Write Now with Rashi Rohatgi

How an English professor writes novels about unlikable girls

Write Now with Rashi Rohatgi
Photo courtesy of Rashi Rohatgi

Who Are You?

I’m Rashi Rohatgi, an associate professor of English originally from Pennsylvania and now based in Arctic Norway.

What Do You Write?

I write novels featuring unlikeable women and girls, usually brown.

As a kid, I read a lot, and not always wisely: somehow I got my hands on A Bell Jar as a preteen and decided to begin my writerly life by entering the contest that started Sylvia Plath’s career. I got a lovely response complimenting me on the quality of my writing but noting that a meditation on seasonal death and renewal featuring a serial killing protagonist wasn’t a great fit for a women’s magazine.

I’m still drawn to writing about terrible people, which means that sometimes I hate what I do. When I can’t stand being in my characters’ heads for another second, I sometimes try to switch genre: I read a lot of multicultural romance and try to write a character about to have a happy ending. But it turns out that I’m not as compassionate as I want to be, and so far my stronger work is tragedy.

Where Do You Write?

I write at the library when I get there — my local is an amazing building with huge windows looking out into the sea, islands floating on the horizon, and cozy Scandi furniture — where it’s just me and my laptop and a thermos-full of Lipton green tea with pear and rose. But I’ve just moved into a place with a couch overlooking the sea from a different angle and the lure of unlimited snacks has been very strong. Everything eventually ends up in a word document, but I like to start in a draft e-mail — imagining a receptive confidante helps me get away from the rhythms and phrases of the office and back into my own head.

When Do You Write?

The writing of my debut, Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow, coincided with the infancy and toddlerhood of my first child, and I’m still not out of that phase of motherhood where time seems like a shape-shifting demon who feeds on sleep and dehydration. And then my mentors and reading partners were spread throughout time zones, so I’d be on Skype chats getting feedback at 3am. But now that I’m in the earlier stages of my next work, it’s more solitary, so I just write whenever I get time, though I still like stopping in the middle of an intense scene and then peering through the darkness to my son spread out asleep, a happy starfish.

Why Do You Write?

I think like a lot of people I started writing fiction because it seemed, albeit counter-intuitively, like a more direct way to communicate.

As a toddler, I was very into Bollywood movies, and wanted to be a star, which I thought would require being a triple threat actor/dancer/singer (I didn’t realize that they use playback singers). I got my mom to sign me up for a dance class, and hammed it up all over the house, but I couldn’t figure out how to assemble an entire camera and distribution crew. Turns out my brother would become a producer, so perhaps I should have just waited, but instead I figured I would start writing stories, which I could just read to, or send to, anyone I wanted to share my big emotions with.

Turns out, I’m a better reader than writer when it comes to direct communication. I love fan fiction, I will drop everything to follow a book recommendation, but I started school and my world grew whiter, I lost confidence in sharing my work. It seemed that just as no one in the ’80s liked Bollywood, no one wanted to read about brown girls. But obviously there were people writing brown girls’ stories all throughout that time: they were just really hard to find. So part of what drives me to write is simply to communicate my existence to a world that hasn’t always made me feel seen.

But conversely I also feel best able to see the world when I’m writing about it. I was a teenager during 9/11 and part of me will always be trying to unravel everything about that time and put it back together so it makes sense.

How Do You Overcome Writer’s Block?

I used to walk, endlessly, aimlessly, sometimes hopping on a bus before and after for a change of scenery, but now that it’s impractical I generally either distractedly do housework or read poetry. I’m a translator myself, and The Poetry Translation Centre website is my go-to for when I need to be transported. My toddler is also very into religion these days, so we have a puja altar, the sight of which will sometimes pull me back into one of the stretches or routines I practiced endlessly as a teenage Hindu temple dance obsessive.

Bonus: What Do You Enjoy Doing When Not Writing?

Is it very lame to say that I enjoy my job? Part of the reason my partner and I moved to Norway was because of how much of our headspace was taken up with making sure our students had enough money to live, let alone study. Here, higher education is free and everything feels different. Norway isn’t perfect by a long shot, and even in the US I’d suggest we make sure everyone is fed and given access to free healthcare and daycare before moving onto free college for all, but I enjoy reading, thinking, and writing about marginalized literature from around the world and sharing what I learn with students. Also the kid and I go to the Body Shop and try on a various scented lotions at least three times a week.