Today, Bookpleaures.com is pleased to have as our guest the internationally published writer, poet, essayist, and artist from New York City, Ashok Rajamani.
Ashok's work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Scholars & Rogues, Danse Macabre, Salon.com, South Asian Review, and the Atlantic Monthly.
He is a member of the Authors Guild, New York Writers Coalition, Asian American Writers Workshop, South Asian Journalists Association, and is a nationally recognized poet in Poets & Writers Literary Organization's Directory of American Poets.
At the age of 25, in 2000, Ashok suffered a massive full-throttle hemorrhage at his brother’s wedding. Though surviving, he was left with permanent bisected blindness, erratic short-term amnesia, spatial motor-skill loss, epilepsy, distorted hearing, and metal staples in his brain.
His writings about his journey of survival led to a memoir entitled The Day My Brain Exploded, published by Algonquin Books in 2013. This recently-released, critically-acclaimed memoir is currently available in bookstores worldwide.
Good day Ashok and thanks for participating in our interview
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
I’ve been writing since I was a little boy, back when my glasses weighed more than me. I suppose I always loved the written word. The first things I ever wrote were actually tiny books. One was called “Penquinolli’s Journey.” It was about an Italian penguin that waddled his way across the earth to find a good bowl of spaghetti. I also penned lovely narrative poems. One was called “My Poltergeist.” It was about a ghost in my house who looked like Ronald Reagan. I continued writing as the years went on. (I’m also an artist who has painted and drawn since he was three, so I continued my art as years went on, too. )
The possibility that I can affect readers by creating entirely new worlds for them, or even better, reflecting their own worlds back to them… this is what keeps me writing. The phrase from the novel “The Gunslinger” is a phrase that always rings true to me: “Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
In view of your neurological condition, do you have difficulty in focusing when you write? If so, how do you overcome this challenge?
Focusing is not actually
the problem. My cognitive abilities, oddly enough, still allow
me to stay focused on any job at hand. My main challenge in
writing is due to the sort of blindness I now face. It’s a
rather unique and difficult condition called hemianopsia, also called
This is a form of blindness in which I am half-blind in
both eyes. My brain hemorrhage exploded multiple lobes, one of them
being the occipital lobe. As the name suggests, this is the lobe
responsible for sight. So, as the hemorrhage happened on my right
occipital lobe—which controls a person’s left-field vision, I am
now blind on my left-half in both eyes.
Because of this problem, it is hard to see the computer monitor fully. To write this book, then, I had to use different methods: I swiveled the monitor or moved my positions (to help delineate margins and type words at the beginning of sentences), used rulers sometimes (to see when the next lines began), held three way mirrors up to the monitor on occasion, to see if my writing has moved to the correct page, or page break. Took much longer to write the manuscript, but it was worth it.
Could you tell our readers a little about your book The Day My Brain Exploded?
The Day My Brain
Exploded is the true story of how, at the age of 25, I suffered a
massive, full-throttle brain hemorrhage provoked by, well, a routine
yet risqué activity– at my brother’s wedding! And how I survived it all. The story is, at times, as blunt as the
title, and is non-chronological, veering from era to era, from my
life before the hemorrhage, to my life after, and everything in
Brain injury survivors are not hyper-pious martyrs. We are as silly, as funny, and yes, as raunchy, as everyone else. This book is vibrant and raw. I like to call it an “anti-oprah memoir,” because it is anything but sentimental and mawkish. It is irreverent, tragic, comical, frightening, vulgar, and humorous. Just like life.
What purpose do you believe your book serves and what matters to you about the story? What was the most difficult part of writing your book?
My memoir survives multiple purposes. It is the personal story of brain injury told from the patient and survivor himself. Many books like this are written by physicians or surgeons, none of whom truly understand what it is to have their skulls be drilled open! But this is more than just a mere medical memoir. In addition to presenting the world of brain damage from a patient’s voice, the book also addresses issues of race, bullying, politics, and hallucinations from a young Indian American redneck. This is why the book matters. It not only allows an unheard voice to be heard, it allows it to be roared.
Revisiting painful events in my life was the most difficult part of writing this memoir. Detailing the racism I was forced to experience as a youngster was probably harder than recounting the physical demolition of my brain.
What would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read your book?
The Day My Brain
Exploded deals with an exploding brain, addiction, orgasms,
blindness, epilepsy, racism, and Wheel of Fortune. What’s not
to love? It is the true story of someone who survives the
explosion of his brain…with laughter, humor, strength, and
perseverance. My grueling, vivid adventure through brain damage
might be personal, but the odyssey to stay alive is not.
The best reason to read the book, then, is to discover a journey that has been rarely told – a brain-damaged Hindu hick trying to live again -- only to realize that the journey to survive is entirely universal.
How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Growing up as a Hindu brown boy in all-white, small-town Midwestern America full of corn-fed pink-faced bible-beating folks, I learned early on what it was to be an outsider. My childhood as the “other,” in which I met no human that resembled me, has affected my writing in that my stories will always have an outsider bent, a demimonde perspective that enriches the narrative. By always being on the outside looking in, I can create characters with viewpoints that arise not only from distress, but from discovery.
What does a typical writing day look like for you, from waking to turning in at night, and how does it compare to a conventional 9 to 5 job?
I somewhat miss the structure of a 9-5. I miss being forced to wear pants. I wish I could say I am disciplined, like those other writers who dress up as if going to work, then type, then walk, then eat, then back to work, and so on. There is no “typical” writing day for me. My writing is completely fed by the energies, spirits, and muses around me. If there are none, I don’t write.
What do you think of the new Internet market for writers?
It’s wonderful! No more monopoly by the big traditional/print publishing houses, which are now a dying breed thanks to e-books, e-zines, social media, digital self-publishing and more. At last, authors can work, create, and release their visions without fear of traditional publishers and most of all, fear of that outdated, soon-to-be unnecessary clique in publishing: the literary agents. They will go the route of the dinosaurs. Good riddens, I say. Agents will finally be in desperate need of writers, and not the other way around.
Do you hear from your
readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
Thanks for asking this question! The response I am getting from my readers is probably – no, undoubtedly -- my favorite thing that came out of my book being published. I’m getting emails from readers all over the world, from places like Switzerland, South Africa, Australia, and even Uzbekistan!
Most are excited to have found a book that tells of their own personal experiences, which they rarely can find. These are folks who have survived brain hemorrhages, folks with bisected blindness, folks with metal staples in their skulls, folks who are Indian Americans dealing with hardcore American racism. One of the most moving emails I received lately was from an Indian American teen in Iowa; she was happy to finally read a book about racism that affected South Asian Americans, one that wasn’t about the Latino or African American experience. She was also tired of many Indian American youngsters being forced into the medical or technology professions, and said my book gave her the courage to fulfill her dreams to become a writer.
Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
Absolutely, authors owe the readers very much. They are our audiences, our listeners -- the people who spend their time, energy, and resources for our creations. I can’t stand when writers don’t give enough respect to their readers. I was just at a recent book reading and signing in New York City. I did the event with another author who not only dismissed her audience; she downright disrespected them. She presented the image of being “smarter” than her readers, and smugly responded to any questions. She also neglected to wear anything that would dignify the effort readers had taken to see her. I suppose in her mind, an author has to dress down to show that she is a “true artist.” She wore curlers in her hair, ratty leg warmers, and looked like she had just gotten up from a 48-hour bender.
We need to respect our readers more than that.
Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
My next book is called If these saris could talk, which will hopefully be out next year. It is a fun, frothy, gossipy ode to subversive femininity, featuring all the secrets of the zany, transgressive women in my family, set in India and America. Think “Desperate Housewives in Mumbai.”
As for the project after that, I’m thinking it will be focused entirely on freaks, inspired by the epic novel “Geek Love” and the classic movie “Freaks.” Given the ludicrousness of my life so far -- in which everything‘s shocking and nothing’s shocking -- I don’t know yet if this will be a work of fiction or nonfiction.
What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
I want to say: whether you think so or not, your stories matter to at least someone, somewhere. Isn’t that what twitter and facebook are all about? Someone could write “my cat pooped this morning.” The rest of the world might hate, dismiss, and ignore it (I probably would, since I hate cats) – but there will always be one person out there who needed to hear that a cat pooped. So, whether your story is Of Mice and Men, or Of Cats and Poop, your story matters to someone out there. Now put on your armor and helmets and be prepared for the battle to get your delicious words out into the world.
Where can our readers find out more about you and The Day My Brain Exploded?
My official WEBSITE is definitely the go-to destination. It has extensive information about me, the book, my poetry, other works of prose, and my artwork. There is also an important section called “Brain 411” for those who want to learn more about brain injury and find neurological resources.
As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
I would have liked you to ask me: “Ashok, can you still cook even after your brain hemorrhage?”
My answer would have been: “No, I still can’t cook. I never could.”
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors