You’re a Writer Now

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Like most writers, I spent a lot of time wondering how it would feel to hold my first book in my hands. I imagined I’d caress the cover gently, open the book carefully to inhale my pages. Maybe a few tears would come, but they’d be happy tears. As my book crept closer and closer to its publication, I began anticipating the inevitable moment with increased intensity—I imagined I’d take pictures, then call my mother. I’d hold up my work—seven years, 30-plus revisions, and 108,352 words—while my husband marveled.

In the end, he did not see the box of advanced review copies—ARCs—in our driveway as he was getting home from work the night they arrived, and he drove over them with his car. The books were hardly damaged, just a few scuffs to the box, a couple dinged covers—it was more that the long-imagined moment was marred and thus made real. The car-running-over-my-books is an apt metaphor for my expectations about getting published: no moment, however awaited, looked the way I’d thought.

The hardest part about getting my book made wasn’t writing or revising or cutting—it was actually selling the thing. They don’t tell you this in college, or at the community writers’ workshop, or even in your MFA program. My grad-school friends and I already knew how lonely writing could be, but I wasn’t prepared for how wretched querying made me feel—how simultaneously tedious, exhausting, and demeaning the whole process became.

For several years, my book’s failure was my biggest fear. I’d easily devoted 10,000 hours to writing it, and when one agent told me to expect 30 rounds of revision to make it publishable, I cringed. In the end, of course, she’d been right. But making my own memoir was how I learned what it takes to create a book, outline to ARC, and a lot of that process involves trying to sell a perception of yourself, a certain version of your story that people will buy. The act of sending my memoir out, I discovered, is actually the process of sending yourself, time after time, to a stranger.

Usually, I never got any response at all.

The agents who did take the time to write from their Manhattan offices sometimes tapped out snippy replies—I just don’t see how I could sell this. Others were sweeter—You write beautifully….but I just don’t see how I could sell this. The kindest ones explained that although I wrote nice descriptions, my travel memoir didn’t have enough of a hook. There wasn’t much of an arc—nothing at stake, one said, and although she was trying to be constructive, the words cut deep. I’m certain that the gray hairs I have, I acquired during those desperate years—the years I tried to convince those New York agents my book mattered.

The querying process also taught me a few lessons about mercy, and I’ll always be grateful for the people “in the biz” who took the time to help me out. Through my undergraduate alumnae network, I located two agents who read my pages and wrote back lengthy, thoughtful responses. They taught me to take rejection less personally; so many agents talked like their hands were tied—they appreciated my work, maybe, but they knew the market wouldn’t. I was starting to see myself not just as a writer but as a floundering saleswoman, a flailing entrepreneur. Still, despite the heavy press of impending failure, I kept on writing, kept editing and polishing my book, tightening the focus—the version of myself I’d chosen to portray—with each revision. It occurred to me to quit, to back off or start over, but despite what the agents had said, there was actually too much at stake. All the early mornings, the late nights, the going-on-30 revisions; I just didn’t have the heart to give up on myself.

I started querying small presses that didn’t require agent referrals, and the months ticked by. I was teaching as an adjunct professor at the community college in town, and while the economy tanked and funding got withdrawn from my institution, I remembered my book—unpublished, yes, but written in full. I was more than just my job; I was a writer, however fragile the title felt.

But I was starting to lose hope. I was drinking too much wine as a way to temper the barrage of rejections cluttering my inbox, and as a result, I’d wake every morning at two or three or four and lie there, hungover and heart pounding, despairing that no one would ever love what I’d made.

“Nothing is ever anything,” my colleague explained when I bemoaned the possibility that my memoir wouldn’t get published. My colleague, an author of more than 30 (published) titles, repeated herself, looking deep into my eyes. “Kate, remember these words: Nothing is ever anything. Whatever you think you want, it never lasts. It won’t be what you think. Nothing is ever anything; it never is.”

Like every other step of the process, the good news didn’t arrive the way I’d always dreamed it would—there wasn’t any fuss, not even a letter, just an email from a man at an independent press I’d queried almost a year earlier. Took me long enough to reply, eh? But…I love this manuscript!

I read the email and started to weep. I knew next to nothing about this man, very little about his press, but his words were a key in a lock.

The next week, he sent over a contract, and a lawyer friend of mine graciously reviewed the entire thing with me over the phone. She stands out singularly in my mind as one of the ones who got it—who understood my goals, took my book seriously, and stood by me. Lots of people gently suggested that I not get my hopes up, and one friend told me searingly that she wished I’d waited for a “better press.” For weeks I wondered what that could have meant, because in the end, my book ­performed well, maybe as well as if one of those agents had taken a bite. Plus, it came out looking beautiful, with reviews from notable trade publications gracing the covers. My royalty checks are the sweetest money I’ve ever tasted, and I credit a quality publisher and his global distributor for those monthly payments. Anyway, this lawyer friend looked at the contract for my first book like it was Beyoncé’s contract for her first solo album; she spent hours explaining every term and clause, and then assured me, without irony or sarcasm, that she’d be there to review my next one, too.

On the day I signed the contract, I was in my mom’s kitchen in upstate New York, home for a few days’ vacation. I signed first, and then my mom, as a witness. Afterwards, we folded the heavy paper, tucked it into an envelope, and brought it down to the mailbox, where so much news, good and bad both, had gone and come before. We put the contract inside, but before we did, we both kissed the envelope for luck. Then we pulled the little door shut, listening for the old, familiar creak.

“Well,” my mom finally said, “that’s that.”

Authors must be beggars, especially at first. We voluntarily put ourselves in a position we haven’t occupied since high school, clamoring for popularity in the form of readership, agent representation, editorial approval, good reviews and glowing blurbs, promotions, giveaways, and endorsements—anything that remotely equates to sales. I used to shun social media—a time-waster, a confidence-killer—but I’ve joined Twitter and Instagram since publishing my book, and I troll those sites for followers like a kid paying for friends. I hashtag like it’s my job, because in a way, it is—this work of selling myself, this version of Kate, this particular story I’ve chosen to tell.

And when I find myself taking my social media accounts too seriously, I remind myself of my former colleague’s words: Nothing is ever anything.

Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. When, I shit you not, Donald J. Trump followed me on Twitter and, aghast, I blocked him as soon as I saw, my publisher teased me, mock-scolding. “You’re a writer now!” he said: Be merciless. Be brutal. Be the sales, not the person. Do whatever it takes.

When my book was finally released, the community college where I work hosted a reception in the library. I was really nervous—and really excited. It was the biggest literary event I’d ever had, and it was my first reading of my book. I dressed carefully, changing my outfit half a dozen times, and I coached my husband on what to wear, what to bring, what to say and not say. He was to be my salesman, my marketing rep, my PR.

People from all over the community came to the reading—most of whom I hadn’t ever met. Folks from payroll and the cashier’s office came over, introduced themselves, and told me how excited they were. Students from years ago stopped by to gush, and one told me she’d just been paid, so she was buying a book first thing. I wanted to give her a copy for free, but my husband shushed me. “You’re a writer now,” he muttered, something everyone seemed to realize but me.

My husband and I sold 10 books that night, and only a few to friends. When I stood to read the passage I’d selected, I looked out at the cluster of faces and felt an acute sense of gratitude. I saw my husband in the back, sitting tall. A few faculty members from the English department had shown up, a couple old friends from the community, but it was all the faces I didn’t know that left me breathless. Here they were, sitting before me, waiting to see what I had made. Tonight, the plain old library was transformed, not by decorations or music or lights but by me. I was the one who was different now; just like that, the audience made me an author, and I held my book in my hands.

After that, I received reviews from several national literary organizations, which helped us to sell hundreds of copies before the book even officially went on sale—and which will, my publisher assures me, help us to sell copies forever. I travelled to Washington D.C. for a lavish party where, along with four other authors, I proudly launched my first book. A professional photographer took my picture, and people I’d never met clapped me on the back, shook my hand, and bought my book. A few thousand copies sold in the months following the book’s release, and if an astronaut in the International Space Station wishes to download a copy, she can. I have more credibility in the publishing world now, and I’m hoping this will equate, at some point, to more clout at my college teaching post.

My colleague wasn’t exactly right—some things are actually something in the end. I will always treasure the review blurbs my publisher helped me to solicit from grad school professors, writer friends, and even famous strangers I dared myself to query. I love when someone reads my words and sees me anew—as a resource, perhaps. And it’s thrilling to sense little shots of fame—mentions from high-profile writers, shout-outs from friends on social media, and a copy of my book on display in the local library.

With lots of things, it’s true: Nothing is ever anything. For me, those nothings are the Twitter and Instagram accounts, the towering stack of query letters, and those despairing, wine-drenched nights. Little changed at work—my students remained unfamiliar with my writer self, and I suspect most of my colleagues won’t ever read the book.

But I can still remember the February night my dad finished his review copy. “It’s beautiful!” he declared unabashed—praise I can still feel in a sensory way. Last week, he told me he’s reading the book a second time, and I like to picture him at the kitchen table at home, turning the pages, reading my words. My folks drove 12 hours to get to my D.C. launch, and I’ll never forget seeing them enter the party, my dad first, dressed in nice slacks and a suit jacket, his hair combed back.

In the end, it all returns to where it began.

The book event in my hometown was a roadside signing outside the main bookstore. There was no reading, no fanfare, just a table and a stack of books and a chair.

From that store, I made my first book purchase using birthday money from my grandmother. For decades, I purchased Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, wedding gifts, and baby gifts from there. I’ve walked those narrow aisles so many times, and now I was sitting outside, signing my book. My parents came, too. They didn’t sit by me, didn’t interfere as people came and went, chatting and snapping pictures. An old friend sat by my side, a woman I’ve known since I was five or six, and my parents stood a few feet away, talking with people they knew. We sold all the books. At the end of the sale, we packed up our things, folded up the chairs, and then I said goodbye to my friend, and my dad drove my mom and me home.

Image Credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.

Worlds Upon Worlds: On Growing Up Book-Rich

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I grew up in a middle-class family in rural upstate New York. We had a mortgage and a car loan, and my brother and I wore hand-me-downs. It was a nice, ordinary American upbringing: quietly blessed, reassuringly average, except for one thing: in books, I have always been rich.

My earliest memories are of books, the crammed shelves a backdrop for birthday parties, family dinners, and Saturday morning cartoons. We read every night, my brother and I perched on my dad’s lap, Goodnight Moon open before us, or Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. When we got older, my mom dug through her old boxes of books from when she was a girl, rediscovering along with us Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. At summer camp, I traded books with my friends, devouring with illicit pleasure the likes of The Baby-Sitters Club series, Tiger Eyes, and Izzy, Willy-Nilly — books my small town library didn’t own. These books taught me to have crushes, do my nails, and flirt. They informed me about sex and my body, and probably empowered me to make smart choices about those things throughout my life.

From my parents’ shelves, I drew down books I probably wasn’t ready for, but no one ever told me to put a book back. From dog-eared, underlined college textbooks, I learned about extreme poverty and AIDS, the Holocaust and cancer, war and rape. I read Stephen King, which kept me up at night for years. In perusing those adult shelves, I learned an expensive lesson: nothing I read could ever be unread. Still, I wouldn’t trade those books — each one of them — for anything. To me, books were the world, transported to my teenage bedroom in my tiny upstate town.

Growing up, I never stopped to notice who was and wasn’t reading. I didn’t yet understand what books represented — privilege, education, even wealth, relatively speaking. Reading is a leisure activity, a luxury, and it demands time. I travelled abroad after graduating from college, and backpacking through Asia, I was mostly — embarrassingly, now — amused at the illiteracy I encountered. From Laos to India, I took pictures of signs spelled ridiculously wrong, and I never questioned the relative absence of bookstores, or libraries, or books in general. I worked on farms, but I never tried going into a school to see what it was like. For better or worse, I never noticed the problem enough to even…notice.

Instead, I managed to find the books I needed at hostels. Every hostel had a cycling shelf, a tiny library, Lonely Planets mixed in with trashy romances, travel novels, the rare Bill Bryson, the more common Paulo Coelho. The books were almost all in English. I did fine.

It took me until 2010 to “check my privilege,” as the kids are saying nowadays. I was in Antigua, Guatemala — a colonial, touristy city an hour southwest of Guatemala City — and I was starting to write my own book, about Latin America, traveling alone, and teaching English. Antigua, one of Guatemala’s most modern cities, had one library, and every morning I went there to work.

The library, one long room, was usually empty, except for the librarian and me. She sat behind a desk, and behind her were the shelves. If I needed a book, she had to retrieve it for me. My Spanish wasn’t good enough yet to ask for anything, anyway, so I spent my mornings seated at a perpetually empty table. No families came in, no young couples, no retired folk. No one. No one touched the books, or wandered from one subject to another, or opened books at random and then put them back. No one sniffed the pages.

I didn’t quite understand why the library was always so empty until a book fair set up shop in the plaza outside. As I browsed, I discovered that each book cost at least $15, an amount that could cover my hostel bed for a week. Books, I realized sharply, suddenly, are too expensive. They’re a luxury item, designated for the rich, for the privileged. Guiltily, I remembered the crammed shelves of my childhood. The literary world is a sealed one, and as I held the expensive books in my hands, I realized finally how hard it is to break in.

I traveled another year, and then I moved back to the States and became a teacher. I work in New Mexico at a community college, and in the time I’ve taught, I’ve learned that illiteracy is a domestic issue, too. Many, many of my students don’t read. Some legitimately don’t know how. Some have learning disabilities, reading problems, and a lot don’t have the money or insurance to get any issues checked out. New Mexico is a poor state. A lot of students speak only Spanish at home, and many, especially if they moved here within their lifetimes, didn’t learn to properly read in Spanish. Now they’re being expected to read — and write — in English. Some students just don’t have the time, and some lack the courage. Many don’t see a reason; reading, they believe, has never helped them before.

My students who read almost always do better than the ones who don’t. Of course, I teach English, so that would make sense, but I’m still amazed at how reliable the correlation is between good writing and frequent reading. I can tell which students grew up reading books — even if they don’t anymore — and I can see that they are better communicators. I took over the college’s literary magazine last year, and at our annual reception, I could count on one hand the number of ethnic minorities in the audience. In a largely Hispanic town, the event was dominated by white people, because they are the ones who know about our magazine, submit to it, and read it. The problem is simultaneously no one’s fault and everyone’s.

Meanwhile, I do my best. When someone falls asleep in class, or admits to not having done the reading, or disrespects some piece of writing I fell in love with years ago, I don’t take it personally. Instead, I call on a student to read aloud. I make sure we read as a class every day. I give extra credit to students who submit to our lit mag, and I spend hours contemplating writing prompts. Still, it’s hard to teach someone to love something if they don’t. I think that to want to read, you have to love books, at least a little. You have to know what reading has the capacity to do. You have to have seen for yourself where it can take you, what it can show you. So many people never have.

And it isn’t just my students. These are strange times, and today, living in a rich country doesn’t necessarily mean you read. In 2016, images speak louder than words — and usually do. Time is tight and must be budgeted carefully. Our media sources barrage us with too many words to process, and so we’ve become a society of skimmers.

Indeed, the reasons for illiteracy are more complex now than ever before, but one is that we don’t have the space for reading, or the silence that reading demands. We don’t fit it into our lesson plans, our evening routines, our Saturday mornings, because increasingly, we don’t see the point. It’s happening to me: I skim my emails along with my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and the books I’ve been meaning to read languish on the table beside me, ignored. And I am the one percent, the girl who grew up rich in books, who put in her 10,000 hours of reading by the time she was 18.

Now, though, she reads much less.

Last winter, I went home for Christmas. My mom dug boxes from the closet, and my brother and I pored over the things she’d saved from our childhoods: postcards from camp, Christmas lists, sloppy paintings. At the bottom of my box was a story I wrote when I was 10 or 11, a Christmas tale about a girl who sees a beggar in the street. She gives him her shoes, or something — I can’t quite remember the plot. What I recall is being struck by the quality of the punctuation, the spelling, the formatting. I had known as a young reader what many of my students, community college students, have yet to learn: how to spell “there” and “their,” how to use a comma properly, how to capitalize the first letter of a name. It’s the fault of many things: our poor state, our bad high schools, the challenges facing our bilingual population. It’s because we don’t read with our children, though that seems the beacon of hope, the kernel of change, for I’ve always heard that literacy begins at home.

This year, my resolution is simple: to drink profusely of the written word. I will pass along good books; I will write reviews; I will read excerpts in my classes with my students. I will work to cultivate in my community a love for reading. I will check my privilege, because I have something that many do not: I have access to worlds upon worlds. I will make the time to read, for those who read grow rich.

Image Credit: Pexels/cottonbro.

You’ll Never Walk Alone: On Traveling the World with Books

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I can usually remember exactly where I was when I read any given book. Here’s what I mean: when I look to the shelf before me, The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, is the title that catches my eye. It’s a hardcover with a matte black jacket and gray print on the spine.

Where was I?

An image arrives instantly: a wheely chair in the adjunct faculty office at the community college. It was winter, my first in New Mexico. Besides teaching, I waitressed in a cocktail lounge until two or three in the morning. Exhausted and homesick, unable to afford health insurance, I often wondered whether I’d made a mistake in following my heart to Santa Fe.

Next on the shelf: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which I read in a college dorm room strewn with empty mugs and textbooks. Rain streamed down the windowpanes for weeks on end. It was finals, but I wasn’t writing my papers — those I stupidly saved until 24 hours before they were due. I was a frantic person then, always running late.

And as for Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, I read that on a pink couch in a Cambridge apartment in summer. My boyfriend and I had just broken up; he packed his bags and moved to Alaska, and I was simultaneously fraught with grief and elated with newfound freedom.

It’s an ability I suspect many of us possess: besides plying our minds for the story’s plot, the characters’ names, and the themes presented, we can send ourselves back to where we were when we read the books we loved. Lately, I’ve been trying to pay even more attention to my journey as the reading of the book is taking place. What mark did the book leave on me, and in turn, what imprint did I impart?

Books have always helped me to find meaning in the chaos of experience. As my eyes scan the shelf, I can picture angsty teenage afternoons, Cynthia Voigt beside me offering up Dicey’s Song like comfort food. I see an October of bad job interviews, red wine, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I see a quick succession of flings and subsequent breakups, Jane Smiley and Joyce Carol Oates stroking my hair as I wept. I read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich when my grandmother died. Anita Shreve, Stephen King, and Isabel Allende saw me through romantic weekends, family get-togethers, and summer road trips. Because of the books I have read, I’m a teacher, a traveler, and a chef. I am a fighter and a laugher. I am a writer.

For one bewildering moment, I wonder who I’d be without this shelf.

When I was 22, I worked at a hotel in my hometown for six months and saved up enough money to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. While members of my graduating class were accepting real jobs and renting their first apartments, I moved back in with my mom and dad. It took some convincing to get my mom to agree to put me up while I prepared to see the world alone. “I just need to do this,” I told her many times, so many that finally I actually believed it. The truth was, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, and so traveling seemed the most logical path, because after 17 years as a student, I needed a break. I needed some culture, some eye-opening excitement. In the end, my mom pitched in for my rabies vaccine, and together we mapped out my route on the family globe.

A few days before Thanksgiving, my brother drove me to the Boston airport. I was bound for Hong Kong, and foolishly I had done very little planning and no preparatory reading. Like most other things, I had left my trip around the world until the last minute. My friends threw me a going-away party the night before, and I hadn’t slept at all. At the airport, my brother kissed me goodbye and tore off gleefully in my car — his for the next six months — and then I was alone, the morning still dark and very cold. I looked at the ticket in my hand. This wasn’t how I imagined it would be — already, a desperate loneliness, and I hadn’t even left the States.

In Hong Kong, I suffered from horrible jetlag. I woke every morning at three and tossed and turned until four, and then I sat out on the roof of my hostel and watched the city twinkle awake. I had never felt so lonesome. I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t communicate, and I had terrible trouble reading my map. I didn’t know how to do the most basic things — eat at a café, find a book in the library, buy a train ticket — and I felt stupid and self-conscious trying. People looked at me strangely, and so I wandered the streets very early in the mornings when only schoolchildren were out walking. I wrote weepy emails home and wondered how I would survive six months of this.

Then I opened Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.

Of the book itself, I only vaguely remember the plot. The main themes stand out: a desperate childhood, extreme poverty, alcoholism, and abandonment. I remember McCourt’s Limerick in stills: a dirty gray street, a freezing Sunday mass, a sour pickled dinner, a Christmas with nothing.

I can remember well the book’s humor, though, and its hope. I remember an adolescent Frank who scrimped and saved, rose in the morning, passed out in bed at night, and watched men throw his mother around. Still, he survived. By the light of a waning headlamp, I finished the book and wept. I slept deeply that night and rose with the sun for the first time in a week.

When I think of Angela’s Ashes, what I remember most is the way Hong Kong sounded and smelled. The air was muggy, winey, and fishy by late afternoon. Salt blew off the sea. My hostel smelled like cigarette smoke and old newspapers, and the curtains were always closed so that the place sat in a simmering, crowded gloom. In the very early morning, the scent of lilies blew in through the single open window. The girl in the bed next to mine came in late and slept a restless, whimpering sleep. All of this I recall as if it happened very recently. I think of Angela’s Ashes and my senses remember Hong Kong.

The book kept me from giving up, I realize now. It kept me from getting on the next plane home, and it forced me out of the relative safety of my hostel. If Frank could survive, you can do this, I told myself, setting out. I took a ferry to Lantau Island and then rode a bus for hours through a tiny fishing village and a silver city built into cloud forest. On Lantau, standing beneath the largest Buddha sculpture in the world, I couldn’t believe where I was.

Thailand was my next stop. I made my slow way up and down the country, riding buses toward Burma and then back to Bangkok. In the daytime the buses were always crowded, four or five to a seat and people standing with animals and children in the aisles. There would invariably be a toddler on my lap. The heat would rise and the hours would lengthen, and yet there was always something so calm about those rides. The heat, the long light, and the good-natured Thais all made for easy traveling.

I read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith on one such journey. We were traveling down Thailand’s narrowest passage towards the Malaysian border, having left Bangkok early that morning. We were due in the city of Trang by midnight, and all the while I read. The sun was warm through the windows, and a gentle breeze blew. A little girl sat perched on my lap, her hair in braids, her hands folded across her body. Eventually, she closed her eyes and slept against me. I read about a grassy Botswana savannah, a friendly community, and a no-nonsense lady detective called Hetty who sings to herself, “O, Botswana, my country, my place.”

I can still remember that line exactly. I was a continent away from home on a bus in Asia, and yet I also felt, however temporarily, to be in my place. The words somehow matched exactly the Thailand that stretched alongside me, yellow and green beneath an amber afternoon sky. There came an occasional glimpse of the sea. I was content, flung, and anonymous. I had never felt so free. We jostled along in the fading afternoon, the passengers’ heads lolling in sleep.

A man in a beach hut on the island of Ko Chang gave me his copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in exchange for a piece of cake wrapped in foil and two lukewarm Chang beers. Of that book, I remember round pebbles and a wandering boy, spare prose, a search for treasure, and a long journey home. But I cannot think of The Alchemist without also thinking of that man’s beach hut, his dreadlocks, the jam-packed ashtray by his bed, and his sandy kitchen floor. I remember a white-sand beach, creaking palms, shells lined up on the stairs, a jagged painting of birds and water. I can still hear the man’s deep, quiet voice. Our feet were bare. He was born on the beach, he told me. Without The Alchemist, I might not have remembered him at all.

I spent my last months in India, where I felt it my duty to read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I expected to slog through the book, published three-quarters of a century ago, but in the end, I couldn’t put it down. Everything I saw matched the texture of the book: the sounds of the streets and markets, the smells of burnt sugar and sweat, and the rocking of the trains. I noticed caves the color of clay, and my train once passed through a desert strewn with bones. I saw the marshes of Goa and the Karnataka coast; I turned the pages.

Still, India shook me. It shakes most anyone, I imagine, especially if you’re used to orderly streets and personal space. The clamor was jolting. The trains were late and crammed, and people slept on cots in rows on the sidewalks. I saw sick people, hungry people, and dead people. I was overwhelmed and afraid, and people stared at me constantly.

In the end, it was, of course, a book that saved me. I distinctly remember sitting on a train in a busy aisle seat, deep into A Passage to India. Mrs. Moore was watching from the deck of a ship as India shrank away. She had had a bad go of it, and she was ready to go home to England. On a train pulling through neighborhoods of sprawling Mumbai slums, I read Forster’s description of Mrs. Moore’s departure:
…Presently the boat sailed and thousands of coconut palms appeared all around the anchorage and climbed the hills to wave her farewell. ‘So you thought an echo was India; you took the Marabar caves as final?’ they laughed. ‘What have we in common with them, or they with Asirgarh? Goodbye!
I put down the book, looked out into mad Mumbai, and laughed out loud.

I heard Forster’s coconut palms everywhere after that: So you thought one bad night was India? One bad meal? One crowded street? India is beautiful, you see. Give it time!

Their whispers strengthened me. In freezing Manali, I did what I could to stay warm, eat well, and exercise. By Haridwar, I had stopped noticing the stares. I learned to look instead for the beauty each place offered: In Rishikesh, I stayed for free in an ashram, practicing yoga in the mornings and walking by the glacially blue Ganges in the afternoons. Jaipur held an ancient fort, a raucous flea market, and an organic farm at the end of a dirt road where, for three weeks, I weeded vegetable gardens with a group of Israeli hippies. Rajasthan was a city of blue roofs, golden sunsets, and cream-colored walls, a color palette I will remember for the rest of my life.

Nowhere else, I suspect, could I have read so closely or loved so dearly A Passage to India.

That year, only the books in my hands knew where to find me. They were my guides, my teachers, and my friends. Thailand will always resemble Botswana in the afternoon light, and my Hong Kong is Lantau, silent mornings, and Frank McCourt as a rugged little boy, finding laughter in a gloomy room. For readers, I have discovered, there will always be two journeys, and if we forget one, we’re bound to lose both, for each sustains the narrative of our lives.

Photos by Katie Thebeau.