Zara Chowdhary

Zara Chowdhary

Zara Chowdhary

Zara Chowdhary is a writer and lecturer at the University of Wisconsin. She has an MFA in creative writing and environment from Iowa State University and a master's in writing for performance from the University of Leeds. She has previously written for documentary television, advertising, and film. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her partner, child, and two cats.

“One Part Illuminates Another” an interview with Zara Chowdhary

This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Madelynn Paz. Of the process she said, “Reading The Lucky Ones was a transformative experience. Chowdhary expertly weaves the cultural, historical, political and social complexities of India with her own personal narrative, and the result is both heartbreaking and wonderous. Chowdhary’s narrative and prose are multilayered and masterful, and these elements serve to humanize a tragedy of immense scale, and find the seeds of resilience within it.” In this interview Zara Chowdhary shares about her drive to make sense of the oppressor’s mind, her non-linear narrative structure, and the rise of fascism around the world.

Superstition Review: The structure of The Lucky Ones takes the reader thematically through various movements, similar to a piece of music. The reader begins with “Fire” and subsequently travels through “Threads” “Air” “Flowers” and “Water” each with an intimate look at a particular member of your family and an aspect of the lockdown experience. What inspired you to structure the work in such a way?

Zara Chowdhary: Thank you for noticing my deep resistance to linearity! Any story that is coming from these deep recesses where we repress memory, it feels almost like a disservice to pretend they appear in an authentically linear timeline to the narrator. That hasn’t been my experience with grief. So, I allowed the story to appear on the page in the jagged non-linear ways that it lives in me. And finally, over multiple drafts, I chiseled away at those edges to make this more kaleidoscopic structure where one part illuminates another. I also tend to resist pushing a piece into a pre-decided length.

I like that you thought of music, because as I’ve grown as a writer over the years I’ve come to realize that my job is to honor the musicality of what is being said. I sense these false notes sometimes when I’m forcing length onto something that wants to remain hidden in a smaller form. Or when it’s too short, it often sounds out-of-breath. So, once I had enough pages, I zoomed out of the sentence-level work, and worked all the pieces into their own groups, a bigger anchor chapter about a family member would grow these encrusted smaller pieces around it, sort of like a reef coming alive. And when I did that, these elements just started to emerge: “Fire” made sense because of all of the ways our lives burned before and during the massacres, “Threads” because of how tactile life growing up in Ahmedabad was, a city known for its textiles and its Muslim weavers, and floral Islamic-Persian motifs in our clothes. “Air” became the place where I could depict both that sense of choking within this congested household, but also this wonder of sound and words which are us just using air to make life and meaning. “Flowers” was where I nested the heart of the book- my ode to my mother. And “Water” –– well, my girlhood was literally bookended by a river on one hand and a sea on the other. 

SR: In the Timeline section and throughout your memoir The Lucky Ones, there are many historical and political parallels to the rise of fascism in 1930’s Germany. Most notably, the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, which directly led to the takeover of the Nazi party in Germany, and the 2002 Gujarat train tragedy, which later sparked the pogrom against Muslim minorities across India. How do you view the rise in fascism around the world in the last decade; particularly as an educator in the United States, but also as a writer?

ZC: I view it with the greatest sense of foreboding. People have been telling me I’m being paranoid since 2014 in India and then 2016 in the US, and yet here we are. I took this piece out of the original draft because I wanted this story to stand on its own two feet as a witness to genocidal intent, but in 2001, at sixteen, I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank in this small city in India, which my history teacher––who I mention in the book–– had given me. And I had it with me, as mobs thronged our streets. And even afterwards through college and grad school, I was constantly drawn to Holocaust survivor narratives. There is this hunger in me–– as a survivor I suppose­­–- to make sense of the oppressor’s mind works, their detached ability to strip a group of any softness, to create this bogeyman who wants their land, resources, jobs, their women. And how the oppressed struggle to view themselves as fully human and to reject this outsider’s gaze on them, all the while dangling between a demand for dignity and feeling weighed down by their victimhood. Whether you are racialized, exoticized, criminalized, sexualized, minoritized, what is being done in that instance is a distilling down of your whole complex, beautiful identity into only what is most grotesque, objectionable, open to exploitation, or provocative for this dominant group. In different contexts across this globe, we’re all feeling that being done to us. And there is a flip side too. Each of us in a whole other context somewhere else can easily be an oppressor.

As this extremism grows around us, I feel like my work as a writer and teacher has increasingly felt cut out for me: that I must hold this personal story of my own experienced oppression up to the light, and examine it in the context of wider systems, seek out sources of power in them, and measure our proximity to these, so we can collectively find solutions. What I see now which worries me, with our increasingly siloed lives, is all of us refusing to hold our narratives of identity to stricter examination, that crucial first step of peeking within. I think that’s what makes us vulnerable to fascistic intent: when our sense of common purpose breaks down and we indulge in what the young ones on the internet nowadays call “Oppression Olympics”. I enjoy that term. I see it as my work as a writer and teacher to contest with that, while holding systems of brutal occupation and denial to account. 

SR: One of the things that struck me about your book is the incredible depth of research. You won the Iowa State University Research Excellence Award in 2020 for that research, and your website and bibliography in the book also list further reading for anyone who wishes to learn more. A little over twenty years after experiencing such terror and violence, can you tell me about what the process of researching these events was like for you, and how you protected your mental health during that process?

ZC: So much of that work was done for me. Writing this book was humbling because of the many journalists who meticulously kept watch on all of these legal cases, many of them being simultaneously fought in courts even as judges changed, evidence went missing, witnesses moved around, disappeared, or died. Also, the handful of citizen-led nonprofits who have supported families of victims through this ordeal of delayed justice, have played such a huge part, and often at terrible personal cost because they’re working against a highly vindictive and powerful adversary. Holding onto hope in the judicial system, in the power of true testimony and the Indian Constitution for 20+ years must not have been easy. Yet ordinary citizens have done this: Hindus, Parsis and Christians, Muslims, and their labor has given me hope in these values of secularism so enshrined in many of us. People formed communities of care around survivors who lost everything, have grieved with them and walked them through this arduous, often humiliating process of demanding justice and dignity.

In comparison, my job has only been to remember and write. All I had to do was summon whatever facility I have with language, with form and structure, to tell this story to an audience from whom it was kept hidden and slowly even erased. My only struggle was with survivor’s guilt, and that is evident throughout the book. In order to remember what was repressed, I often purposefully had to re-trigger much of the trauma my body held. And India’s present dispensation did some of that work for me. Every time I wrote a scene about the worst atrocities, or read something in the news that mirrored it in the present, I would climb under a blanket, and just sleep it out of my system. Or I’d hug my child or hold my cat and ground myself in the present. I could have done more to look after myself, but where are the mental health resources in this country for single mothers living on grad student stipends? So, I leaned on prayer, on conversations with my mother, silence (of which I had fistfuls living in Iowa), and the music and poetry of my elders.     

SR: The Lucky Ones reads as a beautiful blending of your family’s personal relationships with the rich historical, social, and cultural context of India itself, all against a backdrop of terrible violence. How did you maintain that balance of the personal narrative and historical nuance alongside social and political reporting?

ZC: With a ton of post-its! I did a lot of physical moving around with the pieces. Twice at least, I laid out the entire book on the floor, every chapter big and small in a grid, and walked through and paired pieces. I drew maps and charts of the three-month timeline when the events of the book occur, and I’d diagram out where I thought something was still hiding, or some anecdote could be woven in for a longer view of history. What was harder and less fun, was editing for the shifts in tone, because I was reading so much reportage and legalese and so little personal narrative in English, that I had to keep reminding myself of what my gift to this project was: language and my utter love for it. I had to take factual evidence that has turned cruddy and stuck and work off the grime and find what was human and visceral underneath. I looked to people who are graceful artists like that for me in language and in life–– my mother, some of my best teachers, scholars of trauma like Gabor Maté, memoirists I adore like T Kira Madden, Melissa Febos, or Alex Chee, poets like Ocean Vuong. And I listened to hours and hours of Sufi music.

SR: In addition to your writing and academic career, you have worked in TV and film production for several years, including National Geographic India, (winning best short documentary film series in 2022). How has your work in documentary film influenced your writing, and vice versa?

ZC: I’ve had some incredible mentors, especially women directors, producers, and editors in the last few years, who taught me to look past the obvious, the utterable. Documentary at its finest allows you to observe and linger as its subjects simply go about their world. Recreating that silence in prose was a challenge I enjoyed immensely, especially since so much of my childhood was scarred by discordance. Living out silence on the page was healing. Writing for a visual medium also trains you to recreate authentic or at least realistic conversation. In fact, prose felt like a luxury because I got to travel inward and peek at the unsaid. And I had to learn how to do that in a way that didn’t feel overwrought. It’s like there was a little film editor in my brain running around constantly asking, “Do we really need this? Can we do this as V/O (voiceover)? Can we overlay this, split this?” 

SR: One of the most heartbreaking sections of The Lucky Ones was “Fire” in which you humanize the suffering caused by the 2002 Muslim pogrom by focusing on the stories of two individuals: Ahsan Jafri and Bilqis Bano. Ahsan Jafri was a former member of parliament and a pillar of his community; Bilqis fought for years to get justice through the Indian court system against her attackers. Can you expand on why you chose these two peoples’ stories as representatives to help illustrate the tragedy and violence of 2002 as a whole?

ZC: It is impossible for anyone to learn about 2002 and not know these two names. Ahsan sahab’s wife Zakia Jafri fought what many legal scholars consider a landmark case in the Indian Supreme Court, which even though she lost, will forever remain an accounting of all the hidden, stolen, buried pieces of evidence, placed directly at the doorstep of our Prime Minister. It is unheard of; that sort of courage, resilience, and clarity of conscience. I remain in awe of what the Jafri family endured and continue to. Similarly, Bilkis Bano’s eyes have haunted me through every picture I’ve encountered over the years. Both these people embody the tenacity of India’s Muslims.

I have grown up around people like Ahsan Jafri and Bilqis Bano. My own Dada (grandfather) was so much like him, down to the white cotton kurtas they would prefer to wear. These were Muslims who chose India with every breath, who were its people, who believed in its promise. When I first read the fact that on the morning of the massacre, Ahsan sahab was supposed to travel to a neighboring town to see his granddaughter, watch her perform at a school event, I broke down. That’s what my Dada would have done. He would have promised me with all his love, soothed me, and then he would have opened the front door and walked out to a mob. Our great myths tell us of men like these: Jesus, Ali, Abraham. My country’s freedom struggle is replete with stories of humans of such myth-making strength of character, who make that ultimate sacrifice. And Indian Muslim mothers––those who’ve stored all their faith in their Allah and then in their land the way Bilkis has, I have had the good fortune of being raised by women like that. Honoring their testimony and writing it back into history was a way of saying their loss is mine. Every loss is mine. All of this is personal. It should be, because when the best amongst us suffers, it erodes something existential in all of us.  

SR: One of the recurring themes in this work is how women become advocates for themselves while navigating a deeply patriarchal society. In “Air” you reminisce about the power of dancing the garba in the Gujarat festival of Navratri: “Women turned into goddesses in three simple claps.” What are some ways you would like to see the women of the next generation in India come into their own power?

ZC: India’s women, especially amongst the lower/oppressed classes and castes have a long and rich history of solidarity, agency/power, and kinship. It’s the women higher up in the systems who honestly still find themselves enmeshed and indicted deeply in patriarchy in the same way that white feminism is critiqued here for continuing to falter with this construct of race. The reason I write so candidly about the women in my household is because I want a reader to see everything—the sexism which has been turned inward, the casual casteism or unsolicited bigotry, the fact that women are capable of horrific violence, of destroying relationships and lives. And then there are those like my mother, or in brief glimpses my aunt, who are resisting this call to join in the pillaging of others. But with them too, there are complexities, real wounds, and reactions. My problem as an Indian woman has always been this binary of goddess or demoness. We don’t need more mythologizing. We don’t need to be divine to not face domestic abuse or to be given equal and fair opportunity. We need to step away from the hyperbole for our own sanity, but patriarchy won’t allow that. That line in the book is meant to take a dig at the fact.    

SR: A sense of un-belonging in your book is mirrored both within your family home in Ahmedabad and within India as a whole. Your time in Baroda and later escape to Madras gave you a new home and sense of belonging, and you now reside in the United States. What elements turn a place into a home, and create a sense of belonging?

 ZC: What a lovely question. Nothing can make a new home feel like the way your first home did. I had a line in one of the chapters which I took out, about how a child knows the place they grow up in, through how the seasons feel on their skin. Losing that connection to a childhood home is an ocean of grief that will always knock at your door. For me the question becomes, how often do I open that door and let the grief destroy me. All the losing and re-homing, in some ways taught us, and we also learned through watching our mother and mimicking how to live in the present. For my sister, mother, and I gratitude became more than a sticker on a fridge or a journal on a nightstand. We’ve gotten into a habit of telling stories of gratitude to each other and to people we meet all the time. When you have nowhere to go back to, you construct that notion of safety inside you.

SR: The power of names in The Lucky Ones is also a running theme, for example a surname is often a way of determining one’s caste and religion and affects how one may be treated. Names can also empower us to live up to the model they set, just as you describe your mother embodying the power of her warrior name Roxana (Rukhsana).  How do you hope the act of naming the violence of 2002 not as “riots” but as a government sanctioned ethnic cleansing will affect the understanding of it both in India and around the world?

ZC: We are in a moment as a species when all of our greatest institutions are yet again locked in argument over what defines “a pogrom” versus “a genocide” versus “ethnic cleansing.” Honestly, to me it just seems like a colonial system refusing to relinquish its control over language, and in this I see India too, in some sort of neo-colonial manner, aping what the British did to us, where they had all these systems and structures set up like a mirage for their occupied Indian subjects. “Hey look, we have given this thing guardrails. You have courts, and a press, and laws.” But none of these systems matter if we can’t intervene to stop the destruction of human life. Words become bereft of any real value. This word “riot” was also a British shorthand that the rest of the world adopted to say, “oh these two groups that generally don’t get along anyway, broke into a fight.” It obscures the fact that someone or something instigated the groups, something provoked an existing tension. We all know the Raj employed “divide and rule” tactics and that’s still the primary strategy for geo-political power on this planet. Words that minimize the true intensity of conflict––of what it means to lose a child, a father, a home, a family, a limb to these bigger machinations­­–– I hope this book trains us to see right through them.

SR: The epilogue of The Lucky Ones ultimately ends in a note of hope:

“We own everything that is great and beautiful and redeemable about our country-its humor, its refuge, its magnanimity, its humility, its ability to bend and absorb every shard of grief thrown its way, and from it grow flowers, to make life.” How do you maintain the spark of hope, both in your narratives, and in your own life?

ZC: The hope of the oppressed, the occupied, the survivor will always outlast the arrogance of the occupier or oppressor. Every bit of progress we have made as a species–– the end of apartheid in South Africa, the dismantling of the British, French, Dutch, German and other European empires, the fight for queer liberation, for democracy, for the environment, for bodily autonomy or the sanctity and dignity of the Black body–– each of these are rooted in the resilient, radical hope of those whom existing systems did not serve. And I ultimately believe in time the way people from my part of the world conceived of it. It is putty in our hands. Change can be as glacial or immediate as we collectively choose for it to be. Life moves in spirals. It may seem like we’re circling back to the exact same point, but it always pivots slightly forward. Like Ahsan Jafri, I believe in that moral arc of the universe, it’s what Islam teaches me to firmly remain rooted in.