Q&A with Nishant Batsha, author of Mother Ocean Father Nation

Nishant Batsha is the author of Mother Ocean Father Nation (Ecco). His essay “Cast Your Burdens” was previously published in The Offing. Q&A conducted by Mimi Wong, Editor in Chief. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mimi Wong: Hi, Nishant. Thank you so much for making time to talk with me about your new novel. This is a great opportunity to talk about your journey writing this book, especially knowing that you published a piece in The Offing back in 2015. I was so interested to hear that that essay was part of you writing this book. 

Nishant Batsha: It really is special to be speaking with you today because of this journey that this book has taken through “Cast your Burdens,” which is an essay that still is very near and dear to me, very close to my heart.

There are a couple stories you can tell about the writing of this book: one is that I started a version of it a decade ago and worked on it, and then it finally reached publication. But I think the more accurate version is that there were many books written in the course of writing this book. In fact, I have three or four manuscripts just sitting on my computer that will never be seen by anyone—hundreds of thousands of words that were just practice rounds. I’d write something into a character, or a situation, a setting, that would be more interesting to me, and then I would give up on that previous manuscript and then start anew. One thing that happened was one of the original characters Bhumi was somebody’s mother in an original book, so much further on in her life, I suppose, because she’s in her early twenties [in the novel]. I was writing her backstory, and then it came out that she was from this South Pacific island nation, and I got really interested in developing that. 

I wrote this book while doing a PhD in history. I did my PhD working on Indian indentured communities in Fiji and Trinidad, so my fieldwork took me to Fiji. But while I was in Fiji, I was super interested in questions of belonging because Fiji’s had multiple coups since its independence in the 70s, and some of these coups were supported by the Methodist Church of Fiji, which is the largest denomination. But that church has an Indian division, and so in that essay in The Offing I was really looking at why, in this division, are you in a place that has gone on the record saying they hate your presence in this country. What I found was it was really about the Indian division not just being a division for Indians, but being sort of a multi-ethnic division, being a place of worship and belonging for people who were not really able to worship at other parts of the church. So that essay really just got me thinking about questions of race and belonging and political instability in indentured colonies in the postcolonial era. 

While this book is situated in an unnamed South Pacific island nation, it isn’t actually Fiji. A lot of people ask me if it’s Fiji, and it’s a combination of places. It’s Fiji. It’s Uganda. It’s Trinidad. It’s Guyana. It’s a lot of places, history taken from various parts of the world and put in one place. So I don’t think this book in its current form really would have come to fruition if it weren’t for that experience of writing that essay. 


MW: That’s really great to hear. I’m just so happy that The Offing could be a home for that.

This choice to not name the island, I could see that it was very deliberate. I’m curious to hear a little bit more about the decision behind that.

NB: I did a PhD and was in graduate school and did a lot of research about Indian indenture. I’ve built up this archive, so to speak, in my own mind of indenture in a global context, so I did a lot of reading around the Indo-Caribbean, the South Pacific, East Africa, or Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. In my mind, there was this place where it was every history combined into one.

As a historian, that was actually a little bit suffocating. If I had grounded it in a singular place, I would constantly be annoyed at myself for veering from the actual historical timeline. For example, this book is set in 1983, but I know Fiji’s first coup didn’t happen until 1987. And Uganda’s experience with Idi Amin happened in 1972. That’s the first trip up I have. It’s like my date’s wrong.

The ability to create a new place was a project of critical fabulation, to borrow from Sadiya Hartman, in fiction, but also allowed me to not be a historian for a second, to get rid of the fidelity to facticity. I was able to truly draw upon this archive that I had amassed in a way that was always in service to the story, rather than having to represent an anthropology or a slice-of-life.

But then, there came a choice: do I have it be a fictional place that has a name, or do I leave it unnamed? And that was a debate that I actually went back and forth with for a long time. There are two versions of the manuscript on my computer: one with a name for the country, and one without. I have a whole version with the fake name, and I actually found it distracting for two reasons: I think people would be driven to Google this place that I had named, and I feel like it would be a letdown. Like, “Oh, it’s not a real place.”

Instead of dragging the reader along, making them believe that this is a place they could then search the history for, I decided to just leave it unnamed, make the political apparatus as sparse as possible. The leader is just called the General. The country doesn’t have a name, or it’s called the “island,” to let the reader be immersed in the fictional world, rather than worry about knowing all the facts.


MW: That makes a lot of sense. I think it also challenges the reader to think about different colonial histories and knit them together.

I was so interested in this racial dynamic happening on this island between the Indian diaspora, whose point of view you’re telling. Then there is the Indigenous population that they’re in conflict with. But really, this mess was created by the colonizers that came to the island. So even though you were writing a fictionalized version, how did you approach putting this into the novel? Knowing that you were writing from the point of view of two descendants of indentured servants, how did that all come together?

NB: I think because I have this background in academic history, there is a nonfiction, scholarly, almost palimpsest book that I wanted to write. And that was a question I had when doing a lot of reading, which was why do a lot of colonies that brought over Indians as indentured workers have such severe political instability in the post-colonial era? And why did most of them have the instability along racial lines? You see it in the Indo-Caribbean. You definitely see it in Uganda where Idi Amin expelled all the Indians. And then you see it in Fiji, which had four coups—three which were along racial lines. I’m not a political scientist, so that question remains a question for me.

I don’t want to reduce the book to a set of instrumentalized questions, but that was a jumping off point, thinking about this place and at the same time seeing and not agreeing with a lot of this racial animus. [That] was one of the hardest things to write because I don’t agree with a lot of the racism that may exist within the Indian communities. I don’t agree with the racism that was at play within British colonialism. And I surely don’t agree with racialized schools. But you have to inhabit the point of view of your characters and stay true to whatever ideas may have been at play in these real places that then became fictionalized. Writing the racial politics was taking that idea of instability and trying to, on one hand, empathize with the characters affected by it, but also never forget the critique of the entire system. I wanted to make sure that even if it wasn’t from my character’s point of view, there was this critique of the entire apparatus of colonialism and the chaos that was the postcolonial state.


MW: I really admired that because I also feel, as writers of color who belong to diaspora communities, there is a lot of room to explore those nuances, critique our own communities, and put a critical lens to our own histories and politics. Sometimes I worry our stories get flattened when we try to tell them to a Western or American readership because we’re so accustomed to one kind of immigrant narrative. I feel like we’re grappling with that now.

You talked about how you tried out different characters, and you had maybe a different cast of people that you were focusing on. How did you settle on Bhumi and her brother Jaipal as the anchoring protagonists of this novel?

NB: This is the unknowability of writing. There was just something so captivating to me about Bhumi—I speak of it as me finding her, rather than me creating her. She was found somewhere, and I couldn’t not write about her. It was the combination of her academic background, that interest in botany. I, for example, have never written a thing about botany before her character came to me, so it was just something about that that I found very captivating. But also, if you spend enough time in academic environments, you find people whose totality of their personality and life view was dependent on their relationship to their work. So I definitely feel like Bhumi was one of those characters. And then to have her be in a refugee context, to really have that entirety of her identity stripped away, and have her grapple with identity and belonging in that sense to me was just a real human story that I was immensely drawn to.

I had a version of this book where the entirety was just Bhumi. And it was my literary agent actually, Jamie Carr, who read the book and was like, “I like it. It’s a good book. This might be a crazy idea but,” she asked, “what’s Jaipal doing?” What is the brother doing? Because there was just one reference to him, that he had to stay behind. [Jamie] said it was a simple question: What is he up to? What is his life like? I got the subtext that she wanted me to write about him, as well. And I [thought], I’m not gonna write about him. That’s a whole other book. Who knows what’s happening in his life? I promised her I wouldn’t talk to her about it for the week. And every day, I was like, This is actually a great idea. I get to revisit the story from an entirely new point of view. What is he doing back in the country? What is actually happening inside the country? Because there is a duality when a country has a slow falling apart of leaving and being left behind. I wrote all of Jaipal’s sections in six months. It was really like surgery. I stitched it back into the novel and tried to make it this seamless thing that it was always both [their stories]. But this is truly the magician’s work of being a writer. Here’s how the trick actually works: there were two completely different books that were put together.


MW: Wow, that’s wild because reading it I would not have guessed that at all. Jaipal seems so integral. Their stories running in parallel was so effective and exactly that—the person who leaves, the person who gets left behind, and then the guilt and the resentment and all that swirling together.

Jaipal’s secret personal life is so rich and fascinating. It does seem like such a human story that even though this violent coup is happening around them, Bhumi and Jaipal are very preoccupied with what is going on in their lives as young adults, trying to figure things out, having conflicts with their parents, resenting each other. They’re trying to establish their own sense of personhood or independence. With Jaipal especially, his grappling with his sexuality becomes such a big part of discovering who he is. Why was it important to you to explore those aspects of the characters?

NB: This question has a funny answer in the sense that I viewed this book as a climate change book. That probably doesn’t make sense because there’s nothing to do about the climate in this. I don’t know if these questions actually animated my thinking during the writing, but definitely after as I was editing I knew this to be true, and that the only constant right now and from here on out is a sort of slow-moving collapse. The anthropocene is about collapse. There’s going to be huge migration events outside of countries that mirror a lot of what these characters experience. And if the only constants collapse, human life doesn’t stop during that time.

In fact, I think our predilections, our interests, our desires become magnified in moments of crisis. They become a little bit more consuming and perhaps a little bit more urgent. When the rest of the world has dimmed to nothing, you have to look within a bit more. Do you like what you see? Is this going to carry you through this moment of crisis? And that was something I really wanted to make sure was seen in the book. I think that is true to life. I think it’s a novelist’s job to take a little bit of what it means to be in the world and present it back to the reader. Because I think this is something—especially with Covid—a lot of us could relate to this, that the world’s collapsing and yet we’re all sort of working on ourselves, right? And if there’s this disconnect, [it’s] because it feels a little strange and a little frivolous perhaps. But it is what happens. Desire doesn’t stop just because the world’s falling apart. I think desire becomes even more consuming.

For Jaipal especially, it’s an outlet. But also, there’s no other distraction that’s going to take him away from asking this question of why is he lonely. What does he need, what does he need from other people, and who does he love? How does he love? There’s a lot of boredom when everything’s falling apart. There’s a lot of just nothing happening, and then there’s suddenly moments where everything’s happening. So I really want to make sure that my characters weren’t these passive objects experiencing the collapse of a country and, “Oh, woe is them.” They’re active agents in their own life, and that life doesn’t stop just because the country’s falling apart.


MW: There are the layers of them reacting to what’s happening in their country, but there’s also this added layer of their parents. For example, Jaipal is in conflict with his father and feels like he’s not living up to his expectations. Under that, he’s still trying to figure out what he wants. When the novel opens, he’s indulging in an affair. I saw it as a way for him to rebel—that sounds more superficial than it is—to really carve out a space for himself and for his desires.

When Bhumi eventually has to leave and goes to California, she creates another relationship that is also a way for her to figure out what her future is. It’s work they have to do internally amid external pressures pressing down on them.

NB: Tolstoy said all happy families are alike in the same way. I hope my family is very happy and very alike and not very exciting. But I think for many families, and for many families that make for good fiction, family becomes a fundamental conflict that shapes conflict later in life. It is the absence and presence within family, the love one wants but doesn’t get, [that] will shape all the relationships to come. Until a person or a character is able to finally grapple with where that absence came from and what that absence means, they’re just going to keep replicating the same experience they had. I wanted to make sure that these characters had that experience of growth.

A lot of having a relationship in one’s early 20s is looking back on the past and looking towards the future. It’s that moment where their story cleaves into two, and you get to make decisions and see how much you’re going to grow from the past. One thing that was true for both characters is they have a certain dislike of either parent, but they ultimately will mirror those actions. Their parents’ worst qualities are there within them, whether they like it or not. And how do they deal with that? And do they even notice it?

The vicissitudes of family and the state parallel each other in this book. It goes back to that fact that family and personal life continue on in the face of calamity, and sometimes just become powder kegs. I guess I feel bad for these characters that they have to go through all of this. But I do think they grow by the end. I think they come out as fundamentally different people. When all is said and done, it’s not really an ending that is cut and dry. There’s more growth for them in the future. Sometimes I find myself wondering where they are now. I wonder what they’re doing. I wonder if they found their little slice of happiness in the world. I hope they do.


MW: It’s interesting to hear you talk about family as this sort of powder keg because there’s also the grandmother who’s talked about, but she’s not alive in the novel. Yet, you know her actions are still reverberating down, and that Bhumi begins to see that legacy. What was this backstory you had in mind for the grandmother?

NB: When I was in Trinidad and in Fiji doing my field work, I would sometimes have very casual conversations with people, not necessarily friends, just the small talk one has with strangers. Eventually, people would ask me my background. I’m from India. But interestingly enough, I’m from the part of India where most indentured laborers came from, right down to the district level. So a lot of indentured laborers actually descend from the exact place where my parents were from. For a lot of people that I talked to it became this interesting point of comparison. They would ask how India was. A lot of them have never been. Ultimately, we’d have a conclusion reached where a lot of these people would say, “I’m grateful that my ancestors lived here. I think my life is better because they moved.” It doesn’t sound like this very poor India would have been a great place to live. And I tell them, “Yeah, it’s still one of the poorest parts of India.” It’s not a very happy place. So that idea of the anchoring ancestor, and that anchoring ancestor not being very far removed in the past, became very captivating. 

There’s this anthropological idea called “double migration,” which a lot of descendants of Indian indentured laborers are because their grandparents or great grandparents migrated to, say, Fiji or Trinidad. But then, they themselves migrated onwards to Vancouver or Brooklyn or Queens. I feel like in these double migration moments, you have the original ancestor you can look towards who did the migrating, but then also maybe you or your parents. It’s like you have this parallel migration story that informs your worldview. I think double migration is a very common story. I think it’s becoming increasingly common in the face of the refugee landscape that we live in right now.


MW: There’s something very poignant and sad about it. That there was this country that the grandmother left, and now her grandchildren, they don’t even know it. I think that is very relatable for a lot of immigrants and their children. There’s almost this double grieving that you’re doing but not really allowed to, or you have very little access to, because this all happened—these were decisions that were made—before you were even born.

NB: Yeah, there’s quite a lot of surface-level yearning that happens for the old country because: 1) for them, what is the old country? and 2) the present is more important to them than the past. But I think that grief of having to continually move is there whether they like it or not, lurking under the surface.


MW: Anne Anlin Cheng calls it “racial melancholia.”

What do you hope people will take away from the novel?

NB: I feel like I write purely for myself. I’m still in a state of disbelief that other people are going to read this book, even though I am talking to you right now and you’ve read this book. It still doesn’t quite click in my brain that anyone will read it. 

At the close of the book, I would hope that people have a greater empathy for the moment we live in right now that is defined by great upheaval and great collapse. There are a lot of people experiencing that racial melancholia, a lot of people needing, trying to find some home. They’re not finding it on the first chance, the second chance, or the third chance. And I just hope this is a reminder of the human stories that are at play all the time right now. I hope no one loses sight of that. All fiction can do is be small and gentle. It’s a small, gentle reminder of the world that exists around us.


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Cast Your Burdens

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