Chaitali Sen: On Breaking Down the Borders In Your Mind

Sen's live interview series "Borderless" tackles the interconnectivity of art, action and justice

Chaitali Sen

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 Brooklyn Magazine, Catapult, Chicago Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Ecotone, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review, New Ohio Review, and many other publications. She is a graduate of the Hunter College MFA program in Fiction and founder of the live interview series, “Borderless: Conversations in Art, Action, and Justice.” She is at work on her second novel.

I caught up with Sen over coffee earlier this month, and we talked about imaginary places, coming-of-age stories, and the importance of talking through discomfort.

Sightlines: I read an interview that you did in the Rumpus, which referred to an essay you wrote in the Margins. In the essay, you write that you “felt a crippling pressure to write exclusively about my experience as a child of Indian immigrants.” How did you decide to set your first novel in a made-up place? Was it originally supposed to be a specific country? And did that relieve some of the pressure you felt when you were writing that essay?

Chaitali Sen: I was in a phase where everything I was writing was set in a fictional country or an unnamed place. I don’t exactly know why that was. I think it was totally freeing. You know, because place and home, what you’re supposed to write about—it becomes so fraught sometimes, so unnecessarily fraught, and then you end up not writing and that feels awful. So, it was never meant to be set in a real place. It’s just that these characters came to life. If I had set it in a real place, I never would have written it.

I told somebody recently I probably could’ve adjusted it to reflect real historical issues in a real place with different characters, but in that case, I felt like I would have been writing about characters I knew even less about. I decided to let my imagination go and make up a place, which was already sort of in my mind.

S: I thought it was interesting, given that imaginary space in your first novel, that now you are working on this “Borderless” series, which in the name itself reflects an undefined space. It reminded me of a quote my friend posted last summer from the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. She writes, “What is a love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry?” I thought she was talking about borders and how we try to put aside certain people and not empathize with them the same way we would with people in our own country.

I was interested in hearing about how you started working on this series. What was the impetus and how has it evolved over time?

CS: The impetus was a lot of what’s in that quote. I think that as a species we have to evolve beyond this need for borders. Right now, getting rid of borders is a lot in on our own head, because the reality isn’t that we can just get rid of them.

But I think humanity is going to have to evolve beyond borders. So, some of it was thinking about actual political borders. But I was thinking about all kinds of borders. Borders between genres. For a while, it struck me that I know people in various spheres of life. And nobody knew what was going on in other spheres, even stuff that was overlapping. I love Elena Ferrante, and I read the whole “Neapolitan” series, and so many people who weren’t writers, even who are readers, hadn’t heard of her. And that kept happening, where I was like, “Everybody should know about this person and no one’s heard about them.” I realized that people don’t actually communicate on a wide number of things unless it’s really in the popular culture — like TV or movies.

S: Which literary fiction so rarely makes it into.

CS: So, part of it was that. And, actually in the first “Borderless,” someone asked why I had named it that, and the person who I was interviewing, Nikki Luellen, who is a spoken word poet, said, “It’s about breaking down the borders in your own mind. What’s possible, what you’re willing to consider, what you’re willing to listen to, what you’re willing to try.”

And then a lot of it was the election and feeling like we needed more talking, not less. More talking to each other. Dealing with disagreement and discomfort, which I don’t think I’ve really pushed to the limit in my series yet.

S: And given the rhetoric during this most recent election, the focus and obsession with borders and border walls, it seems like the need for that is not going away.

On Nov. 16, you’re having your next installment of “Borderless” with writer and educator Jack Kaulfus. I’m interested in why you chose Jack, and what issues you’re looking forward to discussing?  

CS: I actually heard Jack read a story a couple years ago at Malvern. They read a story that I enjoyed and which blew me away. There was a very contemporary, playful feel to their work. Their book, “Tomorrow or Forever,” came out over the summer. Jack is also an educator and I have an education background, so some of the things I’m looking forward to talking them about are short story structure and process, because I struggle with short stories, and also being a transgender writer and activist and teacher, especially in a climate like this.

The other thing I want to talk about with them about is the importance of stories — particularly, coming-of-age stories — and how they help people see the humanity in others, and the importance of getting stories of all kinds of people out there.

S: I know you lived in New York for a while, and I was wondering how you felt the transition from the New York writing community to Austin went. Was there anything that surprised you about the Austin writing community?

CS: Well, it actually took me a long time to consider myself part of the writing community in New York. In New York, I was mostly a teacher, and I was involved in a South Asian women’s arts group, and I was also an activist. I wasn’t really out as a writer until I went to get my MFA, which was the last three or four years I was in NY. So, I sort of left New York right when I was meeting a lot of writers. It was time to leave. New York is a hard place to live. I was exhausted. But I miss a lot of the writing community, and the literary stimulation — that was hard to leave.

When I got here, I wasn’t expecting to move to Austin. I met my husband, got married, and I was writing on my own until I happened to find out about novelist S. Kirk Walsh’s workshop. And then everything opened up for me. I met really great people.

The great thing about Austin is that it’s still small enough that everybody knows each other. It’s all these really cool small degrees of separation. Something pretty amazing is happening in Austin with writing and I don’t exactly know what the factor is contributing to that. In New York, I was in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, but that’s one little tiny sliver of the literary scene. Here, you go to S. Kirk Walsh’s workshop and the whole literary scene opens up. So, that’s really nice about Austin.

S: Can you tell us about the novel that you’re working on now?

CS: Yeah, it’s a coming-of-age novel set in one year from ‘83 to ’84. It’s about a young Indian-American girl whose family is kind of falling apart and she has to live with some friends of her parents. And she has to navigate being in a house where she’s not really part of the family, and all the drama with her own family, and starting middle school. And then there’s lots of eighties music and the “Day After,” the movie about nuclear warfare that traumatized many of us. It was really fun to write. It’s set in Southeastern Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, right where I grew up.

S: My last question is one that I always like to ask writers I meet. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten about writing?

CS: This came from Helen Benedict, when I was taking a workshop with her in Paris. I was really struggling at that point. Everything I was writing was autobiographical but nothing was working. And she said, “If your characters are too much like you, then you’re locking yourself into a corner and you’re not going to be able to imagine what you need to imagine.”

Then I went on a wild spree of writing about characters who were totally different from me. I started writing from the male point of view for the first time and just experimenting. That’s the thing that really helped me in an instant. It struck a nerve because it was at a time when I really needed to hear it.

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