Q&A with Sindya Bhanoo: ‘Seeking Fortune Elsewhere’ and the Immigrant Story

Supriya Saxena

Sindya Bhanoo’s story collection, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere (240 pages; Catapult), follows the lives of South Indian immigrants and their families, focusing on the women in these communities and how they deal with the hardships that come their way. While exploring the bitter realities of her characters’ circumstances, Bhanoo captures both the tenacity and tender humanity of her protagonists.

Bhanoo’s fiction has appeared in Granta, New England Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. A longtime newspaper reporter, she has worked for The New York Times and The Washington Post. She is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and lives in Austin, Texas.

Bhanoo recently spoke to ZYZZYVA via email about Seeking Fortune Elsewhere. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

ZYZZYVA: How does your background in journalism inform the way you approach writing fiction?

SINDYA BHANOO: It probably impacts my fiction in a few ways. Early on, editors trained me to cut to the heart of a story, to include details, but not too many and only the most telling. I favor simplicity and clarity over flourishes that add weight.

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Sometimes though, my training as a journalist—that instinct I have to be quick and efficient—hurts my fiction. There is artistry involved in writing good news stories. There is a chance to be playful, to be funny, to break the reader’s heart. But the goal of journalism is to inform and educate. It is a public service. Art gets at a different kind of truth, one that allows us to understand who a person is by taking the time to look at how they live, not just during big moments but also small ones. The everyday ones. If I think too much like a reporter, the artistry suffers. The reporter is always moving on to the next big event but the fiction writer can linger and consider the mundane. There is great value in that. For instance, the truth of a marriage is not revealed on the wedding day, but in all the days that follow. “How we spend our days,” the writer Annie Dillard astutely wrote in her memoir The Writing Life, “is how we spend our lives.”   

Z: A sense of loss and loneliness weigh these stories of South Indian immigrants. Though the characters are very different, this heavy sadness seems to bind them. What draws you to writing about the loss and disconnect common among immigrants?

SB: What does not change in the immigrant story—what will never go away—is that family is left behind. Immigrants do not gather with siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles the way other families here in America do every Thanksgiving and every Christmas. Weddings and funerals both are missed. There is a sadness that hovers even on the most joyful, celebratory of days. It is an absence, one that I am interested in.

My parents left India as adults, after spending their childhood with family all around them. They played with their cousins over the holidays. My own two children have grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles in the United States. What my parents had, what my children have, I did not. I do not know what it feels like to see family regularly, to play with cousins, to know grandparents in all their eccentricities and particularities and smells. I will never know it. I will keep trying to write about it.

Z: Not all of these stories take place in the United States, but the nation’s presence looms large—even in those stories set in India. As the United States is a global superpower, South Indians understandably have complex and varied relationships to it. What aspects of South Indians’ relationship to the United States were you trying to shed light on?

SB: I went to India for the first time in 1986. I was very young then but there is a vividness, a color, to those early memories. India was a different country, its economy not yet open to foreign and multinational investment. Over the course of my childhood that changed. During one trip back after a long gap, I saw the bright lights of KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Dominos as I rode from the airport to my uncle’s house. There were shopping malls everywhere, and fancy appliances in the homes of those who could afford them. Suddenly, there was a lot of America in India. It also goes without saying that there is a lot of India in America now. That the two very different worlds I knew as a child now have so much overlap fascinates me.

I am aware, too, that while modernization has empowered Indian women, it has also placed an increased burden on them. Women work and bring home the same paychecks as their husbands, but the workload at home is not equally split. Women are still running households and cooking meals without the help of their partners, the way my aunts and grandmothers did forty and eighty years ago. It is complicated and unfair, and my fiction is interested in unpacking this.

Z: I found it interesting that several of your stories feature South Indian women who have gone through divorce, as divorce still carries a significant taboo in Indian communities. Do you believe it is important to write about South Indian women’s experiences with divorce?

SB: True, there are divorced women, but marital status is not what I was interested in. It was that these women were thrust into a state of independence. It is that moment of arrival that I wanted to explore, whether it was voluntarily sought out or involuntarily brought on. The collection looks, too, at how long-married women, in both India and the United States, seek out independence and, sometimes after many decades, voice their concerns.

Z: Food (particularly South Indian food) holds an important place in your book. We observe your characters preparing food, sharing food, and reminiscing about food they have enjoyed in times past. What is the significance of food to these characters?

SB: Certain aspects of culture can be lost very quickly as a result of immigration and assimilation. Language is one of those. I know Tamil but do not speak it often these days and, when I do, I am in constant combat with my American accent. My children do not speak Tamil at all. Food, though, seems to remain in families over many generations. The Indo-Guyanese, whose ancestors went to Guyana as indentured servants in the 1800s, still make and eat Indian food, dishes like daal and roti.

Smell and taste are powerful senses, making food so transportive. Food appears over and over in my stories because it exists in the worlds of my characters, transcending time and place, offering memories of home and family. The kitchen is also a quiet, meditative place that allows the women in my stories to think as they work.

During the pandemic, I’ve been making Indian food more than I normally do. Once a week, I grind batter for dosa, a crepe made with fermented rice and lentils that dates back 2000 years. Each time I do it, I am aware that I am making the same food that long-ago grandmothers of mine must have 200 and 300 years ago. It astounds me. It evokes memories that are not even mine.

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