Archive for March, 2011


The Strange Geographies of Reading: A review of Wench

One quarter of the way through my year of reverse-migration, I’m learning fascinating lessons about myself through my own reading habits.

I have been actively chasing the dream of living in the Motherland for the past 10 years, and subconsciously, perhaps ever since I was born as an Indian American in Dayton, Ohio. From my elementary school days of ethnic denial to getting all Roots in college, to the deep longing of adulthood—the desire to come back to India and try and understand this complex place by living and breathing it in for an entire year.

My quest has always been closely connected to books and my own art. I’ve read a majority of South Asian American and South Asian Diaspora writing. Whenever I come to India, I build a collection of books by Indian writers that are only published here. My first published short story was set in India. My first few months of writing in India were pulled very much by what surrounds me: the crumbling glory of Kolkata, the crows in the Neem Tree outside my window, my grandmother’s legacy of escape and love and rebirth in the tumultuous 1940s.

But three months in, my reading habits suddenly took a direct and surprising turn back to my (actual) homeland.

At the end of the Jaipur Literature Festival, I had that icky reader feeling of dissatisfaction that was paired with a general travel malaise, perhaps even a tinge of homesickness. You know, that moment where all the books you have with you seem utterly unreadable. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly where the feeling was coming from—I just knew I needed something else.

I surfed the NY Times Books section for something I thought might be interesting and I saw a large ad for Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. This book had caught my attention on a review list for Fiction Writers Review last Fall, but my transitory state prevented me from reviewing it. Suddenly, I felt like it was EXACTLY the book I needed at the moment and I had to read it right then. (This led to a some two-hour procedure of trying to get the file from my computer onto my iPhone Kindle app since I didn’t have my Kindle with me or wireless internet. Sometimes my reader-self can be like a teeth-grinding junkie, and my Kindle the best drug-dealer I’ve ever had.)

I was caught up in Wench immediately. Here I was, in my apartment in Kolkata, falling deeply into a book set 150 years ago in Xenia, Ohio some 15 miles away from the place I was born.

Most of the dramatic action of Wench happens at Tawawa House, an Ohio resort where Southern plantation owners would vacation with their slave concubines. The book closely follows one of these women, Lizzie, whose master Drayle has taught her to read, and favored their two children by allowing them to live in his own house. At Tawawa House, Lizzie strikes a friendship with several women from other plantations, including the fiery Mawu from Louisana—whose entrée into Lizzie’s second summer in Ohio creates an epic change in the way Lizzie views her own place in the world.

In choosing to tell the story from Lizzie’s point of view, Perkins-Valdez pulls you into this character’s traitorous position of survival. It reminded me a little of Laura Esquivel’s Malinche, about the Hernan Cortes’ translator Malinalli, which was much better in concept than actual execution. Whereas Esquivel focuses more on anthropological descriptions, Perkins-Valdez doesn’t shy away from Lizzie’s emotions and her sexual relations with Drayle. Though, I think one of the most difficult aspects of writing a novel like this is the fine line of writing about the sexuality in a way that doesn’t soften and romanticize it, and sometimes I wanted to cut my teeth on some of the brutality that Lizzie was experiencing, but I think Perkins-Valdez was tricking us into seeing the world through Lizzie’s half-closed eyes.

Because of the close third person storytelling, we are forced to be close to Lizzie, even when—in the first section of the book—I found myself balking at her choices and trust in her Master/lover.  Early in the novel when Mawu asks Lizzie: “You think you love him?” about her master, Lizzie thinks:

Lizzie felt the “course” rise in her throat, but stopped herself as she registered Mawu’s disapproving tone. She felt if she answered no, she would be betraying Drayle. If she answered yer, she would be betraying something else.

Lizzie’s confusion is hard to take, and at first I found myself wondering why Perkins-Valdez didn’t choose Mawu as her heroine. Especially when Lizzie suddenly betrays Mawu and tells Drayle of her friend’s plot to escape the resort, since they are on free land.

But Lizzie understood [Drayle’s] anger even if she hadn’t expected it. She forgave him for it. He loved her, and he was afraid she would leave him, too. That was what made him so upset. Her leaving. His beloved Lizzie. The mother of his children.

It wasn’t until Section Two, when Perkins-Valdez gives you the backstory of Drayle’s seduction of Lizzie starting at the age of 13, that suddenly the truth of Lizzie’s position becomes more clear in the novel’s narrative. The conceit of the novel exists in the ability to write about slavery from the POV of someone struggling to survive inside this insidious structure. At the end of the day, I think it was a challenging and brave choice to make the story arc Lizzie’s realization about her own status, instead of telling a story about escape to freedom.

There was so much in this book that was familiar, like the hot Ohio summer landscape full of grassy forests and streams. The four slave women even take a trip to downtown Dayton late in the book. Tawawa House was real, and is now the setting for WilberForce University, one of the oldest black universities in the United States and a part of the community I grew up in. It was fascinating to read this book while I am in India, and discover a moment of wonder about the history of Southwestern Ohio. But I realized that the familiarity and interest went beyond my connection to Ohio as my birthplace. The familiarity also had to do with my understanding of American history, and my interest in the legacies of class, race and gender issues that began with slavery. Reading Wench made me think a lot about the complexity of the African American community and its origins. It made me think about skin color politics in America, which I am so much more familiar with than those here in India. There was something comforting about this level of awareness, where in India my brain is constantly back-logging questions and grasping at a history that I am less familiar with. I’ve written here before about how being truly comfortable in a new community comes from more than just being able to communicate–it is about shared idiom and pop-culture references, but it is also about a shared understanding of history.

Wench is a fascinating book and a wonderful debut novel, though I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it with the same amount of gusto if I had read it in another time and space. Somehow, as a reading experience, it helped remind me about who I was–an immigrant in America whose life is shaped as much by slave politics in the 1850s as it was by the rumblings of the independence movement that was happening in India at the same time.

The whole experience made me dwell on the idea of geography and reading novels, especially in this year of travel. Usually, before I travel to a new place, I want to read a novel set there. This summer before going to Prague, I was re-reading bits of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being–thinking of Tomas and his lovers as I walked around the cobblestone streets. Before coming to India, I wanted Robin to read The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, which I had read the following year.  When I landed in Delhi, every Honda City car was driven by that novel’s narrator. But the geography of reading novels can work in reverse as well. When leaving San Francisco, I was reading Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus and missing San Francisco just like the novel’s protagonist.

I’m excited to continue to track my geographic reading patterns and am curious about those of other people: Do you read about the places you are? The places you are going? Places you have never been? Places you have left? Or does geography have nothing to do with your reading habits? I recently met a world famous whistler, who is traveling in India for several months, and decided to tackle Proust since she has free time.

Since reconnecting with my American-ness while reading Wench, I’ve read several novels based in the US, and am now excited to go somewhere new–perhaps even back to India. Actually, the next book on my list is Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie, which begins in Nagasaki just before the dropping of a nuclear bomb. This choice is inspired by seeing Shamsie (a Pakistani writer) in Jaipur, and the recent natural disaster rocking Japan. Let’s see where it takes me.


A Brief Interlude on Pain

I’ve been utterly distracted for the past five weeks: the fuzzy mind-state of illness, the nurturing love of having my mother around, the warm-press of a family reunion. I didn’t really want to get into it here, but I found I couldn’t just go back and pick up on the blog-post strands I had made drafts of in early February. So, here I am, starting afresh.

Daily writing is such a challenge, but the strain of not writing has become to be a larger and larger cloud in my life, making a few weeks without sitting down with my words a jagged, disjointing experience.

I vow not to let it happen to me again. Ever.

Anyway: Pain.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been suffering from a minor skin infection on the back thigh of my right leg. Okay, maybe not minor, but not major in the way that it ever threatened my health seriously. I won’t go into any of the gory details, but what has left the biggest impression on me is the way the body and mind deal with physical pain.

I’ve always been a fairly healthy individual (touch wood). And perhaps because of the privilege of my health and my parents’ occupations as physicians, I have had a steely attitude towards health care and illnesses. Though my parents healed most of my childhood illnesses with antibiotics, I developed a “Pour some ‘Tussin on it” attitude throughout my 20s. Let things run their natural course, I would say. Hot tea and lemon and a shot of whiskey will cure anything, right? Not suffering from any anxiety-induced health issues, I had no sympathy for those who did. [I once had an ex-boyfriend who would grab his neck in agony every time we fought. My yelling: “It’s all in your head!” helped neither the fight, nor his ailment.] I’ve always assumed I have a high pain tolerance, too – mostly because of my disinterest in taking mild pain killers.

The bump on my leg went from a minor itch to a tenderness to a dull ache to a throbbing pain to a sharp high-pitched jab, which had to be repeatedly triggered during a healing process that included surgery and daily packing with medicated gauze. Today it has receded to a faint stinging and awareness.

Throughout this process, I observed how the body and mind are worn down by physical pain, which grows into epic proportions in the mind if you let it. Interestingly, I was just reading Week Two of Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation when my pain was transitioning from throbbing to the sharb-jab. In the chapter, entitled “Mindfulness and the Body: Letting go of burdens,” Salzberg says: “A very good place to become familiar with the way mindfulness works is always close by—our own bodies.” She recommends a “Body Sensation” meditation, where you “train your mind to be with a painful experience in the moment, without adding imagined distress and difficulty.” She cites this study from the University of Manchester in which they found that meditators are better equipped to handle pain.

Well, what I learned is that I am not particularly well-equipped to handle pain, and that it is very difficult to free pain from it’s accompanying emotions and lingering distress, though it is an almost exhilarating experience to endeavor. I also found a striking cultural difference in health care issues around pain. America is all about sterility and sedation: General anesthesia! Vicodin! Codeine! Morphine drips! They give you major novocaine at the dentist just to clean your teeth. In India, I found that sedation and pain killers are not something easily given, and that the concept of pain is widely accepted as part of healing and health care. My tough-guy ego was bruised when many of my family members talked about suffering from similar ailments at one time or another, and though they agreed about the pain—there was an acceptance of it’s naturalness that I felt my western upbringing prevented me from having. It gave me a different understanding of life here in India—certainly of health care. It gave me an immense amount of newfound empathy for the children at the Rehabilitation Clinic for Children, a hospital for poor children with orthopedic deformities where Robin works.

I have to admit, in the middle of this experience, when the world around me was distorted into a dirty, over-bright, lurid fun house—I did have some fantasies of “going home.” [But where is that really though? My storage space in San Francisco? The empty room in my mother’s house in Ohio? Or is it maybe even here in Kolkata?] But in retrospect, I feel stronger for the empathy I’ve gained, and that which does not kill us, will very likely end up in a future piece of fiction.