OPWCBy Robert Laurence

… Or a reader who writes. Take your pick. Padma Viswanathan, who lives with her extended family in Fayetteville and who teaches at the University of Arkansas, is both. And thinks you have to be both, or at least her students have to be, as she leads undergraduates who want to be writers through a semester of rigorous and wide-ranging reading.

Padma Viswanathan will be the Featured Writer at the May meeting of the Ozarks Poets and Writers Collective, on Tuesday May 28, 7 p.m. at Nightbird Books on Dickson Street. All are invited.

Viswanathan (Vis-wa-NA-than), whose 2008 novel The Toss of a Lemon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was received with enthusiasm – “A real talent,” The New York Times; “ a passionate love affair with the English language,” The Tennessean; “evocative,” The Montreal Gazette – is also a journalist, a playwright and a short-fiction writer. Oh, and she reads fifty books a year. Her reading habit becomes, it seems, part of her writing. Not only the research that must be done for any historical fiction, like The Toss of a Lemon, but the reading on the side, so to speak: old and new, fiction and non-, originally in English or in translation (plus Portuguese, which she reads in the original), from Cervantes to Martin Amis to Louise Erdrich.

Viswanathan hails from Canada, with origins in the south of India, and is a dual Canadian-US citizen. The closeness of her family is suggestive of A Toss of a Lemon, which is drawn from the lives of her own ancestors, fictionalized throughout. The novel is an epic family saga, relating the history of four generations of rural folk living in southern India in the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries. The lives of the three principal characters — Sivakami, her daughter Thangam, and Janaki, one of Thangam’s eleven children — these lives are set out in vivid detail, from 1896, when Sivakami is betrothed at the age of ten, through her death in 1966.

Here is how Sivakami is described in the first paragraph of the novel: “She is neither tall nor short for her age, but she will not grow much more. Her shoulders are narrow but appear solid, as though the blades are fused to protect her heart from the back. She carries herself with an attractive stiffness: her shoulders straight and always aligned. She looks capable of bearing great burdens, not as though born to a yoke, but perhaps as though born with a yoke within her.” As her life unfolds in the novel, we come to see just how sturdy that inner yoke is.

Before and after her reading, the mic will be open for readers to share four minutes of prose or poetry with a friendly and encouraging audience.

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