Web Feature

KEYA MITRA
in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW

 

KATIE YEE

“My Child of Stone” as the title suggests, is about a woman who discovers she has a calcified fetus inside her, which is a pretty rare phenomenon. What was the inspiration for this piece?

KEYA MITRA

I read an article about an 82-year-old woman from Colombia who had a calcified fetus inside of her (in her case the baby was 40 years old) and didn’t know she was carrying a stone baby until she went to the doctor for pelvic pain.  The woman’s story stayed with me long after I read the article.  It raised so many questions—how can we preserve the most sacred aspects of life that are also ephemeral, like pregnancy, childhood, beauty, and life?  I considered how I, or any human, might feel if, after experiencing the elation and heartbreak of a pregnancy and miscarriage, I discovered that the baby was still calcified inside me.  Would any part of me be relieved that something of the child had been preserved? The story deepened for me after a dear friend of mine passed away.  When we lose someone, we so often consider how we can sustain and honor their memory in the world.  I thought about how a widow might find peace and healing in the fact that, even though her partner is gone, she discovers that she is still carrying their child.  

KATIE YEE

The speaker of the story is a Bengali woman, and a few of the other characters (her family members) are also people of color. Meanwhile, the speaker’s husband is white. Can you talk about the role constructions of race and ethnicity play in your writing?

KEYA MITRA

Of course.  I often write about characters living between worlds or cultures.  As a second-generation, Indian-American immigrant I felt, as a child, that I was suspended between my Indian background and life in America.  This was compounded by the fact that I was born, in Texas, with a black, nickel-sized birthmark centered on my forehead that was considered a blessing in India (it was sometimes associated with Buddha’s third eye) but seen as a disfigurement in America.   I write about characters who connect because they feel like outsiders.  In this story, the narrator struggles with everything she has lost—her family and Indian heritage—and bonds with Brutu because she shares with him both a deep loneliness and joy.  I love writing about characters who connect across cultures, geographical locations, and race and ethnicity over a common sense of isolation, quest for joy, and/or history of loss.  

KATIE YEE

This story handles each character’s name with a lot of care and consideration  (eg. your character Brutu’s parents shortening his name from Brutus to match his physical appearance); can you talk about the process of naming your characters?

KEYA MITRA

Thank you, Katie.  These are terrific questions!  I did put a lot of thought into Brutu’ name in particular.  To me, Brutu and the narrator both contend with their bodies betraying them (Brutu with the pancreatic cancer and the narrator with her multiple miscarriages).  I immediately knew that his name in the story would be related to Brutus from Julius Caesar because of the idea of betrayal in this story.  At the same time, I also wanted the name to reflect how Brutu has been marginalized and diminished his entire life because of his physical stature.  Even though Brutu is a joyful person, the narrator also immediately senses, when they meet, that he has been taught to “mime contentment” and stifle his role in the world.  She connects with him over unspoken pain. 

KATIE YEE

When you write, what do you find generally comes first: plot or character or voice? Do you ever have the characters before knowing what the story will be?

KEYA MITRA

I usually find myself struck by an unusual or compelling idea and then imagine a character contending with a dilemma based on that idea.  For example, years ago, I had a dream that I woke up and found a dead baby inside an aquarium in my kitchen.  When I started writing a story based on this image, I had no idea where it would go.  As I was writing “A Family Matter,” I imagined an Indian-American teenage boy waking to find his baby sister floating in an aquarium and his family behaving as though nothing is out of the ordinary.  I only knew when I was first drafting that story that the story was about trauma and denial.  Then I wrote my way into the story.  To me, discovering the plot and narrative through drafting and rewriting is part of the magic and joy of writing. 

KATIE YEE

The loose theme of this issue is Misbegotten Youth; your story fits quite nicely into this thread in more ways than one. Decay and discovery both come into play in your story; can you speak to how these themes may be in conversation with each other here, or your own relationship to misbegotten youth? fits quite nicely into this thread in more ways than one. Decay and discovery both come into play in your story; can you speak to how these themes may be in conversation with each other here, or your own relationship to misbegotten youth?

KEYA MITRA

I really love the theme of this issue.  Yes, the story is very much about death, decay, and rebirth.  For example, at the end of the story the narrator explains to Puli that the hermit crab she brought home had to take on the shell of a molten crab because he needed a harder shell.  The main character and so many of her family members experience loss and rebirth.  The narrator and Brutu fall in love because they share a playfulness that allows them to retain their sense of purity in the world.  When Brutu, who the narrator refers to as her lover but also her child, is passing away and moving into a different realm, the narrator discovers newfound joy in her relationship with her nephew, Puli, who possesses Brutu’s deep gratitude for life.  She also finds peace in knowing that the child she created with Brutu has been preserved.

KATIE YEE

Are you working on a book at present? Can you tell us about it?

KEYA MITRA

I am working on a novel, Dead and Married.  The novel explores the idea of ghost marriages (minghun) in China in the context of the online dating world.  It’s a darkly comic novel, and it has been a pleasure to research and write. 

Thank you for these fantastic questions, Katie! It’s an honor to be in the upcoming issue.  


KEYA MITRA is an associate professor of creative writing and literature at Pacific University. She holds an MFA and PhD from the University of Houston, and spent a year in India on a Fulbright Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in Arts and Letters, The Bellevue Literary Review, Best New American Voices, Fourteen Hills, The Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, The Kenyon Review, Ontario Review, and Southwest Review.


KATIE YEE is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.


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