Unaccustomed Earth: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)

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The New Wave: On the State of Indian Fiction in America

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.

‘You Like Sandra Cisneros, Don’t You?’ On Reading Outside Your Culture

1.
When people ask me about my hometown, I think about the sweet taste of mangos and running in bare feet. But mostly I remember pressing my nose against the windowpane just before a hurricane. Once the power went out, I would read book after book until the sun went down. Though we spoke Spanish in my household, I would read only in English.

I grew up in Little Havana, an ethnically Hispanic neighborhood in Miami, Florida. Most of its residents are recent or semi-recent immigrants to the United States from the Caribbean or Central America. As a whole, we are not big readers. Young families worry about making ends meet. Children struggle with language barriers. Most teenagers prefer to watch television or spend time with their friends. Few people can afford to pick up an addiction to literature.

But I did. As a child, I flew through the selection in our local library. It was an effortless and good way to travel. I read about poor British children rising up the ranks of society and falling back down again, wealthy American women moving to Europe to seek out their destiny, colonizers traveling through the Congo in search of their soul. I thought a lot about money, and privilege, and ambition. I wondered if anyone in books ever ate rice and beans and tortillas in the morning. Maybe heavy breakfasts got in the way of affronting destiny. So I asked my mom to make us pancakes. This was good for my morale.

My dad didn’t understand my fascination my literature, but he was willing to indulge it. He gave me his textbook after taking a required English class for his college degree. I devoured it, reading Lorrie Moore and Tillie Olsen and Shirley Jackson. They were indecently good writers; they told good stories, with good language, about some things I recognized. Their characters were not society women. They were often poor or middle class and remained such. It was an honest approach I appreciated.

But it wasn’t until I read “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club that I felt like my experiences could belong in the page of a book.

2.
“America was where all my mother’s hopes lay. She had come here in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters – twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get better.” (Tan, The Joy Luck Club)
I’m not Chinese. Until high school, I had never even met anyone Chinese. But I took “Two Kinds” to heart. This was a girl who faced more than her socioeconomic circumstances, and more than her femininity. She struggled with her sense of place. Born in the United States to an immigrant mother, she was the link between the old and the new.

Within the text, Jing-Mei mentions cutting her hair to obtain Shirley Temple’s “big fat curls” only to end up “an uneven mass of crinkly black fuzz.” Someone who understood hair! I thought as a child. Or more specifically, a writer who dealt, in an implicit and off-hand manner, with the frustration of fitting into a country your parents don’t understand.

When her mother is disappointed with her piano performance, Jing-Mei lashes out. “I wasn’t her slave. This wasn’t China,” she thinks, right before refusing to resume practicing the piano.  I felt something for Jing-Mei’s plight, perhaps just the idea of meeting different, often confusing expectations at all.

“This isn’t Nicaragua,” I wanted to say sometimes, but I couldn’t say it so I underlined this sentence and gave the story back to my dad in a fit of eleven-year-old fury. He laughed, and asked me to get him a glass of water.

In response, I stalked out of the kitchen and kept reading.

3.
I read Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” with the fascination of a recent convert to feminism. I read Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anjana Appachana. I read Judith Ortiz Cofer.  And I appreciated it all, taking from writers of other backgrounds moments of insight that I couldn’t find in other works of literature.

Yes, Langston Hughes was a black poet from the Harlem Renaissance, far from me in distance and time. But “Theme for English B” touched a nerve. The speaker’s relationship to society could have been my relationship to society. I saw only our similarities, and none of our differences, in my desperation to relate to poetry and literature.

When I met a girl from Hong Kong in high school, I had to revise these thoughts, or at least look them over. “You don’t understand,” she said, seemingly about everything.

I didn’t understand the Cultural Revolution (and she was right, I didn’t). I didn’t understand Chinese cooking. I didn’t understand the One Child Policy, the importance of pleasing your parents, the frustration of having slanted eyes (“your eyes are American,” she said, as she touched her face in front of the mirror while I stood beside her). I didn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, and my attempts at mimicking her intonation failed. I didn’t even really understand The Joy Luck Club.

“It’s not your fault,” she said. “This just isn’t your experience. It’s not your culture. If I were you, I would read more Hispanic literature. You like Sandra Cisneros, don’t you?”

I didn’t feel as if I could cut myself off from an entire body of literature based on ethnic and cultural differences, and I told her so. She responded with a shrug.

“I guess it’s nice that you’re interested,” she said. She meant that it was flattering; she couldn’t fathom reading about someone else’s culture. Everything outside of China, and by extension, Asia, was irrelevant to her. But it remained very relevant to me.

I kept reading, and writing, and didn’t say anything when she refused to read Garcia Marquez or Borges.

4.
My best friend from college, a short Indian-American girl with strong opinions on everything from politics to literature to religion, wanted to know what I thought about Jhumpa Lahiri.

“She’s a strong writer,” I said, starting slowly and gauging her body language. It was often easier to agree than to disagree with her, and in this case, I didn’t have much of an opinion of my own. I thought her work was solid, but in some cases, not particularly memorable. Still, I respected her writing. “I liked her collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth.”

“I don’t like her writing at all,” my friend said, shaking her head. “She’s overrated. I think–”

Sometimes when she discussed books, I would wonder why some people insist on attacking art, as if the existence of a writer at her desk, producing her best work was something offensive. But I tried not to say anything, because this was a sore subject between us. At least she didn’t question my right to read Jhumpa Lahiri in the first place.

However, she did question the wisdom of many of my actions. We argued about my major–I wanted to switch from international relations to English literature–for months, until she realized that I wasn’t going to change my mind.

“Just wait and see,” she said, as we ate samosas outside of my dorm. “Right now, you’re an English major set on law school. A few months from now, you won’t be. You’ll get caught up in this writing thing.”

5.
My mother doesn’t understand why I want to be a writer or what that entails.

“What is fiction, exactly?” she asked me, as she stood over the stove, stirring some soup. My mother, an immigrant from Nicaragua, doesn’t read for pleasure in either English or Spanish. She understands writing in terms of reports and newspapers – utilitarian texts, meant to convey information with a direct impact on daily life, such as whether your child passes the 2nd grade or why Congress is passing a certain bill.

“It’s writing that tells a story,” I tried to explain. “Usually a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Like a television show, but written down.”

“So you want to write books like Jorge Ramos?” she asked, referencing a Spanish news anchor on Univision. She respects journalists; their good looks, and clear voices add to her respect.

“No,” I said. “He writes non-fiction. He writes about current events, and things that are real. Things that are happening or have happened.”

My mother turned around to face me more fully. “You mean you want to write about things that are not real?”

“Yes,” I said slowly, drawing the word out. I consider her dubious expression before continuing. “Like Isabel Allende.”

It was a poor defense; my mother had heard about Allende, but wasn’t familiar with her work. Still, she had heard her name, which was good enough for my purposes. If our interests could be graphed as a Venn diagram, we would have to struggle to come up with something to place in the overlapping space. That my mom had heard of Allende would have to do.

“Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” my mother asked me again.

I was sure. I am sure.

Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out.

The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week.  Links in our reader list go to Amazon):

Panel

Readers

1
The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen

1
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz

2
The Known World
by Edward P. Jones

2
2666
by Roberto Bolaño

3
Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell

3
Middlesex
by Jeffrey Eugenides

4
2666
by Roberto Bolaño

4
Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell

5
Pastoralia
by George Saunders

5
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy

6
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy

6
Atonement
by Ian McEwan

7
Austerlitz
by W.G. Sebald

7
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

8
Out Stealing Horses
by Per Petterson

8
The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen

9
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro

9
Gilead
by Marilynne Robinson

10
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

10
White Teeth
by Zadie Smith

11
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz

11
Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami

12
Twilight of the Superheroes
by Deborah Eisenberg

12
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini

13
Mortals
by Norman Rush

13
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

14
Atonement
by Ian McEwan

14
Austerlitz
by W.G. Sebald

15
Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis

15
Empire Falls
by Richard Russo

16
Middlesex
by Jeffrey Eugenides

16
Runaway
by Alice Munro

17
The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem

17
The Master
by Colm Tóibín

18
Stranger Things Happen
by Kelly Link

18
Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

19
American Genius, A Comedy
by Lynne Tillman

19
Unaccustomed Earth **
by Jhumpa Lahiri

20
Gilead
by Marilynne Robinson

20
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
    

While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade.  Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of  Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth).  But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows.

With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels, David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson’s much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today?

Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I’ve been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that’s always had a lot of support in the online literary community.  Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner.

Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed.

We’ll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.

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