On Verisimilitude

June 18, 2020 | 7 min read

My father-in-law died unexpectedly on the last day of the decade. He was a quiet, gentle man who had affected my husband’s and my lives more and more the older we became. We were devastated, and I felt guilty.

In 2008, after a trip to Kenya with my parents-in-law, I had begun a novel loosely based on the migration story of their family, in which each of the last three generations grew up on a different continent. My husband’s grandparents were from Gujarat, India, and immigrated to Nairobi—another corner of the British Empire—as teenagers. My Nairobi-born parents-in-law moved to the United States as a newly married couple. My husband was born in Wichita and grew up in Minneapolis. In my own Jewish-European family, I have to go back five generations to find someone born outside of the U.S., so I was fascinated by the dramatic movements and decisions of the family I’d married into.

In fiction, you build characters around a few important traits and pieces of biographical data. Personalities are expressed and tensions ratcheted through events large and small, lined up like mile markers on the highway. I knew I could not love my characters too much. If I were too easy on them, if I spared them from hard decisions and tragedies, the novel would be dull and lifeless. And so, after I made up a husband and wife from the Indian enclave of Nairobi who immigrate to the United States to further the husband’s career as an infectious disease doctor, I inserted a tragic accident that spurs a move from the U.S. back to Nairobi. I couldn’t have been more surprised when my in-laws announced in 2013, a couple of years after I finished the first draft of my book, that they would do the same. Kenya was warm, affordable, and near a network of relatives who would help take care of them as they aged, my mother-in-law told us. I understood this explanation because my characters had made a similar calculation.

It’s a long story, but my in-laws’ life in Nairobi didn’t last long. They landed, eventually, in Florida. My husband and I were relieved. Tampa is a direct flight, and, more than anything, I was grateful that the fatal scene I had imagined on the streets of Nairobi for the father character in my novel had not played itself out in real life. My in-laws move to Kenya had spooked me, made me feel my novel prophesized their lives.

As publication day drew near, and the advanced reader copies arrived, I panicked. What if, despite years of observation, research, and triple-checking my facts, I had gotten some aspect of Indian life wrong? What if my in-laws were offended and enraged? In the early years of writing, I had shared with them interesting facts I’d found in my reading and asked questions about their experiences. Occasionally they’d assisted my research: my mother-in-law recommended a book she’d read about the horrific mass imprisonment of Kenyans under British rule during the Mau Mau Revolution; another time, my in-laws introduced me to a Ugandan Indian friend who had narrowly escaped Idi Amin in the trunk of a car. Snippets from both these sources made it into my novel. But my in-laws had never read a draft, and I had never told them the plot.

When the early reviews rolled in, including those by Indian and Indian-American writers, and they were positive, heralding the research and true-to-life dialogue, I began to sleep better at night. And now that my in-laws had moved back to America from Nairobi, they wouldn’t think I had simply written down their life story as it occurred. Gradually, I realized that the release of my book had hardly registered. Despite my husband writing his mother to share publication news and to suggest that they send me a congratulatory email, they never once mentioned my book.

The father character in my novel, Premchand, is a reserved man who values his freedom and always wanted to live and practice medicine in America. This independent loner who loves his son intensely, who draws from his well of kindness when he speaks, who fights hard to maintain an optimistic view of life, is in many ways a portrait of my physician father-in-law, Popatlal Hirji Shah. In the novel, Premchand develops a special relationship with his new daughter-in-law, a Jewish-American woman who works in public health; they bond over corny doctor jokes and their love for Premchand’s son. When the book was published, I heard from readers how much they relished this unusual relationship. In one scene, Premchand tells his daughter-in-law that the song lyric from the Bollywood movie Taj Mahal, roughly translated as “the substance of you is missing from your picture,” could apply to her own emotionally reserved presence. Instead of protesting, she argues that the words are also an apt description of him. I didn’t realize until the book came out that the intimacy these characters share is an idealization of life. I never had that closeness with my father-in-law, but I sometimes thought it might be possible.

For most of his life, my father-in-law suffered severely from clinical depression, undiagnosed and untreated until he was in his 50s. He was psychologically well for much of the time I knew him, and this, plus his son’s security from a good job and stable relationship, had allowed for a new sense of understanding and respect to flow between father and son. But it occurred only in flickers, as if hesitant to heat up to a full burn. Largely unconsciously, I redirected and amplified this development in my novel, in Premchand’s emotional journey from being a supportive but mostly absentee father during his son’s childhood to developing a renewed interest in his grown child’s life. And then, because a novel needs drama, I abruptly ended this incipient closeness. The rightness of this decision, from a plot point of view, was confirmed by the devastated reactions of readers. One writer friend told me, “I loved the character Premchand and the interactions he had with Amy. I wanted so much more of that, but YOU KILLED HIM!” I did. As my friend reluctantly agreed, the story demanded it. But it did not feel good, on a personal level, to have killed an avatar of my father-in-law.

And it would come to feel worse.

On Christmas Eve, we Skyped with my in-laws. It was a tense and worrisome conversation. My father-in-law had fallen in the middle of the night a week before, and after seeing the x-ray he believed he had fractured his ilium, the curved broad bone forming the upper part of the pelvis. But he had not received the report from the doctor to confirm what he had seen. The connection was bad, and we had to turn off the video. We had grown used to seeing their faces when we talked, and there was something bare and wrong with looking at a black screen. Additionally, we could only hear their voices when one of them was positioned directly in front of the screen. We made sure the person we could hear the best was my father-in-law, the physician turned patient. We asked if he thought surgery would be recommended; “No no,” he said, “just rest.” “But what about physical therapy?,” I asked. “How will you be able to keep moving, and prevent muscle atrophy, if you can’t walk?” I was also worried about blood clots, but I didn’t say so. My father-in-law, in his ever-patient, gentle way, reassured me he would be plenty active and I should not worry about atrophy. “Do you need handrails in the bathroom?” “No no,” he said, “There is no issue there.” In my mind, I began to hire a physical therapist to work with him at home, as soon as he got the doctor’s report.

Then at the end of the conversation, he said something about my mother that came out of left field: “Your mother must be very proud.” I was confused, we had not been talking about my mother. But yes, my mother was a good person (and it was from her I had learned to ask the probing medical questions), and I imagined she did take pride in doing things for other people, so I simply agreed and said, “Yes, I think she is.”

That was the last time we spoke. He died on New Year’s Eve from pulmonary thrombosis, a blood clot in the lungs.

Bereft in his absence, my husband and I try to talk about his father often, to keep his memory alive. Together we wrote an obituary that ran in his old newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and shared it as widely as we could. The loss of a parent is no easier for being universal; it makes one face the abyss.

My husband’s father is also a conversation topic via his influence on my novel. In the months since his death, friends have noted both the eeriness of Premchand’s fate and the warmth with which the character was written. My husband tells me he feels reassured by the way the book preserves the memory of his dad. I never intended my novel to carry this weight, but I am glad for it now. I spent many years imagining what someone like my father-in-law would think in a given situation, what he would say if he were asked about why he became a doctor. How he would address conflict in his own family; how he would face death. In fiction, I could have the answers that were in life an enigma. In many cases, my speculations veered close to home.

It has in fact become hard to separate in my mind the things I imagined from the things that transpired. Did my father-in-law really tell me that childhood story about the rough characters who threatened the poor settlement where he grew up with six siblings, or did I make it up based on some slivery detail? And had he seen himself in my novel? A month before he died, he’d surprised us by saying suddenly during one of our video chats that he was reading my book. He had checked it out from the library. So far, he said, it was very interesting.

What did he think of Premchand, who so clearly loves his son but struggles to express it? What went through his mind during the character’s final helpless fall onto the street in the city of his birth? He couldn’t have thought I, the author of the act, wished him dead, could he? This is perhaps what haunts me the most.

There is solace in the fact that some of the last words my father-in-law spoke to us were to me. My husband had to point it out: that when my father-in-law said that my mother should be proud, he meant she should be proud of me. Because I was asking questions about his care. Because I cared about him. Though he brushed my concern aside, I have to believe he knew it was sincere.

As for what he thought of my novel, or even if he finished reading it, I will never know. He never mentioned it again, and I didn’t want to press him.

is founder and editor in chief of The Common and author of the debut novel The Limits of the World, which was a fiction honoree for the Massachusetts Book Award. Her memoir Fatigue is a #1 Amazon bestseller, and her short stories, essays, translations, and reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, Literary Hub, n+1, Guernica, The Yale Review, Off Assignment, and Ploughshares, among other places. Acker has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches writing and editing at Amherst College, where she directs the Literary Publishing Internship and LitFest. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband.

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