In Jade Sharma's debut novel Problems, one woman's life grows smaller and smaller until she's forced to decide exactly who she wants to be. It's a darkly funny tale of addiction, recovery, and redemption for every person, whether they're "likeable" or not.
Maya is a bit of a mess: she has a heroin hobby, an affair with a professor, and an unquenchable desire not to be alone. Problems drags its readers so deep into Maya's psyche that you can't help but feel her self-consciousness, addiction, and pain. Sharma writes in short sentences with a halting pace, abruptly switching between description and flare. Early in the book she writes,"It felt as though Peter had followed me home one day and never left. Sometimes men are like cabs with their lights on, and you just have to be there to pull them over. "
Problems gives a story usually reserved for white, wealthy women to a smart-mouthed, dark-humored Indian woman. "It didn’t feel right making her white," Sharma told me. "I was like 'Fuck it, I'll just make her Indian.' I know that’s a statement, but I didn’t want it to be. It's just who she is."
I chatted with Jade Sharma on the phone about writing non-white characters, getting an MFA, and how it feels to publish her debut novel.
How did you start writing this novel?
I wrote a few stories because I wanted to impress somebody. And I gave them to my boss at the time. He was at his kid's soccer game, and he gave it to this soccer mom and she turned out to be an agent. So she talked to me and was like, “do you want to write a book?” So I was like, “Yeah, sure. I'll do that.” But to be honest, I felt like I hadn't read that many books. I felt this tremendous pressure to write a book because I had an agent.
I wrote this one book and it was just like total garbage. Just complete garbage. I didn't go anywhere, and I got kind of stuck, so I was like “I should just go into an MFA program and I’ll make it happen and they’ll help me figure it out.” So that’s what I did. It took five years altogether. But the last two years are where it all clicked together.
Why did you feel like an MFA program was the right move for you?
I used to do spoken word poetry, and I really liked doing that. MFA programs seemed kind of similar mostly because it's competitive. I like that feeling of beating other people. It’s art, so the teachers [remind you that] art is subjective. But you want to be the best. I realized that I couldn't be mean about other people's work that I didn't like unless my own work was really good. So I would work on my stuff for 800 hours so it would be the best.
I was just really focused on the classroom, the students. I tried to pay attention whenever they were outraged. They would say things like, “Is this supposed to be shocking? Because I’m not shocked.” And they would be really angry like “Are you trying to provoke me?" And that kind of response really helped me.
Body issues play a big role in Maya’s perception of herself. Can you tell me why that became such a central idea in this novel?
I think it’s something that most women struggle with and I just felt like Maya was a character who would need to wrestle with this.
In the very beginning, she places so much stock in how the outside world views her in contrast to her inner world. And we all do that. We look one way outside and one way inside. I didn’t choose to give her body issues, I just felt like it made sense with her character.
People have this idea with anorexia or bulimia that it’s all about wanting to look pretty and it’s so much more than that. It’s so much deeper than that. I wanted to show that, for her, it wasn’t about wanting to look pretty, it was also about her self-destruction.
Her addiction to heroin and her perception of her body seem really intertwined. How did you see those two destructive behaviors playing through Maya?
It's about wanting to disappear. It’s sort of like the paradox with anorexia where you’re disappearing but the skinnier you get, the more attention you call to yourself. It’s this weird mind trip. You’re disappearing, but everyone is noticing you.
In some ways this book is all about paradoxes. It's like her addiction to heroin—she uses it to feel free because it makes her feel good, but meanwhile she’s being trapped into this prison.
There's a great line in this book: "Behind every crazy woman is a man sitting very quietly, saying 'What? I'm not doing anything.'" Where did this idea come from?
There’s this stereotype in American culture of like the crazy bitch. You’ll see another girl shouting in public and be like, "damn, that bitch is crazy." Women know that men are crazy too, but there’s not a demeaning name for what they do. They’ll just be very introverted. They won’t share their feelings. This idea that women are the ones who act like crazy people completely ignores that men are sitting there and they are being really mean.
I think it’s also just this kind of common truth that I realized— the person who is the loudest in the room isn’t the one who is being mean. They’re the most sensitive one. There’s someone else who is being mean or manipulating them. I wanted to say it in that way because women instantly recognize it as reality. Sure, sometimes people are just crazy, but most of the time someone pushed them there.
Can you talk about how race played into the creation of Maya’s character?
Initially, I wanted to make her white because I just didn’t want to deal with the race issue or identity politics. I don’t know much about India. When people ask me where I'm from, I tell them that I'm an army brat. And they are like "But where are you from?" What they’re trying to say is, “Why are you brown?” So initially, I [thought I'd] just make her white. Jhumpa Lahiri writes about saris and cumin, but I can't do that. When I go to India and try to speak Hindi, they laugh at me. I’m just obviously American.
But then I realized: I grew up American, I played video games. Why couldn't I create a character full of American culture and habits who was also Indian? I guess I was nervous because in the beginning when there are so few representations of a culture. I was like I don’t want to represent Indians, because they are conservative as fuck. I was like they’re gonna see the last name Sharma and pick up this book and be like, “this is filthy.”
What in this book do you think shocked readers?
It was all the parts where she masturbates or like looks at porn. They would respond with this kind of outrage, and I would behave just like a kid. I was like, “Oh, that hurts? Let me do it more.”
I really had to check myself either way. On the one hand I wanted it to be extremely honest in terms of my character's honesty—would she really do that? What would she really think? You feel a little vulnerable because you’re writing things and you’re hoping that other women have thought this or felt this but I don’t really know.
How are you feeling about the release of your novel?
I’m just really disoriented, because I don’t really know like what it’s supposed to be or how. It’s almost like living two different lives. On one hand, I’m a writer and I’m living in NYC. And then on the other hand I’m in massive college loans debt. I just don’t open my mail because I’m terrified.
But I'm excited anyway. I hope readers enjoy it. I hope they finish it. I didn’t really have an agenda or a mission. I just wanted to make a novel that made people feel something.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.