How to Carry Grief: An Interview with Nishta Mehra

Nishta Mehra is a nonfiction writer, teacher, and blogger who was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee and who currently lives in Houston with her partner, Jill, and their son, Shiv. In 2010, Houston Press called her one of Houston’s Top Ten Blog Stars. In 2011, the Houston Web Awards named her blog, Blue Jean Gourmet, the city’s Best Food Blog. And in both 2010 and 2013 Blue Jean Gourmet was nominated for a Houston Culinary Award for Best Food Blog.

The Pomegranate King is Mehra’s first book, a collection of essays which came out in June of this year. The stories cover her childhood growing up in the South, being first-generation Indian-American, and her sexuality—all topics that revolve around and are framed by the sudden loss of her father in her early twenties. In our Skype interview, Mehra and I cried together and discussed the irrationality and necessity of grief, the importance of expressing emotions, and the heavy, hopeful project of being a human.

BEL POBLADOR: Why did you decide to self-publish your collection of essays?

NISHTA MEHRA: This is a book that took me seven years to write. When I finished, I felt really good about the manuscript. I was ready for it to be out in the world and needed that to happen almost on an existential level—so I could move on. Self-publishing is a much more expedient option. Even if you have a contract and a deadline with a publisher, it still can take fourteen months or longer from handing them the completed manuscript to someone being able to buy your book. I personally didn’t feel like I could wait that long. For the manuscript, final edits were done in November of this past year, and I published in June. That’s a pretty quick turnaround, and that was appealing to me.

I think because I’m a blogger and I’ve been promoting myself for awhile now, it wasn’t new territory for me. Already having a built-in audience goes along with self-publishing—not just family and friends, but readers who are connecting on a somewhat regular basis through the blog. You have to be willing to send a lot of emails and put yourself out there. There is still a stigma with self-publishing where people have an assumption about the quality of your writing, so it’s a little harder to get people to give you a chance. It was a lot of work, but I was okay with that.

BP: When and why did you decide to start your blog? Has it helped your writing?

NM: It was in between periods of working on the book. I didn’t start the blog with the conscious intention that it was going to be a writing exercise for me, but I had stuff that I wanted to say. It seemed fun in a way that the other writing had stopped being because I was so attached to the outcome of it.

The new context allowed me to enjoy writing again. I had an audience in mind, and then I actually had an audience, and it’s amazing what a difference that can make. When there are people who want to read what you have to write, you’re going to show up every week and write something. It helped to solidify and find my voice.

BP: The book opens with a quote from Confucius’s The Analects: “I once heard the Master say, ‘If you haven’t yet faced yourself, you will when the time comes to mourn your parents.’” What does that epigraph mean to you, and where did you encounter it?

NM: That quote made the most sense in terms of framing the content of this book, which is, “Who am I now, and how do I make sense of the world?” My partner sent me that quotation after I lost my dad. It was one of those things that I tucked away. It wasn’t until later that I understood what that was about. There was this moment when I knew that my life had changed forever but I didn’t know how.

It doesn’t have to just be the death of a parent, but I think there is something primal about that grief. We all know we’re going to lose our parents at some point, but there’s something disruptive on a bodily level about it. You are confronted: not only do you have to grow up in a certain way because you have to be this person without your mother or father, but you also have to make a reckoning of your relationship with your parent, which can be tough enough when they’re alive.

BP: This collection encases such wide themes of identity: from your hometown to your culture to the death of your father. What did you want that breadth of topics to communicate?

NM: For me, all those things are connected even though they may not seem to be. I wanted to demonstrate that all these pieces are informing one another. You have to deal with all of those pieces if you want some coherence or wholeness, and I felt like I learned that: These things don’t work in isolation.

Not that we ever resolve anything fully, right? But to deal with whatever it is—for me my sexuality, my identity, my sense of family, my grief—if there’s an upset in one of those places, there’s no way you can keep it isolated. Sometimes we think we’re hiding things well or we can keep it away, but I don’t think that’s actually possible, and I don’t think it’s healthy. This book reflects this wide array because I have to consider all of them when I think about the project of being a human.

BP: That makes me think of the pomegranate as a metaphor—the seeds seem separate but are actually part of a whole, encased in a larger space. Everything is interconnected.

NM: That’s lovely; I’m totally stealing that.

BP: You say in the book that as an Indian-American, you’re “straddling the hyphen” and living in two worlds. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

NM: I’m grateful to have had two different worldviews side-by-side. I think losing my dad also brings up this sense of wanting to be Indian, but what does that mean and how do I pull that off? You’re an American by virtue of the fact that you live in America. What makes me part of the Indian-American equation? It’s not just because I’m brown. That doesn’t feel like enough. And so what does it mean to enact or inhabit that?

For some people it’s totally different, and so I’ve had to figure out what that looks like for me—to feel okay about it not necessarily looking the way it looks for a lot of other people. I have a completely multiracial family: my partner’s not Indian, my son is not Indian, and I don’t regret that for a second. I think for a lot of us, our parents are that real connection to this other culture. It’s ours, but it doesn’t totally feel like ours. We can’t let it go, but we don’t totally know what to do with it either.

BP: How did being first-generation affect the way you wanted to communicate? Did you have an intended audience and did that play into it as well?

NM: Bend It Like Beckham came out when I was in college. It was the first time I ever saw anything onscreen that remotely resembled my life—a representation of myself, my family, which was not in a caricatured or cartoony way. It’s a cute, silly movie, but it also captures a lot of that first-generation experience. I wept through part of that movie because it was so emotional to see, so validating.

You don’t see a lot of stories like mine. Not just me, but there are whole swaths of people who are vastly underrepresented in the canon. It becomes frustrating at times, because there’s this idea that, “Well, we have Jhumpa Lahiri now, so we’re good.” She’s fantastic and super talented, but there’s gotta be room for more than just her! It’s still very much an issue. When stories are labeled in a certain way, it’s because the representation is so poor. Once it becomes more mainstream, people stop labeling it the same way because then the person becomes an American author.

BP: The second essay in the collection ends, “When someone dies you begin to think about the project of wrapping their life, your lives, together, gliding an index finger down a ledger of accounts. Taking inventory, making a reckoning. I want to know how the math works, I need him to help me balance the equation of our time together. Does this one thing cancel out everything else? How does it add up, Papa? Teach me, I can’t figure it out.” Was this book your attempt to add it all up?

NM: It definitely was. In the last couple of months, my grief has been intense—a resurgence. It’s because the book feels very much like an accounting. It’s so physical: I can hold it in my hand, put it down, and give him to someone. It’s contained in this way that I’m proud of, and that I also find completely terrifying. Because it’s like it’s done, or like that period of my life has been wrapped up and that he might go with it.

Of course, grief is totally irrational so that doesn’t make sense, but that’s what it feels like. The book is a tribute to him, and it was a way to try and work out that time in my life and that raw, new grief. But I’m not ever going to be done with the grieving or with trying to figure out what it looks like to have him in my life now, because it keeps changing. Now I have a son, and he’s never going to know his grandfather and that adds a whole other layer onto it.

BP: That must be intense: you’ve accomplished this huge, beautiful project, and you feel all of the joy that comes with it, but that happiness is a product of all of this grief over losing your father. It seems like there would be a constant shifting of different waves of emotions.

NM: It’s bittersweet. I think if you’re going to go through something shitty you might as well make something beautiful out of it. But if I could trade? If it worked that way? To hell with the book—I just want to see him.

Now there’s a new opportunity for me to figure out what it looks like to have him present and for my son to know him. That’s one thing that makes me happy: the idea of my son, Shiv, reading the book someday and being able to access that experience of his grandfather and what it was like to lose him.

BP: I think you honor your father’s memory beautifully and capture the complexities of grief and mourning really well.

NM: It feels good to feel grief. I think we forget that—or at least I do. I’m guilty of pushing it away. The other day I let myself go there. I was alone, the baby was asleep, and I thought, “I’m just going to go there.” And it felt good to actively miss him, to sob on the kitchen floor and be a mess. You have to make time for it—for me it’s a mental health thing. Because when I push it away, it gets ugly. People mean well, but I think it’s hard if you haven’t experienced it: to understand how seven years after his death, the grief can feel just as raw and intense.

Grief is this solitary thing in so many ways, and it’s special for me to know that in reading the book, it rings true for people who also grieved the loss of someone important in their lives. There’s a communal aspect that is hard to do—it’s hard to grieve with someone, even if you’re grieving for the same person. To be able to share that experience is healing for me.

BP: What made you decide to write about grief from a more scientific angle in “Papa, You’re Still Dead”?

NM: That essay grew out of an assignment in graduate school. I was taking a science-writing seminar, so we were looking broadly at non-fiction science writing. In terms of describing how you feel, it’s hard to do: grief is kind of static in that way. Writing about it from a biological perspective gave me different access points, and it was affirming to know that what I was experiencing was real and natural. This idea that grief is built into our nature as social beings, as creatures who exist in relationships.

So then I thought, “I can’t get over this. My body isn’t even over it.” I think there are a lot of times when we feel we’ve passed something mentally, but our bodies are telling us something very different. It sounds trite, this idea of listening to your body. But culturally we don’t do that well. It’s like, “Ignore it. Take a pill.” I wasn’t able to do that; I hit a wall. I had never experienced insomnia before then. I didn’t want to take a bunch of pills; I wanted to try and experience what grief felt like. Learning about it was fascinating, and it gave me something to do. Sometimes when you’re grieving you just need a project. Over time my project became that piece.

BP: You write in the book that “Time doesn’t actually make it better, time just makes it different.” After seven years, do you still feel that to be true?

NM: Absolutely. This idea that “it gets better with time” is kind of bullshit. I’m not denying that grief changes, but I don’t think we can use the language of superlatives like “better” or “worse.” I think that’s a false dichotomy. That assumes that there’s a fix for grief, and I find that so problematic. Time can actually add to the grief—there’s all this stuff that he’s missed. When he was first gone it was super raw and physical, and I was in shock. But I was projecting ahead to how my life was going to be different. Now I have seven years that he’s already missed, and then, shit. Everything else that comes later, he’s going to miss that, too. There’s just the daily life of existing without him. The other day I caught myself: I thought, “Oh my god, Dad would love this!” It’s been seven years, and it’s still right there.

You will be able to function in your life in a way that you can’t when it first happens, but the idea that grief is a project that at some point you’ll be done with—that sets people up for failure. I’d much rather have people undertake the project of figuring out where to put grief in their lives. You’ve got to figure out how to carry it in a way that works for you.

We’re not supposed to need help, but there’s something lovely about being in a space where it’s okay to emote. I think that’s rare, and I think people are hungry for that space to be honest—even if they would never admit it. You know, like ugly crying? I want the people I love the most to be able to ugly cry in front of me.

Bel Poblador is a writer and Los Angeles native. She lived in San Francisco for four years until 2011, when she returned to LA, where she received her MFA in writing from CalArts in 2013. She still dreams in fog and wind.