Saturday, August 14, 2010

Shiva's Arms Book Review and Author Interview

Shiva’s Arms may not a book for everyone as Cheryl Snell’s first novel expects a lot from the reader.  Being  a fan of Cheryl’s poetry for years now, I was familiar with her work and knew to look for a depth of hidden associative meanings. Shiva’s Arms provides that depth as it tackles cultural and gender roles within the construct of intimate family moments. In this book one finds meanings behind meanings.  For example, the relationship between the mother-in-law (Amma) and daughter-in-law ( Alice)  illuminates expectations within a caste system and the conflict when two cultures become entangled within one family.  This relationship, which is a central focus of the book, points towards Hindu beliefs regarding Shiva, the conflict of creation and destruction, light and darkness, male and female forces.  One of the most surprising characters Cheryl constructed was Amma’s biological daughter, Nela.  Nela, a less than perfect woman, serves as a foil to Alice.  As both women strive to live an authentic life, Amma is a force of nature, ever present in the back ground.    Although some of Cheryl’s transitions from chapter to chapter might feel a bit disjointed to readers, this book is well worth a read.   
For more information see:

Interview with the Author Cheryl Snell

Questions:  Shiva’s Arms
For people who have little knowledge of Indian traditions and culture, the book may pose some difficulties, in particular, to fully understanding the complex mother-child relationships, one needs to have a basic understanding of “samsara.”  Could you explain the samsara concept and tell us how you used it develop the characters and the conflict/resolution of the complex inter-cultural relationships?
In a Hindu Brahmin’s life, samsara, or the ‘householder’ stage, is the most chaotic. The word refers to the continuous flow of the cycle of birth and rebirth, and the drowning sea of domesticity. I set my characters in that stage to underscore their conflict, and imply a larger unease –the divided loyalties that come with cultural assimilation.

Let’s talk about the title for a moment.   When one reads the book one might assume the mother-in-law is an embodiment of Shiva’s arms.  How does Alice’s character balance this assumption?  When constructing these two characters what aspects of Shiva did you attempt to attribute to them in their relationship with each other and their family?
I named Amma (Shiva Laxmi Sambashivan) after the god of Creation and Destruction partly to give her something to live up to. She is a symbol of ambiguity. Dualities are carried through the narrative in many ways: siblings Ram and Nela stand in for the male and female aspects of Lord Shiva as avatars of the same god, for instance.
Alice only sees Amma’s destructive qualities, but once she steps back from their tangled relationship and recognizes Amma as a fully human woman in need of help, their relationship changes. Creation! Amma is capable of transformation, after all.
 Like Shiva, whose every footfall is said to be felt across the world, the old girl does throws her weight around, but she truly believes that she is the gatekeeper of sacred tradition. Since Ram and his sibs have been taught to regard their parents as gods, she is hard to argue with!
I happen to know that you write poetry also, so this may be unfair of me to pick your brain this way…But…
 Do you feel you used poetic techniques in constructing this novel?  If so, were you aware of those techniques when you were writing or did it become apparent to you afterwards?  (For example some of the transitions seem abrupt for a prose-flowing book, and seem to be more stylized towards imagery then plot.)  Can you tell us about this choice, and why you made it?
One of the hallmarks of a literary novel is language. As a poet, I appreciate that!  I thought lyrical elements fit in with  lush Indian sensory details. The plot is intimate, played out against a larger backdrop of the momentous act of immigration. I had to restrain myself with the poetic language sometimes, but I did want the imagery to startle. I needed phrases that would contribute to the feeling of choppy samsara seas.

A question unrelated to the story line, but related to your work as a writer.  As your first novel, have you been happy with the publishing process?   Can you share some words of advice to hopeful writers concerning finishing the task of writing and staying inspired?
The road to publishing a novel is hard and long.  I respect the fact that the publisher made a large investment in this book, and I am very pleased with the finished product. Shana Johnson designed a lovely cover, and I’m grateful to have such a well made book.
I’d tell the hopefuls that inspiration is mostly made of effort. Stay connected to your story while you’re doing other things and soon you will stop counting your daily quota of words written, and begin to enter fully into the work. And that’s the real reward.