“For Me the Story Is Always the Characters”: An Interview With Ranbir Singh Sidhu


The characters in Ranbir Singh Sidhu‘s novel Deep Singh Blue abound with restlessness. Narrator Deep Singh is a young man bristling at an increasingly bleak family life–specifically, his parents’ unhappy marriage and his brother’s increasing separation from reality. He begins an affair with Lily, a woman a decade his senior, which pushes both to increasingly damaged places. Set in Reagan-era northern California, Sidhu’s novel evokes casual bigotry and sudden eruptions of violence. I talked with him via email about the novel’s origin, setting, and more.

Especially early in Deep Singh Blue, the specificity of the setting (both geographically and temporally) is made clear. What led you to decide on this particular place at this particular time?

I don’t think anything leads me to choose a time and place, rather the story emerges, and there is a time, there is a place, and either it works or it doesn’t. What happened here was the time happened to be 1984, when Sikhs in the Indian state of Punjab were agitating for an independent homeland called Khalistan. That particular drama served well as a backdrop for the main character Deep’s own struggles to find a place for himself in the world. As far as setting it on the edge of the Valley in California, I don’t know, it was a place I lived in at that time and knew intimately, and I was also interested in the fact that in a sense, it wasn’t one place or another, neither fully country nor fully city, yet in the orbits of both, a state of being which again mirrors the conflicts of several of the characters. But that wasn’t a choice, that’s just how it happened.

Deep’s narration of the novel is in the past tense, and he seems understandably critical of several of his younger self’s actions. Did you have a sense of how long after the time of the novel he was looking back on these events?

As far as how much time has passed, not really. I’ll leave that up to the reader. The older Deep emerged over several drafts, because at some point I realized I wanted a voice, or perhaps needed a voice, that offered the possibility of motion outside of this world: a future, that even if it’s not mapped out, you know is there. Just the fact of such a voice is an act of optimism, and I have a great affection for Deep and his struggles, so I didn’t want to leave him hanging and lost.

Do you think you’ll revisit him–or any of these characters–in your writing in the future?

I thought about that a few times as I was writing, and I thought it would be interesting to a do a book of linked stories that took Deep’s life forward in some manner. I even sketched out a few. I remember I got my car stuck in the Nevada desert and spent two days digging myself out all alone. At a certain point, when I felt all but hopeless, I realized that transforming this experience would make an incredible story to start to take Deep forward. It actually helped me get back to digging. But I suspect I won’t return to him as a character. I believe the act of reading is as much an act of imagination as is the act of writing, and I’ll probably leave the rest of Deep’s story in the minds of my readers—at least if they find it compelling enough to continue imagining what that might be.

Briefly, we encounter Deep’s cousin, who is obsessed with a P.G. Wodehouse novel. What prompted this characteristic: was it to establish a kind of contrast between Wodehouse’s aristocratic settings and comic approach and the working-class milieu in which Deep lives, or something entirely different?

I mean, sure, there’s that, which is purely comic, or largely comic, and draws in particular on the enormous popularity of Wodehouse in India, as is the comic aspect of the character of Thakurjeet, Deep’s cousin. But rather than a reification of the aristocratic, I would say Thakurjeet’s curious uber-Indianness draws on a kind of Anglophilia and the adoption of a colonialist attitude which he extends to America. He has no interest in the US at all, it’s got nothing for him. Yet he looks for a way to undermine Deep’s presence here and literally supplant him. I guess he’s a sort of colonialist cuckoo. But honestly that’s guesswork on my part, I don’t feel I’m qualified to comment on such larger questions.

Deep can be an uncomfortable protagonist to read: he has a tendency to push the people around him away, and his relationship with Lily goes to some very bleak places. What was the process of spending a lot of time inside the head of such an antisocial character?

I don’t know if it’s any different from being in the head of a hyper-social character, except maybe for me the latter would probably prove more challenging—both come alive through the application of an empathetic imagination. I will say I find characters such as Deep much more interesting, and much more human in a certain kind of way, which sounds like a silly thing to say—how is one character more human than another?—until one reads a lot of fiction where the political agenda dial has been set to “Celebrate The Difference!” and you realize that all too often minorities are portrayed as one-dimensionally “sympathetic,” that their deeper inner conflicts are given no room to show themselves. As far as taking Deep and Lily to some bleak places, perhaps, but I would add that these are all very human places, especially for a pair of characters who are as obviously wounded as Deep and Lily are.

Several of Deep Singh Blue‘s supporting characters live very vivid and complex lives when they’re not onscreen–I’m thinking specifically of Chuck and Uncle Gur. How did you decide what to show about them and what to reveal through dialogue and narration? 

Again, a question of choice doesn’t really come into it—the structure of the novel takes over at a certain point and either you follow it or you don’t, the latter likely being at your own peril. And generally I hate stock characters in fiction, props held up to move the story along—for me the story is always the characters, so even if they have a walk-on role, I try and make them as full as possible.

The first sentence of the novel’s second chapter is, “Blame Spinoza.” What was your first encounter with Spinoza’s writing, and what led you to incorporate it into Deep Singh Blue

I read Spinoza at about the same age as Deep was when he reads him, though my reaction was different. I remember finding him helpful in dealing with a world that felt at times quite insanely out of control and destabilizing, and over the years, I still find myself returning mentally to his work and being surprised how much it has, in some aspects, shaped me. As far as what led me to incorporate it, I don’t know, it was there, and the story grew around the fact of it—and I guess because it all still hung together and resonated, I chose to keep him. I don’t really put any thought into putting a story together, I often write without knowing what the next sentence will be. I find that’s what keeps me interested, and also helps to keep the story alive.

Throughout the novel, I was struck by alienation of Deep’s parents regarding his brother’s psychological issues. By the end of the novel, this denial reads more like full-blown absurdism. How did you find the right balance between the two?

For me, it’s not absurdism—a degree of humor yes, though I can see how it might be read as such. Probably the only truly absurdist element in the book is the crazy naked dance at the hot tubs, but even that—I mean, California in the 1980s was a real place, things happened. But the people I write about, that world, immigrant Punjabi families, is all built upon a kind of denial that I think is probably difficult for an outsider to fully understand or appreciate. So much is deliberately not seen or blanked out of the imagination, erased from any definition of shared reality—these are acts of will very much supported by a broader cultural dynamic.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a book that’s far too long for anyone’s good. It’s called The Echoes, and is about the end of the world, which happens in 1991. It’s set all over the place, California from the 20s onward, the Mojave Desert, Trinidad in 1938, London in the 50s and 60s, Egypt in the 60s, the old Congo, and Tibet in 1904 when the British invade, or in this book, don’t really.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.