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Interview with Sayantani Dasgupta


Sayantani Dasgupta

Sayantani Dasgupta is a brilliant writer, researcher and an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Most known for her compelling stories centring around womanhood, her notable works include “Women who Misbehave” and “Fire Girl: Essays on India, America and the in-between”. The nature of her works are widely diverse, often portraying self-reflective narration as well as remarkably sketched, strong characters. Her work exudes a distinct realism which translates into her beautiful storytelling, and inspires a strong social commentary on the part of the reader.


The women in your stories have been exemplary figures, set across various social backgrounds and cultures. We’d love to hear your experiences while navigating through the diversities of your characters. How did you envision and execute your writing process around such a beautifully arranged spectrum of protagonists? 

SD: What a lovely question! This shows me the care with which you read my stories. I don’t think I set out to write a diverse array of characters, though I was, and still am, deeply curious about women’s inner lives lived across the spectrum, be it different countries, social and economic backgrounds, racial identities, and their age. I just paid attention to these various characters as they showed up in my imagination, or wherever it is that stories come from and go to live, and I paid attention to what they had to say. Three of the stories—The Party, The Reader, and Knots—are inspired by personal events and or stories within my family. The rest just happened.  

What role has your teaching experience played in your journey as a writer?

SD: It has played a tremendous role. Teaching creative writing requires me to stay abreast of the newest conversations happening in this field. I teach, as well as write, both fiction and creative nonfiction. I read widely, and thankfully, my research interests and reading interests often intersect. I am fascinated by a variety of subjects—history, religion, horror, food, neuroscience, the inner lives of animals, film studies, memoir, essays, mysteries and thrillers. Nearly everything I read, I end up evaluating it in terms of whether it will be a good fit in my classroom. Reading widely helps me propose and teach a variety of classes. It also allows me to write in a diverse way. I try to take risks in my writing, be it in the form of writing unlikeable characters or an examination of unexpected violence. And because I tell my students to take risks, it seems important that I do the same. It’s a hard task. Irrespective of whether one is writing fiction or some other genre. It’s hard to imagine how others will receive our writing, and therefore, us. 

In recent times, unapologetic yet bold retellings of women’s stories such as yours, have found a considerable foreground. But with it, also comes a lot of unwarranted critique and reproval. How have you managed to negotiate with such reactions?

SD: With respect to Women Who Misbehave, I followed these two steps: I didn’t read most of the reviews, and second, I reminded myself that I wrote the book for the fifteen-year-old me, who absolutely needed these stories when she was growing up. She needed to see women (mis)behaving in ways that were permitted to men all the time, whether in books or on television. If that fifteen-year-old is happy, so am I.  

  1. Women Who Misbehave is marked by women who have not only made decisions in society on their own but also made sure to put themselves first in the society. Do you think of them as setting an example for women worldwide?

I didn’t write these women with that intention. I didn’t want them or need them to be examples for others because I don’t think it’s the job of a fiction writer to teach morals, especially when they are written for an adult audience. My job as a writer is to simply receive these men and women when they show up as characters and let them be. I did want them to give in to their selfishness though because I think there is great beauty in being selfish. Only when you put yourself first, only after you have taken care of yourself well, can you take care of others. A lot of women in real life, whether in India or elsewhere, are expected to put others’ needs before considering their own. I wanted my women to feel free. I wanted them to tell their stories without judgement, whether mine or anyone else’s.   

What sparked your motivation to write Women Who Misbehave?

SD: When I was a teenager in the1990s, I was hungry for a wide variety of female characters in literary works and in films and television. I didn’t get that, especially not on screen. Most often, the women, whether in the form of mothers, girlfriends, or sisters, were sacrificing their interests for the male members of their family. Or for the greater good. Or they were at the opposite end of the spectrum, playing villains in the most cartoonish ways. If they were ambitious about their careers or if they didn’t want children, they were immediately branded as evil. I, on the other hand, grew up in an incredibly progressive family. It was a given that I would have a cool job one day, but I can’t remember a single time either of my parents bored me with questions or concerns about who I would marry, whether I would have children etc. These were always going to be my decisions. I think Women Who Misbehave sprang from the disconnect I felt from the message I received at home with the message the world seemed to give women in general. 

A major theme in your stories, especially “Shaaji and Satnam’s,” deals with violence as a tumultuous concept in women’s life. What are your views on the same? Do you think there is a need for more stories that emphasize women’s roles, not just as observers or bystanders of violence, but also as beings capable of experiencing emotions such as anger and violence? 

SD: Yes, absolutely. While I don’t advocate in any which way what Shaaji does to take charge of her life, I advocate for all sorts of female experiences to be told. There is no one way to be a woman, just like there is no one way to be a man, and I think stories offer the best way to find understanding and community. 

  1. How do you interpret the theme of The Medley’s eighth issue- “Mosaic”? Your book “Women who Misbehave” brings about a complex set of characters and ties them together through a similar set of experiences, much like a mosaic. Do you think your book is also synonymous with the theme of “Mosaic” in some ways?

I hope so! I love that The Medley’s next issue is themed “Mosaic.” Right from the sound of the word to the image it conjures, it is all so lovely. I would absolutely agree that my women and their stories are synonymous with the theme of “mosaic” although I might add the word “tapestry” alongside, to convey the marriage of the hard and soft bits that make up stories in general and the human experience.  

We’d love to know if anything is under wraps or if there’s any other literary project you’re working on. Lastly, would you like to give any word — of advice, caution or general note — to budding writers?

SD: I am currently working on two books. A murder mystery novel that I am excited about, mostly because it serves as an escape from my day-to-day life and routine. I am also at work on a book of essays titled Brown Women Have Everything. It is a collection of fifteen essays on what it means to be a wife and working professional in the US when one is not American. This book will come out in autumn/fall next year. 

In terms of advice to young writers, I will say this: read all the books you love on the topics you love, but also read books that challenge you in some way. If you primarily read fiction, read some nonfiction and poetry. Read a translated book or two. There are millions of writers in every genre, in every country and language. Go beyond the famous names!

Author, Poet, Writer, American, Indian Australian writers
Sayantani Dasgupta
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