I have two books to share with you today and I do so with great relish. Both writers, my first go at their longer work (at least for one author I had already had a taste of their short story writing), are exceptional and write award winning fiction. And in both cases I can easily see why. It was their writing, their stories about Indian-American culture and an the immigrant experience in general that nudged me on to pick up Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.
A couple of year's ago, when I was steadily reading each week's New Yorker short story dedicatedly (which I have hopes and plans on doing again in the new year) I was introduced to Akhil Sharma's writing. Early in 2014 the New Yorker printed an excerpt from his then forthcoming novel Family Life. I wrote about it here in case you are curious, but I will once again share one of the Q&A's that came out in tandem with the story.
The story and the book as a whole capture moments of extreme crisis and emotion in your family. Were these things very difficult to write? Or did the process of fictionalizing allow you some distance?
Writing about what happened to my brother and to my family was awful. It was hard to look back at how much suffering there was and at how certain bad situations were made worse by our decisions.
Writing the book changed my interpretation of events, but what has really changed it is growing older. In the twelve and a half years since I began the book, I have got to know enough people who have had troubles in their lives—a woman whose mother committed suicide, a man whose child is a drug addict—that I can now see my own suffering as ordinary, just part of what it means to be a human being. I no longer think, Why me? Instead I think, Why not me? The one thing that I gained from writing this book is that it made me intolerant of unhappiness. When I am unhappy now, I often think, How much more of your life can you spend being sad? Go and find some joy.
I think those are wise words (I thought so then, too) and it is always good to be reminded of them. Now, two years later the book is in paperback and something reminded me of Sharma's writing and it seemed the perfect moment to get back to the story and read it in full. At the time I read the excerpt I thought there had to be more, the boy's story was left unfinished and unresolved.
Sharma's Family Life, a novel based on his own family's experiences, is a story that encompasses many things. It portrays the immigrant experience, is a coming of age tale, a family drama tinged with sadness and tragedy. Set in the late 1970s, the Mishra family emigrates to the west at the behest of their father. The Mishras might have preferred to stay in India had it not been for their father's strong desire to leave India and settle in the glamorous west. In many ways their lives improve and their living situation was much better-they are wealthier by comparison.
But then an accident befalls the older brother of the story's narrator, Ajay, and all their lives is thrown into disarray. For all his life Ajay was always in the shadow of his older, smarter, more popular brother. And now, in a sense, his life must be rewritten. Every good thing that seemed to come to this family when they came to live in America, a place of potential wealth and opportunities all of a sudden is like a dream lost upon waking. Now all the Sharmas must rewrite their stories. This is mostly Ajay's story, told from the perspective of an adult looking back and trying to understand what happened to make him the way he is (well, I read somewhere-something along those lines anyway).
Honestly, I thought this was such a stunning work of art and Sharma writes with so much wisdom, truth and honesty. Whatever each character's shortcomings it is hard not to feel real empathy for them. This is a story with many rich layers and so much can be pulled out of them. I will only say, too, that this is a novel that calls out to be read again as it has a somewhat ambiguous (though not unsatisfying) ending.
You may or may not have come across Akhil Sharma's work, but I expect if you have not already read Jhumpa Lahiri, you may have seen the film that was adapted from her novel The Namesake. This is another very rich, full story of one family's, in particular the son's, experience as immigrants. The Ganguli family comes to America from Calcutta in the early 1970s and the story follows their progress through to 2000.
The namesake of the title is Gogol Ganguli, or Nikhil. Gogol, the first born, American-born and with all the dreams and aspirations of the family on him. His proper name was meant to be chosen by his great grandmother but the letter she mailed from India with the chosen name never arrives. Here, the name must be given for the birth certificate right away, so he is christened Gogol after his father's favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol. It is a name near and dear to Gogol's father's heart, as the writer, rather the book by Gogol he had been reading on a train journey, saved him from dying in a terrible train wreck. He chose to sit up and finish reading when going to another place on the train would have meant sure death.
But to be christened with such a name and with so much meaning attached to it, becomes almost unbearable for the boy. To grow up in a family steeped in so much tradition from the parent's birth country yet feel the demands of the new country is a burden many immigrants must struggle with. It is like having one foot in each place yet not feeling a true part of either. The story follows Gogol as he wrestles with the this burden, trying to grow into the name, a name fraught with so much meaning to his father, yet choosing to use only his "good name" (his public name) later on.
The Ganguli's are a very typical family and even a typical American family in most cases facing all the same problems and successes, but each still has that weight of 'other' on their shoulders--not being exactly like other families who have lived here for generations--no matter how hard they try and assimilate. Lahiri captures what it is to be the 'other' so well. Still, there is as many similarities and maybe more so, than differences. This is another story beautifully told both for the story and the writing and capturing the reality of these lives.
I read for a lot of reasons, but it is for books like both these that I love reading. Every so often a book will come along and you think, yes, that's it. That's why I spend so much of my time with books. Why I read so many. There are a lot of good books out there, and entertaining books, but it's books like these that float to the top, that raise the bar for all other writers. I put off writing about them as I knew I could not do them justice, but I will happily press both into any reader's hands knowing they are the very best kind of stories.