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Sameer Pandya on Digging into the Everyday Lives of Characters and Opening Up the Campus Novel

by Brendan Dowling on July 9, 2020

Sameer Pandya’s Members Only charts a calamitous week in the life of Raj Bhatt, a charming middle-aged anthropology professor at a Southern California university. As part of his tennis club’s membership committee, Raj has long sought to diversify the club’s lily white makeup. He’s thus delighted to meet Bill Brown, a charismatic Black doctor who is applying to the club. Yet during Bill’s membership meeting, Raj makes a racist joke in a disastrous attempt to bond with Bill and his wife. From there, Raj’s week only gets worse. His white colleagues at the club demand to dictate the terms in which Raj should apologize (while blithely ignoring their own past racist comments), while a cohort of Raj’s white students rise up to protest his “reverse racism” in the classroom. Through it all, Pandya navigates Raj’s world with insight and grace, making Raj’s miserable week very, very funny in the process. In its starred review of Members Only, Booklist labeled it “the thoughtful page-turner we need right now” while The New York Times Book Review hailed it “as witty as it is woeful.” Pandya spoke to Brendan Dowling on June 15th, 2020.

Raj is such an endearing and funny character to guide us through this story. Can you talk about him? What drew you to Raj as the vehicle for exploring this world?

There’s a line early in the book when Bill Brown says, “I knew a Raj at college,” and in his interior dialogue, Raj says, “Everyone knew a Raj in college.” In some ways, that line is the point of departure for why I’m using Raj. On one hand, what I want to do with this character is what most writers want to do [with their characters], which is to dig into their everyday lives, to dig into the things that make them happy, the desires, the envies, and the disappointments. I wanted to give layers to a name, to a particular kind of person, that in some ways [gets overlooked]. I certainly knew a Raj in college and a lot of my friends knew a Raj in college.

I also wanted to place Raj in a combination of an immigrant and a campus novel, and then the third kind of novel form I’m interested in, which is the middle-aged crisis novel. In a traditional immigrant novel you will often have a character like Raj. In a campus novel and a midlife crisis novel—particularly in the American context—Raj just doesn’t appear very much. I wanted to place this character within a novelistic tradition where we don’t find him normally, in a way to open up Raj, but to open up those traditions as well. What does the mid-life crisis look like in this character, and what are the ways in which race, in particular, shapes this mid-life crisis?

Anthropology plays a huge role in the novel. At one point Raj comments on an anthropologist he admires by saying, “A man who could make poetry out of pain was my kind of guy.” That also seems like a very apt description of Raj, who remains thoughtful and insightful as even the most awful things are occurring to him.

I wanted Raj to be doing both an ethnography of his own life, but perhaps at the same time an ethnography of the social world that he exists in. It’s an ethnography of the very understated class distinctions that occur at the tennis club, and at the same time an ethnography of what the contemporary university looks like. Part of what I was trying to get at is the traditional campus novel usually has a fully tenured faculty member arriving at his or her crisis, and it’s usually been a “he.” Part of what I wanted to do in making him a lecturer was to show how much the university has changed, that the different kinds of folks who teach in these spaces has changed significantly.

In a way, having him be an anthropologist worked because it allowed him to be the kind of observer that he is. Of course, all of us have blind spots. Raj has blind spots; sometimes a very good anthropologist is in some ways extremely self-aware and sometimes lacks that self-awareness as well. In that way, anthropology was very important to me purely at an academic level as well. I studied a lot of anthropology as an undergrad, half of my graduate education was in anthropology. At a very important moment in my intellectual coming of age, all those anthropologists were really important to me. As I was tooling around with what job to give to this character, it was almost like him being an anthropologist was the easiest thing to figure out.

This book really seems to be a love letter to the lecture hall, where we see how Raj really values lecturing and is quite gifted at it as well.

I wanted to be extremely clear that while Raj feels like he does not have a certain kind of security within that university space, he loves the act of teaching to two hundred students—and I don’t mean “act” glibly, but it is, in a certain way. How does Raj figure out how to keep two hundred students occupied and interested, when they have a lot of other things that can take some of that interest away from him? It’s one of these things that he says about Cliff, his chair and this anthropologist that he loves: “Cliff was brilliant at ideas and Raj was great at conveying those ideas.” At this stage in his life, even though Raj has real ambition to keep doing the work he never finished, he feels comfortable in that space as well.

Even though the book primarily takes place over the course of the week, this is a book where the past really coexists with the present. Raj frequently thinks back to key moments in his life, whether growing up in Bombay, or a particularly terrible frat party in college. How did you decide which of these moments  from Raj’s life story make its way into the novel?

In terms of craft, it’s forever the thing that you have to work on, which is how to keep things moving in the front story, and when to turn into backstory when it will move the front story along. That stitching is hard to do. I myself have read novels where I think the backstory is fascinating, but it’s pulled me so far away from the narrative motor that I almost forget where we are when we get back to the front story. So to your question of how did I balance that out, I think, if I’m honest, I balanced it out by removing stuff. In in this wonderful work I did with my editor, we worked through the moments when the backstory was not only slowing the front story down, but at a certain level the backstory was repeating another backstory that existed.

The characters make a lot of cringe-worthy decisions, yet the novel is also very, very funny. How did you balance Raj having one of the worst weeks of his life with these unexpected moments of levity?

First it’s about Raj himself. I love self-deprecating humor and I think Raj loves self-deprecating humor because self-deprecating humor is also a pretty serious shield with whatever’s going on with his life. This question of tone is an interesting one. I knew that I had to deal with some incredibly heavy topics. I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a novel about race.” I sat down and said, “I have an idea for a guy who has a terrifically bad week,” and the badness of it is shaped by all sorts of various things in his life. There are all sorts of tonal ways in which you can manage a story like this. If I had written it seriously, it would have been a different novel. In someone else’s hands a serious novel about these issues is a perfectly understandable, perfectly readable book.

I don’t necessarily see myself as a comic writer, but there was something about Raj and his internal voice that the humor just seemed to come. Part of explaining why a book is funny is really hard to do. Of course I’m not going to say, “I’m naturally funny and that’s why there is humor is here.” I think a better, more specific way I can explain it is that what Raj does in moments—as you’ve said, of deep, deep cringe-worthiness—is he makes jokes, which is what gets him into trouble in this book. The way he deals with the profound discomfort is to both make the jokes and then to make fun of himself. Hopefully what I’ve accomplished is a balance where the comedy creates an ease to the seriousness. Yet I have perhaps learned a lesson that Raj has not, which is when to pull back on the comedy to let the seriousness have its moment.

And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

I’ll tell you a very brief story. I moved with my family to California in 1980. My aunt was a librarian at, I think, the Culver City Public Library. I didn’t quite have the sense of what any of this was, but I always knew that she was a librarian and she had come to America many years before and had gotten a degree in Library Science. We moved from Southern California to the Bay Area, and then to the East Bay. We moved to a town called San Pablo and there was the big Richmond Public Library. I don’t know if it’s there anymore, but one of the first things we did after we settled in was get a library card. I have a distinct memory of walking into this place and A) it was air-conditioned ,and B) it was beautifully quiet. I spoke some English when I came, but I was not by any means fluent. Like a lot of people, I learned English through comic books, The comic for me in particular was Tintin; I teethed on Tintin when I was eight and nine years old. It’s not the ideal way to learn English, but to this day I still have these stacks of Tintin books which my kids read. I have this really close relationship to the public library in general, but this one in particular was quite nurturing in these early years when we had just come to this country.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.