Interview with Vijaya Nagarajan + FEEDING A THOUSAND SOULS giveaway

I’m delighted to welcome my friend Vijaya Nagarajan to the Debutante Ball this week! Vijaya Nagarajan is an Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Theology/Religious Studies and in the Program of Environmental Studies at the University of San Francisco. She writes about Hinduism, gender, ritual, ecology and the commons. Recently her work has centered around spiritual autobiographies of place, especially around immigration and motherhood. She has been active in the American Academy of Religion and in the environmental movements in the United States. Her debut, Feeding a Thousand Souls: Women, Ritual, and Ecology in India, An Exploration of the Kōlam, is the first comprehensive book in English on the kōlam, a ritual rice flour drawing created by Tamil women. The book explores the kōlam’s significance in historical, mathematical, ecological, anthropological, and literary contexts — and it’s newly released (November 2018, Oxford University Press)!!

Vijaya and I are are longtime classmates in The Book Writing World, a Bay Area based (and online) writers group and workshop founded by writers Elizabeth Stark & Angie Powers.  I am so delighted to be able to host Vijaya this week on The Debutante Ball! You can reach her through: feedingathousandsouls@gmail.com. 

Thanks for being here, Vijaya!

Feeding A Thousand Souls: Every day millions of Tamil women in southeast India wake up before dawn to create the kōlam, a ritual design made of rice flour, on the thresholds of homes. This thousand year old ritual welcomes and honors the goddesses Lakshmi and Bhudevi. Propelled by a lifelong wonder and fueled by deeply informed research, Vijaya Nagarajan provides a poetic and surprising entryway into the layered complexities of Hindu culture. Braiding Tamil women’s voices and the author’s own stories, Feeding a Thousand Souls brings into conversation different knowledge traditions––beauty, history, gender, literature, religion, anthropology, mathematics, and ecology.

To order this book, please visit Oxford University Press – there is a 30 percent discount available when purchasing directly from the press. Or if you’re in Northern California, drop by Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley where Vijaya recently launched her new release. The book is also available through other online retailers as well.

At the invitation of Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences and Leonardo, an International Society for Art Science and Technology, Vijaya gave a presentation about the kōlam and geometry. You can watch it here.

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Devi: What is making you happy right now?
VN: Imagining the book out in the world, finding its readers, having a life of its own, having its own adventures, and myself being a witness to that. In that way it really feels like the birth of a book.

Devi: The road to publication is twisty at best— tell us some of your twists:
VN: I was very excited to have a contract with Oxford University Press and the manuscript was due August 2003 but so many obstacles came into being: health, taking care of family, car accidents, other research projects, feeling the book was incomplete, needing to have more self-confidence. The chapter, rituals of generosity, took me three summers to write. I think one of the biggest blocks was: My utter lack of self confidence of feeling at home in the English Language, as it is my third language. Being the single breadwinner of my family was very tough and taxing, too. Having to play both the traditional male and female roles. The intellectual challenge of doing the book, finding money for the photographs. Now I feel that every
word is in place, I realize it could have been done if I had not taken the extra paths, but I’m so glad that I did. It makes the book so much more full, complex, and profound in its implications. Even though it took me nearly ten years longer than I thought it would; when I think of it, given that I was a mother of twins; I had a full time job that was nearly three hours way as a public commuter, I think it is quite miraculous that it was able to come out at all; I’m thrilled with the book now! I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The twins call it their triplet!

Devi: When you were a teenager, what did you want to be when you grew up?
VN: The first Indian female astronaut and/or the first Indian female investigative journalist team like Woodward and Bernstein. I grew up in the light (or shadow) of the Apollo landings and the Watergate hearings.

Devi: What is your favorite time of day?
VN: Dawn, early morning. Everything seems possible: in my mind, spirit and world around me.

Devi: What is something that is guaranteed to make you laugh?
VN: I love watching I Love Lucy. It makes it even funnier that the time I first saw it when I was seven years old, I thought Lucille Ball was the most liberated woman alive! And of course now when I see it now with my twin daughters, I think, “Oh gosh, what was I thinking! It’s actually quite sad. This poor woman never gets anything she wants!”

Devi: What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
VN: Keep a good journal, which I never did but I wish I did! Just to track your thoughts. Respect your thoughts. Think of them as good enough as seeds to begin deeper thinking with. Infuse them with power, will strength, courage. Grow them. But don’t ever think they’re not good enough, they are. They’re not finished, but good enough as a seed. To plant, water, tend and raise. Writing is probably one of the hardest things to do and I would not wish it on my enemy, so you really have to be sure that you have something to say and to share. If you’re really certain that you have something you want to share, then don’t give up and be persistent. Even if it means you can only work one hour a week. Read as much as you can. We learn so much from other writers, they’re the best teachers.

Devi: What are you working on right now?
VN: I’m working on a double autobiography of my mother and I. Of our both being born in South Indian villages, 26 years apart, and our different life streams. As a consequence of our historical moment of birth. I’m really interested in how history shapes us. My mom was born in 1936 and I was born in 1961.

Devi:  What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
VN: Working in a Red Star Yeast factory in West Oakland. I worked with dry yeast, wet yeast, beer yeast, wine yeast, bread yeast. For months I smelled like yeast. It was very hard physical work.
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GIVEAWAY DETAILS! Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter and SHARE the interview for a chance to win FEEDING A THOUSAND SOULS! For extra entries, comment on this post by Friday, NOV. 23. We’ll choose and contact the winner shortly afterwards.

“The kōlam is the most beautiful and evanescent artistic form of the goddess in South India, created ritually each and every day by millions of women. This beautiful book is a treasure, bringing to life for the first time the wealth of meanings of this form of women’s religious practice.”
Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, Harvard Divinity School

“This is a book of a lifetime, and it represents a lifetime’s work on Tamil women’s daily ritual practice, the artful threshold designs variously known as kōlam, alpana, and rangoli throughout much of the Indian subcontinent. Vijaya Nagarajan tells local and diasporic stories of the kōlam with passion, sensitivity, and deep ethnographic identification with the women whose generosity daily feeds a thousand souls.”
Kamala Visweswaran, Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of California, San Diego

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Devi Laskar

Poet, photographer, soccer mom, VONA & TheOpEdProject alum, Columbia MFA, former reporter, debut novelist!

This article has 2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this interview. I can imagine the excitement of having one’s book published. Congratulations! I love the idea of an autobiography about mother and daughter and how their lives were the same or different. My mother was born in 1937 in England and being a fan of historical fiction, I get a little sense of what it was like for my mother during WW2, plus she has told me about the time when children from the city were living with her and having to share with them. I know there is more to learn.

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