Born in Delhi, India, Bipin Aurora came to the United States when he was nine years old. He has worked as an economist, an energy analyst, and a systems analyst. His debut collection of stories, Notes of a Mediocre Man: Stories of India and America, was published by Guernica Editions (Canada) in 2017. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Michigan Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Witness, Boulevard, AGNI, the Fiddlehead, Prairie Schooner, Confrontation, North American Review, and other journals. I first discovered his writing as a literary editor, reading submissions to the journal where I’m the longtime associate editor and have remained interested ever since. Recently I talked with Bipin about what some might term his “outsider” literary career and his debut collection of stories.
Evelyn Somers: You’ve been writing since at least your twenties. What was your first intimation that you wanted to write and publish fiction?
Bipin Aurora: When I was a child in India, the idea of writing never entered my mind. I came to the US at age nine, and again, writing seriously never entered my mind. My goal in life, if anything, would have been to be an accountant or a lawyer or perhaps (a more noble thing?) a politician. It was the circumstances of what I saw in America—this “culture of success”—that drove me to writing.
As I grew up in the US, my teens and early twenties, I realized increasingly that I was surrounded—no, overwhelmed—by “success stories.” Top ten law schools, top ten medical schools. My son the salutatorian, my daughter the valedictorian. Things like that. The newspaper came to our house every day, hundreds of pages of it (front page, sports page, business page, style section, editorials, etc., it did not matter), and what is a newspaper about? It is about “newsmakers.” But it was always others who were the newsmakers. I was always the outsider—an outsider in a world that belonged to others, was run by others.
The same thing that was true in newspapers was also true in radio or TV or magazines. The questions increasingly entered my mind: Who am I? What am I? How do I fit into this world? I began writing fiction at age twenty-seven, and the second thing that I wrote, way back in 1981, became, appropriately, the title story from my first collection, Notes of a Mediocre Man. The first paragraph summarizes nicely what I was feeling:
I am a product of my age: mean, jealous, vindictive. I hate my neighbors, I hate their successes. I hate Justices of the Supreme Court: I find them dull. I hate schools of government: I find them silly. I hate law schools: I find them limited. I hate Aristotle: he would, if living, be a professor of law—at least on a part-time basis. I hate the black and women’s movements: I find them aggressive. I hate movements in general: I find them vulgar. I hate The New York Times and The Washington Post: I find them smug. I hate people who ride bicycles and go to museums: I find them phony.
The style and tone of these words is, of course, borrowed from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. (Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are both writers whom I admire greatly.) In the rest of this story, the narrator talks explicitly about this “culture of success” and what it means to live in it. The style continues in quite the Dostoevskian vein: angry, ready for a fight, yes, but also self-mocking, ironic, and even funny. So, to answer your question directly: No, I never wanted to “write and publish fiction.” America, this culture of success, pushed me into the field.
ES: In that story you’ve been speaking of, the “mediocre man” of the title goes so far as to suggest that laws should be enacted to bar people from promoting themselves—their success and their backgrounds—and that the leveling effect would be beneficial to society. It’s not tongue-in-cheek, I think; he really believes this. It might be funny, if the story didn’t also make us think about the harm that social hierarchies inflict on those toward the bottom.
BA: The narrator is jesting, or is he? Perhaps he is deadly serious. As we well know, a lot of wise things can be said in jest. See, for example, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” where the writer suggests that the poor might help themselves by selling their children as food—actual food—to the rich.
ES: Did you have any formal or informal training or support in the way of workshops, writing groups, or mentors?
BA: No, I have never belonged to any workshops or writing groups. However, two people have read all my work for the past sixteen years and have made detailed and enormously helpful comments. I am very, very lucky to have their support, and without it my work would never be in the completed, polished, form that it is today. The first person is Joel Aurora, my nephew and now also a successful lawyer in his own right. The second person was my dear, and late, friend John Robbins, who worked in media relations. John died a year ago from complications from heart surgery. I cannot say enough about how intelligent these two people are or how helpful their comments have been.
A few decades ago, I was also in the PhD program in English at Johns Hopkins University for two years. I completed all the coursework but did not write the required PhD thesis. Those two years were very important in giving me an education in literature, which I otherwise dearly lacked. I had graduated from high school at age fourteen, and in college, like most practical Indian immigrants, I studied practical subjects: finance, accounting, economics, mathematics. (Most of the other Indians studied engineering.) These practical subjects were invaluable in my decades that followed in the corporate work world. The two years at Hopkins, however, taught me so much about literature, elevated my standards, and also made me a more complete person.
The English department at Hopkins was then fairly old-fashioned and conservative. Just down the hall, however, were other departments, where René Girard, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and so many others were, or had been, professors or visiting professors. This was the height of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction. I have written several stories about this world, with respect but also a great deal of irony. One of these stories, “Gurmeet Singh,” about a Sikh immigrant who comes to America and is fascinated by these scholars and their “great ideas”, is included in Notes of a Mediocre Man.
ES: As a writer working outside academia, which is where a large part of the writing community is located today, how have you sustained your sense of purpose and ambition?
BA: Historically, a lot of writers have written in isolation, outside academia, and they have written because they had to a little like the Old Testament prophets’ sense of being “compelled”. I am just one more person in that historical tradition. The best that I can tell, the idea of writing being centered in academia is a more recent phenomenon, something from the last sixty years. Since I have never been part of this academic community, its absence is not something I really miss. Having said that, I am sure that the writing community in academia is a very good place to get feedback. It is also a good place to make contacts and perhaps to have inroads to publishers. I have missed out on both.
As for a larger sense of “purpose and ambition,” that, I think, is something that just has to come from inside one. One should be driven to write. If the drive is not there, then perhaps one shouldn’t be in the business to begin with. The world has gone on quite well—and will continue to do so—whether or not I, Bipin, have purpose and ambition.
ES: Your debut collection, Notes of a Mediocre Man, was published in 2017 by Guernica Editions. Had you been sending around for long? How did the book publication come about?
BA: Although I have been writing for several decades, I did not really begin sending out my stories to literary magazines until 2009. A lot of the stories began to be accepted, and that was encouraging. So I put together the manuscript, Notes of a Mediocre Man. Before the manuscript was accepted, I had been sending it out for about two years. During this time, I also kept changing the number of stories that I was including in the collection (between eighteen and twenty-one) and the sequence of the stories. Finally, I felt that I had just the stories I wanted to include, in just the right sequence. Along the way, I also entered a few literary contests. In one contest, the manuscript made it as a semifinalist but did not win, and in the second contest it was one of the finalists. Then, in late 2015, came the acceptance from Guernica.
ES: The stories in that book are primarily in the realistic mode, but there are several that take on a mythic dimension. Stylistically these stories are marked by their use of repetition and refrain, a sense of suspension in, or of, time, and an intensified use of the rhetorical questions that you frequently use in other stories too. I found myself wondering about the origin of these devices—whether they come out of a linguistic or cultural tradition, or are they simply the means you found to do what you were trying to do in those pieces?
BA: There are eighteen stories in the collection, half set in India, half in the US The three most “mythic” stories, perhaps, are “Munnu Shunnu,” “Mother of Gulu,” and “My Father Is Investigated by the Authorities.” The things you mention—repetition and refrain, suspension of time, etc.—are used in these stories because they are, I think, simply most appropriate for the stories. These tools are not coming, as far as I know, from any specific linguistic or cultural tradition.
In “Munnu Shunnu,” the opening story of the collection, two brothers come to school every day and tell stories. That is all they do. In “Mother of Gulu,” the main character (the mother of Gulu) tells the story of how her husband was killed, by the Muslims, during the partition of India into India and Pakistan. That is all she does, day after day.
Stated differently, these stories are not “linear”; they are circular, or they are “poems in prose.” The characters in these stories do not “grow” in the Western or Aristotelian sense; they just restate themselves. The style and the rhetorical tools being used mirror the worlds of these people. To be sure, the repetition/refrain that is used cannot be so overdone that things become unreadable—there have to be little twists and turns—but that is about it.
I can quickly think of several examples from literature of similar characters who also do not grow but simply “restate” themselves. There is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” and Bernard Malamud’s Isaac in “Idiots First.” There is also, of course, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” with the main character’s famous line “I would prefer not to.”
As for the rhetorical questions you mention, that may just be part of my own style. The characters of my stories (like Dostoevsky’s) are often questioning things, even themselves, and have all kinds of internal monologues. Often they are addressing some audience, real or imagined. Also, my style is what I would call “oral” or “aural”; I always want my stories to be read out loud. One blogger, speaking of the story “My Father Is Investigated by the Authorities,” said that “an echo of the singer of tales runs through the prose.” It is a nice compliment, but it also captures what I intend: the oral and aural quality of the stories.
ES: The collection gives voice to the experience of people who are overlooked or left out because they lack status and power. Some are hourly wage earners; others are recent immigrants trying to figure out American culture. Is this effort to evoke the lives of ordinary or “mediocre” people an ongoing project?
BA: Yes, it is an ongoing project. As the world gets smaller, we live today not just in a culture but a world of success. It is easy to feel small in such a world, to feel left out. So all my stories deal with the small people, the “mediocre” people, who are left out. Ultimately, that may be just about all of us.
My second collection, which I am ready to send out to publishers, is called Parched Souls: Stories of India and America. In the fifth story in this second collection, “The Medicine Shop,” the police offer a small cup of water to a female suspect; she pushes away the water and responds, “My throat is fine, in no need of water. But my soul is parched. Can you take care of that?”
Parched souls—who they are, their struggles, and their resilience in the face of adversity—is at the heart of this second collection. It picks up on many of the same themes as those in Notes of a Mediocre Man.
ES: Although the stories in the collection aren’t, on the surface, overly concerned with religion, there are in some of them interesting spiritual undertones. This is true in “Munnu Shunnu” and in “The Servant,” about a Hindu businessman who is the only one to help a servant after an accident and is then billed for his clinic care; it might almost be an ironic reworking of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In many of the stories, your characters pray unquestioningly, as part of the fabric of their lives and situations. What, for you, is the place of faith—whichever faith that might be—in fiction?
BA: “The Servant” as “an ironic reworking of the parable of the Good Samaritan”! What a nice, and fascinating, thing to say. I never thought of the story as such, but it could certainly be true.
Your point about the importance of faith in my stories in general is, I think, also true. It is certainly true for all the stories set in India. In the stories that are set in America, the faith is gone; there is alienation, aloneness, emptiness. The Indian stories are about “we” or at least about people—groups of people. The American stories are about “I,” “me,” “individuals.” They are about alienation, loss, self-centeredness (“I” against “them”).
Faith is certainly very important to me. I spent the first nine years of my life in India. I went to a Catholic school every day and said there the Lord’s Prayer. I came home and prayed to the Hindu gods. No one ever tried to stop me or saw any inconsistency in this. In Hinduism, at least in the best sense of it, God is just God, and He simply has infinite names and manifestations.
When I was growing up, I was surrounded by temples and gods, and we often went and prayed in each other’s houses. As children, we performed, often, from the epic The Ramayana, the Ram-leela (the leela, or play, of god). Most importantly, I was surrounded by a sense that the world was good, was benevolent. That not just gods, but a God, was in charge—and that all would turn out for the best. I was also surrounded by a deep sense of community—my school, my immediate family at home, the compound in which I grew up (where seventy people knew me by name and were protective of me), my mother’s side of the family, my father’s side of the family, my country (poor, but a good country which we would one day grow up and make better), and—at the top of it all—God himself.
When I came to America, a lot of that changed—and changed at once. The community, the layers of connection, the ready faith—were now all gone. I had to start from scratch. I am sure that in many ways my experience was not unique. I didn’t know this as a child or teenager or even someone in his twenties, but I know it now. What I went through, a lot of immigrants go through. That is just the immigrant experience. There are a lot of immigrants, and humble ones, in Notes of a Mediocre Man. The collection shares their ups and downs and their day-to-day experiences; it shares their resilience, yes, but it also shares their loss of faith—their emptiness.
ES: You’ve spent most of your life, from the age of nine, in the United States. Does that make it harder now to write fiction set in India?
BA: Memory certainly helps, and I have a very good memory. Also, India is the deepest part of me, and it is hard to forget ever that deepest part. Still, your question is a good one. When my parents were alive and living in India, I used to go to India every few years, and I visited for an average of two and a half months each time. It was not always easy to get this much time off from my corporate workplace, but I managed to do it. The visits reopened my eyes and left me with enough experiences and “material” to last me for several years. More importantly, my visits gave me a chance to do specific things for my parents, increasingly aging, and that gave me a sense of worth. That moral thing—that sense of “worth”—is important to me. When I am a good person, a person “worthy” to write, the writing comes. When I am not “worthy,” just trying to be a writer, the writing (rightfully?) does not come.
Both my parents are now dead, and I have not been back to India in over twenty years. I certainly miss that. Once COVID issues settle down, I would like very much to go to India again. This time, for the first time, I will not have a place to stay. Also the India of today, this new and high-tech India, is not the India I grew up with. My grandparents and uncles and aunts are dead, the old homes have been demolished, and the people of my own generation—my cousins—have moved on. Still, I do absolutely need to go to India again for a while. I need to see firsthand what the new India is like. I may (will?) see some important things, even learn a few things. It is always important to learn—and never too late, I hope, to do so.
ES: You’re writing full-time now, aren’t you? The obvious advantage to that is time and focus. Have you discovered any downsides?
BA: The downside is the absence of experiences that I am collecting on a day-to-day basis. When I was working, or taking care of my aging mother full-time in the last few years of her life, I was exposed to other people, other experiences, deeper experiences. Sometimes these experiences irritated me—“I need time to myself,” I said more than once. But life, of course, has a way of always teaching and humbling you. Now I have that time to myself, but the needed experience is often missing.
Wordsworth spoke of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I have that “tranquility” but the “emotion” that needs to precede it, for good writing, is not always there. The key is both, and just the right balance.
ES: What’s something (genre, form, story type) that you want to write but haven’t attempted yet?
BA: I am writing more and more in the essay form. If I have enough good essays over time, I may try to put together a book of essays. The publishing world certainly wants novels. I have never written a novel, but if a good idea comes to me for a novel, I will certainly pursue it. In writing a novel, however, I do not want to cover the same territory that I have already covered in my short stories. I have over 175 completed stories, drafts of another fifty or so. Collectively, I think these stories are easily the equals of at least three or four novels. Still, the publishing world today does not value short stories as much—and that is unfortunate. Some of the writers that not only I but the world admires—Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges—have done some of their most memorable work in the short-story genre. We sometimes forget that.
To answer your question, I guess my final point is that I will just keep my mind open. I hope (and trust) that something of value will come to me. Maybe, through a novel, I will find more readers. And maybe then more people will go back and read some of my short stories—the stories that have come from my soul and are the things that I really care about.
Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in journals, and her work has been longlisted for Best American Essays, among other honors. She recently finished her third novel, a high-stakes comedy about a single mom empty-nester and her supernatural pet, and is at work on a new novel, a love story about animal rights.
First, I must stipulate to this comment reflecting my incorrigible tendency to rush. I have read the entire interview but quickly. The following reactions stand out:
1. The tension between wanting to be noticed/perceived as worthy of notice and the somewhat defensible resistance to promotion so you can be seen as “the best,” and then worthy of attention in a world with so much worthy stuff to be read and watched.
2. I just love the honesty of the first paragraph of Mediocre Man. It’s more memorable than most writing. And memorability ultimately is key to impact.
3. I believe, as the interviewee does, that the essay and essay collection are underrated. Much as one might try to stuff a lot of core ideas into a novel, they’re more visible in a series of essays. I love essays–Joseph Epstein comes to mind.
The aloneness the author describes here resonates very much with me. I am also an immigrant and although this country welcomed me with its endless opportunities to “make something better out of my life,” it also brought a deep and unshakable loneliness that I have never felt before. I came from Germany, not a country known for its sense of community, and yet, I don’t recall feeling isolated and alone there.
And maybe, as immigrants, leaving our home behind in search for better, we lose more than just our friends, neighbors, church groups and casual conversations with the clerk in the store we have frequented since childhood. Maybe there are invisible ties that we are unaware of that get severed, and that just cannot be replaced – the smells, the taste of food, the places we inhabit, the conversations in our native tongue, … I don’t know for sure, but other than in the paintings of Edward Hopper, I have never seen my own sense of loneliness echoed so clearly as in this interview.
I also must say, as a former podcast host, I loved the questions asked of the author – they elicited the responses we have here, that are more than just an interview, but gave me a weeks’ worth of thoughts and questions to contemplate.
Who am I? How do I fit in this world? I ask myself often, but not often enough. And while answers seem to come sparingly, I am consoled by the fact that my experience is not a lone one, as I often thought. As immigrants, I think, we deeply appreciate our life here in our new country. We try to make the most of it, and maybe that creates an extra level of pressure – trying to be more than we could be at home, more successful, more well-known, somebody of value and worth. And maybe we just don’t take the time to make this place a true home – which includes creating a community around us. That takes a lot of work.
Yes – in this country there is always something bigger and better waiting around the corner – that beautiful beach or national park, exciting job opportunities, the house in the hills – and that’s what makes it so attractive. But this also can lead to an endless chase, leaving us floating, without roots, like we used to have in our country of birth.
Thank you for this thought-provoking and honest interview. We need more of these deeper, and fundamental conversations in today’s world that is so caught up with superficial finger-pointing.
I read Notes of a Mediocre Man when it was first published and enjoyed each of the 18 stories. Following this inciteful interview with the author makes me want to reread the stories with a deeper understanding. Thank you.