Deepa Rajagopalan won the 2021 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award. Her work has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies such as the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, the New Quarterly, Room, the Malahat Review, Event, and Arc Poetry Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph.

Born to Indian parents in Saudi Arabia, she has lived in many cities across India, the US, and Canada.

Photo Credit: Ema Suvajac

Peacocks of Instagram
Published by House of Anansi Press

Deepa Rajagopalan

People go through things they don’t imagine they can survive, and yet they do. And stories give you courage, acknowledgement, and sometimes assurance. The specific themes from Peacocks were important to me, and I wanted to explore the possibilities within them.

Congratulations on your debut short story collection! Are there any moments from your path to getting Peacocks of Instagram published that stand out to you? What was the most rewarding or difficult aspect of the process as a first-time author?

I enjoy being new at things. There’s a tenderness and a delusional hope that is required of you. I am energized by putting myself in situations where I don’t know how I will react, and I get to find out as I go. The most rewarding part of getting Peacocks published was the writing and editing of the book. To be able to see my limitations and to surprise myself. It also allowed me to know how I was feeling. Sometimes a word, or an exclamation, or a question would appear, and I would think, that’s how I’m feeling today.

The difficult aspect was, of course, getting the book published. Sometimes it seemed like writing and publishing were at odds with each other, and I’m sure most writers feel that way. There’s obviously a lot of rejection when you try to find the right home for your work. Finding an agent, finding a publisher, all of it was terrifying and adrenaline inducing. There were a few publishers who loved my work but were looking for novels and not short stories. But it has all been gratifying and a massive learning opportunity and there is nothing I like better than to keep learning. Being able to work with my editor, Shirarose Wilensky, and House of Anansi has been an absolute privilege and I am abundantly grateful.

Writing a short story can sometimes be tricky due to the constraints on length, since they usually involve narratives that wrap up quickly, where every word counts. What draws you to this form of writing and storytelling?

Exactly that: because every word counts. I’m drawn towards the precision of words, and I spend a lot of time making sure I’ve picked the right words. The right words for the context and the story but also for the character and who they are. When you find the right words, it’s a good day. I think a good short story often holds more than a novel, it’s just not on the page. It is important to me that I know everything about the characters in my stories, even the things that don’t appear in them. And when you leave things out, you trust the reader to imagine them, and in that way, a relationship between the reader and the story is created. I think the short story is brilliant for what it does reveal.

What was the most challenging part of putting together fourteen unique short stories in one book? Were there stories you had to decide to leave out? 

There were ten stories at first, and then I realized some characters needed their own stories, or in some cases, new characters came to me and insisted on having their stories. There’s a story, The Many Homes of Kanmani, that I wrote after the main character—this irreverent but tenacious child—came to me and persisted until I gave her a story. What I really enjoyed was making evident the links between the stories and the characters. I loved being able to do that, to see a character who was already revealed through another character’s point of view.

Many of the characters in your book experience difficult situations, including health crises, finding home in a new place, or dealing with struggling relationships. And yet, one of the main themes threaded throughout is the ability for the human spirit to persevere. What about this theme do you find so compelling, and why is it important?

People go through things they don’t imagine they can survive, and yet they do. And stories give you courage, acknowledgement, and sometimes assurance. The specific themes from Peacocks were important to me, and I wanted to explore the possibilities within them. What does it mean by finding home? Is home a physical place or the way you feel in your body? What triggers the specific fears that come with a health crisis? Is it as simple as mortality or has to do with how you perceive yourself? And I write about relationships because I want to challenge the expectation that writing by racialized people needs to be rooted in some trauma greater than interpersonal relationships. The intersectionality of race and class and privilege obviously brings complexity to relationship dynamics, but I want to center on one of the basic elements of being human—being in relationship to one another.

Do you have a story in Peacocks of Instagram that you’re most proud of or would call your favourite? 

I don’t think I’m precious about my stories in that way. I think the reader, depending on who they are and where they are in life, will relate to one story more than another because they get to fill in the gaps that are not on the page. I am interested in subversion and complexity in stories. Presenting a character or a situation that is familiar, and subverting the reader’s expectations, not as a gimmick but as an opportunity to see beyond the stereotype. I am thinking about the title story Peacocks of Instagram, and the story Rahel, both about women who look familiar on the surface but are complex people. The character Rahel is soft and unusual but would be considered “unlikeable” for a full-length novel. And that story surprised me because I had never imagined someone like that—unbothered by how she is perceived, and unapologetically herself—until I wrote that story. The stories with children as main characters—Maths Club, Whatever Happened, Happened for the Good, The Many Homes of Kanmani, and even Surya Listen! to an extent—are special because I got to explore the workings of young minds in real, adult worlds. I wanted to make sure I didn’t dilute the emotion because children feel big emotions, and yet capture the perspective of children.

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