Rheea Mukherjee received her MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She is the author of “The Body Myth” and was shortlisted for the TATA Literature Live First Book Award 2019. Her previous stories have been Pushcart nominees, Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Finalists, and semi-finalists for the Black Lawrence Press Award. Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed, Scroll.in, Electric Literature, Out of Print Magazine, and Southern Humanities Review, among others. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with her for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about her debut book, the various themes that she has delved into in this novel, and some of her current reads that she would like to recommend to our readers.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I mostly identify as a Bangalore person. Although, I’ve had an itinerant life for the first 25 years of my life. I grew up in and out of the U.S and India till I was 27. In 2011, I moved back to Bangalore for good. I live with my partner and two adopted indie dogs, Nimbu, and Henna. I resort to telling everyone about pets/living circumstances when I am asked about myself, because it’s the easiest thing to do, although I suspect I could give you a more interesting version if I were not so lazy.
How did the idea of this book originate?
I think a lot of what was stewing in my head, my own questions about life were all begging to be dumped out into a story. The years that led to the writing of The Body Myth were ones in which I was preoccupied with existential questions, finding my own understanding of spirituality and unlearning. It was (and still is) a time of deconstructing my notions about monogamy, love, sexuality, morality, social privilege, and justice. In a way, this book was a response to the gymnastics in my mind. One day, I imagined Sara, who is a pivotal character in this book. In my head, she was chronically ill, defeated, but had a powerful answer about the mystery of life. And I wanted to know what that answer was. I knew I had my story then, the rest flowed.
Your novel begins “Take my story like you would a large pill.” From where did this line emerge and what made you decide this would be the first line?
The first line is important because it’s a make or break for your reader truly investing in you, at least at that moment. At least, I want to invest right away when I am reading something. All I did was start with a line that I knew I would be compelled by. That’s the best you can do. If you can’t read your own work, nobody will want to. That said, it set a tone for the book. One where a character was aware of her reader. That’s always a risk, some readers hate that.
This book challenges socialized notions of love, principles, normalcy, romance, friendship, sex, and truth. What made you delve into such themes?
Well, these are topics I’ve always been interested in. How we’ve created so many overarching oppressions into everything we’ve built as humans. From social hierarchy to the meaning of love and the binary notions we look at the body and mind, in all of this, there has been barely any space for queer truths, or truths that deconstruct/ challenge all that we think is right and wrong and ‘civilized’. I think that time has come. For other truths to emerge with confidence.
What were your influences in writing this book? What books/text/art were you in the company of while writing this book?
I was mostly in the company of reading and watching videos about French existentialism, all this was research to create the main character, Mira, in the book. She confuses her knowledge on the subject with her self-esteem. Her obsession with these books is an emotional pillow, a sort of validation to cover up the actual issue she’s dealing with: grief.
In the process, I read and learned a lot about Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, who were all breaking down some very fundamental questions about how we responded to life. But I was also interested in subverting the authority we give to colonized approved literature, in that way, Sara shows Mira that all her knowledge might be useless if she can’t see her own truth in her own cultural environment.
Which books are you reading presently? Any favourites that you would like to recommend to our readers?
Over the last few months, I’ve been reading a mix of nonfiction and fiction. I really enjoyed My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, The Deoliwallahs by Joy Ma & Dilip D’Souza, and Close to the Bone by Lisa Ray. I also reread Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now which just makes so much sense to me at this time, as I balance this duality within me: the one that needs to understand what my spiritual self is, and me, the outer person who wants to be vocal and physically present in response to a world that is becoming more authoritarian and unfair to certain populations every passing second. I also have been reading Ambedkar, because whatever little we learned about him in school was so narrow. Reading his work allows me to discover why his work was so limited in our schooling system. It radically challenges the very foundation India’s elite has been riding on for centuries.
You have also co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012. Can you tell us more about your work there?
Yes, I co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop with Bhumika Anand when I had first moved back to India. I wanted to share the workshopping and sense of community I had felt with writers during my graduate school days. I taught workshops there for 2 years, but I’ve since moved on. I now co-run a content and design laboratory called Write Leela Write, with Kalabati Majumdar. We’ve been working in the communication, branding, and creative workshop space since 2014. Independently, I also teach a spectrum of creative writing classes that dwell on the intersections of trauma, gender, social justice, and feminism.
Finally, some literary word associations. Tell us the first book that pops into your mind when you read these words.
African literature – Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Ménage à trois – Seahorse by Janice Pariat
Fantasy – The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
Fruit – James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
‘The Body Myth: A Novel’ by Rheea Mukherjee has been published by Penguin India Publishers. Read more about the book here and buy it here.