Indian American author explains the inspiration for her first novel

By ISHA RAI | April 18, 2019

Mathangi Subramanian, an award-winning Indian American author, gave a presentation on her book, A People’s History of Heaven, at Red Emma’s Bookstore on Wednesday, April 17. This work, which revolves around five girls and their mothers who live in a small village in Bangalore, India, is her first piece of literary fiction. 

Subramanian is a graduate of Brown University and the Teachers College of Columbia University, and her writing has previously appeared in the Washington Post and Al Jazeera America.

Subramanian conducted six years of ethnographic studies on Bangalorean pre-schools, called anganwadi, when she traveled to the Indian region on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2012. Although Subramanian produced academic articles based on her research and experiences, she referred to the fictional A People’s History of Heaven as the primary outcome. 

“I have written my whole life. It is how I process the world. All of these people I was meeting were shattering my idea of what India was. So I started writing these characters to try and process,” she said.

Subramanian wanted her work to explore whose voices are elevated and whose voices are ignored throughout history. She said that the Indian government has censored textbooks and deleted the role of certain identities to promote a specific narrative, rather than offering a more objective portrayal of events. 

“The [Indian government] was taking down chapters on caste, chapters on women’s rights, Muslims, trying to redefine the identity of the nation to support their political agenda. That was one of the inspirations for the title, an idea of replanting history,” Subramanian said. 

Subramanian combined real experiences that threaten the Bangalore community with fictional characters in her work. She read her first chapter, “Breaking the Sky,” aloud to the audience. The chapter highlights the perpetual fear that many of the residents of the Bangalore slum have — that their homes will be destroyed by construction. Subramanian witnessed the reality of this during her time in India. 

“A few months after I arrived, one of the slums in the local area was destroyed. So my husband and I went to try and help,” she said. “That was the kind of inspiration behind this book.”

The women that Subramanian encountered through her ethnographic research, such as a 12-year-old girl who had run away from home, provided further motivation for her writing. She included a variety of narrative voices in order to convey that there were multiple ways for both real and fictional people to exist and express their identity. 

“This book tries to encompass all the different ways that women move through life, whether they’re queer or trans or poor or rich. It tries to kind of capture that there’s no right or wrong way to do that,” Subramanian said. “The narratorial voice is the voice of all of the girls. It’s supposed to be like a great chorus. But everybody who has read the book has kind of a different idea of who is narrating it.”

Subramanian gave credit to her husband for helping her to navigate Bangalore. Since he is from there, he was familiar with the regional dialect, Kannada. This element of comfort helped Subramanian connect more readily with Bangaloreans, and gave her a new perspective on their conversations and interactions. 

Subramanian cited the chapter she wrote about Joy as the most complex to handle. Joy is transgender, so Subramanian was concerned that she would not be able to accurately portray her experiences. 

“I was really petrified that I was going to do something insensitive or mess it up in some way,” she said. “Writing about characters who have less privilege than you requires a lot of thought and a lot of research.”

She hopes that one day she can translate her book into Kannada so that the people from whom she drew inspiration can read her book.

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