A People’s History of Heaven—award winning writer, author, and educator Mathangi Subramanian’s first novel for adults—took readers into the slums of India for a feminist reckoning packed with heart and messages of intersectional solidarity.
Subramanian won the South Asia Book Award for her novel Dear Mrs. Naidu in 2016, the same year her short story Perfectly Clear was awarded an honorable mention in the Reynolds Prize for Fiction; in 2015, her short story Banu the Builder won the Middle Grades category of the 2015 Katherine O. Paterson Prize and her short story Half Wild was shortlisted for the Out of Print-DNA short fiction contest. People’s History, which follows a gang of teenage girls fighting for their own freedom and independence while also working to support their families and save their city from demolition, was long listed for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award.
A People’s History was featured in Ms. when it debuted in hardcover. It came out in paperback this January. To mark the release, Subramanian, talked to Ms. about what inspired the story, how she met her diverse roster of characters and the power of writing the stories we’re hungry to read.
I always start with an inception story, so of course I’m curious about how this book got born. What led you to tell this story?
I moved to Bangalore in 2012 on a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship. I was funded to do a study of India’s early childhood care and education system—which is the largest publicly funded early childhood system in the world, has an entirely female workforce and is just generally fascinating and amazing. I started spending time in early childhood centers in slums and villages across southern India, and I collected lots of data and wrote articles and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I also realized that these centers are basically the only public spaces in India where working class women and girls can gather freely.
As I started showing up regularly, especially at my Bangalore sites, I was suddenly surrounded with all of these rich voices and characters and stories that not only didn’t fit into my academic work, but also didn’t fit into the picture of India that I had grown up hearing and reading about. In order to process it all, I wrote—mostly because writing has been my go-to coping mechanism for most of my life. I’d come home and transcribe my field notes and then spend hours crafting fictional characters and worlds inspired by what I saw. These eventually became the main characters of my book.
The fact that this started with an ethnographic study is so unique—and I think it made this book so much more powerful. I was so struck by the way in which the characters, moments, experiences in this book don’t feel like fiction, especially because of the ways in which they bring marginalized and often erased or stereotyped communities to the fore, without relying on tropes or shallow caricatures.
How did this unusual path to fiction—and in your first foray into writing it!—shape your process?
This is the perfect segue! When I started this book, I was using the stories to try and understand this women-centered part of India that I had never seen before—and that, frankly, I was a little bitter about missing all these years! The women I met were so powerful and funny and determined, and they had such fascinating personal and family histories that never made it into news articles or textbooks.
At first, I wanted to write to both honor them and figure out how I felt about them and their erasure. But then, two things happened.
First, I got the contract for my first novel, a middle-grades book called Dear Mrs. Naidu, which was published by an Indian feminist press and was inspired by the work I was doing. With that success under my belt, I took a step back and realized that the stories I was writing were actually pretty good. I submitted to a few contests, and I won or placed in a couple of them, and that gave me the courage to turn into more of a book.
I don’t have an MFA, and I don’t have a community of writers, persay—although I’m working on that. I do have a wonderful set of friends who are generous about reading my work and giving me feedback. In terms of craft, I basically ravenously read whatever authors I can find who are doing the type of work I want to do and try to emulate them. The fact that I’ve never been formally trained in writing keeps me riddled with self-doubt. But I think that because A People’s History of Heaven was never meant to be a book, it’s rooted in a kind of joy and self-discovery that I’m not sure I’ll ever experience again.
How did that process also change, or shape, or strengthen, the study you were doing?
I feel like grappling with what I was seeing through fiction added a whole other dimension to the study I was doing, which started out focused on the academic aspects of school change. The women and girls I met were such resourceful and dedicated advocates for themselves, their families and their communities, and it made me realize how much of education is about caring for each other—something that the current movement towards school choice completely ignores.
Personally, the process forced me to take real, honest look at my privilege. In the U.S., I’m a middle class woman of color who is from a minority religion, and I constantly have to prove myself and my worth. I get so focused on this that I don’t really think about all the ways in which I have power. In India, I was a high caste, wealthy, American educated member of the most powerful religion—so I really had to think about the power I have, and how I can use that power to work towards equity and justice.
The other big change that happened is that I started to realize how many women are pushed into invisibility because of their sexuality, gender, race, class status, immigration status… I now make a real effort to really see women who I previously ignored, whether that means getting to know the name and story of the cleaning lady in my building, or focusing my nonfiction about women-led movements or female-identified artists. This is something I did in India, and want to do more about here. It’s also made me think about gender very differently, and I’m working on learning more about trans and gender non-binary folks, and figuring out how I can be a better ally to them.
The women and girls in A People’s History are so vibrant, so powerful, so strong and resilient and persistent. These characters aren’t victims even though their circumstances attempt to victimize them. What did writing this kind of story down teach you? How did it change you?
Like a lot of immigrants, I have a complicated relationship with the country my parents came from, mostly because we didn’t go back there much, and because I had limited contact with my family who lived there. I am not working class, and I’m not Dalit or Adivasi—but being around the women and girls in Bangalore slums, I felt like I saw myself for the first time. Some days, when I was supposed to be doing fieldwork, I would just hang out and gossip about politics and movies and marriage and parents and in-laws and children, although I didn’t have a child yet. It was so freeing to be in an Indian space where, despite the language barriers—I speak Tamil and some Kannada but it’s heavily accented—I felt like I could fully be myself, and I could fully experience India on my own terms.
The other important thing the writing process did was to take me down a notch. I came into my study thinking that I was open-minded, but really expecting that I was going to sail in and change the face of early childhood education. (Not really, but kind of.) It was incredibly humbling to realize how adept the women I met were at taking care of their families and advocating for themselves—simply because they had to in order to survive.
I also spent a lot of time realizing and dealing with my caste privilege. I’m mostly Brahmin—it’s a long story involving an elopement in the 1940s—and so I never really thought about caste, because I didn’t have to. Writing the characters in my book made me think about the childhood I would have had in India, and how much power I would have had, and how different it would have been than in the United States.
I grew up working-class. I’m mixed-race. I’m queer. So much of this book hit close to home for me, too, but I also know it’s immersive enough that you don’t have to be any of those things to understand the story. Who were you writing it for, and what message were you hoping to leave with them?
If I’m being totally honest, I wrote this book for myself. Like I keep saying: I am an immigrant and a woman of color and I’ve got some stuff to work through.
That being said, whenever I write, I’m thinking about anyone hungering to see themselves on the page. I wrote this for them, but I want to be clear that I didn’t write it only so they would read it. I wrote it so everyone could read it—Western wealthy cishetero white males, I’m looking at you—and, in the process, to try to reimagine what the world can and should look like, and what fiction can and should look like.
I am so grateful to my press, because my editor totally got what I was doing, and didn’t once try to change my vision or my characters. He had faith in my story, and he knew that people would read it. I think I wrote a good book, but I’m also so aware of how many other great manuscripts are languishing in drawers all because the author wrote about their own experience, and someone decided there’s no market for that particular experience.
My highest hope is that my book and books like it that feature diverse characters in settings that we might otherwise overlook, are successful enough to make us rethink this weird idea of what is readable and saleable and what isn’t. So I guess I also wrote this book to prove that there is space for more stories out there than we can imagine, and that the world is a better place for having them in it.