Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Not Altogether Yogic

I was storming out of the Target, Seventh Generation laundry detergent in hand. They didn’t have our kind of toilet paper, and I’d travelled all this way, twenty minutes off the route, just to stock our house. Why was I the only one to stock our house with toilet paper, anyway? When did my husband last buy the stuff? So I was storming out of the Target, laundry detergent so at least I wouldn’t be leaving empty-handed—though this probably would mean I’d have to do laundry, in the end.


It had already been an awful morning, relatively speaking: not enough caffeine, not enough breakfast, unwashed hair, unwashed clothes (no laundry detergent), not enough time. And my husband’s ever-present refrain: “Why not leave a little more time in the morning? Why must you write until the very moment it’s time to go?”

And my screams, in reply: “BECAUSE I AM A WRITER,” even though some days it feels like the least productive activity available in a house filled with unwashed clothes.

And then I was tearing down Cerrillos Road, perpetually late to yoga class, but I’ve set my intentions to attend, and this didn’t feel very yogic at all, speeding along at a great rate and cursing the slower drivers. “Go!” I shouted. “Go!” My window was down, and the man in the red car next to mine was looking over, smiling.


Naturally, in the end, yoga class was cancelled, the man at the front desk told me smugly.

So as not to make the whole trip a waste, I arrived, sweaty and rushed and yoga clad, at the Target, where I stormed through for the one thing we truly needed: toilet paper, but only the natural, recycled, non-toxic, non-paraben, non-cancerous toilet paper, please—our bottoms require this.

Sold out.


And as I was heading to the counter to pay, there you stood, blocking the aisle. You were wearing a red shirt like all the other employees, neat and new and tucked into your khakis. You were unloading something, toothpaste maybe, mouthwash, I didn’t look closely. You were helping a woman pushing one of those massive Target carts, and what with the cart, and you, and her, and me, there was no space for anyone to move. I was crabby, yoga-cranky, and all I wanted to do was go home.

Finally, you’d answered the woman’s question, and now we were letting her pass. Now I was moving ahead. I heard it distinctly: “Good morning,” you said sweetly to me, your voice gentle and genuine, like you really wanted to greet me with kindness. I didn’t look up at you. I said nothing in reply. Instead, I walked towards the register, imagining your eyes on my back—maybe you were rolling them, or maybe you were a little stunned at my cruelty, or maybe you were used to this, and you just kept on with your work, smiling down at the boxes you had left to unpack, your sweet voice filling the aisles.

How ugly of me, not to reply. How little my problems that day. A greeting, after all, costs nothing, and smiles are free. This morning I sit with my tea, the air fresh outside after an all-night rain, and I cringe at myself, wondering what would have been the harm.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Birthday Letter

Dear Hen,

Five years you've been gone, and still you come to me daily—your lavender scent, or the sound of your voice, or some little thing that you did so long ago. Today I thought about that recipe you had me copy down, beef bourguignon when I was about thirteen years old, too young to even fathom cooking a dinner like that. I told you I liked the smell, told you it was my favorite meal, and so while you cooked, I copied, noting how similar our writing looked: the rounded consonants, the looping vowels, our shared impatient cursive.

I thought about the garden path today, which the new owner neglects. I know because I went there two summers ago, just showed up on her doorstep weeping, and I continued to weep as she walked me through your old house, pointing out all the things they’d changed, steeling me for the upstairs, which they’d gutted: all of our bedrooms, the narrow toy closet with all the games, Poppa’s dark office with the gleaming desk, and my dad’s childhood room with the flowered paper on the walls and the lace curtains that billowed out over the driveway—all of it, gone. They’d left just one space, one tiny room unchanged: the hall closet, right next to your old bedroom. That room smelled just like you, preserved after all those years. I went into the little closet and shut the door and breathed in deeply and tried not to cry while outside, the new owner waited kindly.

I thought about the things you used to give me: oil pastels I’d smear over nubby paper, taking pleasure in every line and crease. There was always enough paper to make a mistake. You taught me the names of the colors: Vermillion, Cerulean, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna. Titanium White. Watercolor trays, and damp paintbrushes, and charcoal pencils, good for sketching. And when the art was done, book and books, piles and piles, always what I asked for. We’d gobble the words up, page after page, never ready to go to bed.

I’m married now, but you never met David. He's a good man to me, and you'd be proud of how handsome and smart he is. I live a life you never would have imagined—yesterday I even mixed cement! We have a pickup truck that he goes and fills with rocks, or wood, or bricks, or sand, and then he brings it home and we unload that stuff into the yard and make something out of it. We read a lot of books, sometimes one a day, just like you did. David's a gardener, too, basil and tomatoes and a little herb garden he planted for me at the edge of the property. It’s so dusty here, so overgrown and brown and not at all what it was like back at your sweet house. We eke what we can from this earth. I memorize the names of all the trees in our yard: Russian Olive, Locust, Cottonwood, Ash. I plant Hollyhock along the fenceline. I dig with my hands; I smell the earth, and in the garden, I always think of you.

Tonight I’ll cook beef bourguignon. I wrote a book and dedicated it to you. The cactus are blooming, and the sky overhead is a sharp and piercing blue. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t think of you, and in this way, I keep you alive.

Happy Birthday to my grandmother, Hen. I love you forever and ever.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

No One Can Pronounce My Name

In the tradition of Jhumpa Lahiri, Nell Freudenberger, and Akhil Sharma, Rakesh Satyal’s NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME emerges as the funniest, freshest story of the lot. There’s a market for Indian fiction, as the author astutely observes through the lens of his protagonist, Ranjana, and NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME has budged itself right to the front of the line. This beautiful, hilarious, and richly reflective novel explores the fate of the Indian family on the North American continent, with the narrator’s observations constantly drawing parallels between East and West, old and young, ancient and modern. Ultimately, the Indian-American family is reshaped, reformed, and refashioned into a motley crue of friends: The flamboyantly gay Teddy, the tentative Harit, the gaudy, talkative Cheryl, and the literary Ranjana. In America, the author seems to suggest, the family that endures is the friend group we adopt.

In smart-but-not-isolating prose, Satyal presents the lives of disparate characters whose lives intersect. There’s the Indian contingency—we first meet Harit, who, despite ten years in the States, feels no more acclimated than he did when he arrived. Donning saris and lipstick each night, he pretends to be his dead sister for his mother’s sake, though it’s not until the last quarter of the book that we learn the true, stupid reason for his sister’s untimely death. (We also learn that, all along, his mother knew it was him—such is the humor of this clever, tightly-wound book.) With the gender bending of the first few pages comes an element of the queer—unexpected for a book about Indian families, but knotted deeply into the fabric of these interconnected lives Satyal has designed.

From Harit’s life, we move to the story of Ranjana, who has lived in the States for fifteen years but who, the narrator reveals, still doesn’t feel a part of the culture either; she doesn’t drink, doesn’t flirt, doesn’t walk on the street with men she doesn’t know. In our flirty, sexy culture, Ranjana is an outsider: at her job at a proctologist’s office, in the market, and even, it seems, in the company of her own husband. The conversations she has with her college-aged son over the phone are conversations among strangers; Prashant, the son, can never end the call soon enough.

Ranjana’s only peace is her writing hour, after she’s served her husband dinner, worked all day, and completed all errands. Late at night, all alone, unfueled by wine or weed or caffeine, “It was easily her favorite time of day,” Satyal writes, “work barely a memory, dinner accomplished, her husband appeased, a story her only world for an hour or two. It was at once fun and disorienting.” It is Ranjana who sails the rest of the book forward, she who guides the fumbling characters towards unity. “That was what writing really was,” she observes, “an excuse to gild your loneliness until it resembled the companionship of others. It was entertaining yourself when you had no other entertainment. It was the way out.” Just as her own writing becomes a “way out,” so too do the characters, for each other, become an alternative to the realities they occupy.

            As Ranjana’s taste for writing develops, she joins a writing group, where, each week, the members tear each other apart while defending their own bad writing to the death. Ranjana, for her part, spends the hour feeling self-conscious and reading her worst work, hiding her bloody Indian vampire stories for after-hours, when she’s alone. It’s only when she finally shares one with the group that the other members take note of her ability, and she’s invited to a writers’ conference.

            Because I’m a writer, I loved this book, whose climax concluded with two days spent at said conference. The book’s four central characters – Ranjana, Cheryl, Teddy, and Harit – end up making the trip together, in one car, though Ranjana’s the only writer of the group. In one of the final scenes, the four of them meet Pushpa Sondi, the book’s version of Jhumpa Lahiri, and Ranjana’s initial reaction is not admiration or awe but envy, “jealousy, the top of her mouth turning to metal. All the goodwill that she had built up – the warmth that she had felt upon ingesting the stories and their beauty – was effaced upon the author’s entrance….there was no emotion as swift and complete.” This is the type of writing that makes me love NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME; such fumbling grace, so real, so true. The envy is Ranjana’s and mine.

            Just as quickly, Ranjana’s envy melts at the woman’s next words: “Fear is as common as blood,” Sondhi admonishes her audience. “It courses through us and is, in its way, a vital source. It is the requisite formula for our continued work as writers.” Ranjana is “immediately reenergized,” and begins to wonder how her own writing, however humble its beginnings, could provide readers something that even the great Sondhi’s words could not.
            Like others that have come before it, NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME is a poignant reflection of what it means to be the Other, the relocated, the one who came from somewhere else. This is an Indian story, but it might as well be mine—or my grandmother’s, who came here from Finland at twenty-two with a fake passport and no English to speak of, but who worked as a maid in rich ladies’ houses to raise my mom right. While my grandmother grew old and white-haired and feeble, I became a writer myself, shaping stories around the journey she’d taken so many years ago. At the book’s bold close, Ranjana seduces her husband, rekindling a love she thought had died years ago: “She turned her head to his and pressed her laughing mouth to his agog one. She kissed the man who had brought her to this country, to this house.”

            In NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME, all of your wildest dreams come true: A housewife goes on to earn bestselling fame. A bumbling Indian man finds love in Men’s Furnishings. A chatterbox receptionist rises above her child’s death, and a man forgives himself a fatal mistake. In the characters’ fumblings, we recognize our own, and my only response was compassion.