Interview: Vauhini Vara, author, The Immortal King Rao – “I’ve grown up with lots of different identities”
How did the idea for the novel The Immortal King Rao take shape?
The initial idea came from my dad. In January 2009, we were travelling together, and he was teasing me about writing only short stories and not a novel. I said, “Okay, dad, give me an idea for a novel, then” — and he did. The idea he gave me was to write about a Dalit family on a South Indian coconut grove like the one where he grew up. At the time, I’d just taken a leave of absence from a tech reporting job at The Wall Street Journal, where I’d been writing about people like Larry Ellison from Oracle and Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook. I found these men and their companies and the socioeconomic systems in which they were operating really fascinating. So I had this idea to start with a child growing up on a coconut grove like my dad’s, in the 1950s, but then have my character, King Rao, move to the US and start a tech company in the 1970s. But then I had a writing problem, which was that these kinds of experiences, both growing up as a Dalit boy on a coconut grove in India and starting a tech company in the 1970s as a man, seemed so distant to me; I felt like I lacked the authority to write about them from the perspective of the main character. At the time, my husband and I were watching the Battlestar Galactica reboot from the mid-2000s, where there’s this technology that allows characters to access one another’s consciousnesses, and I thought, “Oh, if I could just have my narrator use a tool like that, the narrator could tell these stories without having to exactly embody King Rao himself”. That narrator eventually turned into Athena, King’s daughter, who can access his consciousness using her mind.
The Immortal King Rao took you 13 years to write. How did you keep up with the story and stay motivated?
Each time I completed a draft, I could look at it and think, “OK, that was at least better than the previous draft”. So I could say to myself that the next draft would be better still. In that way, I could convince myself that I was at least moving in the right direction. So I kept moving.
What fostered your love for writing? Which book has inspired you?
My parents are both writers; my mom used to publish stories in Telugu magazines, and my dad published poetry. They read to me and my sister a lot and encouraged my love for reading and, later, writing. My favourite novel is Moby Dick.
How have your years working as a journalist covering technology defined your writing? From your vantage point, is it already too late to navigate technology away from a dystopian future?
It has been through my work as a journalist that I’ve learned how technology works — and also how the tech industry, and business in general, works. Through fiction, I’ve been able to explore a possible future direction. But I don’t have any more of a crystal ball than anyone else regarding where we’re actually heading.
Though you began writing The Immortal King Rao 13 years ago, the optimism of Obama’s America and social media’s nascent years are either absent in the book or quickly replaced by what feels like the caginess of the Trump/post-Trump years and the many controversies that ensued in the late 2010s involving tech companies. Is that an outcome of the novel taking this long to write?
I actually think of the novel as deeply informed by the technological utopianism that defined the early Obama years. It was largely during Obama’s time that the power and wealth of tech companies grew so much. Obama himself has more recently spoken about this quite thoughtfully and eloquently; he seems as alarmed as anyone about what has happened.
There are instances in the book where we see “journalist Vara” superseding the “novelist Vara”, interjecting passages of information in the book. How tedious was it jumping from writing articles to novels?
It was a lot of fun. I’m a journalist partly because I love absorbing new information and telling people about it. Putting these passages in the novel that contain information dumps allowed me to sneakily exercise that muscle in my fiction as well.
The Immortal King Rao is many things squeezed into one: “a genre-exploding novel”, speculative and literary. The non-linear format, the intertwining storylines and the littering of intricate details makes it a sophisticated read. How did you master that?
Thanks for the kind words about it. I have no idea how I figured it out — it was through a lot of trial and error. I tried many, many different approaches, and got lots of feedback in early drafts about the structure not working. So I kept trying until it came together.
How instrumental was the MFA programme you did? What’s one piece of advice that has stuck with you all these years?
My two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were two of the best years of my life as a writer. I learned so much of what I know as a writer through my teachers and — especially — my peers there. During my time there, people were always encouraging one another to follow their strangest and wildest and most original impulses as writers, and that freed me up to write this very unusual book.
The protagonist King grew amid the Raos, a joint family, in classic Indian style. There, in the Rao residence, he was undeniably the centre of all attention. But as the novel progresses, as he becomes more immersed in the world of technology, he is adrift until only Athena, his own creation, is his sole comfort. An allegory for technology that sticks. And yet King Rao is adamant about the powers of technology as an omnipresent, all-connecting fibrous network. What are your thoughts about technology?
I’m as ambivalent as anyone about technology. I generally find it exciting — to me, the newest developments can be seen as art, just like a new novel or piece of music. But then, building technology depends on funding, and funding depends on fulfilling the interests of those who can offer capital, and so the development of technology has inevitably been skewed by the wants and needs of those with power and wealth.
The portions of the book that deal with life in Kothapalli feel more richly developed than the others. And yet you’ve never lived in India. What research did you do to bring King Rao’s Dalit years alive?
While working on the novel, I travelled to the area where my dad grew up, in coastal Andhra Pradesh, where we still have a lot of family. With the help of a cousin and uncle, I interviewed relatives and family friends. I also interviewed Dalit scholars and even one coconut expert. Finally, I spent some time walking around our family coconut grove and just taking notes on what it looked, felt, sounded like.
Growing up in “model minorities” America, did you, like King Rao, feel the vectors of caste slipping away or were they only simply replaced by vectors you didn’t know existed?
I’ve grown up with lots of different identities: Indo-Canadian, Indian-American, immigrant, female, Dalit, and so on. These identities give me strength and make me who I am. While these groups are socially marginalized, I’ve grown up with lots of privilege as well — as the child of a doctor, educated at Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, with experience working at the New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and so on. All of this, too, has played a role in shaping my identity.
I am working on a collection of short stories, This is Salvaged, which will be released in 2023.
Ronnie Kuriakose is a freelance writer based in Kochi. He is @ron_of_kochi on Twitter.