Meera Nair speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about her essay “The Desire Tree,” which appears in The Common’s new fall issue. Meera talks about the long process of writing this piece, which explores loss and longing through a visit to a banyan tree in Kerala, India that is said to grant prayers. She also discusses writing from memories, finding the right length for a piece, and teaching revision strategies to her creative writing students.
On the germ of the essay:
“I had been thinking about the essay for a very long time because the banyan tree kept coming back to me. I’m a little obsessed with trees. I’ve always had a weird kind of attachment to them. I grew up with them all around me, because I used to go home to Kerala, where my family is from in India, and we have a big farm and a mango grove. I spent much of my childhood tucked up in the branches, reading a book. It gave me a very physical relationship with trees.”
On the years it took her to write about the loss of her aunt:
“I was writing about the banyan tree, and my aunt Sudha came into the essay because I had gone to see it with her. And then suddenly it occurred to me that I was finally able to write about her, and it was from a place of longing to have her back in the world. I was just trying to make her come alive on the page. So I think the piece is about grief in the end, but I also felt so much joy from just bringing her back to life on the page.”
On revision and writing as a teachable skill:
“I try to talk to my students about writing as a skill that can be learned. We talk about the techniques that you can learn to make your writing better. My whole approach is to read something, and then together we can peel open the back of the clock and look inside, and see what was used to make that piece. And at the end of the semester, their writing is so much better because they’ve actually learned how to put those skills to use on their own writing.”
Meera Nair is the author of Video: Stories, which was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. Her work has appeared in Guernica, The Threepenny Review, Calyx, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, NPR’s Selected Shorts, and elsewhere. She lives in Jackson Heights in Queens, New York.
Read Meera’s essay in The Common at thecommononline.org/the-desire-tree.
The Common is a print and online literary magazine publishing stories, essays, and poems that deepen our collective sense of place. On our podcast and in our pages, The Common features established and emerging writers from around the world. Read more and subscribe to the magazine at thecommononline.org, and follow us on Twitter @CommonMag.
Emily Everett is managing editor of the magazine and host of the podcast. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Putnam Books. Her stories appear in the Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, Tin House Online, and Mississippi Review. She is a 2022 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellow. Say hello on Twitter @Public_Emily.