Also Known As
Shaily Menon, Ph.D.
by Jeffrey Martin ’04, ’05 (M.A.)
As Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Shaily Menon, Ph.D., has a lot on her mind on a day-to-day basis: institutional strategy, guiding the direction of the College, budget management. But in the few quiet moments she gets away from the office, her mind will occasionally drift to her childhood home of India and the stories she wants to tell about it.
Over the last decade and a half, Menon has published four creative pieces — one nonfiction essay and three short stories (one published under a pen name) — inspired by her life experiences, including her upbringing in Mumbai and a research project that she undertook in the rainforests of southern India.
Menon says that her early love of storytelling was fostered by her parents. Her fondness for short stories was developed by reading authors like O. Henry, Chekhov and Premchand, one of India’s most celebrated Hindi-language writers.
“At an early age, my parents encouraged me to read,” she recalls. “And I knew that my father had wanted to write poetry or short stories when he was young, but he had to start working and that fell away.”
Now, Menon finds inspiration in the authors of the Indian diaspora — writers including Jhumpa Lahiri and V.S. Naipaul who, like her, are emigrants or children of emigrants from the subcontinent. Menon says that she is drawn to the themes of “longing and displacement” in the authors’ works.
“My own writing is characterized by nostalgia,” she says. “I take memories and impressions from my life and let them take a fictional form.”
Most of Menon’s published writing is scientific — as a biologist and academic, she has dedicated years to producing research. But while Menon insists that scientific writing requires some creativity in discovering new ways to test theories and replicate experiments, she says that her fiction allows her to exercise different writing muscles.
“If you’re writing about the results of an experiment, there’s little room to write about your impressions of the space around you. Nobody cares about the landscape; it’s give me data or give me death,” she jokes. “With my short stories, I can write about human impressions and experiences.”
Menon says that she would one day like to collect all her creative writing into a single volume — if there’s ever enough to call it a collection.
“I have a few more stories in progress: one comedic tale about a tiger who leaves the mountains and winds up in a village, and another that’s more serious and has some magical realism aspects to it,” she says. “But they’ve been written and re-written several times. If I ever find some downtime, I may get to finish one of them.”
Jeff Martin is managing editor of Saint Joseph's University Magazine