As offered in the spring ’12 Scope magazine, here’s a fuller interview with Vaswani:
NEELA VASWANI ’96
- English major; MFA in writing, Vermont College of Fine Arts; PhD in cultural studies, University of Maryland at College Park
- Author, You Have Given Me a Country and other works; faculty member, Spalding University’s MFA program in writing
- New York City
How do you define success?
For me, success doesn’t have much to do with money or status. Both are helpful for more freedom, better choices, and making life easier, of course. But I don’t value money or status as much as I value doing good work and being a decent person. There’s a distinction for me between having “all the trappings”—a shiny, polished coat and public accolades—and being respected and trusted by your friends and family. I don’t mean to say that the stereotypical definitions don’t exist and aren’t powerful (having a story rejected is painful, and getting a good review in a major publication feels wonderful); but being someone who can be counted on to help, to listen, to try her best at any given moment—that’s the kind of success I strive for on a daily basis.
How did you come to that definition?
I think I learned through life experience—probably starting when I was a teenager—that a nice house, expensive car, and brand-name purse didn’t buy satisfaction or contentment (and I value both above “happiness,” which is a word I’m somewhat suspicious of). As a young adult, especially just after graduating from Skidmore, I realized that I had to figure out what success meant to me rather than to the rest of the world or my family. It was complicated being the only artist in my immediate family; to not be the doctor everyone wanted. But what would have been harder, for me anyway, would have been to not follow my instincts and natural inclinations. My mother always said to me that she didn’t care what I ended up doing with my life, as long as I did it well and took pride in it. I held on to that (even when she said, in the same breath, that I better have a pension and health insurance, no matter what). She said that out of a sense of protection and practicality, but in terms of the life I wanted for myself, I wasn’t able to follow the pension and health insurance path. I had to take risks, to be less stable and less secure. Luckily, it’s worked out for me (so far). And throughout, I’ve always taken pride in all of my work, including my less glamorous jobs, like waitressing (which I consider to be a noble profession). I’m a good waitress and I’m proud of that.
Has that definition changed over time?
My definition of success has definitely changed, and I can tell you that it will keep on changing. One thing that affected me deeply was working with the adult literacy/ESL community at the New York Public Library. I’ve never met a more courageous group of people. Every new word learned, every moment of defeat or difficulty borne with good humor and moved past—it’s a true measure of success, in my opinion. I also shifted my definition when my husband was diagnosed with leukemia a year and a half ago (he’s doing great, in remission, running marathons). Success for us became about getting through the day with as much grace as possible. A walk around the block was a huge blessing, and passing a good-looking dog or an interesting face was a thing of enjoyment to hold onto for the rest of the day. Whenever life hands you something less than ideal and you can keep yourself together enough to continue to be as kind and unselfish as possible, that’s success to me. Getting something edible to grow in a garden or making a good meal that feeds people and brings them together: that’s what I consider being successful.
How important is it to be successful in your work?
With my writing, I want to keep developing and trying new things. My first book was a collection of short storie; my second book, a memoir; and my third book, a young-adult novel. I like switching genres and styles because it forces me to start fresh every time so that I don’t get stale or set in my ways. I want to keep pushing myself and get better at my craft. If I’m proud of something I’ve written, if I feel I’ve poured my whole being into the process, that’s success. And with teaching, if I reach students and see moments of connection or clicks of understanding or passion for a topic (that I can tell will last beyond the class period), I feel successful. To get to help people with their own path and development is a privilege.
How important is it to you to be successful in your life—and what does that mean?
It’s important to me to be a decent person in my daily life. To think about what I do and say, critically. To see myself honestly. To try to have as much empathy as possible, while still protecting myself and not feeling taken advantage of. Most important to me is to be a good mate to my husband, a good friend to my friends, and a good daughter/daughter-in-law/cousin, etc. (Of course, how to be a good anything is different for each person.) I want to be a responsible citizen, too, to do my part for the world, to be a contributing member of the human race, from recycling to helping people who are struggling to get a foothold. I’ve been lucky to be helped along the way by teachers, friends, and family, and I enjoy doing the same for others, passing it on.
How do you influence your students’ ideas about success?
I’m probably more subtle about it when teaching undergrads and more direct with grad students. Something I always tell my creative writing students is to be careful to not get hung up on publication, to not weight publication as more important than craft. It’s a hard thing to talk about, because I’m saying that to them as a published writer, and I know before I’d had publications it was something I very much hoped and longed for. That said, I wanted to have earned publication by writing things I was proud of and learning my craft as well as possible before I worried about (or even submitted things for) publication.
You haven’t mentioned your American Book Award and O. Henry Prize; what do they mean in terms of success?
The awards I’ve won have been validating for me. They’ve given me more confidence. I think of myself as a writer now, and claim the word as a true vocation. They’ve garnered me more readers and more opportunities and I’m very grateful. But I don’t think of them in relation to personal success, only as vehicles that help to “indicate success” when out in the wider world. All of my books are with independent presses. I’ve always been glad to be with a respected press, one I can be proud of, and to have beautiful books we created together. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake. I’ve generally made my economic living through teaching or other jobs—not through writing. And that probably changes my outlook on equating success, in a traditional sense, with my writing, regardless of awards.