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INTERVIEW

Your four previous novels—A Breath of Fresh Air, The Mango Season, Serving Crazy with Curry, and Song of the Cuckoo Bird—all focus on Indians.  THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE is your first novel set in Denmark, and it focuses on the relationship between a Danish widower and a refugee from Afghanistan.  Why?  What drew you to this setting?

I moved to Denmark in 2002 for family and to experience Europe.  My husband is Danish; and even though we absolutely loved living in California, we’d just had our son Tobias, and it seemed like a good idea.  

There have been good things and bad about living in Denmark.  There are mornings when I wake up, look at the glum skies and ask my husband, “Why? We were living in California!”  Denmark has the topography of Texas coupled with the weather in Seattle.  But I personally like the Danish summers (this remark is usually met with wide eyes). Coming from India, it’s nice to be in a place where it doesn’t get too hot and when it does, it rains in between so you get a little respite.  

Denmark is also a great place to be if you have small kids. The work environment is very family friendly (you get a whole year of maternity leave), which makes it very attractive for someone like me who has two small kids.  And childcare in general is fabulous and most importantly, subsidized, which means it’s affordable.  Of course, the drawbacks are that you pay 65% in tax and nearly 180% in tax on cars (my husband would like to buy a Mustang but at that price tag…).  And after living in the U.S., I’m hesitant about the free healthcare—you get what you pay for.   

After moving to Denmark, I felt like I should write about this country.  I took a few Danish language classes and met many refugees there.  I was curious as to how they lived in Denmark.  I’m an immigrant, and I can go back to my home country whenever I want with no real repercussions. Most refugees can’t go back home—home is a war ruin and they yearn for it in a different way than I do.  Also, Denmark is a difficult country for immigrants.  If I found it hard with a Danish husband, a family network, education, and employment, I wondered how a refugee with none of my advantages felt.  

The idea of the book came to me as soon as I moved because Danish sounded like the buzzing bees—the rest fell into place with every passing day I lived in Denmark.  


Raihana flees the atrocities of the Taliban to begin a new life with a small community of refugees who have already begun to establish themselves in Denmark.  Her friend Layla tells her, “If you keep one foot in Afghanistan, you will be neither here nor there.”  Do you think Layla is correct?  How does Raihana negotiate the line between her old life and her new one? 

I had a fabulous Danish teacher, Linda Mølgaard, and she told me the story about a Bosnian woman who always talked about going home.  But when it came time to go home, she realized that she liked living in Denmark and didn’t want to leave.  She felt she had wasted so many years, yearning for a home she didn’t want to live in.  

I met many refugees who felt the same way.  They wanted to go back home but they had gotten used to life in the West and they weren’t sure if they could go back—but the desire to go back was very strong.  I wanted to explore this idea in THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE, not just for Raihana but also for Kabir, the man who helps bring her to Denmark.  

I think Raihana negotiates the line between her old life and her new one by accepting the challenges put in front of her and by not shying away from what is uncomfortable and new.  The fact that she decides to work for Gunnar, a Danish man, shows her courage and her desire to move on.  But Raihana is still a woman from a conservative background—she doesn’t follow her dream of staying single and finding a career like Danish women, she gets married to an Afghan.  I think this is how she keeps her culture while trying to become a Dane.  


In THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE, Raihana has to learn Danish in order to become a Danish citizen.  How would you describe the Danish language?  In your opinion, to what extent does learning an adopted country’s language confer citizenship?

What a provocative question!  Danes believes that the Danish language is extremely difficult.  I think that it isn’t too bad.  They use the English alphabet (and add a few of their own letters as well).  It would be much harder to learn an Indian language, or Japanese, or Mandarin, where the alphabet looks like a designer drew them.  

I think if you want to be a citizen of a country it is important that you learn the national language.  I think about changing my citizenship because having an Indian passport is a serious nuisance (you need a visa to go anywhere) and then I wonder if that would be right, considering I am ambivalent about Denmark.  If I do change my citizenship in the future, I hope I will do it because I have fallen in love with the country and my Danish has gone beyond the basics. 

Refugees in Denmark don’t have these options. They are not allowed to work until they finish their Danish education, and since they have to live off of the government during this time, they are obligated to learn the language.  In any case, most of them don’t speak English, so they have to learn Danish in order to survive, get a job, and live successfully in Denmark. 


Raihana has to set up a praktik as part of her language training.  A widowed beekeeper named Gunnar agrees to teach Raihana both Danish and beekeeping over the course of a bee season.  How did you research the beekeeping profession?  Did you learn anything about bees that particularly intrigued or surprised you?

Someone asked me, “Why a beekeeper? Why not a carpenter or an electrician?”  Well, the answer was simple: I associated the Danish language with the buzzing of bees, and hence I chose to make Gunnar a beekeeper.  

In the back of my mind, I think I knew that making Gunnar a beekeeper would serve me well because my husband’s uncle is a beekeeping expert.  He taught me everything I know about beekeeping (plus he went through the entire manuscript to mark all the beekeeping mistakes).

Everything I learnt about bees surprised and intrigued me. But the fact that they dance still impresses me.  Bees communicate to other bees the distance, direction, quality, and quantity of a food source with a unique dance—and for every specific communication, there is a different type of dance.  I think that’s very cool!


Gunnar and Raihana’s unusual relationship raises uncomfortable questions about the ethical and emotional implications of immigration in their respective communities.  In your opinion, what are the central issues at stake?  To what extent are they unique to Denmark?

Denmark is a very homogenous society.  It isn’t just the brown-skinned people who feel out of place; most foreigners feel that they have to work very hard to live in Denmark, and even after all that work they aren’t completely accepted.  One of my closest friends is German, and she lived in Denmark for nearly two years.  Recently, she was back for a weekend and she said, “It’s so nice to just visit. I’m a tourist now, I don’t need to try and fit in anymore.” An American friend of mine who moved around in the U.S. a lot said that it was always easy for her build a social network in a new place in U.S., but she was unable to do that in Denmark.

I think this is one of the biggest problems immigrants face in Denmark—and that is the inability to truly become part of the society. I have only lived in three countries outside of India, and in both the U.S. and the U.K., the locals are open to foreigners. 

The fact that immigrants like to stick together, not just in Denmark, but everywhere, doesn’t help either. My parents lived in Fremont, CA for nearly ten years.  They lived in a neighborhood that was entirely Indian, and they had only Indian friends.  Refugee and immigrant communities in Denmark face the same problem—they isolate themselves.  A Danish colleague of mine once said to me, “If I saw them (them being second-generation Danes from Turkey, Iran etc.) more in my normal setting, I’d be able to know them and accept them.”

Besides the issues of just basic integration, I feel that something seriously needs to be done about how long it takes to process asylum applications in Denmark (and probably other places in the world).  There are applicants who sit in asylum centers (some converted prisons) for 5-6 years, waiting to hear what will happen to them.  In the meantime, their children are not allowed to go to school—it’s a terrible life, and this is happening right here in Denmark.  And once these families do get asylum, I think they feel cut off from their host country and maybe even bitter for having to wait so long.  It doesn’t help them get integrated into Danish society quickly.  


In your author’s note, you write, “This is not a love story.  I had thought it would be but it didn’t turn out that way.”  If it’s not a love story, how would you describe THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE?  What do you hope your novel will accomplish?

THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE is the story of a unique friendship.  Every language has a sound and beyond that sound is acceptance and that’s what my book is about.  I hope that those who read it will re-evaluate any prejudices they have, and I hope very much that they will start to question how their governments treat refugees and immigrants.  But most importantly, I hope that my readers have a good time reading this book—that they are entertained (and then run to re-read all my other books!).  


What can your readers expect to see next from you?

I am now working on a book titled All the Colors in Between.  This book is set in the San Francisco Bay Area and is about an Indian woman, Naina, who is going through a divorce (Indians don’t divorce), her American and white stepmother (her father married Miranda just a year after Naina’s very Indian mother died), her best friend (a black woman who’s dating a slimy Indian man who will never marry her)—and last but not the least, her dead great aunt, a famous actress in black and white Bollywood, who haunts Naina’s dreams, visiting her on black and white Hindi movie sets.  Between a Bollywood director screaming “cut” in her black and white dreams; her future ex-husband promising to wage war against the much-needed divorce so that he doesn’t have to tell his parents; and her attraction to her cousin’s husband as well as a man whose name she doesn’t know, Naina has to navigate treacherous emotional minefields and grow up.  I’m having a great time working on All the Colors in Between; it’s a good change from my last two books, which were quite serious.

Raihana put a finger into the hive and the warmth inside shot through her finger. She put her finger in her mouth and the flavor of honey exploded. It was like waking up, she thought giddily.

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