SPRINKLE WITH A BIT FANTASTICAL: An Interview with Shome Dasgupta

SPRINKLE WITH A BIT FANTASTICAL: An Interview with Shome Dasgupta

The land holds its own weather for Shome Dasgupta’s collection, Atchafalaya Darling (Belle Point Press, 2024). The rhythms of Cajun country make themselves known in the richness of the waters, the sly grace of the fauna, and the down-to-earth sensuality of the cuisine. Ghosts step between the living, and memories breathe in the wind. Dasgupta addresses longing, grief and struggle, all the while infusing the stories with enchantment for the region. There is music to be heard for those who know how to listen. I spoke to Shome about the book.

Rebecca Gransden: We begin at the end. The collection opens with “A Familiar Frottoir,” a story that addresses the end of life. There is talk of ghosts, and many of the leitmotifs that recur throughout the collection are introduced here. Did the idea for the collection start with a conceptual framework or did its assemblage occur in a more spontaneous manner?

Shome Dasgupta: “A Familiar Frottoir” was the last story I had written for the collection—I had no clue where it was going to go or how the narrative would journey. It started off with an image of a character “shucking” pistachios—I was obsessed with that wording mainly because we live in a state where shucking oysters is a common way of dining. The ghost didn’t appear until she actually appeared—meaning, I didn’t know that this was the way the plot was heading. I don’t think I had a strong idea of any kind of thread that would travel through each of these stories other than that they all take place in the Cajun South. Other than that, it was just fun to see any commonalities or themes because I think they were all unintentional. The way the story collection started off—I had an idea of writing one story about small-town Louisiana, a musician, who goes through the obstacles of alcoholism, but one where the character was able to overcome it, or at least cope with it. It was a story I wanted to write with the utmost sincerity—although I’m no musician at all, not even close, I am now living in sobriety after having gone through some very dark times in my life. I wanted to write it for myself while at the same time, hopefully being able to share this experience with others who might find some light in the words. I love writing about Louisiana, particularly Cajun culture because it’s what I know most about, where I’ve been immersed all my life. So after writing “By The Pond Back Home,” I became really excited about writing another one about the region. I just wanted to have fun, and diving into this collection was very much that kind of experience.

RG: The stories are in touch with the forces of nature, with the elements a constant presence. This manifests in a multiplicity of ways, but I was particularly struck by the repeated use of bodies of water. What draws you to these places and what is their significance when it comes to Atchafalaya Darling?

SD: Symbolically and physically, water is both destructive and nurturing—it’s a push and pull, a constant search for harmony. The Gulf Coast is especially storm-ridden—hurricanes, flooding, thunderstorms so it’s hard not to write about this area without including those destructive forces. While at the same time, the peaceful and soothing characteristics of bodies of water are as much apparent—wildlife, all of it—there’s some kind of reconciliation taking place, I feel like, a constant rebirth. The Atchafalaya is vast—seemingly endless or romantically infinite, but by creating an experience or a story taking place on the basin, I wanted to make such a world small and intimate, covering both the rough and calm aspects of that particular environment.

RG: Many of the stories evoke the character of the folktale. Have folktales and myths influenced your writing, and if so, in what way do you incorporate that influence into your work?

SD: I would like to think so—such styles of writing certainly influenced my reading early on in my childhood. That, plus the concept of oral storytelling, whether fictional or otherwise, always magnetized my interest. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, going into these stories, to create such a tone, but I’m really happy to see that it was apparent, at least a bit, the way Cajun folklore and universal tales, regardless of language and culture, kind of seeped into these words. I love magical realism, and I think it would be a part of the same Venn Diagram—I think my first pieces of writing prose, I was seeking to emulate such a world, and I’m sure my love for such a style influences all that I write. Sometimes, I find myself trying hard not to go that route. Like literally, I could write a sentence like, “she sat down in the chair,” and almost always, my next line would want to be something like, “one that was born from rock, carved by rabbit teeth right as the horizon tilted and blended into the eyes of a mother who had fallen from the sky while fishing for stars.” It’s almost natural for me to go beyond realism so I like trying to ground my words—whether it’s poetry, nonfiction, or fiction, and if anything, sprinkle them with a bit of fantastical, perhaps, which hopefully created another depth or layering.

RG: A defining characteristic of the stories is the embracement of the simple gestures of life. Foodstuffs feature prominently, mostly uncomplicated dishes or edibles that hold significance in some way. What part does food play in the collection? 

SD: Oh gosh—one of the hardest aspects of writing about the Deep South is to not include its cuisine. It really is difficult, at least for me, to capture this area without using food as a character in itself. Its presence is a way of life—a tradition stemming from homes to cities to regions. I told myself to go with it instead of going against it. It’s just more fun to do so—I love, love Cajun food, so why tuck it away when it can be a driving force to show what it’s like to live here in Louisiana. I’m obsessed with the color of crawfish, the spices, and while it’s not specific to this culture, but definitely prominent, bread pudding plays a role in “A Familiar Frottoir” in that even though the character’s house is burning down, he’s more concerned in baking his dessert. 

RG: A raccoon scurried over the fence as the sun came down—its twilight creating a frame of faded solace, one that neither of them knew the importance of in that moment together.

The presence of animals dominates the stories in a subtle way. They appear unobtrusively, seemingly engaged in their doings away from the human world for the most part. These encounters can be fleeting, or from a distance, but seem somehow cosmically preordained. Your use of the owl and of frogs particularly stands out, but there are many more examples. In some instances the animal presences, for me, take on the quality of signs, of shepherds, perhaps guides, and evoke the symbolism of fable and folk myth. How did you decide upon your approach to the animal imagery included in the collection? Has your experience with animals influenced your rendering of them?

SD: There was an owl in our garage, and my mother pointed and said, “Look, that’s your Dida.” My grandmother had passed away only a couple of weeks before this visitor arrived at our home.  I think about that moment often, and how it guided me to approach and look at the animals around us in a very different way. Whether on the physical level, metaphorical, or spiritual level, and to be constantly surrounded by wildlife or any animal of any sort, it not only nourishes me, personally, but also my writing. Especially in Louisiana–whether it’s roadkill or a soaring heron I feel connected to them, or I guess, I’m searching for a connection to them, and they become characters, whether intentionally or otherwise, to become distractions, symbols, friends, or to add to setting and scenery. Dead or alive, there’s so much power there, and history, too. I love birds, especially—I’m obsessed, though I don’t know much about them, but it’s to the point that I have three tattoos: an owl for my Dida, a peacock for India, and a pelican for Louisiana and my grandfather or Dadu, and I’m constantly thinking about what will be next. Perhaps, a future drafted story will help me to figure that out.

RG: Turnip nodded at Margaret and pulled down his baseball cap, a ragged and torn faded blue hat, one that he had received as a gift while he was in high school from Margaret when they were first starting to date. Though Turnip had stopped wearing it for a long time, when his tours became larger and larger, Margaret kept it under his pillow for the nights, weeks, months he was away.

Objects take on weight. Seemingly innocuous everyday items are imbued with significance, sometimes in light of the history they invoke, the memories they trigger, or by the manner in which they change hands, for instance inherited, gifted or stolen. When thinking about story, how do you make use of objects?

SD: I think—I think that any object can become a character in a story, and because of that, it can provide context, significance, obstacles, and comfort through just its presence. Such is the instance with the baseball cap—symbolic, perhaps, of their love when they became more than just friends. A cap, perhaps, that represents Turnip before his faults and afflictions which makes Margaret give him a chance, an open door to come back to a time when their relationship was true and stable. I’m a hoarder myself—I keep everything and anything, however small or large, and however seemingly insignificant because somewhere inside of me, I will look at these objects to bring an emotion or a memory, one worth feeling or remembering. In one of my drawers, there’s a paperclip. It was used to hold together a letter sent to me, and I lost that letter much to my sadness, but that paperclip—that particular one, among millions upon millions upon millions, takes me to a state of mind that I don’t want to forget. It becomes a friend to me, something living—giving breath, and I think that’s the same with what I’m trying to do with including such objects in my stories.

RG: Outside, the frogs were loud—almost as if they were generating energy for the rest of the world.

Song, tone, rhythm and music flow through the collection. A frog chorus opens ways to memories, muddy banks sing the song of the waters, and chimes resonate like an evocation. Musicians appear as conduits for strong forces, from the creative to the addictive. What part does music play in the collection?

SD: Thank you so much for such kind comments—for this question, and for all of these questions. They’re so thoughtful, and I’m truly humbled from such care and generosity, and I’m so happy to see that you were able to find some rhythm and tone in these stories. I think I’m controlled by language and sound more so than anything else, and I try my best to bring such volumes to my words, which have this power over me than the other way around—much like music. Growing up here in Lafayette, watching local bands play was a large part of sharing time with my friends, and many of my friends were musicians themselves—absolutely so talented, and it kind of gave me some insight into this really, really nuanced world within a world within a world. Also, particularly, in addition to indie rock or pop or hip hop, there’s a music born from heritage and tradition, such as zydeco or Cajun music—dancing, too. I was definitely trying to reveal the importance of such a culture here in the Deep South. Much like you mentioned, there’s also the naturality of music—through frogs or birds or the wind, a constant surrounding us, and it was nice to attempt to blend the different forms of music that can be heard, whether created intentionally or unintentionally. Likewise, I try to emulate such sounds in the writing itself, to emulate or mirror what’s actually taking place in a story—maybe it’s choppy, maybe it tends to produce a certain rhythm, and ideally, or hopefully, it can be heard even though there isn’t any music actually being played.

RG: The neighbor looked up at the sky to see a flock of birds making their way past a lowered sun—he squinted his eyes and nodded his head, whispering words to himself as if he was having a conversation with a ghost.

There is an elliptical quality to the collection, a sense the themes ebb and flow as the passing of seasons. The common ups and downs of life become infused with profundity, and seemingly inconsequential trivialities take their place as part of a play on the grandest scale. What is your approach to repetition?

SD: Oh I so love, love repetition on every level of writing, whether it’s repeated words, sentences, characters, narratives, themes—however unintentional, I think I rely on it way too much. It’s more natural for me to write that way, which in turn, guides me to those kinds of rhythms I’m seeking. Narratively, I laugh at myself sometimes, thinking that I’ve only ever drafted  just one story throughout my writing endeavors, conceptually—just told in different ways. On the word level, especially—I remember listening to Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach: Knee Play 5,” and how it made me mesmerized or hypnotized, and it’s definitely an influence in my writing, whether it’s poetry or fiction or prose. I think, also, such a style relates to all that you’ve mentioned before—nature, environment, objects, symbols, animals, and they all relate to these circular or elliptical patterns of life replicated in these stories. I’m a huge fan of echoes.

RG: What have these stories revealed to you?

SD: I’m kind of laughing at myself because taking part in this interview has revealed so much more to me when it comes to these stories—aspects I haven’t really thought about before. Again, truly, thank you so much for such insightful questions and for taking the time to share such thoughts about both the subtle or larger elements of these stories. It was such a pleasure to think about these questions. I just wanted to write and have fun and not focus too much on all the usual components of a story—I didn’t think much about what’s at stake, but more so, setting and character and dialogue were my main areas of concentration, along with language and image. What that would create, I wasn’t sure, but I had such a great experience drafting this collection while not thinking about anything else other than just writing. I hope that makes sense, and I hope all of these responses make some kind of understandable meaning, and thanks again for your time and for reading Atchafalaya Darling. I’m so grateful for this opportunity.

Rebecca Gransden lives on an island. She is published at Tangerine Press, Ligeia, Expat, BRUISER, and Fugitives & Futurists, among others. Her books include anemogram., Sea of Glass, Creepy Sheen, and Figures Crossing the Field Towards the Group.

Shome Dasgupta is the author of The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India), and most recently, the novels The Muu-Antiques (Malarkey Books) and Tentacles Numbing (Thirty West), a prose collection, Histories Of Memories (Belle Point Press), a short story collection, Atchafalaya Darling, and a poetry collection, Iron Oxide (Assure Press). His writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet TendencyThe Emerson Review, New Orleans ReviewJabberwock ReviewAmerican Book ReviewArkansas ReviewMagma Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives in Lafayette, LA and can be found at www.shomedome.com and @laughingyeti.

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