Maria Chaudhuri was born and raised in Bangladesh. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Religion from Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, Vermont. Her essays, features and short stories have been published in various collections, journals and literary magazines. She lives in Hong Kong. Beloved Strangers, her first book was published by Bloomsbury.
NAW- Tell us about ‘Beloved Strangers’. What made you decide to write a memoir as your first book? People generally write it when they are in the last leg of their life’s journey and perhaps one of the reasons behind it is that invariably people’s perceptions and opinions tend to change once they read a memoir or an autobiography because it’s all true, so did this thought ever cross your mind when you decided to write Beloved Strangers?
I think you raise a very important question. As readers, we are a bit too conditioned to think that fiction-writing, the novel, particularly, is the superior literary form for a story. Certainly that is not what you are alluding to here, but I have to first address this point about why write a memoir at all in order to answer your question about why a memoir now. I think stories are stories and they should be treated as such, whether it is based on someone’s real life or otherwise. What matters most is whether the story is told, with all its complexities and details intact, and whether the storyteller has done a unique, original and compelling job. The particular literary form of the story – fiction or nonfiction, novel or short story or memoir – should only reflect an artistic choice on the part of the writer that has little to do with the worth of the story itself.
Now, coming back to your question about why a memoir now…I’d have to say that there isn’t any reason why a memoir cannot be written at 25, 40 or 75 years of age, provided that the story is one that is worth telling. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t quite consider how others’ thoughts and perceptions might change towards me once I wrote the memoir. I knew something would change but I focused on the fact that I would tell the truth and that had to count for something. What drove me forward was that my story could no longer wait to be told. It had already happened and if I was going to write it then there was no reason to wait on it.
NAW- While your parents’ relationship cannot exactly be called turbulent, how difficult was it writing about such personal stuff?
Looking back on it, it feels like an extremely difficult task accomplished. But it was exactly what I wanted to do and so when I was in the middle of writing it, once again my main focus was not how much it hurt to talk about it or what anyone would think about them or me afterwards. I focused instead on how much justice I could do to the characters and scenarios in question, how fair I could be, given that my main tool for assessment was something as illusive as memory, and how much love I could juxtapose with the hurt.
NAW- Looking back, would you say you had a happy childhood? How difficult is it reconnecting with friends and relatives when a person has lived outside their native land for a long period? Are you in touch with friends and family back home?
I don’t think happiness can be a constant state for either a child or an adult. Children should of course have safe, stable environments with loving, capable caretakers. But it is unreasonable to think that we can keep children happy all the time, and frankly, we shouldn’t have to, because that isn’t what real life is like. My parents made their share of mistakes but they never stopped loving me and that knowledge alone gives me a deep and permanent sense of happiness.
To address the second part of your question – yes I have, sadly, lost too many friendships as well as missed out on the closeness of certain relationships such as with aunts or cousins, as a result of having lived abroad for so long. But I am also lucky to have a few friends and family members who have always been there and always will be.
NAW- You describe your childhood as very religious. Has that changed? How would you describe yourself, Orthodox Muslim, Agnostic, liberal, Atheist? What is the home environment like, do you celebrate Bengali culture even though you no longer live there?
Personally, I nurture and celebrate the cultural norms of Bangladesh far more diligently than I can claim to follow any faith-based rituals. The Bengali New Year celebration, heralding the beginning of the monsoons and replete in a red and white colour theme is one of my favourite occasions in any given year. No matter where in the world I go, my favourite cuisine is still home-cooked Bengali fare and my taste in music largely reflects my connection to the culture.
Unlike culture though, I don’t find religion to be the easiest way of belonging to a community or the most effective source of comfort for myself at least. I believe that every person’s religious experience is different and therefore the only really true statement that anyone can make about faith is that it’s deeply personal and varied in nature, and to that end, I am not sure that I can categorize myself within set definitions.
NAW- Tell us about your journey as a writer? When did you decide that you wanted to become a writer? How was the publishing journey, any hiccups along the way?
I used to write little poems and songs all the time, growing up. I never really shared those with anyone but whenever I read a good book (and I was quite an avid reader) I was overcome with the compulsion to write something just as good or better. Finally in my early twenties, I knew that I really wanted to pursue writing more formally but life kept getting in the way and I kept stalling it. Once I did make my entry into the literary world though I was amazed by the community of curious, bright and open-hearted individuals who welcomed me and my work. I’ve been surprisingly lucky to have had a good and fruitful publishing experience with a globally known and respected name like Bloomsbury.
NAW- The one shortcoming I did notice in your work was the lack of pictures. Usually memoirs tend to include a host of material from the author’s personal collection. And perhaps this is what lends a personal touch to a memoir. Was this a conscious decision or an oversight?
There are many memoirs without pictures actually but I do agree that pictures can, indeed, lend a personal touch. In my case, first and foremost, I felt that sharing pictures would be an additional instrusion on those whose lives I had already taken the liberty to expose through my words. But in line with what I said earlier, I also firmly believe that the craft of writing a memoir is not all that different from the craft of writing a novel and so, just like the novel, the memoir may leave as much open to the imagination as the writer deems necessary.
NAW- Who are your favourite authors? Are there any who have influenced your writings?
Some authors whose works have left a profound effect on me are Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pico Iyer and Bia Lowe. I’m sure I took away something from each of them though I could not tell what exactly from whom. Good writing seeps into your blood slowly and surely; you digest it in your dreams and find it bobbing up to the surface of your mind at the oddest moments.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I’m a very private person and reasonably shy, so socialising is not one of my strong suits. When I’m not writing, I’m either working out, reading, or spending time with my family. I insist on challenging my body just as much as the mind and I’m happiest to kickbox, swim or cycle my way through a free morning or afternoon rather than shop or eat or watch a movie for instance. Now in my thirties, the charm of living in a big, cosmopolitan city is finally beginning to wear off and I have dreams of moving to a lush, green place with the full four seasons, fresh air, sun and outdoor activities.
NAW- Have you decided what you’ll write next?
I am working on the beginning stages of a novel so what I can share at this moment will be a bit consice. It is a character-based work of fiction that I envision to be very different in style, structure and tone from the memoir.