An Interview With Sopan Deb on “Keya Das’s Second Act” – Chicago Review of Books


Award-winning journalist Sopan Deb made his fiction debut this July with Keya Das’s Second Act, a novel about a Bengali American family from suburban New Jersey. Shortly after coming out as gay to her family, the teenaged Keya Das dies in a car accident, leaving behind a play she and her girlfriend, Pamela, had been writing together. After Keya’s father, who has recently divorced from his wife, discovers a copy of the play, he and his elder daughter, Mitali, decide to reconnect with Pamela. Together, they enlist other friends and relatives on a mission to stage the play in Keya’s memory.

As an avid reader of fiction by South Asian American authors, I was interested in speaking to Sopan about his writing process. I had read his memoir, Missed Translations, a few years ago and subsequently connected with him over email. After reading Keya Das’s Second Act, I became interested in the overlap between some central themes of his memoir and novel: the importance of family, overcoming mental health struggles, and redemption.

Zooming in from his Washington, D.C. apartment (with his two cavalier King Charles spaniels, Koko and Millie, yapping in the background), Sopan spoke with me about writing fiction as a journalist, drawing from his own life experiences, and what he calls the “burden of representation” as a South Asian American writer.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Meena Venkataramanan

This is your first novel. You’ve covered politics and you currently cover sports and culture for The New York Times. What was it like moving into fiction with your journalist background, and specifically moving from journalism to memoir to fiction?

Sopan Deb

Moving into fiction as a journalist is quite jarring because the big difference between writing a memoir or a journalistic piece and writing fiction is that in one case, you can make everything up. And so it was a challenge for me to get myself out of “journalism brain” and put myself in “fiction brain”. And when you’re writing an article, or when I was writing my memoir, writing things down exactly as they happened is a paramount thing. Whereas in fiction, that’s not the case. And so, when I was writing the novel, I had to really remind myself that you can be creative, you can really expand your horizons here. Now, where being a journalist helps in writing fiction is the accuracy part, in that you’re making sure that things are logical. You’re in essence checking yourself as you go. So for example, if a plot point is X, you’re making sure that Y and Z also make sense and can happen as a result. So a journalist background is helpful in that you’re an experienced writer, it allows you to stay logical and consistent, et cetera. 

Meena Venkataramanan

Is there a specific moment in the novel when you feel like your journalist instincts kicked in?

Sopan Deb

My journalist instinct [permeates] the whole novel. I wouldn’t say it’s one moment. A lot of the book has to do with theater. A lot of that comes from my own experience covering theater for the New York Times. And so that’s a case where I’m trying to make sure that this is accurate, this is how theater works, this is how it’s going to happen. There’s a [musician] character named Neesh, and I did a bunch of research into how one becomes a pit band musician, and what union they have to join. I tried basically to make it as realistic as possible in the course of writing it.

Meena Venkataramanan

You don’t mention the pandemic and I’ve noticed a lot of works of contemporary fiction are starting to weave the pandemic into their plots. Did you consider that at all in terms of your novel’s timeframe?

Sopan Deb

I didn’t, in part because at the time I was writing it, I didn’t know how long [the pandemic] was going to last and what the impact was going to be on society. I also think I wanted this book to be escapism. And I’m not saying that that’s a right or wrong decision. I would just say when I’m watching television shows and I see the pandemic woven into it, or if I’m reading, I personally don’t want that. I don’t enjoy it. I want escapism. So, in part, the reason I didn’t include a pandemic in Keya Das’s Second Act is because I didn’t know what the impact was going to be; I started writing it early in the pandemic. Secondly I think having a pandemic woven into it distracts from the themes I’m trying to get at in the book. And thirdly, look, if I’m doing a book about theater it’s hard to include the pandemic in that because, at the time, for a lot of a pandemic, theater has been shut down. Even now, shows are having trouble staying afloat, trying to get audiences to come out. So it just felt like it’d be a distraction.

Meena Venkataramanan

To what extent did you draw from your own life in relation to suburban New Jersey and the town of Howell where you grew up?

Sopan Deb

A lot of the book is based on my own experience. It takes place partially in Howell, New Jersey, which is where I grew up. It’s rooted in the Bengali American community I grew up in, so the vast majority of characters in the book are named after a Bengali family friend I had growing up. The reason behind that is I get really frustrated when I’m reading books for South Asian characters, or watching TV with South Asian characters. Often they’re given these generic names without any thought to what their background is. If you’re Gujarati, and you immigrate to the U.S., you had a different experience than if you’re Bengali and came to the U.S. And so all this means I tried to make them authentically Bengali. The Bengali American experience is different from other South Asian experiences. I wanted to acknowledge that. I grew up a theater kid. In high school, I did musicals. In fact, there’s a scene in the book that involves the musical 42nd Street. I think that was my freshman year in high school where I played Oscar, the piano player in 42nd Street. In college I played piano for a musical based on Ben Folds for a college group and then I covered theater. So theater is a big part of my life. So much of the book has to do with my own experience. I felt like I had to write something close to home to start with.

Meena Venkataramanan

Is there a particular character to whom you relate most or did you embed different parts of yourself into all of these characters, such as Neesh’s musical interests or Keya’s academic success?

Sopan Deb

When you think about your own experience and write about your own community, inevitably, you’re going to put yourself in each character. But they’re all composites of people I know. Have I felt lost throughout my career and throughout my life occasionally as some of the characters do? Absolutely. Now, some of the book has to do with grief. I mean, a lot of the book has to do with grief and redemption and the family’s split apart. I come from a split family. And so how I reacted to that split family, I definitely put that into some of the characters. But none of that is a conscious choice. It’s more subconscious. I was just trying to tell a good story. I wasn’t deliberately trying to put myself in any of these characters. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Meena Venkataramanan

You chose to include South Asian American characters who are queer, have been arrested, have gotten a divorce, and have struggled with drug addiction, among other issues. Why is it  important to include these narratives in South Asian American fiction?

Sopan Deb

Yes. I’ll start with the divorcée. That’s a character named Chaitali [Keya’s mother]. I come from divorced parents. Divorce, especially in that generation, is extraordinarily rare. There’s a stigma that comes with it. And so I often see South Asian women, particularly older ones in film and television, whose entire narrative is boiled down to what kind of wife and mother they are. And I wanted to do something a little different than that. But I don’t claim that this book is representation. I don’t want that burden. I was just trying to tell a story. I think if I started saying things like, “Yeah, this is representation for X and Y,” I would start inviting people to say, “Well, this doesn’t represent my experience.” You start inviting people to feel left out. And because there are so few pieces of media that involve South Asian America, whenever someone reads something, they expect it to be everything to everyone. And I don’t want that burden of representation. I just want to tell the story. And it’s not that I was consciously like “Oh, I would like to include a divorcee.” I was just trying to come up with the best story that I could possibly come up with. A white author who includes a divorced woman or divorced man in their book is not thinking, “Man, what does this mean for representation?” I don’t want to think about that. I just want to tell a good story.

Meena Venkataramanan

Can you talk about the importance of mental health and therapy—themes that also come up in Missed Translations—to your novel?

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Sopan Deb

My parents didn’t know to seek therapy. They didn’t understand the language, they didn’t understand the resources that were available to them. So I wanted to imagine a world in which my dad went to seek therapy and that’s what those scenes are. Shantanu, Keya’s father, goes to seek therapy, and that’s something that South Asians are often resistant to doing because it’s stigmatized. And so I wanted to explore what a session like that might be like for my father. So there’s an instance where I’m putting my own life experience into the character. Now Shantanu’s not my dad. He was born in America. That’s one thing I did strive to do, is to have all the characters except for Kalpana, the grandmother, be born in the U.S. and my thinking behind that was I feel like a lot of books or movies that center South Asian characters are often othered. Like, “This is an immigrant story.” Keya Das’s Second Act is not an immigrant story. It is an all-American story. And that was a conscious choice, to make the characters born here. In reading the book, you can’t really “other” it. This is an American story and an American family. So that’s where that came from.

Meena Venkataramanan

Why did you choose to end the book with the start of the play as opposed to giving the reader a glimpse into the play’s debut? What was your decision-making process behind the way you framed the novel?

Sopan Deb

That’s an interesting question. I’m trying to decide whether I want to answer it or not. Because I knew when I finished the book, there would be people that wouldn’t like it. I loved it. I think the ending is exactly what I wanted to do. But I also think there’s value in leaving it on the page where I haven’t explained myself. Because there will be people that read something in the ending that isn’t necessarily there or, or will translate more from that. Generally speaking, I don’t think I need to spoon-feed the reader every single answer. I don’t think that’s an obligation I have as an author, to hand you everything. I want to leave it on the page, and there are people that will interpret the ending differently. I have my reasons for framing the ending that way but I don’t think the reader needs to know that.

Meena Venkataramanan

The original title of the book was supposed to be The Elm Tree. The elm tree presents itself as a place of refuge for Keya and Pamela’s characters in the auto-fictional play they write. What inspired your decision to depict the elm tree as a safe haven for these two characters?

Sopan Deb

The play that is at the center of this book is based on a play I wrote roughly 12 years ago. I was in this job I didn’t really enjoy and I wasn’t given much to do, so I started to write a musical. And the musical was terrible. But there’s some good stuff in there. And I was able to repurpose that for the play that’s now in the center of this book. I tried to put myself in the headspace of a 16 year old writing a play,  and I remember what it was like being in high school and sometimes I needed to go hide somewhere where parents and friends couldn’t find me. I just wanted a place to myself. And I’ve had a couple of those places throughout Howell, so I thought hiding under a tree that’s just their spot would work really well. And then in addition, I was thinking from a logistical standpoint, if they’re gonna do a play, it needs to have a simple set. So a tree fits well with that. And then, as far as the type of tree, I thought about something that would look cool on a set. And I thought an elm tree would look really cool on a set. It would provide shelter.

Meena Venkataramanan

I wondered if, growing up in suburban New Jersey, you used to take refuge under an elm tree, but I guess your safe haven was more like an Applebee’s, right?

Sopan Deb

Yeah, like that. [chuckles]

Meena Venkataramanan is an M.Phil. candidate in English literature at the University of Cambridge. Follow her on Twitter @mvenk82.

FICTION
Keya Das’s Second Act
By Sopan Deb
Simon & Schuster

July 5, 2022



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