BY CHRIS SZABLA
When Rishi Reddi graduated from Swarthmore College with a B.A. in English, she made a deal with her parents. They would let Reddi attend law school – and finance her studies, at Northeastern – rather than fulfilling their hope she would go into medicine, only if she agreed not to go into medical malpractice. This was, she says, an easy promise to fulfill.
A greater loss was the creative spark that had driven her to literature – and writing – while she was in college. While she maintained a journal in order to keep practicing, Reddi says she lacked the contemplation she needed to write during law school. “I almost felt like I had to relearn writing” after law school, she explains, deeming herself a casualty of the legal memo format IRAC.
But by the time she had graduated and taken an environmental law job with the state, she found she had time to further her education. She took creative writing classes at the Harvard Extension School and at Boston’s Grub Street writing workshops before fully committing to a creative writing degree at Boston University. It was, she says, an “awful program” – but being admitted into a fellowship of writers made it worthwhile.
Reddi’s path – from writing to the law, and back again – has hardly been a straight one. She wove between her two chosen careers, focusing, in turn, on her family, her move to federal-level environmental work, and the collection of her work that was recently published as Karma and Other Stories. “I’m really bad” at maintaining two careers and a family, she admits. She rises early to write, in a room she has rented across the street from her home, but, she says, finding time to write still requires “constant vigilance,” since “everyone will cut in on writing time, including yourself”. Yet Reddi hardly sees her balancing act as exceptional. Many writers have a day job, she deadpans. It is just “the way American society is, because we don’t support creative writing the way we support baseball”.
“It really is hard to get published,” Reddi explains. “The people who do get published are rejected a lot. ‘Rejection is 99% of my life,'” her agent told her, “‘it’s par for the course'”. At the beginning of her writing career, three of her stories were published, in small literary journals. One was rejected 21 times, one 15. The lowest number of rejections Reddi received was eight. Despite publishing a full book of her work, rejections still sting her. Even accepted works require some mettle, she says; it is difficult to part with a publisher’s changes, and it is ultimately “a business decision” to do so.
Still, Reddi has found success, in the form of a two book contract she signed in 2005. In addition to Karma, which was published two years ago, she is working on a historical novel set in the 1910s, revolving around Indian immigrants to Southern California who married into Mexican families. The story was actually inspired by the Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923), in which the Court ruled that the petitioner, an Indian immigrant to the United States, could not become a naturalized citizen because he was not “white”. Reddi read the case in her constitutional law class at Northeastern – an illustration of how her two careers have been as complementary as they have been difficult to juggle.
Many of those who gathered to hear Reddi speak on writing and the law at a South Asian Law Students Association event last Wednesday evening challenged her on that point. Some wondered: was her law degree viewed as a stigma in the creative writing community? Others: would she ever seek to become “more involved” in the literary world? Reddi said that she was actually the envy of her fellow writers, who mostly taught the craft, and admitted that they wished they had “another side” to their lives – or, at least, a higher salary in their wallets. She also said that marketers loved the angle of Reddi as attorney-cum-writer. And on days when either her writing or legal careers went awry, she found it useful to fall back on her alternative identity. Still, she admitted that she wished she could take a few years off to complete her novel, or perhaps cut down her hours.
Another questioner wondered whether Reddi felt there were certain expectations of South Asian writers – whether driven by market demand or otherwise. The author responded that she wrote most of her stories before the “big wave” of South Asian literary stars – including Jhumpa Lahiri, with whom Rishi is often compared, and because of whom some of her work was initially rejected as unoriginal. She insisted, however, that there was “not room for only one” such South Asian author. Other subgroups, such as “white Jewish men writing about New York” did not receive the same scrutiny.
Yet Reddi also noted that many of her stories were “not just [about the] immigrant experience,” but held universal appeal: “a son getting pissed off at his dad, or an old person getting discarded by his family might have a bicultural flavor, but these are old stories,” she pressed. Highlighting the publishing industry’s ability to dictate taste and cultural phenomena, she went on to say that “there are only like four stories you can tell.” The “marketing world,” she concluded, sells them as something different.
As she read her book’s title story, “Karma,” the audience got its taste of such literary timelessness: Reddi’s was a tale of two brothers and their very different dispositions. The one whose story the author tracked was the less successful, but the more empathetic of the two. His gnawing obsession became the dead birds he found on city sidewalks – casualties of collisions with skyscrapers. The two brothers were South Asian, but the story was not lifted from Reddi’s life. Nor was it inspired by her career in environmental law, where she said she had never happened upon such a phenomenon. Instead, she said, she stumbled upon a story about a group that collected such birds in the Wall Street Journal. However marketed, neither life nor labor inspired this story – solely serendipity.