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May 9th, 2013
03:50 PM ET

OutFront Q&A: Artist/Writer Daisy Rockwell on new book “Hats with Doctors”

Daisy Rockwell is an American painter based in northern New England.

A year ago she spoke with OutFront in support of her book “The Little Book of Terror,” a collection of paintings of real-life terror suspects in innocent poses.

The portraits – all done by Rockwell – were based on actual photographs of her subjects.

Since that interview she has continued painting – two paintings of Aurora movie theater shooter James Holmes, a collection based on publicly available mug shots of women, and a Bollywood series.

But she’s also  known for her writing and her new book “Hats with Doctors,” a selection of short stories by Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk and translated by Rockwell, is now available.

OutFront recently had the opportunity to ask Rockwell about the reaction to her previous interview, her latest projects and her thoughts on sexual assaults in India.

OutFront: Our last conversation got a lot of attention and really seemed to upset a lot of people.  Why do you think that happened?

Rockwell: It seemed as though people were especially bothered by the fact that I was Norman Rockwell's granddaughter and was somehow showing sympathy toward terrorists. They saw this as a desecration of Norman Rockwell's message. The problem with this is that Norman Rockwell has a near-universal appeal that is not restricted to America, in my experience. This is due, in my opinion, to the humanism of his work. For many on the right, however, Rockwell's work symbolizes something much narrower: a lost Eden in which life was simpler, 'traditional' family values were not questioned, and, well, white people were in the majority. Showing sympathy (read 'humanism') toward an other (Muslims, alleged terrorists) that is seen as directly threatening America and that particular view of American life is therefore treason of the highest order. The people who were upset by your story about “The Little Book of Terror” couldn't see that link between my work and my grandfather's: the impulse to find the humanity in all people. It's just that the people in whom I try to find it are sometimes harder to relate to than the folks down at the soda fountain.

OutFront: Your latest project is a translation of short stories by the Hindi author Upendranath Ashk.  What drew you to his work? 

Rockwell: I was drawn to Ashk's work as a graduate student when I read the first volume of his novel cycle “Falling Walls.” The novels trace five years in the life of the protagonist, a lower middle class man in Panjab, India, who is trying to be a writer. The use of memory and extensive description is reminiscent of the writing of Marcel Proust, whom Ashk had never read, incidentally.  “Hats and Doctors” is my latest publication, but it is actually a very old project that I began at the time that I was researching my dissertation on Upendranath Ashk in the mid-nineties. Ashk asked me to undertake a short story collection shortly before his death, which I did somewhat reluctantly as I was more interested in translating his long novel, “Falling Walls” (something I'm finally working on now). It ended up being his dying wish to me, however, so I saw the project through. I finished most of the work around 2000, but had a very hard time finding a publisher, even in India. I put the project aside for a time and then had an opportunity to publish it with Penguin India more recently. The American edition will be out from Foxhead Publications in about a year.
OutFront: What can you tell us about the title "Hats & Doctors"?

Rockwell: The title is also the title of one of the stories, a tale of a man who has a medical complaint that he connects directly to his inability to find the correct headgear. He goes through many different kinds of hats, turbans, etc., as well as all kinds of doctors, until he finally settles on a beret that his wife has knitted. The author also suffered from many ailments, including tuberculosis, throughout his life and he himself had many different amusing hats.
OutFront: How did you first become interested in the Hindi language?

Rockwell: I started studying Hindi in college (The University of Chicago) when I was a classics major but was growing tired of studying European/Western languages. I thought I would like a change and Hindi fit into my schedule. I ended up traveling to India the following fall and switching my major to South Asian studies and eventually doing a PhD in Hindi literature.

OutFront: You’ve spent time in India.  What can you tell us about the country?

Rockwell: I've spent a good deal of time in India, over the years. Lack of funds and a small child have prevented me from visiting recently. India is extremely diverse in so many ways–linguistically, culturally, socio-economically–the biggest mistake one can make about India is trying to boil it down to one characteristic, although this is very popular in journalism.

OutFront: Speaking of journalism, the media has recently focused on what appears to be a reoccurring theme of sexual assaults in India.  Do you have any comments about that?

Rockwell: India is 'timeless', 'spiritual', 'violent', 'exotic', etc. The stories about rapes are a part of this trend. Yes, the news has been horrific, misogyny is clearly rampant among police and politicians, but then we have our own problems with rape in the United States as well. What's interesting about the current news regarding rape in India is that the protests against rape laws and methods of reporting have been very, very strong and well-publicized, whereas in the past, victims have had little recourse to the law and media and have been shamed into keeping their mouths shut.

OutFront: You're a writer and a painter.  Do you approach both the same way? 

Rockwell: I don't approach them the same way: writing, painting and translating all feel like different parts of my brain and it's a struggle to juggle them all. I'm always hoping for some amazing project that will somehow allow me to balance them all in one place but I don't think that's going to happen. I have a novel coming out in September that is completely different from my paintings, or the work I have translated. It's the story of a mentally unstable upper middle class young man who is obsessed with an ornate antique table that he failed to inherit from his grandmother–a far cry from Indian literature or from paintings of terrorists.
OutFront: Do you prefer one (painting, writing) over the other?

Rockwell: With limited time due to childcare demands, I just keep switching off activities, spending a week on one and then another, or a few hours here and there. At different times I prefer one over the other or even spend years ignoring one thing in favor of other activities. I spent fifteen years without doing any art, and at least five without translating. I didn't start writing fiction in earnest until I was nearly forty, and now I do it quite a bit. One project I'm working on right now that does bring in a bit of everything I do is an illustrated retelling of Snow White–almost a graphic novel–which is set in Jersey City, and instead of seven dwarfs there are seven illegal immigrants from Pakistan and the Middle East.

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