A Conversation with Vauhini Vara
BY S.M. SUKARDI
Vauhini Vara’s debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, was described by Justin Taylor in the New York Times as a “monumental achievement.” It has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and named a best book of the year by NPR and others. Her short fiction has been published in Tin House, Zyzzyva, and elsewhere, and has won an O. Henry Award. Her essay “Ghosts,” published by The Believer and adapted for radio by This American Life, will be anthologized in Best American Essays 2022. She has also written and edited journalism for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and other publications, for which she has been awarded honors from the International Journalists’ Programmes and the Asian American Journalists Association, among others. She is a mentor at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Book Project and the secretary for Periplus, a mentorship collective serving emerging writers of color.
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Introduction: Vauhini Vara sees capitalism everywhere. Where we see whales, she sees sperm oil and fuel; where we see the Indian caste system, she interrogates a societal structure propped up by colonialism and the British East India Company; where we see futuristic technologies, she imagines all-knowing algorithms governed by a universal corporate board.
These are only a few of the topics Vauhini Vara explores in her stunningly ambitious work. Her novel, The Immortal King Rao, is a preternaturally assured debut by an author at the height of her powers. It’s a coming-of-age story about a mild and ambitious boy, a dystopian thriller, and a primer on the multivalent properties of human nature.
Vara is a journalist, an experimental essayist, a novelist, and also a ferocious advocate for marginalized writers. I met her two years ago, when her BIPOC mentorship collective, Periplus, plucked me from obscurity and introduced me to the community I suspect I will be writing toward for my entire life. I was fortunate to speak with Vauhini about The Immortal King Rao on a blustery fall morning over Zoom.
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S.M. Sukardi: King Rao is both a brilliant tech innovator, as well as a morally gray human experimenter. And his daughter Athena is a determined protagonist as well as an easily manipulated girl whose actions are often morally compromising. No character in your novel is entirely good or bad—so if not goodness, then what makes a compelling literary character?
Vauhini Vara: I think that for me, it’s nuance. In the lens through which I view the world, real people aren’t pure good or pure evil. And for me, one of the jobs of a writer is to represent something true about the actual world and its actual inhabitants. So it seems natural to me to write characters who represent that nuance as well.
But I’m also interested, specifically, in moral ambiguity. It’s of interest to me on an intellectual level and on a craft level, in that these questions about what really is motivating a person, or what the internal tensions are that are pulling them in one direction or another, or both directions at the same time, can serve as narrative propulsion. These things keep you turning from page to page.
I had a recent conversation with someone who described King Rao as a very bad person. They told me he violated his daughter and ruined the world! And in that conversation I acknowledged that those things are all true—I see what he does to Athena as a violation as well, and I also believe that he ruins the world. And at the same time, it’s deliberate that there’s also a way of reading the character in which he’s impressive and ambitious in positive ways, and intellectually curious, and a good father.
SS: Something I found really compelling about your book was the ambivalence with which it treated technological objects like the Harmonica. The thought of an injectable mind-reader sounds terrifying to me as a contemporary reader! But the book’s treatment of it is measured, and the Harmonica incites the events that make Athena take her first steps as an independent person. I also know that you’re also working on an experimental essay collection about technology and surveillance.
So when it comes to surveillance, what do you find so compelling about looking back at the camera that looks at you?
VV: In general, I think that the tools that humans invent are fascinatingly dual in what they accomplish. On one hand, we create things because we intend for them to help us do something we can’t otherwise do. And on the other hand, these tools—most recently, tools of technology—are used to surveil us, oppress us, and entrench existing power structures. So many of the tools used to surveil us and influence our behavior in negative ways are things that we can choose not to use, and yet we continue to use them because we find pleasure and utility in them.
Like with human characters, I’m interested in that duality—the fact that a thing can be both at once. So with surveillance in particular, and in both my fiction and nonfiction, what I’m interested in is pushing up against that boundary between the two.
I wrote two essays, one in which I listed my Google Search results, and one where I co-wrote it with GPT-3, an A.I. writing tool. In both cases, I was trying to put that technological ambiguity onto the page through language. Because when you look at all your Google Search results over time, there’s something really intimate and poignant about it, a real exposure of the self. And I use that in a positive sense here—you’re being very open on the page with language in order to properly use this technology.
On the other hand, it’s the openness that then allows these technologies to potentially exploit, control, and surveil us. In reading an essay made up of Google Search results, you see the poignancy of it, and also if you know a little of how Google operates, you can understand at the same time, that Google knows all of this information about me now!
It’s a very similar dynamic with A.I. writing. The feeling of grief can be so isolating, and when you co-write with an A.I. writing tool, you might view it as a form of communion with others, specifically in that these tools are trained using existing language that other people have put into the world. It’s not spitting out their language back at you, but it’s learning how to create language using all this language that has already been created. As a human, to write in collaboration with A.I. is a way of bridging the distance between oneself and others, to feel a communion with them through the proxy of technology.
And at the same time, one has to contend with the fact that these A.I. tools are being trained on real peoples’ real language used to describe their real experiences. In some cases, these are traumatic experiences, and the mechanism of A.I. detaches the experiences from the humans themselves. So there’s something alienating about that too. In those two essays in particular, that was the tension that fascinated me.
In the novel, the technology at its center allows individuals to connect with other individuals’ brains and have their consciousness be accessible. When I think about a concept like that, there’s something desirable about being able to connect with someone so fundamentally that it actually feels like you’re inside their brain. It feels like the apex of human connection, the highest possible thing we can aspire to. And at the same time, there’s something inherently violent about the incursion into what’s fundamentally a private space—perhaps the last remaining private space that we have.
SS: That’s so interesting! There’s also the idea that with these big companies, many of the inputs you put into a search box are often used to further train datasets. So an essay like “Ghosts” might be re-assimilated into the training data for, say, GPT-3 Version 2, in a way that continues to propagate this cycle of closeness and alienation you’ve mentioned.
I’m curious if, after writing your essay “My Decade in Google Searches,” you ever felt compelled to delete your search history. Or were you more like, this is necessary for my art, and I have to accept being surveilled in order to make my art?
VV: That’s interesting—no, I haven’t deleted it, though not for either of those reasons! For me, it’s more of, when I’m 90 years old, it’ll be interesting for me to go back and see what I was Googling when I was 25. I’m interested for my own selfish idiosyncratic reasons in having this cache of everything that exists about me in the digital world, just like we do with apps like Instagram.
After all, that’s why we store things in the Photos app or put them online—part of it is for others to see us, but part of it is for us to have documentation of our existence. We use the tools available to us to do that, which are created by these big corporations, which in turn benefit from and exploit the fact that we’re interested in doing that.
SS: In your book you state—or perhaps predict—that “perhaps in a couple more generations, the world would be too hot to bear human life.” Did having a family in the midst of writing your novel influence the way in which the book’s plot evolved?
VV: I think having a child in the middle of the book is part of what made it take thirteen years.
VV: But also, I think that having a child made very personal the relationship between this moment that we’re in, and the grander sweep of history. We all might feel abstractly connected to our ancestors. But when you have a child, you’re able to more concretely imagine how that might continue for generations on. I don’t know if this influenced the direction of the plot or how characters evolved, but it certainly made the issues at the center of the book more pressing.
One of the cool things that we can do in fiction is imagine different possible futures. So there’s a relatively bleak version in this corporatized version that King Rao has built. And then there’s this alternate future path that the Exes, a radical separatist group, have envisioned. It was after my child was born that the Exes developed more and more. I can’t say if it was as a result of having a child that I decided to build out a more humanist and co-operative potential future society on the page, but perhaps that’s not a coincidence.
SS: There’s a review in the New York Times that calls your book “pitiless.” Quite dark praise! And in my opinion, quite warranted—I gasped when I read the end of the book. In the role you take as a fiction-writer/prophet (as many consider fiction writers to be), where might a reader find room for hope, or is hope beside the point?
VV: For me, without giving away the ending of the book, the movement of the book is one toward an acknowledgement of the role that humans have played toward the destruction of our planet. But it’s also an acknowledgement of how miraculous it is that we’ve gotten to be here in the first place—that this place exists, and that we were allowed to be here for however much longer we’ll go on.
It feels possible for these two ideas to coexist—that we’re destroying this rare and precious planet, and to simultaneously feel like this is such a lucky experience, to get to live in the first place.
That’s where the hope is for me as a human. Here, I refer more to the earth as it exists without human intervention, but I also think that the technology that we’ve built is fascinating! I’ve written with GPT-3 because I find it such an enriching experience, while also knowing the ways in which A.I. might not be a force for positive change in the long run.
SS: Who were your north stars when it came to writing such an ambitious book? This is a text with such little precedent in terms of how it melds its particular amalgamation of subject and genre, and its complex tripartite braided structure.
VV: I do remember that when I started writing The Immortal King Rao a long time ago, my goal was to write something original. It didn’t matter so much to me whether it was “good” or “bad,” as long as it felt like I was doing something new.
At the time I started writing, I had just read Moby-Dick for the first time, and I thought, this is my favorite book now; it knocked my socks off! I admired how Melville was willing to do so much, to swerve so radically from one subject to another. I really reveled in that unsettled reading experience.
And Moby-Dick was a book about characters in a place or a setting, but it was also a book about a big idea. For me—especially because of my background as a business reporter—it felt like a book about corporate rapaciousness. This is, after all, a book about people on a ship that’s trying to get what people used to think of as a precious fuel—the sperm from a whale, which was used in that age to power lamps and machinery. Before the petroleum boom, whale sperm was a treasured commodity, and whales eventually became endangered because of it. Moby-Dick served as a model for what a novel that wanted to be about capitalism could look like. It made me feel like my book, different as it would be from Moby-Dick, could be possible.
With regard to contemporary literature, I have pretty diverse reading tastes! A lot of the books that I admire have nothing to do with my book. Many of them are slim 150-page novels that are in one character’s head. So there isn’t a single book that influenced this particular novel in a big way, but I’m also influenced by everything I read.
SS: One of your upcoming projects is an experimental essay collection that plays a lot with the idea of technology as narrator. You also say that, in earlier iterations of The Immortal King Rao, Athena began as a robot, before she eventually turned into an augmented human. Did the writing of this book influence your approach towards your journalism and future projects, and vice versa?
VV: While I was writing the novel, I did seek out journalism assignments that would feed the novel. For example, I wanted to learn more about A.I. for the purposes of the book, so I got a journalism assignment to write about an A.I. company and learn how A.I. algorithms actually function and what it means to train an algorithm.
That being said, there’s also a way in which I always want to be doing something new. I don’t know if a reader of my novel would come to my next book and think, this is in the same vein of The Immortal King Rao, because with every book I want to do something different.
I remember starting a new project when I finished The Immortal King Rao, and I thought that I wanted to write something that’s just the opposite of that novel! So this new project is very internal, with one character, a fairly domestic single setting, in contemporary times, and it doesn’t go into the past or future.
I believe that there are two ways one can go as a writer. They can write one book and then think, I want to build on this, and then their next book is a continuation of a conversation that the first started. Or they might think, I’m done with that subject, I’m moving on. I’m the sort of writer that tends to do the latter.
SS: That’s wonderful, I’m so excited to read that essay collection.
What causes King Rao’s excommunication from society is a technology he builds, the Harmonica, that allows a person to connect their mind to the internet. In a rapidly heating world, Rao considers it humanity’s “only chance of having a future,” which also sounds a lot like why people write. So why do you write, Vauhini, and what are the stakes of writing for you?
VV: I think for me, to be honest, what drives me is simply a desire to document what the world is like. And that’s it—just a simple desire to try to explain what it is we’re going through.
Which is to say, I want to describe what the kitchen table I’m sitting at looks like, and also what it feels like to go through grief, or have a child, or to experience something large. The feeling begins and ends at that.
But one can extrapolate and think about the ways in which there’s a relationship between that small desire and the broader existential questions of why we are here and where we are going from here. And if it’s the case that all of this is in danger of going away, then the task of trying to represent and document what it is we’re living through acquires this more urgent importance.
SS: You attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You’re also the founder of a collective for writers, Periplus, that aims to give mentorship opportunities to BIPOC writers at the beginning stages of their careers. How might a new writer who might not have access to literary institutions seek writing community and resources?
VV: There are a growing number of places that a writer might go to seek community. I often will point people to nonprofit community writing centers, like Lighthouse, or Catapult, or Grub Street, that offer classes both in person and online. There are also places like Periplus, a collective that is free to apply to and participate in, and is based on volunteer labor. These places also offer enriching communities. So I would encourage writers to seek out Periplus and other mentorship opportunities for fellowship with other writers. Now that we’re all online, we can also find our people in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. You can always find people now on social media and in online writing groups.
I have been really lucky in that I started writing fiction in college, and my first group of writer friends was a group of writing students at Stanford who were mostly writers of color, mostly Asian American writers, who all went on to have careers as writers. They continue to be some of my closest writing friends.
We started workshopping together around 2003 and have been going on since then. I’m revising my short story collection now, and just last week I asked that group to reconvene to workshop a story of mine that I was having a hard time with. I made them all get on Zoom and give feedback on my story, and it was an amazing thing. In a publishing industry and a literary world in which writers of color are still marginalized, I’ve been lucky to always find community with other writers of color.