Madhuri Vijay

Tag: Madhuri Vijay

Lawrence experience inspires, informs Madhuri Vijay’s path to “The Far Field”

Portrait of Madhuri Vijay
Madhuri Vijay ’09 has earned critical praise for her debut novel, “The Far Field,” including being long-listed as a semifinalist for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. The 24 semifinalists will be narrowed to six on Nov. 4. (Photo courtesy of Manvi Rao)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Madhuri Vijay ’09 was taken aback by the critical praise that accompanied the January arrival of her debut novel, The Far Field.

Now, nine months and a multi-continent book tour later, comes the announcement that her novel, published by Grove Press, has been long-listed for the prestigious 2020 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, a literary honor that could push her visibility to new heights.

“The whole thing feels somewhat surreal and a bit like a dream,” Vijay said by phone from her home in Hawaii, where she and her husband are preparing for the imminent arrival of their first child. “It’s always hard to take (the honors) seriously because it always seems like someone is going to call and say, this has all been a big mistake.”

That is not going to happen.

Ten years removed from her days as a Lawrence University undergrad, Vijay has arrived as a significant young novelist. The Far Field has been short-listed for the JCB Prize for Literature, long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and has drawn stellar praise in book reviews from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and others. On Nov. 4, the 24 books long-listed for the Carnegie medal in the fiction category will be narrowed to six finalists.

Along with accolades from the literary awards circuit comes much admiration from faculty members at Lawrence who nurtured Vijay’s storytelling skills a decade ago, not to mention current students who see her as a rock star in the making.

“When Madhuri visited my creative writing class last winter — she read at LU on the day her novel was officially released — my students saw her as a kind of superhero: glamorous and whip-smart and on the verge of international fame,” said professor of English David McGlynn. “But they only glimpsed the end result of an awful lot of work and an endless amount of dedication and determination.”

The publishing of The Far Field came after a six-year writing and editing process that Vijay called grueling, exhausting, and exhilarating. The book, set mostly in Bangalore, a metropolitan area in southern India where Vijay grew up, and the more remote, mountainous regions of Kashmir, tells the story of Shalini, a restless young woman, newly graduated from college and reeling from her mother’s death, who sets out from her privileged life in Bangalore in search of a family acquaintance from her childhood. She runs smack into the unsettled and volatile politics of Kashmir.

When Vijay launched her book tour early this year, Lawrence was an important stop. She points to her time as a student here as the impetus to a life of writing. She will tell you she arrived in the fall of 2005 as a determined but narrowly focused freshman. She’ll then tell you she left four years later having explored, sampled, and embraced every nook and cranny of the liberal arts experience, a creative enlightenment that rerouted her plans, turned her focus to fiction writing, and led her to the story that became The Far Field.

She double-majored in psychology and English at Lawrence, but it wasn’t until she was midway through a 12-month Watson Fellowship following graduation that she called off her plans to go to graduate school for psychology, applying instead to the Iowa Writers Workshop, a highly focused two-year writing residency at the University of Iowa.

Details on Lawrence’s English major here

“Lawrence itself was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Vijay said. “I grew up in India, and our system of learning is in some ways very good because it’s very thorough and it’s science-based and it’s very rigorous, but it doesn’t allow for a lot of experimentation and play.

“So, when I got to Lawrence, I was overjoyed to discover that I could just dabble in all of these different things. I would take biology and Latin and I would sing in the choir and I would do all of these different things, which is the foundation of a liberal arts education. But it’s also, as I see it now, the foundation for being a good fiction writer, in that you have to be interested in everything all of the time and that nothing is divorced from the other thing. … Everything is worthy of study and everything is worthy of interest. That’s the thing I discovered at Lawrence.”

McGlynn was in his first year on the Lawrence faculty in 2006 when he first encountered Vijay, then a sophomore in his English 360 class. He recalled her being smart, poised and articulate, but her writing was far from polished.

“Her writing showed promise, but it also needed to be refined and to mature,” he said.

What made her stand out, though, was a willingness to work. That was evident from the get-go.

“She recognized her intellectual capacity, but she also knew capacity was only the beginning,” McGlynn said. “She knew she needed to work. She knew she needed to walk the path. That, more than anything, was her great gift. She remains one of the most dedicated and passionate students I have ever taught in my 13 years at Lawrence.”

With additional guidance from Tim Spurgin, the Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English Literature and associate professor of English, Vijay applied to and was selected for a Watson Fellowship, funding a year of travel and study. Her Watson study was focused on people from India living in foreign lands. Her travels took her to South Africa, Malaysia, and Tanzania, among other places, and her desire to write and create grew along the away.

Details on the Watson Fellowship here

“Being on the Watson means you are alone for a year,” Vijay said. “You’re absolutely independent in that nobody is looking over your shoulder. You either do the work or you don’t, which, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a writer. No one is waiting for you to produce anything. You either do the work or you don’t. All the urgency has to come from you, and it’s a lonely profession.”

Interestingly, it was during her Watson year that she first encountered Shalini and some of the other fictional characters that would eventually become key players in The Far Field. And it was her continued correspondence with McGlynn that in part set the wheels in motion.

“I wrote a short story during the Watson that had some of these same characters in it,” Vijay said. “It was very bad. But David McGlynn read it. He is one of the few people I trust to read even my worst writing. He was the one who literally suggested, ‘Why don’t you make this a novel?’ So, I wrote about 30 pages, and that’s how I got to Iowa, on the strength of those 30 pages. But it was a very different version. It had nothing to do with the book that eventually got published.

“After I got into Iowa, I didn’t touch those 30 pages, and I didn’t think about those characters for two years. It was only after Iowa when I was thinking about what to do next that I began thinking about those characters again. … If David hadn’t said that to me, I probably wouldn’t have written this book. I may have written something different, but not this book.”

Vijay is now a year into a follow-up book project that she says has yet to fully take shape. She knows the positive reaction to The Far Field assures nothing. It’s about continuing to put in the work.

“There is no point where you arrive at some sort of certainty where you say, ‘OK, this is a guarantee,’” she said of her life as a novelist. “Every single day feels like a gamble, feels like a risk, feels like you could fall at any given moment. That point (of certainty) hasn’t arrived, and I don’t think it ever will. And I don’t think it ever should. … You should always feel like you might fall flat on your face. That is the only way to do it honestly.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email:

Lawrence University Senior Awarded $28,000 Watson Fellowship to Find the Two “I”s in Indian

APPLETON, WIS. — Madhuri Vijay wants to violate the first rule of writing: write what you know.

Having spent the past four years as a student at Lawrence University, Vijay knows what it’s like to be an Indian living in the United States. But the senior from Bangalore, India, wants to explore what life is like for her countrymen living in other countries.

“I want to turn that rule on its head, travel the world and get to know the things I want to write about,” said Vijay. “I want to tell the stories of people like myself, people displaced from their native country, living in a vastly different one who are forging an identity that must inevitably come to terms with a double-history, a double life.”

Beginning in August, Vijay will embark on a year-long search for those stories as one of 40 national recipients of a $28,000 fellowship from the Rhode Island-based Thomas J. Watson Foundation. Vijay was selected for the fellowship from among 177 finalists. The Watson Fellowship supports a year of independent travel and exploration outside the United States on a topic of the student’s choosing. Vijay’s proposal was entitled “The Two ‘I’s in ‘Indian’: Writing the Stories of the Indian Diaspora.”

Nearly 1,000 students from 47 selective private liberal arts colleges and universities annually apply for the Watson Fellowship.

Vijay will use her fellowship to travel to Fiji, often referred to “Little India” because of its large Indian population, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which has had contact with India since the 15th century, Durban, South Africa, where Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi established the Phoenix Settlement for Indians who wanted to peacefully resist oppression, and finally Tanzania, which boasts two distinct Indian populations: one that was born and raised there and one that has recently arrived.

“In this ever-flattening world, Indians are found all over the world, but their stories have largely gone untold,” said Vijay, who will graduate in June with a degree in English and psychology. “As a writer and a social scientist, I have a fascination with people, cultures and identity. I would like to combine my two passions to produce a book of short stories about the lives of Indians around the world.”

Tim Spurgin, associate professor and Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English, who serves as Lawrence’s campus liaison to the Watson program, calls Vijay “a perfect choice” for a Watson Fellowship.

“Madhuri is bright, talented and basically fearless,” said Spurgin. “Not many college grads would attempt a project as ambitious as hers — and only a handful would be capable of pulling it off.”

During her global travels, Vijay will explore what Indian customs and traditions these people still cling to, what aspects of their new country they’ve embraced and how they balance the cultural line of being native Indian with being Tanzanian, Fijian or Malaysian.

“I realize that shared skin color and features are no longer enough to claim a kinship with Indians around the world,” said Vijay. “Writing stories of the people I’ll meet will allow me to understand the unique and multifaceted identities of the Indian diaspora. It will help me develop my own transcontinental identity as a woman from India, a student in America and a citizen of the world.”

In addition to helping define her own personal identity, Vijay sees her fellowship opportunity as a litmus test for her passionate, but largely unspoken, ambition of being a writer.

“I share the seed of self-doubt that plagues all aspiring writers: do I have stories worth telling? And do I have the words with which to tell them?,” said Vijay. “I believe that I do and I want to prove it. My fellowship will be nothing short of a journey of self-discovery, because at the end of it, I’ll know what my next step in life should be.”

If she wasn’t previously a believer in the axiom “first impressions are lasting impressions,” Vijay surely is now. The Watson selection committee started their interview process this year at Lawrence last November and Vijay was the very first of the 177 finalists to be screened.

Vijay is the 67th Lawrence student awarded a Watson Fellowship since the program’s inception in 1969. It was established by the children of Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the founder of International Business Machines Corp., and his wife, Jeannette, to honor their parents’ long-standing interest in education and world affairs.

“The awards are long-term investments in people, not research,” said Cleveland Johnson, director of the Watson Fellowship Program. “We look for people likely to lead or innovate in the future and give them extraordinary independence in pursuing their interests. They must have passion, creativity and a feasible plan. The Watson Fellowship affords an unequalled opportunity for global experiential learning.”

Watson Fellows are selected on the basis of the nominee’s character, academic record, leadership potential, willingness to delve into another culture and the personal significance of the project proposal. Since its founding, nearly 2,600 fellowships have been awarded.