Writer and historian Nishant Batsha joins Zibby to talk about his debut novel, Mother Ocean Father Nation, which he wrote in tandem with his dissertation on Indian indentured labor in Trinidad and Fiji. Nishant shares how he wrote four different books and pulled parts from each before combining them all and arriving at the story that was eventually published. The two also discuss the advice Nishant received from other writers with PhDs that shaped his career trajectory, how he found his way to academia after a medical emergency in his late teens, and the history at the center of his next book, A Bomb Placed Close to the Heart.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nishant. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mother Ocean Father Nation. I just saw the news about your new book deal. Congratulations on that as well.

Nishant Batsha: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me today.

Zibby: My pleasure. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Nishant: Mother Ocean Father Nation is set on an unnamed, fictional South Pacific island nation in the mid-1980s. It follows the story of a brother and a sister, Jaipal and Bhumi. Their country is, at that point, falling apart. There’s a military coup that’s happening in the background fueled by a lot of fervent nationalism. The book follows these siblings during this heady time. Bhumi eventually has to leave the country as a refugee to California, whereas Jaipal stays behind.

Zibby: Interesting. Why this book? Where did this come from?

Nishant: First, it came out of a lot of books. I wrote this over three years. I wrote four or five books to get to this one. I would write full manuscripts and abandon them. Usually, there’d be one character or one kernel of information that I’d find interesting, and that would fuel the next book. It really was not the most efficient way of writing. it to anyone. I think I have hundreds of thousands of words on my computer that no one will ever see, will never see the light of day. While I was writing, experimenting, and finding these characters, I was also doing a PhD in history at Columbia. While I was at Columbia, I was writing my dissertation on Indian indentured servitude in Fiji and Trinidad. For those who don’t know, after slavery was abolished in 1835, the British Empire used indentured Indian labor. From South Asia, from the subcontinent, they would be sent across the globe to sugar plantations starting in the Caribbean, but then in the Indian Ocean and places like Mauritius in East Africa, in Southeast Asia, and in the South Pacific in Fiji.

They would work five-year contracts that they could not get out of once that document had been signed. If they wanted to ever go back home, they’d have to work another five years. Because no one wanted to go back to the sugar plantations after those five years — it was quite hellacious — they would just end their contracts, and they would stay in these islands. That’s why, to this day, places like Trinidad and Guinea and South Africa and Uganda have Indian populations. It all dates back to this. That introduced me to this whole Indian diaspora that I knew very little about. I was writing a book and doing this research in tandem. I can’t say that one fueled the other. They were just both happening. The characters from one would suffuse through my mind. That experience during research formed a sort of background to this book where the characters emerged as I was doing these fictional practice runs on novels. It was a very productive writing time. I wrote a lot during those years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I want to know when the moment — what was it like after finishing draft three or draft four and being like, no, this one didn’t work either? How did you even get to that point and decide, no, I’m starting over again?

Nishant: It’s like lightning-flash moments. I remember I was writing one draft. I was on vacation with my wife in San Luis Obispo, California. In that moment of relaxation, you’re able to unwind. I was just like, this is not working. I need to start over. It didn’t ruin the vacation. In fact, it was quite freeing. It’s like, okay, this is what’s not working. When I get back home, this is what I’m going to do. This is how it’s going to work. My favorite story, though, is that when I thought I was actually really done with this book, I gave it to my literary agent, Jamie Carr, who’s a wonderful editor. She’s over at The Book Group. She read it. She’s like, “It’s good.” You never want to hear that. It’s just that lukewarm, it’s good. Then she asked this question. Jaipal, who is a major character in the book, he was not actually in that draft. She asked this question. “What’s he up to?” The only line about him was that he stayed in the country. She asked me, “What’s he doing? What’s happening in the country? What’s his life like?” I really resisted that question. I said, “Oh, no. I know exactly what you’re asking. I know exactly what you want. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to write a new book.” Then she said, “Sit with it for a week.” I sat with it for a week. I was like, this is the best question because I get to return to the material. I get to see it from a completely different point of view. I get to really explore the ins and outs. Whereas Bhumi was written over the course of four or five years, all the Jaipal stuff was written in six months. It was like a fever dream. Like a surgeon, I had to go back and graft him into the manuscript to make it seem like he was always there and make it this seamless narrative. That was the most fun revision. I could say it was fun now from where I’m sitting. In the time, it was a lot of work.

Zibby: Meanwhile, this whole time, I’ve been trying to remember the name of that famous hotel in San Luis Obispo? Wasn’t it called the Madonna Inn or something? Was that it?

Nishant: Yes, the Madonna Inn.

Zibby: Is that where you were?

Nishant: Madonna Inn, but that is a very strange hotel. I have a postcard from a friend of mine who said he was obsessed with it as a seven-year-old. He has all these postcards of the Madonna Inn.

Zibby: It’s so hot. We drove down the California coast last summer and stopped there to use the bathroom or something ridiculous. It was a thousand degrees. We were like, oh, my gosh, we have to get out of here. Anyway, wait, so take me back to getting started and why you’re getting a PhD to begin with. Where did your whole career begin? What were you interested in as a kid? Did you always want to write? Were you always into history? Where were you born? I don’t know. Just take me up to here quickly.

Nishant: I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. I grew up in California. I can’t say I wanted to be anything growing up. I read a lot. I was always at the library. My public library was my favorite place from when I was a kid through high school. Once I learned how to drive, I would actually drive myself there every day to finish my homework and then just hang out in the library until closing.

Zibby: How far was the library from your house?

Nishant: Maybe fifteen minutes. It was that California sprawl where nothing is walkable, but everything is a fifteen/twenty-minute drive. I’d drive from my high school, which was twenty minutes away, to the library and then back home. It was kind of a triangle. My parents, I think they — I look back and it’s like, man, I was a great kid any parents would be lucky to have. I don’t think being a writer or being in the humanities ever really crossed my mind. It just wasn’t something that I was exposed to. I was the only person in my family who read books. My father came to this country in the seventies with my mother. He was an engineer. My mother has worked at the same Target store in Dublin, California, since 1990. There’s sort of an inherent stability, “don’t rock the boat” mentality to both of them. It was in college where I first discovered history and the humanities in general. I had come back from a medical leave. I actually was very sick in my first year of college. I had to withdraw from school. I was in the hospital for a while.

Zibby: What happened?

Nishant: We know now about COVID and post-viral syndrome. I had a flu, and then it just never left. I had a long illness that they had to — at the time, this was fifteen, sixteen years ago. They really didn’t know how to treat stuff like that. It was just sort of like, wait it out. I hope you get your energy back. I eventually did and came back. It was like, what do I do now? I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. It was like my forward momentum had been brought to a halt at age eighteen. It was a professor in a history class that I just took on a lark, Caterina Pizzigoni, Latina American Civilization 1 — it was a two-hundred-person class. She pulled me aside and said, “You have a talent for writing. Have you thought about being a history major?” I was starry-eyed. I was like, I’m going to become a historian, and was on that track. Before I started my PhD at Columbia, I was actually at Oxford in the UK. I had this summer in between where I had nothing to do. I was sitting at pubs and writing just for myself, which was what my writing practice had been for a long time.

I had an essay published on this website called The All, which, sadly, no longer exists. A lot of writers passed through The All in its heyday. I thought, oh, people will read my writing. I’m going to write some more. Maybe I’ll start working on a book or something. I started doing that more and more. By the time I got to my PhD program, I was like, I’m leaving. I found something new. I’m going to embark on that path. I ended up reaching out to a couple writers who I knew had PhDs and asked for their advice. They were like, “Just stay. You don’t know how good you have it. You’ve got a stipend. You’ve got health insurance. You’re living in New York. This is a pretty good life.” I stayed and switched my research to working on Indian indenture. I was off to the races from there. The book and the research really worked in tandem. Because I was doing that project, I got to spend a whole year traveling. I was in Trinidad during Carnival, met up with some artists and poets there and joined their Carnival band and lived in Fiji for several months, spent some time in an archive in Hawaii.

Zibby: That’s amazing.

Nishant: It was great. I highly recommend it. It was also great because I was writing on the side. I wrote this essay in Fiji about the Methodist Church in Fiji. The Methodist Church supported one of the three coups Fiji’s had since independence. One of the coups is explicitly anti-Indian. There was this Indian division of the Methodist Church. I interviewed members of its leadership asking them, why are you here? Why are you in this church? The answer is that paradox, schizophrenia faith where people found belonging even in a place that was not necessarily welcoming to them. That essay really opened up a whole series of questions for me about race, nation, home. From there, those little novel projects I was working on found a place. It grew in fertile soil from there.

Zibby: Wow. Who are these other authors? Did they throw you a book party? is what I want to know, who told you not to quit your PhD program.

Nishant: The authors were the poet Mónica de la Torre, who was then — at that point, she was the fiction editor at Bomb Magazine. I was Bomb’s shortest-lived intern. I think I interned there for two weeks. In those two weeks, I was able to glean some advice from her. The other writer was the writer Siddhartha Deb, who teaches at the Eugene Lang School at The New School. He has written several novels and a great work of nonfiction. Unfortunately, they did not throw me a book party. You fall in and out of touch with people. These people were of monumental importance at a very key point in my life. I will always think of them as mensches, but you just sort of lose touch over time, unfortunately.

Zibby: Excellent advice.

Nishant: Yes, my life would not be the same without it.

Zibby: What is it like now after all of these iterations of this book to have it finally be what it is and come out and all of that?

Nishant: Surreal. I kind of forget that I wrote it, to be honest. I’m a type of writer that just writes and moves on. I have to remind myself from time to time that I actually wrote it and it was published because now I’m immersed in this next . I gave myself a week between — maybe it was two weeks — between when I submitted the final copy to my editor at Ecco, Sara Birmingham, and when I started something new. In those two weeks, I was just really restless. It’s like, what do I do? What do I do? I need something to work on. My children are three and fifteen months. I’ve got plenty to do. There was still this part of me that was feeling very restless. Two weeks after I submitted that, I started this new project.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me more about that. The title, I’m forgetting now. It was in Publishers Marketplace. Something about a bomb?

Nishant: This book is called A Bomb Placed Close to the Heart. It’s set in 1917 in Palo Alto, California, a strange place to set a book. In 1917 and in the early 1910s, a lot of Indian revolutionaries found their way to California. Some of them were farmhands in the Central Valley. Some of them were intellectuals who gravitated towards the campuses of Stanford and UC Berkeley. They were just, as one does, plotting to overthrow the British Empire. A lot of these men, and they were all men who came, fell in love with American women, with white students on these campuses. Many of them married them, which is remarkable for many reasons. One, interracial was not legal in all fifty states. Two, this was a time of great anti-Asian sentiment. Marrying across racial lines, and especially marrying an Asian man, really not only gets you in social trouble, but as subsequent laws would prove, they were at risk of losing their American citizenship by marrying Indian men. These women, who would then themselves join the revolutionary movements, loved at great risk. I remember reading about this thinking, this is really heady material. There were British spies who came in trying to track these men down. Ultimately, after the US entered World War I, many of them were branded as traitors because being against the British meant you were against the allies in World War I. They were branded as German spies. They were rounded up. A lot of them were deported. The book follows an Indian revolutionary and the woman he falls in love with from Palo Alto and, as they are forced to escape, follows him from Palo Alto to New York City and beyond during this period of, to me, great interest and great intrigue that I don’t think many people really know about. There are a lot of stories in this time. I’m just so excited to be able to tell a little one that’s a very interesting part of American history.

Zibby: That’s so great. Oh, my gosh, I can’t wait to read it. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Nishant: This is not very unique advice. Everything boils down to an interesting amalgamation of luck and persistence. There’s nothing we can control about luck. Luck is luck. The amount of my writing career that has come down to just sheer willpower and persistence is actually astounding. If you’re at the very beginning, there’s going to be a lot of failure. There’s going to be a lot of rejection. If you truly believe in what you’re writing and what you’re working on, all you can do is keep submitting. Keep trying. Keep irrationally putting yourself out there and believing in the value of your work because there’s many opportunities to quit. In fact, quitting is the easiest path. If there’s truly something in there that you believe in, then it’s just going to come down to sheer tenacity and grit. All the things a parent or mentor figures have told us is important, it’s actually true. You just have to keep working hard and trying.

Zibby: I hate when my mom is right.

Nishant: I know. Isn’t it annoying?

Zibby: So annoying.

Nishant: It all comes down to just working hard.

Zibby: I was literally just saying to someone, I hear myself giving my kids the same advice that my mom gave me. I was like, but I didn’t like that. I raged against that advice. I never thought that was good. Now that’s what I’m using. Could I not come up with anything else? Pathetic. Totally pathetic, but there you have it.

Nishant: It’s timeless.

Zibby: I know, timeless advice. Oh, well. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for giving me this whole background. I’m totally fascinated. I feel like you are going to continue to find all these amazing little stories. The excitement you have over them is really palpable. It’s great. It’s really awesome. Congratulations on your book. I can’t wait to follow along with your career.

Nishant: Thanks so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care.

Nishant: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Nishant: Bye.



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