“There’s a good chance that if you’ve enjoyed one of my books, you won’t enjoy any one of the others,” says Naben Ruthnum, author of five books spanning non-fiction and fiction.
While that doesn’t seem like something to brag about, in his case it actually points to his strengths as a writer. Just halfway through the year, Ruthnum has already published two books, and is gearing up to publish another next year. Not only did he write all three during the pandemic, they’re all different genres: literary fiction, horror and YA. Five years after publishing a debut non-fiction book critiquing the tropes expected of writers in the Indian diaspora, the 39-year-old has made a career of defying categories.
The Winnipeg-born, Kelowna, B.C.-raised writer read widely as a child and into adulthood, ultimately helping him make these literary leaps. Ghost stories by John Bellairs were a favourite growing up, and he moved from children’s books to more mature reading seamlessly through his parents’ well-stocked library – from Encyclopedia Brown to Agatha Christie.
But as for childhood influences, it was Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien that perhaps had an outsized influence on his career. Ruthnum decided to pen thrillers under Nathan Ripley as a transparent pseudonym – one way to help readers know what to expect from a Ripley book versus a Ruthnum book. That choice has raised eyebrows over the years as some assumed Ruthnum was whitewashing his name, but in reality he chose it when he was 14 years old – he thought Nathan sounded like his name, and Ripley was inspired by the 1979 sci-fi film’s lead, who was the sole survivor on the Earth-bound spaceship after 116 minutes or so of being terrorized by an alien onboard.
While his two thrillers – Find You in the Dark and Your Life is Mine – were the first book-length fiction Ruthnum published, receiving rave reviews, his first book was non-fiction. Published by Coach House in 2017, Ruthnum wrote a book-length essay criticizing diasporic South Asian fiction. “I write about race and culture way more than I ever thought I would,” Ruthnum says.
In Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, he uses the term “currybooks” to describe those stories centering on a brown character in the West longing for some pure version of the homeland, invariably involving mystical pots of complex, spiced food that soothe, cure and act like tidy metaphors for things like what we inherit from the generations who came before us. Ruthnum rejects the idea that writers such as him should be relegated to this one type of writing – and wrestles with the fact that this was the topic of his first published book, wondering if he’s leaning into the same tendencies. But his critique of tropes is, of course, apart from the tropes themselves.
Ruthnum doesn’t feel the “original wound” that he posits writers of currybooks feel, a wound caused by detachment from what he calls their “mother culture.” And in some cases, Ruthnum perceives a disingenuousness in how some writers feign interest in and connection to a homeland. “I think a lot of writers who share my background don’t acknowledge this [idea that] I have no more insight into India than anybody else who grew up in Kelowna,” Ruthnum says. “I’m generations away from it.”
Since writing Curry, he thinks the literary landscape that rewards those kinds of books has changed slightly, but not enough – a writer who isn’t white can’t just write a novel that a white person would write, Ruthnum says. “It has to do certain things,” Ruthnum says. “It has to be rooted in a certain cultural heritage, and it should take the reader along a certain journey, that, if it doesn’t educate, at least evokes some sort of a feeling that [the reader has] participated in the experience of another culture.”
But he admits that maybe he’s being too cynical: “The fact that a book like A Hero of Our Time gets published is a slight counter-argument to that.”
The title of Ruthnum’s first literary novel calls back to the 19th-century work by Mikhail Lermontov about a cynical young army officer. Ruthnum writes an anti-currybook character: Osman Shah, a 30-something in tech who has vague roots in the Indian subcontinent, whose parental relationships are strained not because of identity, but because his parents don’t seem to like him very much, and whose his love life is lacking mostly because of his crushingly low self-esteem.
The plot revolves around Osman’s obsession with taking down an executive at work, Olivia Robinson, who has perfected the art of wielding victimhood to accrue power as a white woman who rides the wave of diversity initiatives to the C-suite. It’s an incisive critique of the capitalist tendency to use identity as a branding exercise.
Ruthnum was concerned some might feel attacked by it – even though it’s an exercise in observing terrible people invent convenient backstories to build personal power, there isn’t some grand moral message in it. But he is conscious there are ideas in the book – and that he believes in – that are counter to conversations happening in diverse lit. He rejects some basic principles talked about in diverse lit, like the idea that to be represented in literature means to see someone exactly like yourself on the page. “To me, that runs counter to everything I believe and love about literature,” he says. While he adds that of course literature will inherently be richer by adding more voices, for him, it doesn’t mean they should be boxed in to only write about their own experiences. “The idea that a nine-year-old boy or girl can’t feel resonance with a book where the main character is a wolf, or a French-Canadian orphan, actually offends me and it has become such a core tenet of how we talk about diverse literature.”
His latest offering, published in May, is completely apart from the very contemporary discussions on identity. Helpmeet is a novella set in New York in the year 1900 as a nod to Edith Wharton and Henry James’s stories from that era. It follows the Wilks – Edward, the husband, is a doctor suffering from a mysterious condition that seems to be consuming his body parts, one after the other. Louise is a nurse and his devoted wife, who discovers it’s not exactly an illness that is undoing her husband – it’s something much darker. While A Hero of Our Time is acerbic and plot-driven, Helpmeet is more intimate, moving slower with evocative depictions that are both unsettling and page-turning. The book’s jacket boasts praise from Canadian horror writer David Demchuk, and is part of a wave of renewed interest in horror.
Ruthnum’s next book, which is YA horror, will be published by ECW Press next year, and in the meanwhile, screenwriting will keep him busy. And how does Ruthnum feel as someone who has successfully written – and written well – across genres and achieved exactly the kind of creative freedom he’s argued diasporic writers should have? “I don’t necessarily feel it as an accomplishment,” Ruthnum says. “But I do think it’s been a very exciting and interesting way to work.”
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