Poet Simi K. Rao Explores the complexities of womanhood and Indian-American life
Poet, contemporary fiction writer, and practicing physician Simi K. Rao was born and raised in the center of India, where she was exposed to the vastly diverse cultures and languages of the North and South regions. She immigrated to the United States in her twenties and has now lived in Denver for several years.
“Now whenever I travel back to my homeland, I find I appreciate my roots a lot more. Still, there is so much to see and learn, that a lifetime won’t suffice. I try to bring this amalgamation of the east and the west to my writings and spice them with the various flavors of life,” says Rao on the homepage of her website.
Rao’s work is strongly driven by what she has seen transpire within the immigrant community. She enjoys exploring the dynamics of contemporary American culture blended with Indian customs and heritage. Whether a story comes from her own experience with cross-cultural traditions, lifestyles, and familial relationships or from anecdotes from friends, family, and acquaintances, her work—at its core—often reflects the challenges and opportunities many Indian-American women face.
“I believe that life is a never-ending quest and when we find what we have been looking for, we find peace. Many of us may spend our entire lives searching for that elusive something. I thought I had achieved all I could ever wish for when I became a physician. But that was only partly true. A few years ago, I discovered a creative side that was clamoring to be let out; one that wished to weave stories and poems about life’s varied experiences. So I began writing and haven’t stopped since,” says Rao.
What began as a blog to provide an escape from her stressful work life soon led to her first full-length novel. The success of this first novel encouraged her to continue writing. Now well-versed in both poetry and contemporary fiction, her works include Inconvenient Relations and its sequel Now and Forever, The Accidental Wife, An Incurable Insanity, and Milan (A Wedding Story). Her latest work, Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree, is available now.
The U.S. Review of Books calls Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree an “unconventional yet intriguing work” which becomes a meditational reading. Fusing poetry, illustrations, and flash fiction, the book challenges readers to examine the philosophical, social, and cultural beliefs that inform our everyday judgments and points of view.
Thea Voutiritsas: What are you currently reading?
TV: Who are your favorite poets and how did you discover them?
SR: A poem should be like biting into a walnut, a period of bliss that embeds itself into your subconscious for recall at will. I don’t have a particular favorite poet or poets; I like poetry of different kinds—anything that grabs my attention and makes me think. I like Hindi and Urdu poetry a lot, aka Ghazals, as they are nuanced and touch on my culture, unlike English poetry. Many of these poems have been rendered to music and have been part of my upbringing.
TV: How have your experiences as a physician informed your work as a writer?
SR: I started writing as a kind of self-therapy to deal with the stress of work. In the beginning, I chose to stay away from the medical stuff. But I was inspired by my patients; they had so many stories to tell that I had to write about them.
TV: You mention feeling guilty over experiencing indifference and malaise. How did Albert Camus’ The Stranger help you with that, and what do you suggest for others experiencing the same?
SR: I suffer from an emotional numbness while at work. Sometimes this gets transferred into routine life as well and I had begun to feel guilty and blame myself for it. Reading The Stranger by Albert Camus brought me relief since he describes a similar person. Subsequently, I realized what I had was a defense mechanism many of us working in the acute care setting develop in order to deal with the tragedy of severe illness and death. This could be applicable to other situations as well.
TV: Tell us about your process. What usually sparks you to start a poem, and how do you know when it’s complete?
SR: All of my poems are random and situational. I could be watching something or talking to someone and get inspired. If any theme emerges it is entirely coincidental.
TV: In a past interview with India Currents, Rao encouraged fellow writers not to fear publishing or self-publishing. “Don’t be afraid to publish because nowadays self-publishing is very easy and has opened many doors. It is a fantastic platform for writers of all levels,” she says. So, Simi, did publishing your first book change your process for writing? If so, how?
SR: I have learned to organize myself better, such as remembering to keep several copies of my rough drafts.
TV: As an established fiction writer, what challenges did you face with making the switch to poetry—if any?
SR: None actually. I have always written poetry. In fact, I started with poetry and then graduated to fiction.
TV: Do you read your reviews?
SR: In the beginning, I did, Now, I don’t.
TV: Rao has also encouraged writers to remain true to themselves. “Don’t write about things you don’t believe in just for commercial success if you are not comfortable with it,” she says. “Believe in yourself. Unless you publish, you will never know if people like your writing or not.” So, Simi, what does literary success look like to you?
SR: My bar of success isn’t very high. Getting good feedback is essential, but sometimes I do dream of having my book featured on the New York Times bestseller list—Who doesn’t?
TV: Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree was written over several years. If readers take away one thing from the book, what would you want that to be?
SR: The theme of Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree is the chaos that exists in a woman’s mind. If it is read as such, it’ll make a lot of sense.
“These poems are very personal to me. If you read them, you will be looking at me,” Rao told India Currents. “Some of the poems are very raw because they reflect on situations in which one feels helpless. One of my poems is based on a lady suffering from dementia. I wrote the poem from her point of view, the message is to look deeper into life, rather than just on the surface.”