Inspired by the Book is a series of interviews with Connecticut College folks about their literary lives. Inspiration comes from The New York Times Book Review series called By the Book.
What follows is an interview with Aruna Gopalan, who works with the Cambridge Public Library as an associate for Youth Services. Aruna graduated from Connecticut College in 2021 with a degree in History. When not surrounded by books, Aruna says “I like to cook experimental recipes and explore the cities and communities around me.”
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh? The last book you read that made you cry? The last book you read that made you furious?
Ants Among Elephants by Sujata Gidla to all the questions above. I’m in awe of the sensitivity with which Gidla writes her family’s history and how it intertwines with the stories of larger societies and communities. It combined so many of the things I hold in high regard – history being reclaimed and told from the bottom-up, family/community centered stories and complicated, nuanced perspectives on how caste, class and gender play out in society.
Who is your favorite novelist of all time?
I would read James Baldwin describe how he brushed his teeth. Most humans don’t live the epic saga-like lives that a majority of fiction protagonists live through. We experience joys and sorrows in altogether quieter, more introspective ways. There is something about the way he writes the most mundane, ordinary things – experiences which are so often discounted in literature in favor of large, dramatic moments – which gives that mundanity the meaning it carries for me in my own life.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I don’t quite know if it’s a favorite yet, but I greatly enjoyed The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri. It set up all the elements to begin a good trilogy – a defined world, a well-rounded cast of characters and protagonists that one can actually care about. It also pushes me to wonder at the sudden emergence of so many queer fantasy novels with similar settings – a lesbian couple set across class boundaries and vague anti-monarchy sentiments. If I had a nickel for every time I saw that dynamic in a new release, I’d have three nickels. That’s not a lot, but it’s still strange. I’m hoping Suri is able to avoid the pitfalls of such a setting going forward (the “anti-monarchy” to “monarchy is fine with a woman on the throne” pipeline particularly bothers me), and I am personally keeping my eyes peeled for the sequel.
Was there a book and author that particularly inspired you?
I hold Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed as a hallmark of what fiction can achieve. Everyone who is anyone to me has probably heard me talking about this book at least once, trying to peddle it to them in increasingly creative ways. Le Guin redefined what purpose fiction could have for me, and I was lucky to have found The Dispossessed in a time when I was largely growing bored and tired of reading the same old epic fantasies. I still remember a speech that Le Guin gave in 2014, where she championed science fiction as a place to reimagine the world – to create worlds that weren’t drowned in the inescapable reaches of capitalism. I didn’t give much stock to the kind of hope fiction could create until I read this book.
Disappointed, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t?
As a person big into urban fantasy, I really expected to like Gaiman’s Neverwhere a lot more. I still read through it, and still found the world-building incredible, but 90% of the characters were frankly flat and didn’t inspire any level of care or engagement in me. Urban fantasy is an amazing way of getting to know cities, both past and present, but I enjoy Gaiman’s children’s books a lot more than his adult works for some reason. Maybe I’ve exhausted my capacity for profound verses.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I’m most drawn towards character-driven stories. Unless I have a good grasp on what makes the characters I’m reading about tick, I can’t connect to the story overall. While a well built character will suck me into the book, a well built world will keep me around too! Especially in fantasy based fiction, knowing the socio-political organization of the world helps me situate the plot within it much better. The potential for a well built world is what perhaps first attracted me to Harry Potter as a child, and the lack of that background structure is what started drawing me away towards the end of the series.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
This might be a bit of a flakey answer, but I can’t imagine a good book only striking one of those chords and not the other. Too many academic books that talk about the outrageous things in the most calm, dry, “isn’t this interesting?” kind of tone. Especially in cases when people are writing stories about injustices, whether real or fictional, I want to see what investment the author has in the issue. If the author truly cares about the subject of their writing, I believe that translates to the emotions exhibited in and induced by the text.
What do you plan to read next?
As a person big into horror movies and shows, I’ve been trying to consume more horror based books! I think the written word is perhaps the hardest medium for this genre to be expressed in, and that the lack of jumpscares or on-screen gore really forces authors to make horror about things altogether more terrifying: human emotions and relationships. After No Place for Monsters by Kory Meritt, a children’s graphic novel that I’ve recommended to young readers coming in looking for horror, I have a copy of Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Shaw waiting for me on the holdshelf.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I’ve been trying to be better about it, but I think most of my reading happens in sporadic bursts during free times. This often ends up cutting into the “revenge sleep procrastination” territory if I get really sucked into a book at night. I used to be much more flexible about where and how I read – as a child I infuriated my mother by reading while I ate or while I walked from place to place. I’ve evolved to like reading in quieter circumstances where I can really give the material I’m consuming 110% of my attention.