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My daughter and I have checked into our hotel room, and from here it’s all arranged. At seven o’clock, her father will meet her in the hotel lobby and take her out to eat—for an hour and a half, at most. He agreed to this over the phone last month. I also explained to him in that phone call—our first in a decade and a half—about the lies I had been telling Mayuri about her parentage. I begged him not to reveal the truth when they met in person.
He laughed, as if we were on good terms, as if we were friends. “Babe, calm down! I’m on it. We’re going to have a great time!”
These words have often roared into my mind since that conversation, and each time, they becalm me—ha-ha, no, they becalm me not. They came to me a moment ago, as I watched Mayuri, my tall, fat-cheeked, curly-haired girl, sitting cross-legged on the bed in a sweatshirt and jeans, drumming her fingers on her kneecaps. It’s six o’clock, one hour to go. Babe, calm down.
I lift our suitcase onto the bed next to her and open it, rummaging for something to wear. I hold a lemon-colored sweater in one hand and an oversized floral button-down in the other: “This or this?” I’m thinking of what Charlie would see in each. I want him to see a stranger and feel unsettled.
“You’re not the one going out,” Mayuri says.
Vauhini Vara’s debut novel, The Immortal King Rao (W.W. Norton), is a New York Times Notable Book and the winner of the Atta Galatta Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize and the Rosebud Award for Fiction. It has been shortlisted for the NBCC John Leonard Prize and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and named a best book of the year by The New York Times, NPR and others. Her story collection, This is Salvaged, is forthcoming in September 2023. Vara studied creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her fiction has been published in McSweeney’s, Tin House, Zyzzyva, and other journals. It has received an O. Henry Award, as well as honors from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo.
Hannah Tinti on “What Next”
When Maribeth and I started One Story, our goal was to make it to one hundred issues. Now, twenty years later, we’re publishing issue #300. We wouldn’t be here without the support of our community of readers and writers (thank you all!), but I believe the magic engine that keeps our little-magazine-that-could chugging along is the same as when we started: the transformative experience of reading a single story as a standalone work of art. This continues to be the heart of everything we do, and I’m very happy to present the 300th installment: “What Next” by Vauhini Vara!
“What Next” begins with a lie: a mother has hidden the circumstances of her daughter’s birth. Now the daughter is meeting her father for the first time. Will our narrator tell the truth before the meeting happens? Or will she continue to shield her child from the past? As the story around this secret unravels, the spotlight shifts away from the man standing between this mother and daughter and focuses on the women instead, as each struggles to find her true self and press forward against the odds—one in the past, and the other in the present.
Exploring the power of love, ambition, identity, and parenthood, “What Next” questions how far we go to protect others, but perhaps more importantly, it digs into the unexpected reservoirs that life can deliver when we are most in need. Whether it’s the extraordinary bond between a mother and a baby, or the artistic release of filling a room with music, these moments in time become an oasis, and fill us with strength for what’s to come.
I’d like to thank Vauhini Vara and the rest of One Story’s 300 authors, for providing us with so many wonderful and inspiring stories these past twenty years. Here’s to the next 300!
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did you get the idea for this story? What was the first image or scene that you wrote?
- VV: I started this story fifteen years ago, during my first writing workshop in graduate school. I remember wanting to write a character different from myself—most of my stories, to date, had been about characters with experiences a lot like my own—and so I chose to write from the perspective of a mother with a teenage daughter; at the time, I was in my twenties and identified a lot more with being an adolescent than with raising one. (I just looked up the first sentence of the first version and was surprised to see that it’s a lot like the one in the published version: “We’re in a hotel room in Palo Alto, and here’s the plan.”) Another way in which the characters in that original version were different from me is that they were white; in this version, the mother—the narrator—is an Indian immigrant. That’s one of a lot of ways in which the story changed as I edited it. I tend to work on my writing for a really long time—like, a really long time, often a decade or more—and, in this case, during the writing of the story, I became a parent. That experience, not surprisingly, totally transformed my understanding of what the story was about.
- HT: The narrator of “What Next” travels to the United States from India for marriage (and her education). What do you think is the biggest shift for her as she adjusts to her new surroundings?
- VV: I love fiction—and I try to write fiction—in which characters derive their identities not only individually but through collective experience: within families, within communities. The narrator’s departure from India marks her departure from a world in which her identity—including the collective component of it—was, more or less, clear. From then on, she finds it much more difficult to figure out how to be in the world, in large part because she’s found herself in a country in which identity is defined very differently—much more individualistically—than in the country she came from.
- HT: There’s a great moment in the story where the narrator unknowingly gives practical (and perfect!) reader feedback on a Raymond Carver short story. Carver’s work represents a certain kind of aesthetic (and machismo) in the literary world. Why did you include this nod, and was he ever an influence for you as a writer?
- VV: I actually love Raymond Carver’s stories, including “Viewfinder,” which appears in “What Next.” I don’t know quite how that made its way into the story—it sort of just showed up—but it’s obviously not a coincidence that that’s a story about a man whose wife and children have left him, whereas in this story, a man has left his wife and soon-to-be-born child. Like a lot of female readers of Raymond Carver, the narrator of my story perceives behind “Viewfinder”—which is told from the perspective of the left-behind man—an untold, and maybe more interesting, story about what happened to the woman and children involved. And “What Next,” of course, prioritizes the story of the woman and the child over the man.
- HT: “What Next” is a part of your forthcoming story collection, This Is Salvaged. Can you talk a bit about the book, and how this story fits in thematically with the rest of the collection?
- VV: All the stories in This Is Salvaged are about people, especially girls and women, trying really hard—and often failing—to connect with, and find meaning through, one another.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- VV: I’m working on a novel and on a collection of experimental essays about—and engaging with—technology.
- HT: What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever received?
- VV: I love writing advice and have received a lot of it; I don’t think there’s a single bit of it that I’d call the best, but here I’ll mention a piece of advice the writer Anna North once gave me when I was stuck on an aspect of worldbuilding. She said—I’m paraphrasing—that all you need to do is imagine the place and people you’re writing about, and then write down what you’re imagining. (You can use visual aids if you want, like maps.) It’s so basic, but it turns out it works.