In Love’s Garden: Weaving Feminism and History with Nandini Bhattacharya
By Alex Graffeo
This past year, OyeDrum had the pleasure of publishing Nandini Bhattacharya’s Ode to the Young’uns Whose Readings I Attend, an experimental poem that explores the experiences of a maturing writer. Towards the end of 2020, Nandini released her first novel, Love’s Garden, a historical narrative of three generations women living in India. The prose features what we loved so much about her poetry- unique descriptive narratives, unwaveringly honest commentary, and strong female voices tying it all together.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Nandini about her writing process, her experiences publishing her first novel, and the role that feminism plays in her writing and everyday life. Nandini about her writing process, her experiences publishing her first novel, and the role that feminism plays in her writing and everyday life.
How does feminism influence your writing?
From A to Z. I have thus far not written a story from a male perspective (I should probably challenge myself to do it) though I often have powerful and sympathetic male characters in my fiction. Basically, I do feel the future of humanity depends on positively empowering women and girls. Creative people can contribute to that vast effort primarily, I think, by making it possible for women and girls to see themselves in art, hear themselves in fiction, and read fiction about their experiences. So though I want to pay attention to all human experience, I particularly want to represent female experience and feminist ideas. Love’s Garden is, as you know, about three generations of women in British India, and they are the heart and stomach of the story. And that was the only way I wanted to write the story and the way it sometimes wrote itself.
I love that! Did you have a favorite female character and/or author growing up that inspired you?
Definitely Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldua, Anita Desai, Jean Rhys, Olympe de Gouge, and Mary Wollstonecraft, so a fairly eclectic list.
Your poetry is full of such fantastic imagery, so it was no surprise to read your novel and find that same quality throughout. How does your writing process differ when you’re writing a novel vs poetry?
Process is an interesting term, especially when one is asked to define it. I think I’m very disorderly generally—or maybe I can euphemize it as impulse-driven—whether it’s poetry or prose I’m writing. I generally write responding to some inner prompt whose basic foundation is a strong emotion or a powerful personal experience. Love’s Garden took me ten years to write, but it started with the germ of what I have elsewhere called “an Archaeology of the Self,” which was a period of introspection and re-assessment—and much drama!—of my life then, and dreams for the future, before I started writing. You may say that it came out of suffering, in a sense. That made me link my own ‘story’ with a search for the story of my foremothers, and ten years later, there was a novel. Poetry is something I’ve started writing recently and more sporadically. It always issues from that same deep source: a strong emotion or powerful experience. However, because poetry requires a more formal structure, economy, and discipline, I actually rely more on form when I write poetry. For this reason, I actually like to write poetry in traditional formal structures—very old-fashioned, I know—where the demands and constraints of forms such as odes, sonnets, terza rima, etc, enforce discipline and coherence on my expression that I appreciate and need. The novel on the other hand has been colorfully described by Henry James as “a loose baggy monster.” Of course, novels do have their own structural frameworks too, but overall, that’s how I would describe both the commonalities and differences in writing a novel versus a poem.
What do you feel the most difficult part of writing Love’s Garden was?
Plot. As a historical novel, plot was crucial, and here my tendency to write from my heart’s dictates was an impediment sometimes. So I really had to get down to thinking about plot, character trajectories, and story arc, and to tame my gushing into a story where things happened to people who did things that mattered even if they were not prominent or celebrated. I also had trouble understanding at first how important dialogue is for storytelling in realist or historical fiction (and probably other kinds), and I had to learn to remember to do that. So I would say plot and dialogue were my greatest challenges at first. But I had many good readers who drilled into my head the importance of overcoming those challenges if I wanted to write stories that were actual slices of life and history. Thanks, you all, who know who you are.
Does the story have any personal relation to you or your familial history?
Yes, it is related to women in my family, but also mythologized and fictionalized. Some old photos in my mother’s possession actually drove some of the characterizations in Love’s Garden, but stories I heard from grandmothers and aunts about almost mythic, apocryphal, and iconoclastic women in my family’s history were definitely generative.
Which character in the novel do you relate to the most, and why?
Prem. She is who I think I would have liked to be had I lived in her time. She is a fighter but also a realist and while she can’t be Superwoman or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she comes close enough to it within the structures of realism. Lady Prem Mitter also had a very big heart, and that is also important to me. Last but not least, the importance of female connections and friendships for her echoes my own loyalties.
What are you reading right now?
Re-reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Fabulous!
What has been the most important thing you’ve learned about the publication process of Love’s Garden?
Tenacity, and looking for opportunities big and small. Staying plugged into the world of literary fiction and publishing to find those opportunities. And a fairly thick skin, which was hard to grow. Once accepted by my publisher, I had to work hard on promotion and marketing alongside them, and I learned how very time-consuming but perhaps also very necessary that is for debut writers.
To read about Nandini and keep up with her fantastic work, visit her website: www.nandinibhattacharyawrites.com
Alexandra Graffeo’s poetry and short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in Aurora- The Allegory Ridge Poetry Anthology Volume II, Illumen Magazine, The American Journal of Poetry, Global Poemic, Collective Realms, and OyeDrum. She writes and lives in New York. You can find her on Twitter at @alexfallsdown