The PEN Ten with Chaya Babu
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Ken Chen speaks to Chaya Babu. In Chaya Babu’s piece, “Good Girls Don’t Say Such Things,” the main character boards a plane to India, where she will work as a writer, and her father tells her: “Don’t write anything bad…They won’t like it.” Given Chaya’s radical social justice commitments, writing “anything bad” could be interpreted not via the MFA lens of craft and quality (that is, writing badly), but as writing something that is politically unacceptable, writing that does not conform. To give just one example, as an Open City Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Chaya wrote about the time her writing group in Ditmas Park was robbed at gunpoint—a crime that inadvertently became fodder for a New York Times piece on gentrification.
In AAWW’s Open City, Chaya criticized the racial assumptions of the Times piece (which featured no interviews with the writers) and of the police officers who arrived on the scene. The officers showed her random pictures of black men. They asked her if the men looked like the man who had mugged her, a man whose face had been almost entirely covered. Chaya writes, “Inside, with the others, I began to cry. I had been driven around to see whether unlucky black strangers in hoodies could possibly be someone I was in the same room with for mere seconds, whose eyes had been his only visible facial feature, and whose hands were the only part of him I had really looked at.” Chaya’s piece led to right-wing backlash in the pages of the New York Post and elsewhere, as reactionary writers attacked her for sympathizing with supposed criminals.
Elsewhere in Open City, Chaya has written about the intersection between politics in Pakistan and Bangladesh and local activism in the South Asian diaspora. She talked to Shahid Khan, a Pakistani activist who fled to America after Muslim extremists stuck a metal rod in his thigh—but who has found immigrant survival in America far more challenging. And she wrote about the Bangladeshi activists who protested the death of 13-year-old Samiul Alam Rajon, who was beaten to death in Kensington, Queens, over the summer. In this honest, thoughtful interview, Chaya discusses writing, family, and being held at a Mumbai police station.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to see writing as less of something I do and more of something I am. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but with immigrant parents—both doctors, neither particularly literary—I had never had access to any space, forget identity, that was artistic, creative, or expressive in any way. There was a firm boundary, from what I could tell, between myself and what a writer looked like or was. A lot of that was based on color, of course.
Working as a journalist though, I began saying “I’m a writer” when people asked the customary “What do you do?” This was and is inevitably always followed by, “Like, as your job?” In these instances, and maybe just generally, I feel there’s some doubt on the receiving end of the assertion that one is a writer, as if it requires some official symbol of legitimacy. I’ve often given in to this, letting myself be taken by that doubt, and so I’ve thought quite a bit about what it means to be a writer.
I think when I came to understand that it was writing that saved me after suffering an immeasurable loss, I was able to more fully embrace the idea of “a writer” as part of my essential being—that loss was the 2009 passing of my cousin and dear friend, who I felt was possibly the only person who truly saw me yet loved me anyway. She was my anchor in the world and she also carried me, so this pivotal moment set me adrift. I found myself again on the page and continue to over and over again.
The other night at the Ta-Nehisi Coates event at The Schomburg Center, he spoke a lot about his craft. He said at one point, about writing: “This really is all I have to give.” That touched me. I was stripped bare in the death of my cousin, and writing, for me too, was all I had. I think it’s been since then or some time shortly after that I’ve felt that being a writer is something inextricably linked with my soul and my purpose for being here, versus something somebody else might pay me to be and thus a title someone might bestow me with.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
So I actually thought Arundhati Roy or Toni Morrison as soon as I saw this question. And I’m going to stick to those answers and not fear my lack of originality, despite having seen that these writers are favorites of other PEN Ten subjects as well! But, I’ll add to the list, and say Octavia Butler as well.
Where is your favorite place to write?
My bed. I need solitude. And I’ve actually worked really hard to create other corners of my apartment that will lend themselves to writing, but I always return to the bed. A long night in with the darkness visible through the windows, some tea, and quiet except for the sounds of New York outside is when I find a sense of expansiveness or spaciousness to really write. This time is magical to me.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I’m not sure if I was technically arrested, but I was held in custody at a police station in the suburbs of Mumbai in 2011 until I basically paid a bribe to be released. It’s hard to explain in our context, outside of the way the police function there. I was with a friend leaving a party late at night, and we now think the security guard at the building thought we were sex workers. We got into a rickshaw to go home, with no idea anything was up, but then the guard chased after the rickshaw, jumped into it, and ordered our driver to take us to the station. This is a bit of a blur now, but we were not allowed to leave, were not told why we were taken there in the first place, and were asked repeatedly why we had been at the party, who we knew there, where we were from, and other questions to basically assess why we were women out on the street at night dressed as “good” women would not. All of this was happening in Hindi, which I don’t speak or understand, and was translated to me by my friend. We had to hand over forms of identification, and we were placed for a period of time in some back room. Ultimately we called the people whose party we were at and they came to the station and tried to speak with the cops, which changed nothing. Those guys then called two other older men, whom I didn’t know at all—well, I knew nobody since I had just moved there two weeks prior—and they, the latter, paid the cops Rs14,000 for us to be able to go home early in the morning, That was about $300 at the time, which is a lot for India and of course we paid them back. I actually still have no idea what happened or why.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I think I get obsessive about things in phases. Right now, I’m into astrology, digging deeper into knowledge about which planets are in which houses and signs in my chart, what the houses symbolize and what it all means. Sort of related to that, I’ve been studying and processing the concept of destruction and rebirth and life as cyclical, how this shows up in certain spiritual traditions and philosophies and in mythology. It’s starting to make its way into my writing here and there, but mainly it’s a way of understanding myself better. More publicly, my ever-evolving hair styles and their big fuck you to the patriarchy, and more permanently, my niece and nephew.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I wrote a story recently about my relationship with a family I grew up with, and somehow this felt more daring to me than anything I’ve written about my sexuality or calling out white supremacy or something in that vein. There’s nothing in the piece that strikes me as particularly bold or brazen to put into words, but I think it’s more the principle of writing about what’s close to you—I’ve only just begun writing about certain experiences from my own life, and in a way, I feel these stories reveal some weird secret about me, like I’ve been observing and analyzing things around me forever and all of a sudden they’re showing up decades later in stories. These are nothing but my truths, but articulating them comes with some vague anxiety, and sharing them feels risky. I guess there’s always risk in truth though.
What is the responsibility of the writer? While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I suppose this relates to my last thought about truth. I think the responsibility of the writer is to interrogate their reality and the reality of what they see and then write that. I do believe there is collective power in these individual truths. I know that when I read the words of other writers of color, I feel deeply connected to them though we might be worlds apart physically; I know that together we are shifting and shaping the narrative about who we are and who we can be, as well as the world more broadly. I myself learn and grow immensely from queer and trans, indigenous, black, and Dalit writers and more, and it’s a constant exploration and rewriting of my universe. In our respective personal truth-tellings, we are creating a new and different consciousness. We’re making people know.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
I’d send a collection of poetry. I don’t have a specific anthology in mind, but I’d probably include the work of Alice Walker, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sonia Sanchez, Suheir Hammad, James Baldwin, Faraj Baykraqdar. A friend just read me Martín Espada for the first time— I’d definitely include his work too.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
I think this line is somewhere between gazes. Observation versus surveillance comes down to some combination of the power relations between the subject and the object, consent of the observed, and the intent behind the gaze—though intentions are bullshit if the result is exploitative or oppressive. So yeah, I think power is the defining factor.
Ken Chen is the executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and a founder of Arts & Letters Daily. The 2009 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for his debut poetry collection Juvenilia, he is also a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Bread Loaf Writers conference. A graduate of Yale Law School, Ken successfully represented the asylum claim of a Guinean teenager who had been detained by the Department of Homeland Security. For the PEN Ten, Ken will be interviewing the poets and novelists of the Asian-American counterculture.