Interview with Tony D'Souza, author of The Konkans

The author of Whiteman, Tony D'Souza, talks with us about family and his new book, The Konkans.

Question: Culture and cultural identity are at the heart of this story. Lawrence’s struggle to assimilate is contrasted with Sam’s refusal to give up his Goan roots entirely; yet, neither brother is truly accepted in American society. Why do you think it’s so difficult for outsiders to find their place in this country?

Tony D'Souza: The older brother in the novel, Lawrence, is driven by many of those things that are valued and encouraged in America, mainly the accumulating of wealth and power. He puts on his suit every day, follows orders, and does his work. His younger brother Sam, on the other hand, likes to party, likes to drive around the city in his car, and is not motivated to “keep up with the Joneses” but rather gets a lot of pleasure out of gardening and looking at trees. Of course, Lawrence has the education that Sam doesn’t, and that allows him into the corporate world in the first place. But I’d speculate that Sam is of the sort that even if he had a college degree, he still would not put his nose to the grindstone the way that Lawrence does. In Sam and his relationship to the natural world, Denise is reminded of what was important to her during her Peace Corps years in India, and this longing for that time seems to lead her into Sam’s arms to begin their affair.

But the irony is that no matter how hard Lawrence works to be accepted as a contributing member of the culture, the culture does not truly want him because of his skin color. Maybe people will take umbrage with The Konkans and say that America is not really like that, that America is not such a racist place. But I think that American identity at its core is a question of race and always has been. So the novel is about all of those things: race, culture, assimilationm and its costs. While the book is about the Konkans and India, it is also about America and what America does to people when they arrive here.

Q: The Konkani are different from their Indian neighbors. Can you talk about why they are referred to as “the Jews of India?”

TD: Growing up, I often heard my uncles and my mother refer to the Konkans as “the Jews of India.” Obviously this sort of thing is not politically correct,but neither is the novel. Basically, the Konkans referred to that way because they are a small, highly insular minority group. Relatively educated and wealthy, they are proud of their history to the point of arrogance, , and have a reputation for being ruthless businessmen who will do just about anything to make money. Konkans try to marry within the ethnic group and often consider themselves better than the Hindu and Muslim majorities that they live among. So they are regarded by outsiders with a measured level of respect and distrust. Though they are of India, they are also seen by the Hindus as something apart. And, as with the Jews, the Konkans see themselves as something apart as well.

Q: The narrator of The Konkans is young Francisco D’Sai, the latest in a long line of first-born sons. We learn the story of his family and his culture through him, though many events are retold by different characters. Why do you employ this technique in your storytelling?

TD: The South African novelist Mark Behr wrote a book I admire called The Smell of Apples, about the ugliest days of apartheid. That book is narrated by a young boy who is the son of a white South African military man; he’s a brutal man—a man capable of murdering blacks on the one hand, and loving his family on the other. The voice has always stayed with me. I’ve always loved that book and considered the technique a fine one for taking us into the very belly of the beast with the necessary innocence to see that the greatest evils in the world are not committed by monsters, not by Hitlers or Stalins, but by everyday people who follow orders, by those who trespass against one another in the protection of their families.

I used that in The Konkans because it allows us to get a very intimate look at the D’Sais, to enter the very bedrooms of the action. Francisco has the right to do that because of what he knows and because of his proximity to the principal players. But Francisco is still a child; though he is narrating from the remove of adulthood through the lens of his childhood even that innocence remains, that love for all of them as he loved them as a child remains. Also there is the mystery of it all that made him wonder then, “Why is my mother kissing my Uncle Sam?” So part of the narrative technique was consciously chosen by me, but really, in the writing of it, I just went with it and didn’t think too much about it. That’s the pleasure of writing: trusting yourself, enjoying the story, going where it takes you, and then figuring out why it worked or did not work later on.

Q: As in your critically acclaimed debut Whiteman, The Konkans also draws heavily on your life and family. Why do you weave autobiographical elements into your works of fiction?

TD: I want my fiction to feel real. I don’t know why, but books that feel fake—the ones that the whole time you are reading them you know they are fake—they don’t satisfy me. I love books where I not only get caught up in the story, but I also don’t question that the characters really lived, even when I know that they didn’t. Catherine and Heathcliff are real people to me. Huck and Jim really did sail on that raft. I mean I know that they didn’t, but I also know that they did.

I lived in a village in West Africa for three years, I had all the details to make the world of Whiteman feel real. I grew up in a mixed Konkan and white family so I had all the details to write The Konkans. Lawrence, Sam, Denise, even Francisco, and the things they do in this book, while partly based on stories or events from my life and my parents’ lives, incorporate so much storytelling and fiction that anyone wishing that this was the way it was for the D’Souzas will be mistaken. For example, no one in my family ever had an affair that I know about. Storytelling for me is first and foremost about entertainment. So I start with what I know and then I make up the good bits. Whiteman was as made up as The Konkans is. It’s fake, fiction, phony. But it is also real.

All of that said, Whiteman does record things that happened in Africa that I don’t want to lose. I think that I will be able to pass The Konkans on to my children and know that through it they will get to know where they come from and who their antecedents were.

Q: Like your own mother, Denise served in the Peace Corps in India. You also joined the Peace Corps and spent three years teaching AIDS awareness in West Africa. How did that experience change you?

TD: Peace Corps was the singular event in my life. I had traveled quite a bit before then and have traveled a lot since. But for that time I was forced to commit to one village of this world that was so wholly different than anything I had ever known, and, unlike when you are traveling, I could not leave when I got sick of it. I stayed through illness, through the deaths of friends, even through part of a war. Kids were born around me, old people died, I saw three Ramadans, three growing seasons, three harvests. And still it feels to me now like a dream, like I wasn’t really there at all.

Very few people get to experience another culture in any significant way. Very, very few non-African people get to spend that amount of time in an African village. Now, I often look about me at America with something like African eyes. It makes me want to wonder at the grandeur of it, but also to criticize the shortcomings. I think it’s helped to give me a unique voice.

There is nothing in my life that I would do over. I would especially not give back my time in Africa. My mother feels the same way about her time in India, even now, forty years later. My girlfriend and I are expecting in August. I think I’ll put a brochure for the Peace Corps in my baby’s crib. I wear my Peace Corps pin all the time though I am very ambivalent about the organization itself. But my time among the people in that village, that is what I think of when I think of the Peace Corps; the faces, the landscape, my times in it good and difficult, that is what I am so proud of. Not a moment of it was easy but it was also nothing but good—at least for me. What it meant to the Africans I’ll never really know.

Q: Whiteman received rave reviews from critics and readers alike. In light of that book’s success, was it more challenging to write The Konkans?

TD: The first thing my agent Liz Darhansoff said to me on the sale of the Whiteman manuscript was, “Go to your room and start a new book.” And despite the excitement and distraction and giddiness of that time, I did. But I was overwhelmed because so much happened with Whiteman even before it released. Not to mention that I had poured my heart and soul into that book in a five-month fever of writing. So maybe I needed a break, too, just to recharge.

Anyway, for just over a year after selling Whiteman, I wrote literally every day and nothing good came of it except one short story and one poem. I had twenty-three pages of work from a year of writing full-time. I cried, I beat my head on my writing table, I pulled out my hair, I drank, I smoked, I tried everything. Then I just stopped fighting the muse. I stepped away from writing for a few weeks, and when I went back to the page, I came up with the first line of The Konkans as it still is. That was two months before the release of Whiteman and that book’s advance was mostly gone. Of course, I didn’t know what kind of reception Whiteman would receive, and I didn’t know what the future held. But I had a good line and, pretty soon, I had some good scenes and a couple of good chapters.

In the two months before I went on the Whiteman book tour, I wrote like mad every day and finished the first two parts of The Konkans. Then I went on a twenty-five-city, three-month tour for Whiteman that spit me out in London where I rented a studio just off Kensington Gardens that I absolutely could not afford. From sunup to sundown for six weeks I drank Stella Artois and worked on The Konkans. So both of my books were written in mad fits. These were creatively wild periods of time, exhilarating, and extremely exhausting. I loved it.

Q: You’re a busy man. Your coverage of a Nicaraguan murder trial appeared in Outside magazine. You also kept a blog for the PEN American Center while living in Japan and learning about the Ainu culture. Do you ever have the chance to unwind? Where are you headed to next?

TD: I’m halfway through a new novel and have a few more weeks to work on it before I go on tour for The Konkans. Then our baby is coming in August. So I’m really pushing myself to get this new book done before the baby gets here. Sure, I work very hard, but I love my girlfriend and try to spend a lot of time with her, and I definitely want to be involved in the life of my kid.

So here it is: my last chance to write relatively free of responsibility. And then I’ll figure out how to write while feeding a baby. You know every career has its challenges. Everybody worries about money and what the future holds. It’s that way in my writing life. It’s terribly exciting and I love it.

The Konkans by Tony D'Souza
The Konkans by Tony D'Souza

The Konkans

Tony D'Souza

Hardcover $23.00

224 pages

9780151015191

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