Leah Franqui, MOTHER LAND

Leah Franqui, MOTHER LAND

Zibby Owens: Leah Franqui is the author of Mother Land: A Novel. Leah is a graduate of Yale University and received an MFA at NYU-Tisch. Her first novel, America for Beginners, was an Indie Next pick. A Puerto Rican Jewish native of Philadelphia, Franqui now lives with her Kolkata-born husband in Mumbai.

Welcome, Leah. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Leah Franqui: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited.

Zibby: I’m so excited to talk to you about Mother Land, which was so well-written by the way. I loved how you did it, the immediacy of everything, how you’re in her brain from the minute the novel opens. You’re immediately relating. Anybody who’s had a mother-in-law can relate, not to say anything ill about my mother-in-law. I’ve now had two mother-in-laws. They’re both great. I love how you just threw the reader right in there and immediately related. I just love books that start like that.

Leah: Thanks so much.

Zibby: Will you please tell listeners what Mother Land is about and then what inspired you to write it?

Leah: Mother Land is about a young woman, Rachel, who moves to India with her Indian-born husband. She’s hoping that the experience will give her life a new start and an adventure. She’s lost in her life and hoping this big change to a country she’s never been to will spark something for her. When she moves to India, she’s pretty overwhelmed. She’s even more overwhelmed when her mother-in-law decides to leave her father-in-law and her life in Kolkata and comes and moves in with Rachel and her husband in Mumbai. She’s even more thrown when her husband has to go away for work and she’s stuck with this woman she doesn’t know very well in a city she doesn’t know, in a country and a culture she doesn’t know. The clash between them about how to live life in Mumbai and how to be in the world eventually turns into a friendship that benefits them both.

Zibby: I love how in the beginning, when the mother-in-law shows up on the stoop and she takes the suitcase inside for her mother-in-law and she thinks, maybe this was it. Maybe this was the moment. What if I hadn’t brough the suitcase inside? I feel like that’s something that I always do in my head. What if that one thing had been different?

Leah: I know. The spirit of looking back and being like, that was the moment. I could’ve changed it all. I do that too. I think I put that in that character because I do that too.

Zibby: I figured. How did you come up with this story? What made you write this?

Leah: This story came out of a lot of life experience and a lot of imagination, so it’s both in equal measure. I live in Mumbai. I moved to Mumbai with my Indian-born husband, who also happens to be from Kolkata, in 2015. Before that, my mother-in-law had come to stay with us for about a month right when we got married and moved in together. We did both at the same time. I’d never been to India before I moved to India. I didn’t know a lot about India before I met my in-laws. The whole process was condensed by being an international family. I did have this incident where I had a moment of incredible anxiety, which is where a lot of my work comes from, where I was in my tiny Brooklyn apartment and my mother-in-law had this fight with my father-in-law over the phone. My husband, in Hindi, was talking to her. I didn’t understand what they were saying. Then he turned to me and he was like, “Mom’s going to stay another month.” I was like, um, what’s that? It was sort of a joke. They were kind of trolling my father-in-law. I had this moment of, what if she just stays forever? What if my mother-in-law just moves in with me and lives with me forever and this is my life now?

Then I moved to Mumbai and got to know my in-laws better by visiting them in Kolkata and had this whole life experience of moving to Mumbai for similar-but-different reasons than my protagonist in this novel, but faced a lot of the dislocation and isolation and culture shock and trying to figure out how to navigate my needs, my identity, all the me in this new collective country filled with so many cultures, so many things that were so unfamiliar. I had so many anxieties about what this international move would do to my marriage, what it would do to me. I have had incredible experiences in India. I’ve had difficult experiences in India. It’s challenging. It’s been wonderful for me. It’s been wonderful for my marriage. I do write a lot from the what-if. What if it hadn’t been? What if it hadn’t made my relationship stronger? What if had kind of defeated me in these other ways? What if my mother-in-law lived with me forever? Spinning out those anxieties into fantasies, into new characters and new people is kind of where the novel came from. This is not my life. This woman is not my mother-in-law. I’m not Rachel. There are elements of the real experience of living in Mumbai, integrating into an Indian family who have been nothing but incredibly wonderful and accepting of me, and also being challenging in terms of what I thought the world was living in one country versus the wonderful perspective-breaking thing living in another country does. It comes from all of that and more.

Zibby: In Mumbai, do you live in the area where you can smell the fish and have a view of the fish?

Leah: Actually, I do. I live in a neighborhood above the neighborhood I set it in. This whole area is along part of the coast. There’s these fishermen who dry the fish out along that coastline. If you live anywhere near the coast, there’s fishermen along it in Mumbai. You’ll smell that at some point.

Zibby: I love how that becomes your character’s alarm clock that it’s five o’clock, basically, the smells.

Leah: That’s real. I work from home a lot. I would lose track of time and then suddenly be like, oh, I guess it’s five o’clock.

Zibby: There’s this neighborhood ice cream truck where we are right now that comes by between five and five thirty every day. It’s the same thing. I’m like, oh, my gosh. I have to get up. I have to get off of my desk chair. Time to go for a walk because it’s going to be dark. I better move for the day. I love those external markers of time. You have a really interesting background. You’re half Jewish and half Puerto Rican. How did your identity, combining those two pieces, combining your parents essentially, how did they inform your own sense of identity in the world?

Leah: My father, his parents migrated from Puerto Rico in ’49, ’50, which was part of this wave of migration from Puerto Rico. Then my mom’s parents are a mix of first and third generation immigrants from what is now Russia. My grandmother was directly from Russia, but she grew up in . I think that growing up, that didn’t seem that crazy of a mix, I think because I grew up on the East Coast in a school, in an environment where a lot of people were some kind of mix. I think that I didn’t know too many people who had a Jewish/Latino mix, but I have met them over the years. Mixture where I grew up in the United States seemed more normal than being of one thing. I do think that the negotiation of identity as I got older, as I got into high school and college, and the idea of what it meant to be enough of anything became a big part of how I got into writing, actually. I think that the idea of being Puerto Rican enough or what enough meant or being Latina and what that meant to me and also being Jewish and what that meant to me, deciding that I needed to start taking more responsibility for my own religious philosophy — if I was going to perpetuate a belief in Judaism, it couldn’t just be because I’d grown up going to synagogue, I’d grown up with my mother telling me to go to synagogue. It had to be something I started choosing or not choosing as an adult. I think that college was a time when I really decided that that was important for me to explore what either of these two things meant for me and how I was going to deal with them.

Writing became a great way to do that. I came into fiction as a dramatic writer. A lot of the work that I wrote before and during graduate school talked about a relationship to Puerto Rico, a relationship to being Latina, the way I understood my family, trying to come to terms with my large Puerto Rican family and the life I’d spent visiting them and connecting with them but being separate from them, and also coming to terms with my family history on all sides. I think that the interesting thing about moving to a third-party country that has no context for either of those things is that then your identity gets reimagined again by the people you meet. When I first met my in-laws, they had no context for Jewish, certainly. They had no context for Puerto Rican. I definitely live as white. I come from fairly European Puerto Rican stock. Although, of course there’s a ton of mixing. I present as white. I am white. All of those things that had made up my identity in the States then became, not erased, but totally not as contextualized in India. Then I had a whole new identity being a white person in India, which has added a third layer of information about myself and how I operate in the world. It’s been a journey. It continues to be a journey. I guess it taught me that no matter how much you self-define, there’s so much about how other people see you that you can’t really control. You just have to recognize what you’ve come to terms with as yourself and do your best to be that.

Zibby: You have to have a really strong fundamental sense of who you are regardless of your background and your parents and the shade of your skin and all the rest. I am who I am whether I’m dropped down in the middle of a vegetable market in Mumbai or I’m on the subway in New York or whatever else. Otherwise, it’s just so confusing.

Leah: Yeah, and you’ll let the world tell you what to be. I think that’s something that we think about a lot in the US, what I carry with me and what’s important for me to bring everywhere I go. That’s a great thing about immigrant countries. You have to personally decide what matters to you and what you want to carry with you rather than let your environment decide that for you. I’ve hosted a seder every year I’ve been in Mumbai for Passover because I realize, wow, that’s really important to me. That’s an important thing for me to do, for me celebrate, even though there’s no resources for that. There’s no structure around that. It’s just something that matters to me. You learn who you are.

Zibby: Is there a Jewish community in Mumbai?

Leah: There used to be larger Jewish communities in a lot of major Indian cities, including Mumbai. There’s a couple really beautiful historic synagogues. It’s really decreased since independence for many reasons. There are still a couple active synagogues. There is a Chabad house. I have been to services at one of the really beautiful historic synagogues in Mumbai. It was historically a Baghdadi Jewish population. That’s really interesting, really interesting migration pattern, real interesting food. They speak Ladino not Yiddish. They’re Sephardic. It’s really tiny. I’ve met maybe one or two Indian Jews in Mumbai.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. The seder is such a special moment because you’re forced to always think about all the people around the world doing the exact same thing. Now when I have my next seder, I can think about you in India. It really is all over the place. It’s very special in that way. Tell me a little more about the process of writing Mother Land. How long did it take you to write? Where? Were you over there? Tell me when and where you wrote it and all of that good stuff.

Leah: I’m a big drafter. I’ve realized that over time. I have come to terms with that. That’s my process. I’m a fast writer who writes many drafts. So far, that’s what’s served me. I was already living in Mumbai when I started writing Mother Land. I started writing it about six months before my first novel, America for Beginners, was released. I worked on the first draft in Mumbai. Then I was really lucky. I got a writer’s residency in Italy, which was an incredible experience. I worked on the second draft there, which was also very interesting to work on this novel that’s very much set in and embedded in Mumbai in an idyllic vineyard in Italy. That was real cognitive dissonance there, but incredible. Then I worked subsequent drafts with the help of my incredible agent, Julia Kardon, who’s always just so great at really seeing the things that I’m trying to do and failing at doing in my novels and helping me actually do them. Then eventually we sent this to my editor. Of course, she had incredible feedback, incredible edits, as Rachel always does. By the time it finally sold, it had been about a year that I’d been working on it. Then of course, there are subsequent drafts after my editor agreed to publish it with her. I think that it probably, all told, the first time I put fingers to computer versus final copy, probably around a year and nine, ten months, about two years.

Zibby: That’s not bad.

Leah: No.

Zibby: That’s fairly fast on the continuum.

Leah: This is a book that really came out of me fairly quickly. I knew these two characters really well. I had an idea of the story. It’s really about these two people. The intricate plotting that you sometimes do was not as much of the labor as, how do I most authentically really layer these people such that they both feel complete and total and really true?

Zibby: Now that it’s out in the world, are you already attacking a new project? Are you focused mostly on publicity and all the rest that comes with releasing a book into the world, especially during this time?

Leah: Boy, during this time is a whole other — I think that all of us in the world are like, what are we doing during this time? I think that all of us creatively are, we’re all having parallel experiences of, has this made us incredibly productive? Is this a creatively rich time? Is this a creatively draining time where that’s just not possible? Those are both totally fair responses. There’s no right way to be an artist. There’s certainly no right way to be an artist or person right now. I’m always working on a lot of news things. My husband likes to joke — I met my husband in graduate school for dramatic writing. One of the arts of dramatic writing is distillation. When I got into fiction, it was such an incredible release because you don’t have to be as distilled in fiction. My husband jokes that of course I’ve become a novelist because I have so much to say. He’s right in many ways. I do, I have so many stories I’m interested in. I have so many things that I love writing. Right now, I am working on a new novel. I’m working on several TV scripts. I finished the first draft of a new play I’d been working on for a long time. I think that I’m really motivated by having multiple stories happening at once. They lift the weight of wanting to say everything in one place on the other. Actually, for me, spreading it out frees the work up to be what it wants to be rather than me trying to cram everything I’m thinking into one place at one time. I’m always working on a lot of things.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Leah: Oh, boy, so much. Then also, who am I to give advice? I feel both things very strongly.

Zibby: It’s okay. You are completely in the right to give advice. I am holding your novel in my hand. That means that you can give advice.

Leah: One of the things I often credit pursuing training in dramatic writing doing for me as a novelist is that, whether you do a program for it or not, I think the act of pursuing dramatic writing pushes you very hard to be un-precious because you write a lot of things into the void. You are encouraged in that field to write a lot of things and then discard them and write something news. Often in a dramatic writer’s portfolio, they might have anywhere from five to ten scripts that they’ve worked on. Say you’re a TV writer. One of those might get you onto a writers’ room, and none of them will ever actually be made. They’re the samples you made that you hoped would go somewhere but they didn’t. Then you move on and you move on. There’s a lot of throwing things out and moving on, throwing and moving. I think that that’s especially in more commercial programs. I would say NYU is both an artistic and a commercial program. That’s the graduate school I went to. There is this push towards anti-preciousness. I think that there’s a time in your process to fall in love with what you have to say. I do it every time. There’s also a time to throw a lot out the door, especially if you’re a writer like me. I think the best advice I have is, there’s this impulse to write one thing and put so much weight and love into it that the idea of writing another thing feels like a horrible waste or incredible pain. What you might end up with is one very beautiful thing that nobody wants to publish or serves you at a certain point in time and doesn’t serve you later.

I think that the best advice I have is just to write lots of things. Write lots of stories. Yes, of course treasure that big novel inside of you that takes ten years to write. One of the things that writers who spend a lot more time on a project than maybe I have right now is that they also had ten other things they were writing in that time. When we talk about a writer who’s spent ten years on a book, they’ve often written and done so many other things that kept fueling that, kept fueling that one big thing. The myth of, I worked on a novel for fifteen years and then it was Swann’s Way, I think it tricks people into feeling that all of their mental energy should be spent on this one thing, and then it’ll be perfect. Maybe there are people who work like that, and that’s incredible. For me, the most fruitful thing to keep myself writing, keep myself excited, because you want to fall in love, you want to be excited about the work, is to write multiple things at once and let yourself remember that you have more than one story in you.

Zibby: I love that. Leah, thank you so much. I love the fact that we can talk across the entire planet, basically, about your book and that words can unite so much. It’s so great. It just feels so neat to be able to do this from where you are and have your words here in my home and you’re so far away. It’s very cool.

Leah: I love that. I love that about story. When I first met my husband, we were talking about this. He had this anxiety about the kind of stories he wanted to tell. Who’s going to care? Who’s going to care about this story set in Kolkata? We’re in a grad school in New York. Who’s going to care? I asked him, “What are some of the stories that you’ve loved the best? Do they all come from exactly your life perspective?” He was like, “No. I love the Blue, White, and Red trilogy. I love Oldboy. I love all of these things that come out of my context but helped me see something in my context.” I think that’s the incredible thing about story.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Thank you. Thanks for coming on the show.

Leah: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been such a pleasure.

Zibby: I can’t wait to read what you have coming up. I never read America for Beginners. I’m going to go back and read that. Looking forward to your next batch.

Leah: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. It’s been an incredible pleasure.

Zibby: Bye.

Leah Franqui, MOTHER LAND