BY NADIA GERASSIMENKO
I was introduced to Sweta Srivastava Vikram by a fellow writer and former Luna Luna contributor and curator Emma Eden Ramos several years ago. Ever since reading Sweta's poetry book Wet Silence followed by Saris and a Single Malt, I was enamored with her work because of what it made me feel every single time—understanding, catharsis, healing. I would always cry buckets of tears, but it would always feel so very releasing. When I found out Sweta is releasing her debut U.S. Novel Louisiana Catch, I had to interview her about it!
Your debut novel Louisiana Catch couldn’t have come at a better time. With all that is transpiring in Hollywood and more people coming forward about being sexually assaulted and abused in the industry, it’s a book that’s both relevant and important for understanding sexual assault/abuse and acknowledging that it’s never the fault of the victim and healing one’s past traumas and shame that comes with it. What inspired you to write it? Was it difficult to write?
Yeah, I can’t believe the timing of it all! It wasn’t one thing that led to the creation of Louisiana Catch. I started working on the book in late summer-early fall of 2012. Then in December of 2012, a gang rape in New Delhi shook up India and the world. And now with the #MeToo movement, you realize how prevalent (unfortunately) sexual assault is in our world at all levels. But I am glad more women are coming forward and sharing their stories. Sexual violence can have psychological, emotional, and physical effects on a survivor.
I personally know a few women who are victims of marital rape, so somewhere this one thought had nagged me for years: We don’t talk about intimate partner sexual violence, which is a heinous crime. Be it shame or who-will-believe-me or the lack of understanding that marital rape is a form of domestic violence and sexual abuse. The damage is massive when the danger lurks at home and you find yourself with no support. Not all countries have laws protecting women. Not all societies understand that marital rape isn’t a show of affection from the spouse. It is violation of a woman.
Parts of the book are funny and romantic, writing that's easy; the parts about sexual violence were difficult to write. I had to envision the darkness, conduct in-depth research, interview psychotherapists, recall some victim confessions from over a decade ago, and feel the sense of betrayal and shame that a sexual assault survivor might actually feel. I wanted to write with sensitivity without patronizing anyone.
Was it a challenge to transition from writing poetry to writing a prose narrative?
My work is rarely pre-meditated. I allow the stories to pick the vessel—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. It keeps me sharp and writer’s block at a distance, multi-genre writing that is. I have written a novel before, Perfectly Untraditional, which came out in India and is now being auctioned for a movie. So, writing prose narrative wasn’t new but definitely different in terms of process and the time commitment. The characters in Louisiana Catch took years to develop and find their unique voice. Because it’s a multi-cultural book, understanding the nuances of each culture was enriching but also overwhelming at times. For me, poetry happens fast and in an intense, short span of time.
All the characters in Louisiana Catch seem so fleshed out and genuine and relatable—human, in other words. Everything they do or say is something you’d imagine yourself doing or saying if you were in their position or situation or culture. I think that’s very important when a protagonist you’re reading about isn’t otherworldly or perfect but relatable to you. How has the process been like in developing their character that’s both believable and plausible in real life?
Wow, that is so humbling to hear. Thank you! That was the intention—to make all the characters real and relatable, which means annoying and lovable with their flaws intact. I think not rushing into finishing the book allowed the characters to develop into "real" people instead of just fictional pawns. Working from a place of detachment—where you allow the characters to move on a page versus dictating their actions—has been very helpful. So, instead of personalizing Ahana’s reactions or Rohan’s responses and making them sound like ME or someone I know, I let them sound like them.
Ahana, the main protagonist of your book, gets into online group therapy to cope with losing her mother and heal from her ex-husband’s sexual abuse. She also does yoga and meditates and runs in the mornings. What benefits can yoga and meditation or online group therapy (or any other support system) offer for survivors of sexual abuse?
In Louisiana Catch, Ahana joins an online therapy group—to heal from her mother’s death—because her therapist cousin insists. Ahana is a from a wealthy, well-known family in New Delhi and terrible rumors would spread if anyone found out that she was seeking psychiatric help. In South Asia, while things are changing, there continues to be stigma and shame around mental health. People go undiagnosed, get married, raise families, and continue to lead unhappy, dysfunctional lives. Both the awareness is lacking and the attitude is more about "What will people say." The idea that a third-party can offer unbiased emotional and mental support doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, many automatically assume you have a serious mental sickness if you bring up seeing a therapist.
I teach yoga to female survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. And write stories and poems to raise awareness about violence against women. What I’ve learned from my experience in working with traumatized women is that offering a healing and nurturing community along with a space for their voice helps. It empowers survivors. In some cases, yoga can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research shows that yoga poses are likely to help individuals to observe and tolerate physical sensations and to use this tolerance to disconnect their physical feelings from the emotional reactions to assaults in the past. Every time Ahana is triggered, her mother suggests that she practice alternate nostril breathing because it calms the nervous system.
When someone has been through something so traumatic as rape or abuse on an ongoing basis, it becomes hard to discern who is being playful—because that’s their personality or insecurity—or who is being abusive and manipulative. What would you say are the signs of someone being abused or manipulated?
I am not a psychotherapist, so I will answer this question with caution and from the perspective of what I learned (from interviewing psychotherapists and reading up books) while doing research for Louisiana Catch. Sexual assault in a relationship rarely exists in a vacuum. For instance, Ahana is also a domestic violence survivor, which makes her distrustful of intimate partner relationships. Her dependency on her mother is unhealthy and that stems from her abusive marriage. Lack of confidence, inability to make decisions, dissociation, and flashbacks are other signs of PTSD, some of which we see in Ahana.
My most beloved quote from Louisiana Catch is "When we love someone, the memories we make with them are treasures. But when someone hurts us and breaks our heart, all the memories about them become nightmares." It says a lot about when someone loves and respects you, they would never hurt you on purpose. They would never tarnish your heart, your soul. That’s something I had to relearn in order to understand who truly loves me and has my best interests in mind. What’s your beloved quote in your book?
For me, a lot of the conversations between Ahana and her mother hold a special place. Her mother is such a pot of wisdom wrapped in the personality of an elegant firecraker. This particular quote towards the earlier part of the book reminds me to treat life and myself with utmost care. "No one has any right over your life. Now find the inner strength to fight for yourself and your happiness."
Louisiana Catch is to be released in April 10. You can pre-order it here.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram, featured by Asian Fusion as "one of the most influential Asians of our time," is a best-selling author of 12 books, five-times Pushcart Prize nominee, mindfulness writing coach, social issues advocate, and a certified yoga & Ayurveda counselor who helps people lead creative, productive, and healthier lives. Louisiana Catch (Modern History Press 2018) is her debut U.S. novel and featured on U.K.'s list of "Books to Read in 2018." Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States collecting and sharing stories. She writes about women, multiculturalism, wellness, and identity. Sweta, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, amongst other publications, across nine countries on three continents, is an award-winning writer and graduate of Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time, teaches yoga to female survivors of rape and domestic violence. She is also the CEO-Founder of a wellness company, www.NimmiLife.com. You can find her in these online spaces: Twitter (@swetavikram), Instagram (@swetavikram), and Facebook.
Nadia Gerassimenko is the managing editor at Luna Luna Magazine by day, and a moonchild and poet by night. Nadia self-published her first poetry collection "Moonchild Dreams" (2015).