"Reading has always been something people have had to fight for—which is part of why it is so powerful."
Lone Star Literary Life: Ms. Sen, congratulations on your newest role at the head (along with Tim Staley, who leads the Austin Public Library Foundation) of a brand-new Austin chapter of PEN America. Please tell us how this came about. What is your vision for this new regional chapter of the national organization, and how will you implement that vision?
Chaitali Sen: Last year, some representatives from PEN America were visiting Austin and reached out to members to meet and talk about the mission of PEN and what’s going on with Texas literature and free speech. A bunch of us got together over dinner, and from there, we started planning events, cosponsored by PEN America, and meetups for things like World Press Freedom Day.
The regional chapter is brand new, so some of the vision has to be worked out with the members we have in Austin. We are planning ways to bring alive the mission of PEN America to “… champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”
LSLL: This new responsibility with PEN America seems a natural extension of the interview series you founded, “Borderless: Conversations on Art, Action, and Justice,” in which emerging and established writers discuss the power of words and the role of art in reflecting and changing our world. What was your inspiration for this series and what do you hope to achieve? Does art change the world?
CS: That’s the question I set out to answer with this series. Yes, art does change the world, but I think it’s clear that art alone does not change the world, and the substance, content, and message of the art matters. My goal is to deepen the conversation about the connections between art, action, and justice, and hopefully that depth of conversation will somehow make it back into our art.
LSLL: Your debut novel, The Pathless Sky, was published in 2015 by the wonderful publishing house Europa Editions, and was a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction. Please tell us what we need to know about your book.
CS: You can purchase it at BookPeople, Malvern, or your favorite independent bookstore. But seriously, it is a love story about a couple trying to navigate their way through a legacy and re-escalation of political tensions in their fictional country. I have been told that it is very relevant, unfortunately, to today’s political climate.
LSLL: For more than a decade you have published short stories, reviews, and essays in many publications, including New England Review, Colorado Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Catapult, Los Angeles Review of Books, Brooklyn Magazine, the Austin American-Statesman, and the Texas Observer. What is your advice for writers to achieve successful submissions? What’s the most useful advice you’ve received about writing?
CS: One is to write a lot. Two, find some honest readers who can tell you if the piece is ready for submission or not. Three, submit, and don’t give up. I still get rejections all the time, but I keep sending work out and have very rarely given up on a piece that I think is worthy of publication.
The most useful advice I’ve received about writing is to revise until your writing is smarter than you are. I believe that came from Robert Boswell.
LSLL: Many of these pieces address living and reading in the United States during the Trump administration. What do you think has changed, and should change, about reading? How can our reading affect change in society?
CS: I’m passionate about this both as a writer and an educator. Reading has always been something people have had to fight for—which is part of why it is so powerful. Why were enslaved people punished for learning to read? Why are there people in power who are so determined to ban certain books and ideas?
I think those of us who understand the value of literature have to insist on the prominence of reading in our culture—reading broadly and deeply and not letting our comprehension and critical thinking skills atrophy. I don’t think it’s only on the political “right” that reading, comprehension, and critical thinking have suffered. All of us need to read better.
LSLL: Let’s talk process for a bit. Some authors start from dialogue, some start from character, others begin at the end. What’s your process like and how do you know what form a piece should take?
CS: It always starts with character for me. Until I know whose story I want to tell, I’m just fiddling around. I need to find a character I want to spend a lot of time with, and then I can start to build a world around that.
LSLL: Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to writers and their work. You left India when you were two years old and grew up in New York and Pennsylvania. How has Texas shaped you and your work? How would your work be different if you’d remained in the East?
CS: I never know what a place means to me until I leave it. I’m about to start working on a novel about New York, finally, after being away for fourteen years.
I never thought I would end up in Texas. It’s a place of very stark contradictions, which is great fodder for literature, but I haven’t been able to write much about it yet. It’s been an exciting place, that’s about all I can say right now.
LSLL: Which writers do you admire and why? How have these writers inspired your own work? Which Texas authors would you recommend to readers who enjoy your novel?
CS: Among my favorite writers are James Baldwin, Elena Ferrante, Colson Whitehead, Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, and Yiyun Li.
I think the entirety of my reading life has influenced me, from the Nancy Drew books I read as a child to the phase I went through where I only read literature from Latin America, to all the classics I read in high school, and beyond.
As far as Texas authors, there are so many just here in Austin, let alone around the state. I highly recommend Natalia Sylvester, ire’ne lara silva, Attica Locke, Oscar Cásares, Jennifer DuBois, Donna Johnson, Kirk Walsh, Fernando A. Flores, and Elizabeth McCracken.
The people I’ve interviewed for Borderless are a good indication of who I think people should pay attention to. I’ll be interviewing Varian Johnson in November.
LSLL: Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?
CS: I’m revising my second novel, a coming-of-age story of a twelve-year-old Bengali girl living in Pennsylvania in 1983. After that I hope to get started on my third novel, set in New York City.
LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?
CS: I have towers of books on several nightstands. But books I’m reading or rereading right now are The Bluest Eye, Moby Dick, and a big volume of short stories by Alice Munro. I also always keep some nonfiction around. I’m going to India soon, so I’m about to start reading The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury.
Chaitali Sen is a writer and educator based in Austin, Texas. Her debut novel, The Pathless Sky, was published by Europa Editions in 2015. Short stories, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ecotone, Shenandoah, New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Catapult, LitHub, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, Brooklyn Magazine, and many other publications.
She is a graduate of the Hunter College MFA program in fiction and founder of the interview series, Borderless: Conversations in Art, Action, and Justice.