In Conversation with Deepa Varadarajan

Eliana Meyer


Deepa Varadarajan
Photo: © Niki Murphy

Deepa Varadarajan lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a legal academic and a graduate of Yale Law School. She grew up in Texas and received her BA from the University of Texas at Austin. Her short fiction has appeared in The Georgia Review, and her legal scholarship has appeared in The Yale Law Journal and many other publicationsHer debut novel, Late Bloomers, will be published by Random House in May 2023.

Associate editor Eliana Meyer got in touch with Deepa Varadarajan to discuss her short story “How to Give a Best Man Toast,” which appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Colorado Review, as well as post-pandemic writing and some of her other work.

Eliana Meyer: In section one of “How to Give a Best Man Toast,” the speaker, Varun, emphasizes the need to “assure the audience.” How does point of view in this story help to accomplish or subvert that mission of assurance? Could you speak to the process of choosing the point of view and writing into the second-person persona?

Deepa Varadarajan: My choice was motivated by a few things. One was simply a desire to try something new; I had not written a story in this point of view before. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed and been inspired by a number of stories written in the second person, including those in Lorrie Moore’s wonderful collection Self-Help. Also, once I knew I was writing a wedding story, I began thinking of my own experiences at the weddings of family members and friends. I’ve been in the fortunate (and nerve-wracking) position of delivering toasts at several weddings. In the lead-up to one of these events, I looked online to see if there were helpful tips for a good wedding toast. While I didn’t find anything remotely helpful in that search for my own speech-writing purposes, those how-to articles must have lingered in the back of my mind somewhere. And it struck me as an interesting—and potentially humorous—way to address some of the painful themes in this story. I love stories that can interweave humor and heartbreak, and this second person “how-to” format gave me an effective way to do that.

EM: Yes, I’d definitely agree the form lends itself to that emotional intertwining. Speaking of emotion, family events like births, weddings, and funerals are notorious emotional hot spots. The generational differences in this story—from the grandparents to the parents to Varun and his brother, Ramesh, and from the immigrant experience to the assimilated one—make palpable the dichotomies of proximity and distance, belief and disappointment, change and stasis. How does each generation heighten these contrasts experienced through Varun, and how did you see the bride’s presence enhance these contrasts even further?

DV: Weddings are emotional hot spots in any family, but for many Indian American families, weddings can be these intense, multiday celebrations with many relatives and guests. There are lots of opportunities for conflict and misunderstanding, which can make for a rich story. For all the generational differences in this story, Varun has less complicated feelings around his grandparents—especially his grandfather—than his parents. Even though Varun’s parents are presumably more assimilated than his grandparents, the grandparent-grandchild relationship here is unburdened by the expectations and disappointments that Varun feels around his parents. As for the bride, the presence of a newcomer to a family can often cause those already within it to question their existing family patterns or see them in a new light. This is the role she plays for Ramesh, who for so long has been the family peacemaker with an outsized responsibility for his brother’s well-being. The bride’s presence has led Ramesh to question that, which is something that Varun resents but may nonetheless be in Ramesh’s best interest.

EM: Within Varun there is this conflict of wanting to be or being a ghost and the fear of being alone. How did your perception of Varun’s loneliness change throughout your writing process?  Would you say his fears and desires find an equilibrium at the story’s end? How might a reader see his toast as a reflection of a search for balance? 

DV: Varun has struggled with depression and feelings of loneliness and self-doubt for many years. At the time of the speech, he is in a relatively happier place than he has been in other moments of his life. He mentions the “few close friends” he has in Detroit, where he moved after graduating from college. He has made a community for himself and is working toward his dream of being a writer. He is making strides towards balance in his life. Yet being back in the midst of his family triggers unwanted feelings; it reminds him of unhappier, lonelier moments in his life. By the story’s end, he does not necessarily find an equilibrium; that may not be possible for him around his family, at least for the foreseeable future. But he is moving closer to a place of acceptance that his relationship with his brother and his level of dependence on him will have to change.

EM: In that same vein, brotherhood, its potency and evolution, is central to this story. There are two especially moving moments where the brothers meet, conveying with touch what cannot be conveyed through words. The reader sees this after Varun’s suicide attempt when Ramesh comes home and for a month “slept beside [Varun] and held [his] hand” as well as at the end of the story when the brothers embrace once Varun completes his toast. Why was it important to end “How to Give a Best Man Toast” on a moment of physical intimacy? And is this tangible intersection of the emotional and physical something you explore in your other work? 

DV: That’s a very insightful observation. While it’s not explicitly stated in the story, aside from the two brothers, Varun’s family is not very physically affectionate—especially as the boys have grown older. They are not a family of huggers, so to speak. This is a cultural, generational, and personality difference between the brothers and their parents and grandparents. Throughout his life, Varun has relied on his brother—and that physical connection with him—for comfort and belonging. And while Varun senses that his dependency on his brother will have to change and their relationship will inevitably shift in the future, I wanted to end the story with that image of physical connection and comfort between them. This intersection between physical touch and emotional connection is reflected in some of my other work as well, though perhaps to a lesser degree than in this story.

EM: Thank you for that beautiful image. In the post-pandemic age, we see many all-or-nothing stories, stories steeped in pandemic imagery—masks, lockdowns, fear of disease—and stories that exclude pandemic details completely; this story finds a comfortable middle ground, referencing the pandemic without necessarily framing the story as a “pandemic story.” How do you feel your writing has shifted from pre- to post-pandemic? How or what can we learn from post-pandemic writing?

DV: I struggled to find that middle ground, as you say—so thank you. I didn’t want the day-to-day details and anxieties of pandemic living to overwhelm the story. For that reason, the story is set after the worst months of the pandemic, when people were beginning to resume normal activities like wedding gatherings. During the height of the pandemic and in the months soon after, I found that I could not write a story set in pandemic times at all. It was too soon and my emotions around it were too raw. I was still processing what was going on around me, so when I wrote (or even read) fiction, I was looking for an escape from my own anxieties. But in the past several months, most of the stories I’ve been working on take place in the post-pandemic period. Now that I have some distance from it, I’m more eager to engage with that time period and process it in my writing.

EM: What project(s) are you working on currently? And where are you finding joy these days? 

DV: Currently, I am working on a few short stories. I’m also at the beginning stages of what I think is a new novel. At the moment, it is just a few scenes and character sketches, but I’m hoping it will grow into a novel. I’m also a law professor, so I’m working on several academic research and writing projects that are at varying stages. These days, I’m finding joy in the usual places I find joy: spending time with my family and friends, going on long walks, hiking, reading fiction, watching movies and playing board games with my kids. I’m also very excited that my debut novel, Late Bloomers, is being published by Random House on May 2, 2023. There is a lot of joy in my house around that!

Eliana Meyer is an MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University and an associate editor for Colorado Review and the Center for Literary Publishing.