I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 26, 1971, of Tamil parents from Jaffna and Negombo. My parents tell me that I was fluent in Tamil as a little girl, but we moved to the U.S. when I was about two, and in learning English, I promptly forgot most of my Tamil. I can still understand my family, most of the time, but I can’t speak the language at all, sadly. I periodically try studying Tamil again. It’s not an easy language!
I grew up in New Britain, Connecticut, attended Miss Porter’s School and went to college at the University of Chicago, class of ’93. I met my partner, Kevin Whyte, when I was a junior in college and he was a math grad student. I lived in Chicago for another year, and then moved to Philadelphia to join Kevin; I lived there for two years, working as a secretary and finishing the stories that became my first book, Torn Shapes of Desire.
In the fall of 1996, I moved to the Bay Area to start an MFA in Writing at Mills College in Oakland, which I completed in May of 1998. (In the midst of the MFA, I spent six weeks over the summer at Clarion West 1997, a terrific speculative fiction writing program. While I was at Clarion, I met Jed Hartman, my long-term sweetie.) Feeling rather broke after two years of grad school, I spent a year working as a technical writer. But I discovered that I missed academia, so when I moved to Salt Lake City (where Kev was doing a post-doc in math) I spent the summer of 1999 teaching writing at Salt Lake Community College. The following year I spent teaching writing full-time at the University of Utah; I also audited a lit theory class, which led me to…
The Ph.D. / Teaching
I received my doctorate in English Lit. (concentration in Creative Writing / Fiction) from the University of Utah in 2005. My critical focus was on post-colonial literature, especially South Asian-American literature.
I was particularly interested in the clash between social duty and individual desires, in the intrusion of political realities on private lives, in secrecy, in family, and in how all these issues play out in the arenas of marriage, love, gender, and sexuality. My dissertation was a mainstream novel-in-stories, entitled Bodies in Motion, published by HarperCollins in July 2005 to some nice reviews. It was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, and has been translated into six languages.
After finishing my two years of coursework, I moved to Chicago to join Kevin (now a tenured math professor, a topologist, at the University of Illinois), in May of 2002. For one year, I taught as a Visiting Writer in Vermont College’s low-residency MFA program, and for two years as a Visiting Writer in the MFA program at Roosevelt University, here in Chicago. In 2007-2008, I was a Visiting Writer at Northwestern University’s Writing Center.
Starting Fall 2008, I became a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois, in the English Department; I also served as Associate Coordinator of Asian and Asian American Studies for several years. In summer 2014 I regretfully stepped down from my position in Asian and Asian American Studies to free up some writing time; I maintain a joint appointment in the program, which has recently (2016) been reconfigured as GLAS (Global Asian Studies). I’ve also been promoted to Clinical Associate Professor in English.
Some of the courses I teach include post-colonial literature, online creative nonfiction, minority authors in speculative fiction, women & literature, early American literature and, of course, creative writing. I’ve been delighted to find that I truly love teaching; right now, I’m doing exactly what I love best, writing and teaching. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to keep doing them both always.
I write in multiple genres: mainstream fiction, nonfiction, SF/F, and erotica. My most recent book of fiction is The Stars Change, a novella composed of linked stories, telling the story of a university planet where war has just broken out. It’s in the same universe as my story “Jump Space,” and is followed by a sequel story, “Communion” (Clarkesworld) and an associated story “Webs” (Asimov’s summer 2016). The Stars Change was originally Kickstarter-funded, but was then picked up by Circlet Press. I’ve also recently edited The WisCon Chronicles 9: Intersections and Alliances, a volume of writings in response to the feminist convention, WisCon. One sample piece from that is “Navigating Masculinity: A Roundtable Discussion.”
Bodies in Motion is a novel-in-stories about two Sri Lankan-American immigrant families, published by HarperCollins. It grew out of one of the first stories I published,“Season of Marriage”, though that piece isn’t actually included in the collection. Other previously-published stories that appear in this book include “Minal in Winter”, “A Gentle Man”, and “Lakshmi’s Diary”. The book came out in hardcover in July 2005, and in paperback in July 2006; I’m pleased that the reviews have been quite positive. Also delighted that we’ve sold foreign translation rights to Germany, Italy, Brazil, France, Spain, and Serbia.
I have multiple books in progress right now. Primarily, I’m working on a SF novel (hopefully a series), in the same universe as The Stars Change. I’m currently reading submissions for a book of short SF/F titled “Survivor,” tales of everyday trauma survival, to be published in 2017 by Lethe Press. There’s also Arbitrary Passions, a combination of memoir and travelogue, centering on my 2005 month-long visit to Sri Lanka, and exploring ideas of home, nationalism, love, and arranged marriage. There’s a breast cancer memoir, a poetry book centering on domesticity, a revised Sri Lankan cookbook, a middle-grade novel inspired by my daughter, a little garden romance, stories for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards universe, and writing for the second season of Tremontaine, a spin-off from Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint universe.
It’s a little chaotic, having so much different writing in my head at once, but also a lot of fun.
In January of 2004, with the help of many folks, I founded the Speculative Literature Foundation, whose mission is to promote literary quality in speculative fiction, by encouraging promising new writers, assisting established writers, facilitating the work of quality magazines and small presses in the genre, and developing a greater public appreciation of speculative fiction. We currently offer a $750 older writers’ grant, a $600 travel grant, a small press co-operative, and a comprehensive resource website.
I also founded DesiLit (an organization promoting South Asian and diaspora fiction) in 2005. DesiLit hosted Kriti, the first S. Asian and diaspora literary festival in the Midwest, which took place November 10-13, 2005 in downtown Chicago, with more than 30 participating writers, editors, and agents. It was great fun, and we held it again in 2007, 2009, and 2014. We also offer two book clubs in Chicago, an online magazine, Jaggery, and various other chapter activities elsewhere.
I have spent a good chunk of the last several years publishing and editing. Along with some very talented and enthusiastic folks, I helped found an online speculative fiction magazine, Strange Horizons, in September 2000, and served as editor-in-chief through the end of 2003, at which point I stepped down and handed the position to one of our fiction editors, Susan Groppi. We received a Hugo nomination for Best Website in 2002, which was just delightful. Strange Horizons also runs two writing workshops each summer (starting in 2002), one in Oregon and one in New Jersey.
Before Strange Horizons, there was Clean Sheets (founded in October of ’98), where I served as editor-in-chief until 2000 (when I turned it over to the very capable Susannah Indigo). I occasionally teach writing workshops centered around sexuality, covering such areas as craft, language, politics, and the value and difficulty of honesty; I taught one such workshop the summer of 2004 through the Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco.
In the print world, I’ve edited two anthologies for Melcher Media/Random House/Three Rivers Press: Aqua Erotica, which came out in August 2000 and which, last I heard, was in its fifth printing, with over 100,000 copies produced, and Wet, published in summer 2002. Both books were great fun, and more than a little quirky, given that they’re waterproof!
Somehow in the midst of all this, I ended up writing two goofy but charming choose-your-own-adventure novels for adults. The first is an erotic story of a young woman from Indiana who dumps her boring fiance and moves to San Francisco to experience life in the big city. The second is the story of a young professor in New York, recently dumped by his girlfriend; he’s broken-hearted and ripe pickings for a sexually predatory older woman, a professor in his department. They’re fluffy, but were tons of fun to write. Kathryn in the City and The Classics Professor were released in 2003 from Melcher Media/Penguin/Putnam.
In December of 2003, I put together a little Sri Lankan cookbook, A Taste of Serendib, mostly as a Christmas present for my mother. The book is tiny but cute. 🙂 Authenticity not guaranteed. I’m working on the second edition now.
And in spring of 2004, Lethe Press published my second collection, Silence and the Word, covering the seven years since Torn Shapes. We collected much of the work I’ve published in various anthologies and magazines over those years — fiction, poetry, and a few essays — and then added some new material. There’s a lot of work I have an irrational fondness for in this book.
In addition to being a writer, I’m also something of a sexuality activist — I believe strongly that we need to bring healthy sexuality out of the closet and into mainstream discussion. As part of my effort to do that, I founded and moderate the Internet Erotica Writers’ Workshop, and for several years I served as a moderator for the Usenet newsgroup, soc.sexuality.general. I used to host monthly poly brunches in both Philadelphia and the Bay Area.
I love cooking and singing and dancing and gardening and books that stretch my brain and throwing wild, huge parties (though as I get older, I spend more time having quiet dinner parties instead :-). Philosophically and politically, I’m a liberal with strong beliefs in intellectual freedom, and a secular humanist; though I was raised Catholic, I’m no longer religious. Romantically speaking, you’ll occasionally find me on alt.polyamory; while I happily live with Kevin, my partner of many years, and even married him in 2015, we have an open relationship, and I feel very lucky that I’m able to have other loves in my life.
Kevin and I have two children: Kaviarasi Whyte (May 18, 2007) and Anandan Whyte (September 24, 2009). Mostly known as Kavya and Anand. Every new day with them is an adventure. Also exhausting. We live in Oak Park, IL, where we gut-renovated an 1885 Victorian, which we plan to live in for the next few decades.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about me — please stick around and read some of the stories, poetry, etc. If you want to know more about me, come friend me on Facebook (where I am very active), or wander over to my journal, where I assure you, all your questions will be answered. Eventually.
Kevin, me, Kavya, Anand. Christmas 2012.