An Interview With Anu Kandikuppa
By Associate Editor Eliana Meyer
Anu Kandikuppa worked as an economic consultant before she ever began to write, carrying a PhD in finance from Michigan State University. She also holds an MFA in fiction writing from Warren Wilson College. Her story follows Sati Bhasker, who married young, moving from India to America to live with a wealthy older man, Neel, in a former luxury hotel. In “The Belfort,” Sati reflects on her marriage and autonomy as she comes to terms with her husband’s death. Associate Editor Eliana Meyer got in touch with Kandikuppa to discuss her story, published in the 2021 Fall/Winter issue of Colorado Review.
The reader and Sati find Neel is dead on the opening page. His presence continues to haunt Sati’s life, her routines, where she lives, what she eats. Do you consider this a ghost story? Is there something Neel still wants from Sati when we leave this narrative? Is there something Sati needs from him?
The story is a ghost story in the sense that Sati is haunted by Neel’s presence after his death, as you put it. This is certainly a central premise of the story, which is deeply interested in the consequences of giving up control and submitting to another person to the extent that Sati does. Regarding what Neel wants from Sati—now that your question leads me to think about it—I think he’s taken what he wanted from her during his lifetime, without asking or considering the impact on her—she’s an object to him, as you say elsewhere. It’s quite likely that he didn’t imagine his life would end before hers, or end at all. I suspect people with a lot of power assume they’re going to live forever. As for Sati, what she needs is to shake off Neel’s influence and move on, which is easy to say and hard to do, but I think she has enough of a desire for the good life to do it.
Grief presents itself in many forms over the course of “The Belfort”—grief for a lost loved one, for home, for lost time, for a past self, for what was and what might be. Grief can be hard to write in fiction, so very easily made cliché. Could you speak a little on the process of writing about grief? Did the presence and changing shape of grief surprise you as you wrote? How so?
It’s interesting that you ask this—I did worry at one point that the story was turning into a “sob story.” In an earlier version, I didn’t give Sati a choice with respect to getting married to Neel, an older man. In that version she was purely a victim and the story, a lesson about how women are taken advantage of. I didn’t like where that was going, so in this final version, I let Sati have a choice about whether to marry Neel and let her make an unwise decision because of who she is: stubborn and irrational and a little vain. My hope was that the story would then become more particular, a story about mistakes and regrets, which shades the grief a little. As for surprises, once I shaped Sati’s character, it seemed likely that at least one strong emotion she would experience is the agony of knowing that she walked into the situation she finds herself in. It can be crippling, this feeling, especially if you’ve gone against common sense. Personally I can think of at least one time I made a bad decision that wasn’t reversible, or rather drifted without making a decision, even when I knew I might end up somewhere I wouldn’t like, and I’ll probably never stop wondering what might have been. (Of course, I make “what might have been” look a lot nicer than what is.)
The descriptions and legacy of the Belfort create a link between the building’s architecture and the human body—the inanimate and animate, the undead and living. How did you see this connection when you started writing this story? How did the connection change as you wrote?
In the story, Sati is drawn into the unwise marriage when she sees pictures of the building and imagines the wealth and prestige that will be hers. This was the connection I saw initially: the alliance she consents to is with the building and what it represents. Later I also saw an interesting and, I think, realistic link between how her address influences the way others react to her, like the girl Vibha, who considers Sati to be lucky even after she gets to know about her bad marriage, a reaction that’s further complicated because they’re both women. I think we can’t help reacting to stories and situations based on context and surrounding facts. It’s much harder to feel sympathetic to someone who seems to have a lot else going well for them.
The history and origin of Sati’s name bring up questions of whose history is worthy of remembrance and which stories are valued and retold. There is also an element here of women editing, rewriting, or refusing to acknowledge other women’s histories. Are there lessons to be learned in “The Belfort” about understanding the role and influence women have in each other’s lives, histories, and identities?
I think I do want to draw attention to the influence women have on other women. This is exemplified in the story by way of Sati’s uncertainty throughout about whether her mother will support her and Vibha’s skepticism when she wonders aloud whether Sati tolerated Neel because of his wealth, even suggesting that Neel might have loved Sati. Her comments infect Sati with doubts about herself and Neel, which is where she is at the end of the story. Vibha’s comments and Sati’s mother’s attitude (as anticipated by Sati) would seem to reflect how women often judge other women and find them coming up short. Finally, I added the bit about Sati’s name—that she chooses a name for herself that’s strongly associated with female sacrifice—to stand for the ways in which women tend to downplay themselves. Cheerful material, I know.
The reader sees Sati grow from wife, daughter, observer, and object in her husband’s life to someone who acts and engages with the world. Much of this change is shown through what she chooses to share and what she chooses to keep private (with Vibha) and what she acknowledges and what she ignores (within herself). Is the image and journey of women finding their voice something you explore in your other work?
As it happens, many of my short stories are about women who find their voice, or not. I grew up in India, and while I enjoyed more freedom than most women, it was still a far more constrained and limiting environment compared to the West. When I started writing, I found that my observations and concerns and resentments about women kept trickling into my work, and that’s how I found myself, after a few years, with a lot of stories about women. Having to suppress their voice, not being able to say what they really think or feel, is a challenge that these women all face.
What project(s) are you working on now? And where are you finding joy these days?
I’m just about done with a story collection that centers on women, after which I plan on taking up where I left off on a novel-in-progress in the quite different realms of time and work. In the broadest sense, the novel is about how we spend time. It’s in an early stage, though I do have an excerpt coming out in Santa Monica Review in the fall, and follows a father-son pair into an imagined future of work.
Great question about joy. A well-worn tactic, but I really do try my best to enjoy the little things: crisp cold air, coffee, a nice meal when I’m hungry. I eat lunch late, when my stomach is basically a hole, and the first bite is always sublime. And my little shih tzu is nothing if not a joy-maker.
More information on Anu Kandikuppa can be found here.
Eliana Meyer is an MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University and an associate editor for Colorado Review.