From Stanford and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumna Vauhini Vara emerges a gorgeous, promising novel that is unlike any other.
“The Immortal King Rao” is the tale of a Dalit boy, “King” Rao, who rises in the world to become the leader of a global, corporate-led government in the age of climate change. His daughter, Athena, armed with access to his memories, believes that saving the planet requires that its shareholders know the truth about him. And that gives us this novel.
At the outset, it sounds like a satirical sci-fi dystopia, but like all good books in the weird and wonderful world of fiction, it is far more than that. Her book has been described as a “form-inventing, genre-exploding triumph,” and the world within it “propulsive, prophetic, and dizzying.”
Vara’s debut has received heaps of praise from the who’s who of the lit world, including Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, one of the finest Indian writers in English.
An acclaimed journalist and an award-winning storyteller, Vara has created some intriguing work, some of which you can read online. We particularly enjoy “Ghosts,” where she used AI to co-write a personal essay, and “Searches,” where she made art out of her Google searches over a decade.
“The Immortal King Rao” is her first novel.
SEEMA had a chat with Vara about her book and her creative journey.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What’s been your journey to becoming a journalist and writer?
I was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and was raised there until I was 10. Later, my family moved to Oklahoma, and then, just before I started the eighth grade, to Seattle. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was young; I was a voracious reader and spent a lot of time at the library.
In high school, I started pursuing it more seriously; while writing creatively on my own, I also joined my school newspaper and participated in a program run by the Seattle Times to train high-school-aged journalists of color.
In college, at Stanford, I minored in creative writing while also working on the college newspaper. When I graduated, I immediately started working as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, but I kept writing creatively, too, sharing work with close friends I’d met in the Stanford creative-writing program.
I took a leave of absence in 2008 to attend graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and when I returned to work, I kept balancing both journalism and creative writing.
You wrote an essay from a decade of Google searches for the NYT. Were these your real Google searches? What’s the story you were trying to tell with it?
Yes, these were my real Google searches, over a decade. I’m more interested in how people receive a piece than in articulating any particular goal I had — and in fact, I always have a hard time articulating that myself, anyway, to be honest!
I read about “The Immortal King Rao,” and I’m simply blown away by the expanse of its themes and how bold and adventurous it is. How did you arrive at this creatively? Why a book like this? Why now?
That’s so nice to hear. I was thinking about a lot while beginning this novel — my dad’s own upbringing on a coconut grove in south India; the growing wealth and power of tech CEOs and investors; our society’s growing reliance on AI; capitalism in general — and I ended up just using the novel as a container in which I could throw all of it. I didn’t start with an outline or anything more than a basic idea, to write about a boy who grows up Dalit on a coconut grove in south India and ends up becoming a major tech CEO. It evolved from here.
In a way, your novel explores the speculative as well as truthful events of history. It is genre-bending and doesn’t really fit into any one category. Was this deliberate, or did it naturally flow from the idea you had in mind?
I wasn’t thinking about genre while writing the book. I just followed the writing wherever it took me. When I was emerging as a writer, in college and graduate school, I was around peers who approached their work with a lot of originality, bringing in whichever elements made sense for a particular project, without too much attention to whether they were thought of as traditionally belonging to one particular genre or another. Only when the book was being prepared for publication did these questions come up about which genre it belonged to, I guess so that my publisher’s salespeople could figure out which shelf it belonged on in bookstores.
Tell us about the character, King Rao. Who is he? And why is Athena so determined to tell the truth about him?
King Rao, the novel’s titular character, dreams of making his mark on the world. He grows up on a small coconut grove in Andhra Pradesh, in a Dalit family, at a time when his family’s fortunes — and the fortunes of many Dalit families — are rising somewhat but are still constrained. He moves to the U.S. in the 90s, for graduate school, and there, along with the woman who will become his wife, he starts a computer company that will eventually grow to dominate not only the tech industry but the whole world. Athena is King Rao’s daughter, born after he’s had a major fall from grace. Like her father, she’s a person of ambition. But as she grows up, she develops ideas about the best use of that ambition that necessitate breaking away from King. Later, King is found dead, and she’s accused of being involved. She wants to tell the truth about him — and about herself — as a way of proving she’s not guilty, but, as the novel progresses, you realize that’s not her only reason for wanting to tell the story.
What’s coming up for you in the near future? What are you looking forward to, and what are you working on?
I’m now working on a collection of stories, “This is Salvaged,” which Norton will publish in 2023. And after that, I plan to turn to a collection of essays, tentatively called “Searches, the Google essay, and “Ghosts” will both be part of it.
AI can be scary for a lot of people who fear all the humiliating ways it might take over our lives. Does it scare you as well?
I don’t fear AI itself, which is just a tool; I am concerned about the decision-making of the humans behind it, though.
What are you most excited about with this book?
That I finished it, and it exists, and I can go write something else now.
(Read “The Immortal King Rao” here.)