This year, I sought literature that reverberated with tenderness and rage. Reading afforded me much-needed quietude and pockets of silence in these increasingly fascist times, amidst a relentless, raucous political commentary that we can’t afford to turn off. We can’t afford ignorance, but we do still need spaces to dream, to reimagine the world, to counter erasures of stories we deserve and need to know, the ones omitted from the dominant culture’s record. As writers, we write ourselves and the stories we never saw ourselves in, the stories that are the most terrifying to tell. I craved intimate work that took me to subterranean, secret, otherworldly, historic, ancient, and syncretic corners of literature, where borders and identities dissolved into hybrid forms. I wanted to read work that made me feel connected to my body, my senses, and collective memories.
I Lalla, the utterances of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded, translated by poet and translator Ranjit Hoskote, were a portal into another time, when a rebellious woman renounced her family duties to become a devotee—and yet, I read this work in the context of the present-day political turmoil not only in India-occupied Kashmir but throughout India, where student protestors are being violently beaten and tear gassed by the police because of their opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which will allow the Indian government to send people without paperwork to detention camps. Reading Lal Ded today, each line is as much a wound as it is a balm.
I revisited iconic feminist works that have never felt more prescient, including Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa, which interrogates the U.S.-Mexico border: the history of white supremacist imperialism and indigenous genocide, feminist theory, and femme divine mythologies. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive documented the heartbreaking dissolution of a family on a road trip across these desert borderlands, and I ached the entire book through, holding its heart—the children savagely separated from their parents at the border—close to my own. Another spectacular novel set in the desert, The Other Americans by Laila Lalami, masterfully weaves a polyphonic tapestry of narrators sharply divided by race, religion, class, desire, and aspirations, unfurling the story of a Moroccan immigrant killed in a hit-and-run. Imagining a Muslim family’s tragedy in the Mojave Desert felt like a necessary complement—one that I’ve never read before—to the post-9/11 literature set in New York City. Lalami’s structure summoned another masterful work of art, Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I loved how both of these novels draw the desertscape, in all of its solitude and endlessness and metaphors. Desertscape forms over millions of years, a steady denuding of the earth into monochromatic wasteland, where everything is wildly alive, but camouflaged, in plain sight.
Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments opened a radical door of perception into early 20th-century black women’s intimacy as revolution, how their love and queerness and kinship was the heart of their survivorship against societal and state violence. Femme in Public, a poetry collection by ALOK, a nonbinary transfemme poet, performance artist, educator, and cultural theorist, probes the urgent question that I find myself wondering every time I show up to the page: What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world? Each poem is a dart of truth puncturing the systemic, colonial violence of the gender binary, one of the first ways we learn to erase ourselves.
After Toni Morrison’s passing, I read her collected essays and speeches, The Source of Self-Regard, each night before bed, unmoored by the breadth and brilliance of her mind. Her nonfiction is a clarion light that has never felt more eternal, and it made me want to read her fictive masterpiece Beloved, for which I made a perfume (for an event in her honor) composed of notes in the book: sweet grass, salt water, rose, and blood cedar. There is no other writer who threads the olfactory with such elegant and devastating precision. Similarly, Arundhati Roy’s collected nonfiction My Seditious Heart reignited my blaze for her intellectual fire and activism and infinitely readable voice—and the collection illuminates her decades-long commitment to freedom and social justice. This work is a nonfictional journey between her two great works of fiction, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House is a heart-wrenching, hybrid work that moved me to my core as a survivor. Over the years, I’ve learned that there is no greater feeling of solidarity than being able to bear witness to another survivor’s experience, and in the wake of so many public reckonings with abusers, to read a work that goes inward so inventively was a total wonder. When I think of how I learned to read and write, healing or holding space for trauma were not a part of the writer’s project, but the old rules don’t seem to matter as much to me anymore, we cannot afford to hold our tongues. Fariha Róisìn’s poetry collection How to Cure a Ghost bares and bears everything, and it felt like I’d found a book waiting for me my whole life, a way of seeing that reflects the world as I’ve lived in it, as a Bangladeshi, brown, bodied, Muslim femme person.
Poetry and essay are both forms that Hanif Abdurraquib renders with such elegant melancholy and beautiful rhythm, and I loved his poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, as well as his essay series on the Paris Review, Notes on Pop, about songs and memory. My last book for the year will be published in 2020, My Baby First Birthday, a poetry collection by Jenny Zhang. It’s a radiant and resolute work that had me questioning everything, like what life means when you didn’t ask to be born; how we must translate ourselves for whiteness and patriarchy through our trauma, which can feel like selling ourselves out when we are never replenished by a system that asks us to sacrifice so much. And yet, these poems are a soothsaying for the future we want to live in, where we understand the innate beauty of our planet, of ourselves, our friendships, where we forgive our own transgressions, remembering to stay tilted towards the light.
The first time I stole, I was told it was wrong. It was borrowed from a Garfield cartoon—one character says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and then in the next panel, a dictionary falls on his head. I thought it was funny; I included it in one of my stories. I was seven. When I showed the story to my parents, my dad asked if I’d come up with that joke on my own, and I admitted that I hadn’t. He explained to me that it wasn’t right to use someone’s words without giving credit to that person or without changing them enough so that they were my own; that was called plagiarism. It didn’t make sense to me. This cartoon had been drawn and printed and delivered to my parents’ doorstep for me to unfold and read while I ate my Cheerios. I could cut it out and stick it to the refrigerator with magnets, or roll out a ball of Silly Putty and pull Garfield right off of the page and into my hand. It didn’t make sense that enjoying or admiring or loving something wasn’t enough to make that something mine.
As a longtime lover of words, I was a master mimic. After hearing Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” on the radio, I spent weeks trying to find and compose the tune on my Yamaha keyboard. I wrote my own song parodies à la “Weird Al” Yankovic. It only made sense that when I read books that I loved, I wanted to try and recreate them. Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones inspired my own series about a precocious six-year-old named Leslie Ann Mayfield. Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl led to the creation of The Girls of Greenwich Academy. They were imitations; they were different only in the sense that I couldn’t have the original and wanted to have control over as close an approximation as I could. I loved these stories like I loved the barrage of letters that Elizabeth Clarry receives from various societies and clubs—each pointing out her faults and shortcomings—in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Feeling Sorry for Celia (the letters being reflections of Elizabeth’s own subconscious thoughts and not real letters, of course), or like I loved a particular passage from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl that I wrote out in notebooks and repeated so many times I had it memorized and still can recite it today: “She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow…In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” I wrote a story composed entirely of letters to myself from fictionalized clubs. I read Stargirl so many times the pages fell out of the binding. But no matter how many times I read these books, no matter how many times I tried to make them my own, they remained too elusive to pin down. My inexperience impeded me. My inability to create something of equal value frustrated me. To create something of my own worthy of that kind of love felt impossible.
After I met Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, I realized all of my past preoccupations—even with Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen—had merely been crushes. With Prep, I felt vulnerable and unnervingly understood—I felt loved. Lee Fiora was a misanthrope, a cypher—difficult to like and everything I feared myself to be. Over the course of the four years in which the novel takes place, Lee silently watches her peers, trying at once to imitate them and appear unassuming enough to not be seen. She fails, of course; she fails and exposes herself as a fraud in the most public and humiliating way. I typed out hundreds of pages of the novel, and the sensation of generating Sittenfeld’s words by my own hand on my own screen felt like ecstasy. I dreamed of writing Prep myself. I dreamed of a machine that would allow me to go back in time and steal the manuscript before it was ever published and claim it as my own. But because I couldn’t pluck Prep from Curtis Sittenfeld’s hands like I once pulled cartoon Garfield off a page with putty, I decided to make it my mission: I would write a book that would make someone ache with recognition, a book that someone could love—even if that someone was only me.
I couldn’t know at the time of my preoccupation that Junie B.’s speech patterns and penchant for nicknames is reminiscent of short story writer Damon Runyon. I never knew until later that von Ziegesar modeled Gossip Girl on The Age of Innocence. Even having heard Prep compared to everything from A Separate Peace to The Bell Jar to The Catcher in the Rye, Lee Fiora’s story never felt like anything but her own. It is inevitable to bear a resemblance to classic literature, it seemed to me; everyone is made to read the same books the summer before ninth grade and write the same reports. The difference was that classic literature felt wholly impersonal, unrelatable, obsolete. It was okay to rewrite those stories because—to me—they’d ceased to entertain, to matter.
As I began to study writing in earnest in college and later graduate school, I looked not to the past but to contemporaries for inspiration and guidance. I had a love affair with Lorrie Moore my junior year of college; I loved repetition, lists, and long, looping, loquacious sentences that Moore could make funny in their inanity. I met Edward P. Jones and experimented with time, turning to him for guidance so I could shift forward and back without warning and without losing a reader. I wrote whole stories trying to imitate the narrative style of Thomas Bernhard and Donald Barthelme. My senior year of college, Zadie Smith—actual Zadie Smith, that is—came to my advanced fiction workshop the day my story was up for critique, and she noted that I did the Lorrie Moore-esque technique of listing three things, each item more extreme or nonsensical than the last. “The ‘Three Things’ things—that’s a Lorrie thing. It’s been done,” she said. The only part of my story Zadie Smith took special notice of was when the character said she didn’t know how to cook chicken properly so that it wasn’t still pink inside. “That’s honest,” she said. At the time, the only thing that stuck with me after class was pleasure at being told that I wrote like Lorrie Moore.
I remember reading Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and, shortly after, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and feeling almost betrayed—Roy’s influence on Selasi was so evident to me that I felt I’d uncovered something devious or even criminal. But everything is borrowed from something, I’ve learned; every story is influenced by those told before it, every voice a reflection of an earlier one. By borrowing stories, trying on different styles, imitating different techniques, I somehow learned to develop my own voice—a cocktail of everything I’d ever read and admired and loved, but diffused through me, made into my own. When I first started showing people my own novel, I heard comparisons to Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and—to my great delight—Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. But readers also drew comparisons to stories I hadn’t even meant to echo: Lolita and Old School, so-called classics that I’d once dismissed as irrelevant, but that are still called up from the past today to be borrowed and reformed, made new again. Layers and layers of stories and voices in conversation with one another, building on one another; I love that idea, that every story I’ve ever loved is inextricable from my own. That I’ve finally, in a way, made them mine.
I worry that the novel I’ve written isn’t anything new. I worry that my story has already been told—been told dozens of times, in fact—and that I don’t contribute anything new to the story’s legacy except another tired imitation. But I also like to think that what I have contributed is my own truth, a personal intimacy, like the redemptive bit about the uncooked chicken. Writing the novel, I channeled Lorrie and Bernhard and Zadie all at once, exploring my characters and their story through several different lenses—empathic, contemptuous, tongue-in-cheek—but what never changed was my desire to make it all feel as achingly, cringingly honest as possible. Years later, an editor would read my novel and tell me that she’d always felt alone in her experience of depression until she read my character’s experience and, for the first time since I’d read Prep at age 14, I felt seen and understood.
I have created something, something that may even be worthy of love, but still I covet others. That won’t ever stop. I read to learn and to grow, and even if the things I read make me blind with envy—make me want to rip the pages from the bindings and hide them from the world and claim the words as my own—it only makes me want to improve. Each book I love is a new voice to carry with me, a new style to try on. A new something that I can stretch and hem and saturate with my scent until it feels like me. Like something honest.
Image Credit: Flickr/kooikkari.
In one of his essays, the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe stated that “no one be fooled by the fact that we write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” That “we” is, in essence, an authoritative oratorical posture that cast him as a representative of a group, a kindred of writers who — either by design or fate — have adopted English as the language of literary composition. With these words, it seems that to Achebe the intention to do “unheard-of” things with language is a primary factor in literary creation. He is right. And this should be the most important factor.
Achebe was, however, not merely speaking about the intention of his contemporaries alone, but also of writers who wrote generations before him. Among them would be, ironically, Joseph Conrad, whose prose he sometimes queried, but who embodied that intention to the extent that he was described by Virginia Woolf as one who “had been gifted, so he had schooled himself, and such was his obligation to a strange language wooed characteristically for its Latin qualities rather than its Saxon that it seemed impossible for him to make an ugly or insignificant movement of the pen.” That “we” also includes writers like Vladimir Nabokov of whom John Updike opined: “Nabokov writes prose the way it should be written: ecstatically;” Arundhati Roy; Salman Rushdie; Wole Soyinka; and a host of other writers to whom English was not the only language. The encompassing “we” could also be expanded to include prose stylists whose first language was English like William Faulkner, Shirley Hazzard, Virginia Woolf, William Golding, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, and all those writers who, in most of their works, float enthusiastically on blasted chariots of prose, and whose literary horses are high on poetic steroids. But these writers, it seems, are the last of a dying breed.
The culture of enforced literary humility, encouraged in many writing workshops and promoted by a rising culture of unobjective literary criticism, is chiefly to blame. It is the melding voice of a crowd that shouts down those who aspire to belong to Achebe’s “we” from their ladder by seeking to enthrone a firm — even regulatory — rule of creative writing. The enthroned style is dished out in the schools under the strict dictum: “Less is more.” Literary critics, on the other hand, do the damage by leveling variations of the accusation of writing “self-conscious (self-important; self-aware…) prose” on writers who attempt to do “unheard-of” things with their prose. The result, by and large, is the crowning of minimalism as the cherished form of writing, and the near rejection of other stylistic considerations. In truth, minimalism has its qualities and suits the works of certain writers like Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and even, for the most part, Chinua Achebe himself. With it, great writings have been produced, including masterpieces like A Farewell to Arms. But it is its blind adoption in most contemporary novels as the only viable style in the literary universe that must be questioned, if we are to keep the literary culture healthy.
One of the insightful critics still around, Garth Risk Hallberg, describes this phenomenon in his 2012 New York Times Review of A.M Homes’s May We Be Forgiven with these apt observations:
The underlying problem here is style. Homes’s ambitions may have grown in the quarter-century since The Safety of Objects was published, but her default mode of narration remains mired in the minimalism of that era: an uninflected indicative voice that flattens everything it touches. Harry gets some upsetting news: ‘Two days later, the missing girl is found in a garbage bag. Dead. I vomit.’ Harry gets a visitor: ‘Bang. Bang. Bang. A heavy knocking on the door. Tessie barks. The mattress has arrived.’
Hallberg goes on to describe, in the next two paragraphs, the faddist nature of the style:
Style may be, as Truman Capote said, ‘the mirror of an artist’s sensibility,’ but it is also something that develops over time, and in context. When minimalism returned to prominence in the mid-80s, its power was the power to negate. To record yuppie hypocrisies like some sleek new camera was to reveal how scandalous the mundane had become, and how mundane the scandalous. But deadpan cool has long since thinned into a manner. Its reflexive irony is now more or less the house style of late capitalism. (How awesome is that?)
As a non-Western writer, knowing the origin of this fad is comforting. But as Hallberg pointed out, context, not tradition, is what should decide or generate the style of any work of fiction. Paul West noted in his essay, “In Praise of Purple Prose,” written around the heyday of minimalism in 1985, that the “minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy — the human bond with ordinariness.” This rationale, I dare say, misunderstands what art is and what art is meant to do. The essential work of art is to magnify the ordinary, to make that which is banal glorious through artistic exploration. Thus, fiction must be different from reportage; painting from photography. And this difference should be reflected in the language of the work — in its deliberate constructiveness, its measured adornment of thought, and in the arrangement of representative images, so that the fiction about a known world becomes an elevated vision of that world. That is, the language acts to give the “ordinary” the kind of artistic clarity that is the equivalence of special effects in film. While the special effect can be achieved by manipulating various aspects of the novel such as the structure, voice, setting, and others, the language is the most malleable of all of them. All these can hardly be achieved with sparse, strewn-down prose that mimics silence.
The sinuous texture of language, its snakelike meandering, and eloquent intensity is the only suitable way of telling the multi-dimensional and tragic double Bildungsroman of the “egg-twin” protagonists of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Roy’s narrator, invested with unquestionable powers of insight and deliberative lens, is able to maintain a concentrated force of focus on a very specific instance, scene, or place, or action. Hence, the writer — like a witness of such a scene — is able to move with the sweeping prose that will at once appear gorgeous and at the same time be significant and memorable. Since Nabokov’s slightly senile narrator in Lolita posits that “you can always trust a murderer for a fancy prose style,” we are able to understand why Humbert Humbert would describe his lasped sexual preference for Dolores while in bed with her mum in this way: “And when, by means of pitifully ardent, naively lascivious caresses, she of noble nipple and massive thigh prepared me for the performance of my nightly duty, it was still a nymphet’s scent that in despair I tried to pick up, as I bayed through the undergrowths of dark decaying forests.” Even though the playfulness of Humbert’s elocution is apparent, one cannot deny aptness — and originality — of the description of Humbert’s response to the pleasure his victim is giving him is.
It is not, however, that the “less is more” nugget is wrong, it is that it makes a blanket pronouncement on any writing that tends to make its language artful as taboo. When sentences must be only a few words long, it becomes increasingly difficult to execute the kind of flowery prose that can establish a piece of writing as art. It also establishes a sandcastle logic, which, if prodded, should crash in the face of even the lightest scrutiny. For the truth remains that more can also be more, and that less is often inevitably less. What writers must be conscious of, then, is not long sentences, but the control of flowery prose. As with anything in this world, excess is excess, but inadequate is inadequate. A writer must know when the weight of the words used to describe a scene is bearing down on the scene itself. A writer should develop the measuring tape to know when to describe characters’ thoughts in long sentences and when not to. But a writer, above all, should aim to achieve artistry with language which, like the painter, is the only canvas we have. Writers should realize that the novels that are remembered, that become monuments, would in fact be those which err on the side of audacious prose, that occasionally allow excess rather than those which package a story — no matter how affecting — in inadequate prose.
In the same vein, describing a writer’s prose as “self-conscious” isn’t wrong, it is that it misallocates blames to an ailing part of a writer’s work. Self-consciousness is a term that mostly describes the metafictional qualities of a work; it cannot, in effect, describe the use of language. “The hand of the writer” can appear in the framing of a story, in its structure, in the characterization, in the form of experimental works and frame narratives, but it cannot appear in its language. “Self-consciousness” cannot be applied to the use of words on the page, just as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart cannot be accused of self-conscious tune or Yinka Shonibare of self-conscious art. Self-consciousness or pomposity cannot be reflected in a piece of writing, except in its tone, and in fiction, this is even harder to detect. What can be reflected in a piece of writing is excess and lack of control, which can stand in the way of anything at all in life. What critics should be calling out should be pretentious, unsuccessful gloss that lacks measure and control. They should call out images that might be inexact, ineffective, or superfluous. When critics plunge head-on against great writers (Don Delilo, Cormac McCarthy, etc.,) in the manner of B.R. Myers’s agitated fracking masquerading as “criticism,” they only end up scaring other writers from attempting to pen artistic prose. Fear might be what many writers writing today seem to be showing by indulging in the writing of seemingly artless prose. Authorial howls of artful prose as created by James Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Hazzard, are becoming increasingly rare — sacrificed on the altar of minimalism. Hence, it is becoming more and more difficult to differentiate between literary fiction and the mass market commercial genre pieces, which, more often than not, are couched in plain language.
The gravest danger in conforming to this prevailing norm is that contemporary fiction writers are unknowingly becoming complicit in the ongoing disempowering of language — a phenomenon that the Internet and social media are fueling. Words were once so powerful, so revered, that, as culture critic Sandy Kollick once observed, “to speak the name of something was in fact to invoke its existence, to feel its power as fully present. It was not then as it is now, where a metaphor or a simile merely suggests something else. To identify your totem for a preliterate gatherer-hunters was to be identical with it, and to feel the presence of your clan animal within you.” But no more so. Too many words are being produced in print and visual media that the power of words is diminishing. There are now simply too many newspapers, too many books, too many blogs, too many Twitter accounts for words to maintain their ancestral sacredness. And as writers adjust the language of prose fiction to conform to this era of powerless words, language is disempowered, leading — as Kollick further points out — to the inexorable “emptying out of the human experience,” the very object fiction was meant to preserve in hardbacks and paperbacks.
It is therefore necessary that writers everywhere should see it as their ultimate duty to preserve artfulness of language by couching audacious prose. Our prose should be the Noah’s ark that preserves language in a world that is being apocalyptically flooded with trite and weightless words. “The truest writers,” Derek Walcott said, “are those who see language not as a linguistic process, but as a living element.” By undermining the strongest element of our art, we are becoming unconscious participants in the gradual choking of this “living element,” the life blood of which is language. This we must not do. Rather, we must take a stand in confirmation of the one incontestable truth: that great works of fiction should not only succeed on the strength of their plots or dialogue or character development, but also by the audacity of their prose.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Indelible reading experiences are thrilling but rare; in the summer of 1997, I was lucky to have two. An arts foundation in Maine had given me a tiny grant that allowed me to return to India, where I’d been a Fulbright scholar a few years earlier. My official purpose was to do follow-up work on my Fulbright project interviewing Indian women writers. Unofficially, I spent a lot of time reading.
Arundhati Roy was not yet one of India’s best-known authors, although that would change by the year’s end once she was awarded the Man Booker Prize. The God of Small Things had just been published, and I read it in half a day, lying on my bed in Pune as afternoon turned to evening, not even pausing to turn on the light. When I finished, I felt it would surely be the most transporting book I read that summer.
A month or so later, I arrived in the eastern state of Orissa, visiting a generous writer who had invited me to stay for nearly a week. This turned out to be a bit long for both of us, and I found myself sent frequently to my room to rest. I didn’t mind. Kiran Nagarkar’s 600-page historical novel Cuckold had also come out that summer, and it was my boon companion that week. The initial plan was to read 100 pages a day, which seemed reasonable until I actually started. The first day went well. On day two, however, I had to force myself to put the book down after another 200 pages. On day three, I abandoned my plan entirely and finished it in a gulp. I can no longer remember what I read over the rest of that summer. What I do know is that Cuckold remains one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life.
In the years since, I’ve revisited both books. With The God of Small Things, the emotional power diminished on second read; Cuckold, on the other hand, was as satisfying the third time as the first. If Roy’s novel is finely wrought and tragic, Nagarkar’s is bold and bawdy. But hardly anyone has heard of it. It’s not that Cuckold has gone completely unrecognized — it won the 2000 Sahitya Akademi Award for the best novel in English, one of India’s most prestigious literary prizes. But it was never published outside of India, and even there didn’t draw the critical reception Nagarkar hoped for — not poor reviews, but rather hardly any at all. To its loyal fans, Cuckold will always be a brilliant novel that didn’t receive its due.
There may be hope, however. In the past year, The New York Review of Books has republished Nagarkar’s first English-language novel, Ravan and Eddie, as part of its NYRB Lit e-book series (Sonya Chung wrote about them for Bloom in February). And I write this, at least in part, as a fervent plea that Cuckold will be next.
Born in 1942 into a westernized liberal family in Bombay, Nagarkar grew up speaking both English and Marathi, the language of the state of Maharashtra, where Bombay is located. Except for his first four years of primary school, his education was entirely in English, and he studied English literature in college. The surprise, then, is not that he chose to write in English, but that he’s written fiction in Marathi at all, which he calls “perhaps one of the happiest accidents of my life.”
The “accident” presented itself when Dilip Chitre, a friend and fellow writer, was recruiting work for his father’s Marathi journal, Abhiruchi. Nagarkar submitted a brief story, which was published. He went on to write his first novel, which came out in 1974, in Marathi as well. Saat Sakkam Trechalis (translated in English as Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three) was a partly autobiographical story about a young writer making his way in the world. With its unconventional narrative style, Saat Sakkam Trechalis brought Nagarkar early acclaim and was pronounced a landmark work in Marathi literature.
Nagarkar followed his novel with the play Bedtime Story in 1978. Based on several stories from The Mahabharata, it addressed the question of modern responsibility in an era of political crises, including the Vietnam War and the Indian Emergency. The play was savaged by the censors — 78 cuts in a 74-page play — and protested by various right-wing Hindu groups; Bedtime Story wasn’t staged in India until 1995.
He went on to work as a professor, a journalist, a playwright, screenwriter; and, primarily, in advertising. He did not, however, publish another book until 1994, and when he did, it was written in English. This was not his original intention: Ravan and Eddie began as a Marathi novel, morphed into a screenplay for a movie that never got made, and eventually became Nagarkar’s first English-language work.
The Marathi critics who had hailed his first book took this as a betrayal. Nagarkar addressed this openly in his Sahitya Akademi award speech, explaining that when Ravan and Eddie was first published,
The publisher sent 36 review copies to various Marathi newspapers and journals. Not a single review of the book has appeared…It slowly became clear to me that I must have committed an unmentionable crime, a crime that was beyond forgiveness…for if you don’t acknowledge an author’s work, it ceases to exist.
Tensions between Indian authors writing in English (which, among other things, grants them access to Western audiences and advances) and those writing in regional languages are perpetual and understandable in a country with 23 official languages and many more unofficial ones. In an essay entitled “A Suitable Text for a Vegetarian Audience: Questions of Authenticity and the Politics of Translation,” anthropologist Rashmi Sadana raises some of the key issues that Nagarkar’s bilingual writing career creates:
Nagarkar’s predicament, and his forefronting of it at the Akademi, is a fairly straightforward example of the way literary writing in English is seen not only as being less authentic than vernacular, or bhasha literature, but also, more specifically, as a betrayal of a particular linguistic community by one of its own…[F]rom the purview of most bhasha literary communities, to write in English is to reject willingly (and perhaps willfully) part of one’s Indianness.
Nagarkar himself has little patience with those who criticize him for writing in English, which he calls his “second mother tongue”: “The critics always made me feel like I did something I was not supposed to do.” He has not published fiction in Marathi since.
His Anglophone career has now spanned 20 years. After Ravan and Eddie came Cuckold in 1997, God’s Little Soldier in 2006, and The Extras in 2012 (a sequel to Ravan and Eddie, published after an 18-year interval). No one can say that Nagarkar doesn’t do things on his own terms.
On the surface, Nagarkar’s first two English novels don’t have much in common. Ravan and Eddie is set in the Bombay of the 1940s and ’50s, and its two eponymous main characters are sworn enemies — who clearly should be friends — growing up in the same chawl (a Mumbai tenement). Cuckold, on the other hand, is set in 16th-century Mewar, now part of the state of Rajasthan but once an independent and powerful kingdom. What both books share is Nagarkar’s joyous use of language, as well as his humor — and the ability to shift between comedy and tragedy in short order. He is also particularly adept at managing large casts of characters. In a wonderful piece in The Caravan, Anjum Hasan writes of Nagarkar’s “ability to create those voluminous and self-contained universes that we are familiar with from 19th-century novels but rarely encounter today. A striking aspect of those Tolstoyan and Dickensian worlds is that there is always more in them than is strictly needed for the purposes of keeping a story going.”
In Ravan and Eddie, the narrative shifts between their viewpoints, but the reader is also introduced to other families living in the chawl, as well as various neighborhood characters. And throughout the novel, Nagarkar steps back to include brief essays on subjects of interest. There is “A Harangue on Poverty,” “A Short Digression on Snow,” (by which he means Afghan Snow fairness cream) and “A Not So Short and Utterly Unnecessary History of Romantic Comedies in Hindi Films in the 1950s and 60s” on the occasion of Ravan selling his school books and stealing his mother’s jewelry in order to go see the Shammi Kapoor film Dil Deke Dekho 17 times.
There is no question that Ravan and Eddie is an accomplished, entertaining novel, but Cuckold is more ambitious in both size and scope. It’s a love story, a war story, and a family story, whose origins come from centuries of lore and a bit of known history: in the early 16th century, a princess from the kingdom of Merta was married to the eldest son of the Rana of Mewar. In the early years of her marriage, she scandalized her in-laws — and made herself beloved to the public — by declaring her love for the god Krishna in the most passionate and earthly terms. For Krishna she sang and danced, composing poems and songs known and loved to this day. The princess — Mirabai — is considered one of the most significant poets and saints in the bhakti (devotional) tradition.
At the true center of Nagarkar’s tale, though, is the prince she married, the Maharaj Kumar, about whom hardly anything is known. Told by his wife on their wedding night that she is promised to another, he is the cuckold of the title, in love with his wife who is in love with Krishna. But that is only part of the story. He is also the eldest son of a one-armed, one-eyed aging king, with multiple younger brothers vying for the throne, and is a wonderfully sympathetic character – a testament to Nagarkar’s skill, since in addition to his civic interests he is also leader of the Mewar army, specializing in brutal guerilla warfare. The scene where his men lead thousands of Gujarati soldiers — and their horses — to their deaths in a quick-sinking bog is particularly gruesome.
The novel is mostly narrated by the Maharaj Kumar himself, interspersed with occasional third-person sections about his relationship with his wife, who is never called by her name but only the Princess, the Little Saint, Greeneyes. Some of Nagarkar’s loveliest prose comes in these passages. Here, the Princess is back in her own home for the last time after her wedding:
She knew what she had to do on this visit. She must brand in her memory the images of her village, of her house, of her horse, of her favourite people, of the well, of her father and grandfather and aunts, of the god in the temple, of the sands and the trees and the kumatiya, khajri and kair of the desert. And the sound of the school bell and the sound of a sandstorm and of rain hissing into the sand, her aunt beating the water out of her hair with a thin towel, the bucket at the well hitting the water some hundred feet below. And the smell of the sun burning the sand, of dry kachra frying in oil and spices, the powdery, bleached smell of her father’s armpit when he came back from a long day of surveying their lands, the fierce smell of the kevda leaves in their garden. All these she must etch on her memory. They would have to last her a lifetime.
This green-eyed princess is not a simple saint. She may go into ecstatic trances while singing to her beloved Krishna, but she is politically savvy, devoted to her earthly husband in her own way, and a terrible cheat at cards. While it might sound like a quintessential “boy book” (battles, strategy, infighting among brothers over the crown), one of Cuckold’s strengths is its complex female characters (just as in Ravan and Eddie, where the mothers of the title characters are as memorable as their sons): the princess, of course, but also Kausalya, the prince’s first lover and trusted advisor; and Leelawati, granddaughter of the Jain finance minister, the woman who is the prince’s most fitting match and one he can never marry.
As in the best historical novels, Nagarkar creates an engulfing, vividly peopled world, entirely convincing in its multitude of details. And he does it in modern language, which he announces in his preface: “One of the premises underlying this novel is that an easy colloquial currency of language will make the concerns, dilemmas and predicaments of the Maharaj Kumar, Rana Sanga, and the others as real as we ourselves are caught in.” The story may be taking place long ago and far away, but Nagarkar makes sure that we are right there with him and with his characters, and he doesn’t let us go.
Reading Nagarkar, it’s hard not to notice two things — the exuberance of his language and the patience of his storytelling. Cuckold, at 600 pages, is a hefty work, but he also spends more than 800 pages over two books chronicling the lives of Ravan and Eddie. Small wonder, then, that in more than 40 years he has only published five novels. Nagarkar has said in multiple interviews that he doesn’t want to do the same thing twice. And in challenging himself as a writer, he is challenging his readers as well, tackling religion, history, and current events no matter who might take offense. Ravan and Eddie, with its portraits of Catholics and Hindus living (literally) on top of each other in multicultural Mumbai, was criticized as being both anti-Catholic and anti-Hindu.
Nagarkar is fatalistic about the success of his writing career, joking that he is in the “Guinness Book of [World] Records for the worst sales of a book ever,” but he also holds himself — and other writers — up to high standards and doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels. “You are only as good as your next book,” he told an interviewer in 2006. So far, he has not disappointed.
“HELLO MY NAME IS MARX,” read the candy cane colored name tag handed to me. One woman actually said that I looked like a Marx, the scruffy beard and omni-directional head of hair. Another teased that she and I ought to make Marx the latest mintage in Manhattan baby name trending by starting a blog to promote it. A University of Chicago grad said, “Go” — she was ready to talk me under the table with Marxist theory, and when I protested how little I actually remembered off the cuff, she said she would settle for Durkheim, Weber, or Mills. Wasn’t there someone? Goffman? I responded, Nietzsche: Down with the old gods, up with the mania for replacing them! Then our time was up. I joked about how I intended to use the event and number of dates I would meet as a chance to rally support for socialist thought and motion toward a groundswell to upend the capitalist system, which, didn’t they agree, had gone on long enough?
Nobody said they didn’t.
With doomed grandeur, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives” — not accounting, perhaps, for the fortune and fame that could follow publication of a memoir premised on there being no second act. Fitzgerald lived true to his word: his twilight in Hollywood, the mythic cradle of American radical self-reinvention, figured as a long wait for the notes of the nightingale’s song to sound. Marx, on the other hand, declared that everything that has ever happened happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The third time, fourth, fifth, and so on, we are on our own.
Not everyone knows, per Jonathan Sperber’s recent bio, that Karl Marx’s earliest manuscript was called The Book of Love. Student Marx composed the collection of romantic poems for childhood sweetheart and lifelong partner Jenny von Westphalen. Over the course of their lives together, his romance with Jenny transformed into a romance of a different kind, a belief in the inevitability of international revolution whose contours were somewhat hazy, if keenly felt.
This is what happened on the day before Valentine’s Day, 2013, a Wednesday, at the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street just south of the Calvin Klein billboard in SoHo. A first ever. A good cause: “I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating.” Each participant found at the entrance a neon green envelope, including a library card in manila sleeve for taking notes on each “date,” and a name tag featuring the handle of a character from a favorite book (favorites requested earlier by e-mail). These would be our pseudonyms for the night. Each date would last an almost militantly enforced four minutes. A single case of lingering — whether affectionate, desirous, or uncertain — could cause the entire caterpillar crawl to go legs up. There was to be no lingering. Lingering is for books.
We each were to have brought one, a title to display for the sake of conversation. From my messenger bag I drew John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. Each “date” station had a name — my point of origin dubbed Heorot for Beowulf’s banquet hall where Grendel was a regular gate-crasher. Café tables set in rows through the heart of Housing Works Bookstore’s assembly space formed the stations, solicitous waiters snaking around them to offer speed-date refreshment, tonic of composure or forgetting.
Two emcees spoke over a scratchy sound system by the bathrooms, raging like Dylan Thomas against the frenetic buzz of our voices. They joked we would hate them and use our hatred of them as grist for conversation with the strangers across from us. I succeeded at not mentioning them until my final match of the night, a brunette with an anchor tattooed on her bare shoulder. Her pseudonym was Estha, one plucked by the organizers’ naming committee from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I looked at her and she looked at me, fleetingly at one in our total disdain for the emcees as they pleaded everyone be quiet. In that moment, I am sure of it, we both wished for their overthrow.
This was as close to authentic connection as I found. Estha was probably about five years my senior (although, impossible to say: she could have been 29, too, a lover of the wind and the rain and the sun on her cheeks). She said that she was bouncing back from a divorce to the guy with whom she had cofounded a restaurant in Brooklyn — the same restaurant, it turns out, I went to on my first date with the last woman to cohabitate with me. I was touched by the coincidence and the total lack of rationale for verbalizing the coincidence to Estha, as we had about a minute left in our exchange, and a top 10 rule of first dates, the real kind, is not to mention exes unless desiring to come off as a pet pitifully leashed to a station wagon pulling obliviously away and gaining speed.
My eyes might have gone a little fuzzy, all the same, and Estha took my expression of fuzziness for susceptibility, emphasizing how she always made sure to mention the name of the restaurant she and her ex founded when possible. I realized Estha, like me, was attempting to find a purpose for the evening, what it had really all been about, if it had not been what it was supposed to be about (the exceedingly worthy charitable cause, notwithstanding). What it had all really been about, I decided, was capitalism, making a product of ourselves and pitching it to strangers at four-minute intervals: life as an ad incarnate. Estha, at least, had the class not to be promoting specifically herself but a physical location in the world that she had played a part in dreaming a reinvention for, one that we, any of us guys carouselling by, could go visit.
There was also Karenina from Idaho — a girl from Idaho! — and June, who was quiet, and Ruth, whose pseudonym’s source text was, for me, a winner, and Grace, who knew her political and sociological thinkers, and Kit, who laughed at me or an awareness of the cool, amusing film through which we saw each other, the cattle stall of the standard speed dating experience retrofitted with funhouse literary mirrors.
I tried not to steal peeks at the next woman over both because it was rude to the woman I was speaking with and because I wanted every meeting to be a surprise with a genuine response, not performed or calculated. Though, Reader, I tell you, my naïve ambition became difficult to maintain as I stood up to move on to Calliope of the Marx babies, then Babette, who had the air of a cigarette-smoking beauty queen, and Anne, and Hazel, and Lizzy, and my consciousness of the fact that the more I repeated myself in response to the same questions, the less sincere I became, our comedian hosts droning on, their voices insistent, their words incomprehensible, the face presently across from me feeling more and more like a test-marketing subject for a new product which was My Projected Self. Shame at projections gone awry sloughed away as new conversation played immediately over old, like a new album in place of last year’s, with Daisy, who wondered whether or not she ought to read The Corrections, and Margaret Peel, who was significantly older and to whom I said I was probably not the guy she imagined meeting that evening, but what about her make-believe name, its literary origin? (Lucky Jim, she explained, our organizers having conflated her favorite author, Martin Amis, with his father, Kingsley, then named her after a character in Kingsley Amis’s most famous novel, a novel she had never read…although I had, I was reminded then), and Isabel, whose expression was like a runner’s in the early miles of a race, and finally, Estha, of the anchor tattoo and lovable Brooklyn restaurant.
One thing about capitalism, I have noticed, is that its appeal is never stronger than in the aftermath of a breakup, love spilling forth from the vessel that shaped it, all that energy and longing to be known and to know in turn seeking new forms to cleave to, things that did not previously define you. Conceivably a human being could live this way forever, making bonds, breaking bonds, and reaching out through expenditures of concentration and will to take on more trappings, assume other forms, a kind of perennial runaway from the prurience of small-town gossip and stifling judgment, glorying in the purity of the new.
There is what we forget and what we remember, and I cannot say for certain how accurately I have recalled an event now seven months distant, or where fiction, despite conscious intention, has blurred the edges of fact and so made them softer, the facts, but thematically more concentrated, molding from a chaos of temporarily overlapping paths something that reads as almost retraceable. A moment of possible return.
To find yourself speed dating is to acknowledge, at least to yourself, not without humor, a waywardness of romantic course, to become increasingly conscious of yourself as an advertisement for yourself, a mercurial herald, as you move from one table to the next, one consciousness and then another and another flitting by image-saturated eyes. In your remove, the recognitions you have but don’t speak, a story begins to build, refined by each new face, each curious glance, the unspoken attempt to find a hold in the world everyone shares. It is almost possible to believe that the world consists entirely of surfaces and that the ones presently before us are the only we will ever know.
If it is true that capitalism is the final organizing principle humanity will ever know, the snaking tables around which we are to carousel forever, but not just capitalism in the abstract, but this capitalism, where big companies merge with big companies, big publishers with big publishers — the fewer meaningful players on the field, the less actual competition, the closer our capitalism resembles Soviet Russia, a state ruled by one all-encompassing company whose elite direct the bureaucratic circus — then I might have been seeing symptoms in the material conditions of the speed dating scene, or the shape the material conditions gave my sense of self, those of us on the carousel that night in February. As we passed each other by, our personalities become weightless, the stories inside the books we carried felt more and more real.
Image Credit: Flickr/Alan O’Rourke
In the fifth episode of the hit sitcom New Girl, a self-styled stud tries to impress an Indian-American woman by declaring that he loves India. When pressed for details, he stumbles his way through the following catalogue:
I love Slumdog. I love naan. I love pepper. I love Ben Kingsley, the stories of Rudyard Kipling. I have respect for cows, of course. I love the Taj Mahal, Deepak Chopra, anyone named Patel. I love monsoons. I love cobras in baskets…I love mango chutney, really, any type of chutney.
The point is clear: the average American’s knowledge of Indian culture is superficial, stereotypical, and offensive. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the joke — and an Indian-American woman in a leading role on primetime TV — confirms how much Indian culture has permeated American pop culture. This should not be surprising: With a population that increased to 2.8 million from 1.7 million between 2000 and 2010, Indians are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America. They may also be one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in literary fiction — in America and the larger Anglophone world.
Fiction written in English by authors of Indian descent has been critically acclaimed and commercially successful for decades. Now a new wave of talent has arrived: In 2012, the Indian-American writers Rajesh Parameswaran and Tania James published their debut short story collections — I Am An Executioner: Love Stories and Aerogrammes, respectively — while British-Indian author Hari Kunzru published his fourth novel, Gods Without Men: While it may be too soon for these authors to have achieved the heavyweight status of a Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, their imaginative, provocative, and well-crafted books suggest the continuation of a literary legacy and a move into “post-post-colonial,” “post-ethnic” territory.
Parameswaran, James, and Kunzru inherit three decades of Anglo-Indian literary success. Rushdie’s magical realist novel Midnight’s Children, about a boy born on the precise moment of Indian Independence, won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. His most notorious novel The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death threat from Ayatollah Khomeini that sparked international controversy and massive sales, an experience upon which he reflects in his memoir Joseph Anton, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. In recent years, the Booker has gone to Arundati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, a hybrid of Invisible Man and Native Son set on the subcontinent. And as recently announced, the six authors shortlisted for the 2012 Booker includes Jeet Thayil, born in India, raised in Hong Kong, India and the U.S., and the author of the novel Narcopolis, about a 1970s opium den.
The new wave is also indebted to Lahiri, who rocked the American lit establishment — and book clubs nationwide — with Interpreter of Maladies, an understated, pitch-perfect short story collection that captured the domestic dramas and existential malaise of upper class Indian Americans, mostly in bourgeois Boston. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was followed by the novel, The Namesake, later a Mira Nair-directed movie, and Unaccustomed Earth, another stunning and more ambitious story collection that cemented Lahiri’s reputation as the marquee Indian-American fiction writer and a master of short fiction.
Beyond heritage, Parameswaran, Kunzru, and James have similar pedigrees. Parameswaran went to Yale for college and law school, Kunzru went to Oxford, and James went to college at Harvard and grad school at Columbia. (Rushdie went to Cambridge). Too old to be wunderkind, all are still young by literary standards: James is 31, Parameswaran is 40, and Kunzru is 43. And while they hail from Michigan and Texas, Kentucky, and London, all three now live in the New York area. Perhaps a brunch is in order?
True to their heritage, all three address issues of Indian identity. In the central storyline of Gods, an Indian-American man marries a Jewish-American woman and the incipient tensions in their marriage combust after their son disappears. In “Ethnic Ken,” a story in Aerogrammes, an Indian-American girl plays with a brown-skinned version of Barbie’s boyfriend; the doll apparently cost half the price of the “regular” Ken. In one of the many tragicomic stories in Executioner, an unemployed Indian computer salesman pretends to be a doctor — the paradigmatic profession for high-status Indian Americans — with ghastly consequences. In their treatment of ethnicity, all three books join Lahiri in a subgenre that one of James’s characters, an aspiring screenwriter, calls “not quite Bollywood, not quite Hollywood: Indians in America or England Torn Between Identities.”
Nevertheless, all three authors transcend the stereotypical expectations of “ethnic” fiction, including the notion that characters must share their author’s ethnicity.
Several stories in Executioner and Aerogrammes feature non-Indian characters. And the Indian-American protagonist in Gods shares a stage with non-Indians including an 18th-century Spaniard, a 19th-century Mormon, and a contemporary (Caucasian) British rock star. Even among the Indian characters, there is diversity: James’s Indian characters speak Malayalam, the language of the state of Kerala, Kunzru’s Indian characters speak Punjabi, spoken in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, and Parameswaran’s titular executioner speaks in a parody of Indian-accented English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanors.” Such simple differences may remind Western readers that India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot and internationally engaged country, not a monolithic, homogenous, insular place.
As if to distance themselves from ethnicity and nationality, all three authors experiment with non-human characters. The narrator of one story in Executioner is an elephant; another is a murderous, guilt-stricken tiger, a literal version of Adiga’s titular “white tiger.” A story in Aerogrammes concerns a chimpanzee that nearly convinces a woman he is human. Strangest of all, Gods opens with a cryptic fable with characters named Cottontail Rabbit, Gila Monster, Southern Fox, and the protagonist Coyote, who sets up a meth lab in the desert. Take that, Kipling.
Regardless of species, all three books grapple with physical, emotional, and existential despair, albeit in different tones and moods. Gods is cerebral, somber, and grim. As he did in the reverse outsourcing fable Transmission, Kunzru assaults his characters until they break, and relents only after they have lost nearly everything. (For the film, perhaps Werner Herzog or P.T. Anderson could direct?) By contrast, Aerogrammes is sweet, sad, and painfully earnest. Characters are naïve, blind, or delusional, whether it’s the Indian wrestlers who don’t realize the sport is supposed to be fake, or the boy who refuses accept his mother’s new husband. There’s pain suffering in Executioner, too but it’s often undercut by humor or an authorial wink, either implied or in meta-fictional parentheses or footnotes.
While Aerogrammes essentially falls into the category of realist fiction, Parameswaran and Kunzru flirt with other genres. Besides the two talking animal stories, Executioner includes a spy thriller, “Narrative of Agent 974702,” and a science fiction tale, “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319).” Perhaps most fantastical — yet paradoxically most credible — is the cult at the center of Gods, a desert commune that fuses Christianity, Buddhism, New Age, and Alien Worship into an explosive whole. Then again, as Kunzru semi-subtly implies, such a group is not so different than the Europeans who Christianized Native Americans or Mormons who found Zion in the American West.
While fundamentally contemporary, all three books derive depth from history. In Executioner, the meta-fictional tale “Four Rajeshes” concerns a railway clerk in colonial India at the turn of the 20th century and his version of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. The opening story in Aerogrammes features a pair of Indian wrestlers who arrive in England in 1910 to engage in literal and figurative battles with their colonial overlords. Perhaps because it is a novel, Gods is even more historically ambitious, with a storyline that spans more than 200 years. Ultimately, all three authors use history to transcend personal experience, shattering the expectation that “ethnic” fiction must be autobiographical. In a way, they all respond to the question that Rushdie poses in Joseph Anton when recalling his inspiration for writing The Satanic Verses:
The great question of how the world joins up — not only how the East flows into the West and the West into the East but how the past shapes the present even as the present changes our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the “real” place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live.
In terms of style and structure, Aerogrammes is the most conventional of the three. The plainspoken prose obeys the aesthetic in which the writer’s voice is secondary to the story. The nine stories are more or less uniform length, each about 20 pages. Ultimately, James seems to value cohesion and consistency over shock and surprise. Parameswaran takes the opposite tack. His voice is always strong and varies widely from story to story; some seem like the work of different authors. If the books were Beatles albums, Aerogrammes would be Rubber Soul, the harmonious whole with songs of essentially equal weight, and Executioner would be The White Album, a hectic hodgepodge of competing voices. (Speaking of The Beatles, didn’t they help bring Indian music and spirituality into Western popular culture?)
Gods splits the difference between these two extremes. Like Executioner, it’s grandiose, sprawling, and dense. With its multiple points of view, multiple settings, and non-linear structure, it often reads like a collection of loosely linked stories. Some plots literally converge; others merely inform each other. Yet over 369 pages, Kunzru maintains cohesion. Part of this may stem from his use of the close third person point of view (which James does in most of her stories). It may also be a matter of experience; perhaps on their fourth books, James and Parameswaran may find a similar balance of ambition and unity.
For all the merits of these books, the question remains: is this literary boomlet an anomaly, a coincidence, or a harbinger? Will these books be a curiosity or a gateway to wider American interest in Indian culture? Will more Indian Americans join Govs. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley as high-profile politicians? Will we see more Indians Americans in popular entertainment: TV, movies, sports?
In a poignant scene in Interpreter of Maladies that sums up the cultural barriers at the heart of the book, an American woman tries to buy Hot Mix, an Indian snack. The Indian clerk dismisses her with four words: “Too spicy for you.” Perhaps one day, that scene will seem outmoded, if not unfathomable.
When I was twelve, I read a lot. I read novels in the cafeteria over chicken patties while my friends traded folded-paper fortune tellers, and I read novels on the bus ride home while my friends relocated to seats with travelers who would talk to them. I read novels while I walked home from the bus stop, and for half hour stretches in the bathroom until my legs had fallen asleep. There never seemed a good point at which to put down the book, pull up my pants and relocate to a chair, so I stayed seated.
The books I read today can still inspire this total preoccupation, but more rarely. Often, I only have an allotted hour or so to read before I have to turn off my light and play slave to my impending alarm clock. My “real” life is never far from mind; reading is just a part of my day. But last night I lay in bed with Mockingjay, the third installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, not reading but devouring the book, transported not only to the fictional world of Panem, but to the years when I always read like this: flopping from back to stomach as the hours passed, jumping at every creak of the house, and finishing late, late at night, reluctant to release my hands from the book and a delicious disorientation that would be gone by morning.
My former self understands these feelings, and happily, so does my cousin’s son, Will. I know he reads like this because I’ve seen him, shooing his football-toting friends away at the beach because he can’t abandon Harry, Ron and Hermione at such a crucial moment. He’s got an English-teacher-turned-college-professor for a mom, and an older brother tossing worn copies of The Golden Compass and Percy Jackson his way, so he’s been reading for a while now, and he’s got discriminating taste. He’s the recent recipient of Cedar Mountain Primary School’s Accelerated Reader Award, but the prize is incidental. Kid’s got a love of the game.
With Twilight and The Hunger Games securing a vast readership among the young and older, Will and I are not an anomaly as we sit and excitedly discuss Harry Potter, he ten and me twenty-three. As we’re working our way from The Sorcerer’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows with great attention to both cherished and forgotten detail, he’s the book-club I didn’t have as a twelve year old Madeline L’Engle addict. We started talking because I was hoping to glean a few book recommendations from him to write about, and so I’m taking notes. Exhibiting his careful attention to fellow readers and his strong loyalty to story, our conversation is punctuated by uncertain pauses preceding each recounting of a momentous plot twist. “I don’t know if you should write this in case anyone hasn’t read it yet,” Will warns me.
That is one of the great appeals of young adult literature: there is so much plot to spoil. Storytelling is paramount here, and the sheer imagination of the author is so awesome that enjoyment overpowers any hint of farfetchedness. And while, yes, the Harry Potter books are about wizards, our own Muggle concerns are reflected in the struggle of good against evil, and the difficulty we sometimes have distinguishing the two. In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, the best young adult fiction today embraces universal themes and compelling moral ambiguity. These stories captivate our attention because they are adventures in the deeper dramas that inform human experience. They are life and death stripped of daily distraction.
As we sit over a hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Will and I try to articulate what we love about this series and about The Hunger Games. It is difficult to express the emotionally charged relinquishing of reality and the fervor and flush that comes with truly inhabiting a fictional world. “Just the idea of the book,” he shrugs, stumped. “Just the story.”
With imaginative and driving plots that are both similar and alien to your everyday world, in the really good books, the characters are rich and complicated, but when they are not, it doesn’t really matter. They are doing, and you are reading as fast as you can.
Of course, one of the reasons you can read this fast is that the language doesn’t always delight your synapses or persuade you to kick off your shoes and stay awhile. When I’m reading Collins’ writing, I’m not savoring a sentence like I do when I’m reading Michael Chabon. The plainspoken pulse of The Hunger Games doesn’t beg a reread like the poetry of The God of Small Things, or set you still like a scene of Cormac McCarthy’s. But I’m not reading Mockingjay for those reasons. I’m reading to find out whether the Capitol mutations bred deliberately to hunt Katniss are going to tear her to pieces before she manages to kill President Snow.
Books hinging on this level of intensity burn a haze that muddles your Muggle world and your Hogwarts world. As in a dream, you have no difficulty surrendering to the unrealities: the story holds you. Sometimes it holds you merely until an unwelcome interruption by your real life, but sometimes it lingers after the book is closed, unwilling to be relegated back to fiction. Young Will confesses to me that Harry Potter’s unlikely entrance into wizardry clung to him in this way. “I was really hoping that when I turned eleven I would be found to be a wizard. I felt that it was so real. I thought that maybe J.K. Rowling was a wizard… and I kept on feeling that. But then, after I read the next series that I really liked, I didn’t feel that anymore, and I knew that it was definitely, one hundred percent fake. But… it really seemed real. The whole way.”
The yearning in Will’s voice brings me back to my own youthful reading of the Harry Potter books, with a swift and sudden nostalgic ache. For Will isn’t yet eleven, and the force with which he instructs me on the odds against his dormant wizardry has the hardness of a person reprimanding himself for a foolishness. He isn’t waiting for his eleventh birthday. He knows better. But maybe this is why reading these YA books can be such a wholly captivating experience for adults. We have no choice but to surrender our reasons to the terrors and beauties of a make-believe world. And it really seems real.