A City of Sungazers: Georgetown Student Publishes Short Stories About Mumbai
Queenie Sukhadia, a Georgetown graduate student pursuing an M.A. in English, published A City of Sungazers on July 28, 2017. This interlinked collection of short stories focuses on the city of Mumbai’s complexity and contradictions and examines the ways in which the gilded dreams and ambitions of its inhabitants can be as damaging as staring at the sun. The India Initiative sat down with Queenie before her book’s release to discuss her inspiration for each story and to hear about how her time at Georgetown helped shape her voice as a writer.
India Initaitive: Good morning, Queenie. Can you tell me a little more about yourself?
Queenie Sukhadia: I'm currently a graduate student in the English Department at Georgetown University. Originally from Mumbai, India, I came to the United States to pursue my undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College. I graduated from Dartmouth with a double major in English and psychology, and A City of Sungazers was actually my senior creative writing honors thesis there.
As for me as a writer, I've been writing for as long as I can remember. When I was very young, I used to take out those blank-paged sketching books and draw out stories in the form of stick figures. After dinner, I would sit down with my parents and narrate the picture-stories to them. Once I got older and learned how to read and write, the forms of these stories changed. I read a lot, as most writers do, and would write stories and poems (which were embarrassingly bad, I have to admit—I'd make up words to make them rhyme!) and even re-write scripts of movies I didn't particularly enjoy to “make them better.” As a person, I live in my head a lot and love to imagine “what if” scenarios. Creative writing is a fertile land for me—a space that gives me the license to actually paint color into these make-believe worlds that exist in my head.
India Initiative: You are about to publish an interlinked collection of short stories, A City of Sungazers, which is to be released on July 28. What was your inspiration for the book?
Queenie Sukhadia: On the most primary level, the day that the idea for this book took shape in my mind was when I was back home in Mumbai for the summer. I vividly remember this moment—I was looking out at the city, and I was struck by the jaggedness of the skyline. There were skyscrapers that seemed to disappear into the clouds and then there were the silhouettes of the thatched roofs of slums. And all these structures jostled up against each other to form the Mumbai skyline. I was fascinated by that–the fact that these pockets of very different worlds can coexist within the space of Mumbai. The lives literally intersect with each other, and yet they're almost like oil and water—they may sit next to each other, but they can still never seamlessly blend together. They always separate out. This book was a result of my pushing that idea further and seeing what happens when identities that embody stark differences live alongside each other and where intersectional identities locate their agency.
As for more general inspiration, I think everything I've seen, everyone I've interacted with, and everywhere I've been has played a role in shaping this book. I like to think of myself as one of those carnival mirrors. All the places I've been to, all the people I've met, they're all a part of me, and my writing is a product of all these experiences intermingling, being refracted through my own eyes and thought processes, and being spit out onto the page. So, in that way, I like to think of this book, and all the writing I have ever produced for that matter, as not having its inspiration firmly fixed in one source.
India Initiative: You employ such evocative imagery in the book. How has your own experience growing up in Mumbai impacted the story or the writing?
Queenie Sukhadia: As a person, I'm somewhat quiet. I like watching and listening a lot. And I think every writer is similar in that way: you have to be a good observer and listener to really capture those details—that crinkle in the trousers when someone's trying to sit or individual accents and cadences of speech. So, I think the fact that I am someone who enjoys sitting back and watching the world move past me has allowed me to be more attentive to the nuances of Mumbai and its people. I still think I have a long way to go—a lot more watching and listening to do, but that is definitely something that has shaped my writing.
I also think it really helps to be a cultural insider. If I'm writing about a culture I'm foreign to, I don't know how much of those nuances I can capture, no matter how much I watch and listen. Personally, I think it's a combination of both. Being attentive is important to my writing, but having an insider's knowledge of a culture definitely helps that process.
India Initiative: In A City of Sungazers, you draw a central theme from six interconnected stories. You seem to present a critique of Mumbai, which you suggest is defined by gilded dreams and ambitions, which, as the title suggests, are as “irreversibly damaging” as gazing at the sun. What shaped your opinions, and how did your own lived experience help you draw this conclusion?
Queenie Sukhadia: Mumbai is a city that's home to Bollywood—you're literally brought up face-to-face with glamour and the sheen of privilege everywhere you turn. Further, like I said, skyscrapers and slums squeezed together cheek to jowl. When you're constantly brought up close against privilege, it's very hard to not harbor dreams—be those of wealth, fame, picture-perfect domestic happiness, you name it. Mumbai is a city that is larger than life, and I think by its very nature, everything it represents is always a mirage.
Personally, living in Mumbai and seeing how its people go about their backbreaking labor, from dawn to dusk, day in and day out—it made me pause and think. What drives them? The fact that these people are willing to put in blood, sweat, and tears all through the day at the same kind of work, go home with limbs aching, and start the next morning to do it all over again—there has to be something that motivates them, fills them with that adrenaline rush that allows this kind of routine. And that adrenaline rush, I think, is brought about by these gilded dreams. That's partly what makes them so seductive. It always feels like you can reach out and grab them, tame them, make them yours. Yet, poignantly enough, the fact that you see these people at the same jobs every day shows you that these dreams that seem so near are always just out of reach.
This hamster-wheel existence of the average Mumbaikar is what shaped my perspective and these stories.
India Initiative: How did your experience in the English M.A. program at Georgetown help shape this book and your development as a writer?
Queenie Sukhadia: I wrote this book as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, but a lot of the revisions that I made to it happened during my time as a master's student at Georgetown. As such, I think my experience at Georgetown has definitely had a big role to play in my writing.
I took a class with Professor Jennifer Fink this past spring semester called Queer Memoir. To a large extent, this class was an exercise in theory and practice. We read widely—both queer memoirs and queer theory—and produced a lot of writing during the course of the semester. This class really helped me think through my identity as a writer. It gave me the words for how I've always conceptualized my writerly identity: someone who is invested in both theory and practice. Further, Professor Fink provides excellent critique of one's writing, and just talking to her and reading through her comments on my work has definitely shaped me into a better writer.
I was also a fellow with the Lannan Center this past academic year. This basically meant that I took a writing workshop class called the Lannan Seminar and had the opportunity to have dinner and chat with some of the renowned poets and writers that came to speak at Georgetown. Having an excellent writer like Professor Carolyn Forché provide me with feedback on my writing and having the opportunity to interact with people well-established in the field and hear them share their approaches to the craft has definitely had a big impact on me too.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of the cultural theory I read and study as an English student plays a role in my writing—either by functioning as the springboard for a story idea or by helping me think through characters and plot points in my stories. As such, some of the classes I've taken at Georgetown have really fascinated me and made me want to think through the ideas we studied further. For example, I took a class called Race, Law and Literature with Professor Christine So that blew my mind. How law plays a role in shaping personhood and who the law protects have been questions that have been on my mind ever since I took this class, and these questions may see themselves explored through my future writing.
Therefore, I think my time at Georgetown has had a powerful impact on this book and will surely continue to influence my future work.
India Initiative: At the Georgetown India Initiative, our mission is to strengthen research and teaching on India and its role in world affairs, and create meaningful opportunities for outreach between the university and India. Do you see a role that education—or more specifically, global universities—can play in helping Mumbai's citizens channel their ambitions?
Queenie Sukhadia: I think when global universities look out to build relationships on international shores, their viewfinders locate the most obvious sites for cross-cultural interaction—sites that are detectable on their radars only because of their privilege. As an example from the top of my head, when global universities have information sessions on their admission processes for high school students, they often only present at schools where privileged students study. Ironically, these students don't need the exposure to these schools and their admission processes—their financial status, and consequently their ability to travel and/or to have access to tools such as the internet, already places this information in their hands. Conversely, students who harbor these lofty ambitions and don't have the resources to excavate the information they need to realize them will never have access to them. So perhaps one good strategy would be to reach out further and look at sites that don't, at first glance, make it to the radar of global universities' outreach efforts. Probe a little deeper, I would say. Look where you wouldn't typically look.
A City of Sungazers is available on Amazon.com.
Queenie Sukhadia is a second-year M.A. student in the Department of English at Georgetown University. She grew up in Mumbai, India.