The PEN Pod: Recalibrating Our Priorities with Ruchika Tomar
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with writer Ruchika Tomar, who in addition to having received fellowships from The Center for Fiction, The MacDowell Colony and Vermont Studio Center, won the 2020 PEN/Hemingway Award for her debut novel, A Prayer for Travelers. Our judges referred to Ruchika as an exquisite writer, saying her book is “marked by a deft and deeply rendered sense of place.” We spoke with her about the pressures that the pandemic has put on vulnerable and at-risk populations, what writing can offer in this moment, and what books she’s turning to now.
Your book, A Prayer for Travelers, has characters who stand on the periphery and endure trauma. How do some of those themes resonate amid this current moment?
I think there’s a way in which characters like Penny and Cale can be seen as outsiders or on the periphery, but I think the question of how much they’re on the periphery really has to do with the vantage point of the reader, if we’re talking about class or privilege. My experience is that most Americans are living under some kind of financial strain, without access to certain resources. I think a lot of readers are experiencing the same kind of desperation as the characters, bred from the idea that we’re supposed to be living these American dream lives that are safer or more financially secure than the ones that we have. When it comes to trauma, I think what we’ve learned in the past couple of years is that actually most women have experienced or will experience some kind of harassment, abuse, or assault. And though there are certain populations that are more vulnerable than others, unfortunately, the female condition doesn’t necessarily discriminate in that regard.
“I’m worried that this moment is going to provide a smokescreen for a lot of powers that be to get away with putting additional pressure on women and their rights.”
Of course, right now, I am worried. I think that the most vulnerable populations often become even more vulnerable when we’re in moments of crisis. Women are often balancing work outside the home with the majority of emotional labor at home, their children are at home, they’re caretaking. If they’re in a place where there’s not a lot of industry or increased isolation, they’re going to be more at risk. We know right now that Texas, Ohio, and Mississippi have restricted reproductive procedures that they define nonessential for women during the pandemic. And if those are upheld, they’ll have lifelong consequences for those women. I’m worried that this moment is going to provide a smokescreen for a lot of powers that be to get away with putting additional pressure on women and their rights.
There are two arguments made about where we are right now: that in one sense, the virus is leveling, and yet that it also exposes these deep rifts of gender, class, and identity, where not everyone is able to to be resilient in the same way that others might be, especially in terms of healthcare.
I don’t think everyone in America is experiencing the same pandemic. People with more resources are going to be more comfortable. I was displaced because of the virus, but I have a friend’s apartment offered to me that I can stay in, which is incredibly lucky. Not everybody has that. Not everyone is experiencing the same things, and it’s tough. I hope that when we come out of this, things will change, but who knows?
Are you finding that literature is providing you with solace, context, or some kind of framing around all of this?
Right now, I’ve been reading a lot more, and I think that books can engage us in a different way than the media can, which is really comforting at this moment. Obviously, media can be overwhelming to engage with because of the constant news cycle, so I’m finding comfort in reading. I don’t know if I’m finding comfort in creating literature, or if I’m doing that very well at this moment, but I’m trying.
“I do think the desire that I’m seeing for connection is really heartening, because what we’re doing as writers is responding to human experience. I hope that this moment ultimately will help us recalibrate our priorities and make our work more compassionate and more urgent.”
How else is this virus having an impact on your work and the work of other writers?
I think we’re all trying to really use this time. It’s a double-edged sword—it’s a gift to be able to be home and work, but also the anxiety of this moment is just so pervasive and overwhelming that it’s difficult to concentrate. As I mentioned, people who are mothers obviously have their children home right now, and they’re having to deal with homeschooling, which I can’t imagine. I think a lot of us are spending a lot of time worrying about our parents and trying to take care of them, or friends, and it can be distracting. I’m trying, but I’m hoping that there’s a period of adjustment that we’re going through, and after a while, we’ll hopefully figure out ways to adapt to this new normal. I do think the desire that I’m seeing for connection is really heartening, because what we’re doing as writers is responding to human experience. I hope that this moment ultimately will help us recalibrate our priorities and make our work more compassionate and more urgent.
Do you have guidance for other writers about how they can focus right now, or do you feel like it’s just too difficult?
I think I’m the person who needs guidance. I don’t know if I’m in a position to advise anybody. But I think that we’re all just doing the best that we can, and I hope that we’re not going to be too hard on ourselves. I’ve noticed that I’m giving my students completely different advice than I’m giving myself or my friends. I’m telling my students to just take care of themselves and not be too hard on themselves, but of course, for myself, I do feel an intense pressure to produce and to be productive during this insane time. So I would hope that we just ease up on ourselves and do the best that we can.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, which is offensively good, almost. I have no idea how she managed to do that so well. And Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent. Both are incredible, and alternately, make me feel like I should never try to write again, and are inspiring.
Send a message to The PEN Pod
We’d like to know what books you’re reading and how you’re staying connected in the literary community. Click here to leave a voicemail for us. Your message could end up on a future episode of this podcast!