between a work of fiction and a writer’s personality is clear or direct, so I try not to psychoanalyze writers — including myself — based on their writing. But I do consider it a good thing if I ever feel surprised while reading my own work — it’s like going on a vacation and finding something in your suitcase that you’d forgotten you’d packed, as my high school English teacher once explained. (She was paraphrasing an author, but I’ve forgotten who.)

Where do you see American fiction headed? Or perhaps, where do you hope and/or dread it will go?

To be perfectly honest, this summer I am reading Don Quixote, and not thinking a great deal about the future of American fiction. Or maybe a better answer is, I hope American fiction is headed in the direction of Don Quixote, in the direction of brilliance and humaneness and hilarity.

And the fun question: what’s the last good book you read?

I’ve already mentioned Don Quixote, so just to add something contemporary, I’ll note that in between bouts of Cervantes, I’ve also started Teju Cole’s Open City, a novel that unlayers urban life in surprising ways.

Illustration by Geoff Mak