by Terry Hong
I was bad. I couldn’t keep up with my chaotic new year and kept missing deadlines. Thrity Umrigar got so fed up, she basically said, “This happens now, or not at all.” So you better believe I got my act together long enough for one helluva chat with the inimitable Umrigar!
Terry Hong: So the last time we spoke about your writing almost three years ago, The World We Found was just out, and you were working on what would become The Story Hour. You led me astray back then … you told me, “A novel called I Begins—yes, with an s. It’s the story of two women, an immigrant Indian who is in a loveless marriage and her African American therapist.” The latter part of that turned out to be true. But the grammar lesson proved otherwise. What happened to the title?
Thrity Umrigar: The title disappeared into that great, big, gaping, dark hole where bad titles are banished after they’ve outlived their usefulness. Seriously, I knew that my editor would never approve of I Begins as a title—too ungrammatical, too confusing. And I dreaded the encounters with readers in public forums where I would’ve had to “explain” the title. Besides, by the time I got to the end of the novel, I realized that one of its themes was the transformative nature of storytelling—and that the novel enacts this theme both in its structure and its content. So The Story Hour just fit. It’s like if you’re an expectant parent, you can call your baby Billy before he is born but the minute he’s born and you look at him you just know that he’s a Zach.
TH: Now that Story is out there on many, many shelves, you can divulge the background you didn’t want to talk about back then, yes? Do tell … how did Story come about?
TU: Jeez. Was I ever that secretive? I can’t imagine why.
TH: Why, yes you were! I have the proof in writing!
TU: Well, in any case, TSH is really the merging of two short stories, written several years apart. One featured a character much like Lakshmi and the other like Maggie. And one morning I leapt out of bed with the thought that I wanted to introduce these two women to each other because I had a hunch that despite their differences, they would understand and like each other. And have interesting things to say to, and teach one other.
TH: This is your first title with an African American protagonist (although she shares the spotlight with an Indian immigrant co-star). Were you nervous about writing across races? Any reaction from the African American community?
TU: I know that what I am about to tell you is not a politically correct answer. But the God honest truth is that I wasn’t nervous. Another interviewer recently asked me by what “authority” I wrote about an African American woman. To which my answer was, by the authority of being a human being. I did not ask anyone for permission to create a black character. I claimed that authority for myself. Do men ask for permission before they have female characters in their novels? If writers can write about space aliens and life on other planets, why can I not write about another race? See, I wasn’t writing about a black therapist. I wrote about a therapist who is black.
And I tell you, the response from African American readers has been wonderful. You know what their most overriding reaction has been? Relief. Relief that Maggie is not a caricature, that she is not a stereotype, but that she is simply an ordinary, middle-class person who gets some things right about her life and some things wrong. That is to say, pretty much like the rest of us. One of my favorite memories is of a black physician who came to one of my local readings and complained about a single line in an otherwise glowing review in my hometown paper. The reviewer had mentioned that there is nothing “ethnic” about Maggie—a criticism that upset this reader. She told the whole gathering that there is nothing “black” about the way she eats breakfast or about the way she gets dressed for work or tends to her children or takes care of her patients. She does not feel like an “ethnic” person. What the reviewer criticized, she saw as a strength in the novel. And I have to say that I agree with her.
TH: In general, writing across race lines has certainly gotten quite a few writers unintended, even unwanted attention. Some have been downright berated, even sued. Now that you’ve successfully made the jump, any words of advice? Any favorite race-bending titles you might suggest as successful examples?
TU: I think all writers have to follow their own lights on this one. Maybe this task is not as terrifying for me as it may be for a white writer, given the fraught history between blacks and whites in this country. But see, here’s the thing. I grew up in India reading quintessential American writers such as Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, years before I ever stepped foot in America. And yet, those writers and their books spoke powerfully to me because they dealt with the particular, yes, of course, but also with that which is timeless and universal. And so I learned early on the power of fiction to transcend national, racial, and class boundaries. After all, that’s the most basic and essential function of literature—it brings us together because it helps us recognize the common humanity that we share.
My second point is this, and I apologize in advance for how corny this is going to sound: I believe that intentions matter. They matter in life and they matter in writing fiction. If you sincerely want to explore the humanity of a character who happens to be of a different race, that sincerity will shine through. Readers are so awesomely smart. Just a few minutes ago, I got an email from someone who had finished The Story Hour and she made a comparison between this novel and The Space Between Us that just blew me away. Readers will pick up on your intentions. But part of good intentions includes a willingness to examine your own privilege, your own power, perhaps even your own complicity.
TH: Can you talk a bit more about these ‘intentions’?
TU: I’m not referring to intentions in a New Agey, let’s-all-light-a-candle-for-peace kind of way. I mean something much more muscular, much harder. I guess I’m really talking about an ideology, a political stance, a choosing of sides. What I’m trying to say is that as humans and most certainly as writers, we have a choice to not stay trapped in the skins we were born into. What I call ‘intentions’ may indeed be ideology. And to me, all ideology comes down to this—do you want to be on the side of the winners or the losers? Great literature is often on the side of the losers.
Of course, all the good intentions in the world cannot make up for ignorance or the fact that the author has not done her homework. So you have to inhabit the world of your characters, and if you can’t do that physically or geographically, you have to immerse yourself in research and other people’s books. The scene I’m most proud of in The Story Hour doesn’t even concern Maggie. It’s a couple of paragraphs on Hilda, Maggie’s dead mother. Hilda is a simple factory worker, a union organizer, and everybody ignored the diminutive woman until they got to know her and discovered her steel. It’s a few short paragraphs but I had to know so much of African American history—dating back to slavery times, and then Jim Crow, and finally the mental liberation of the civil rights movement—in order to write those two paragraphs. Not to mention having black friends and listening to their stories and even meeting their parents over the years. A writer builds a novel from the twigs and branches of everyone’s life—her own and all the others she knows.
You know, Toni Morrison writes about white people all the time. She just does it in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the fact that a character is white. You surmise that in the way they act, speak, or wear their privilege.
TH: Six months have passed since Story hit shelves last August 2014. Critical responses have been overall pretty grand. What have your reader responses been like? Any ‘a-ha’ moments stand out?
TU: Too many to count, including the requests for a sequel. But more than a-ha, it’s like, “I am so humbled.”
So, just 10 days ago there was an email from a reader whose husband had been diagnosed with prostate cancer last summer. And this month, they were checking to see if the cancer was still in his system. And this is a quote from that very long email: “Your book took me to another place, another world. Obviously that was really good for me at the time. So that was just an extra bonus and I will always be grateful for this story because of the timing in my life.”
Or how about the woman who wrote to ask if I intended the parallels between Lakshmi and [her sister] Shilpa and the Biblical story of Jacob? Er, no, dear reader, though I wish I were that smart.
It’s funny, readers are always so gracious and they write to thank you for the book. What they don’t realize is that there’s nothing more validating for a writer than to make that connection across the miles. One letter or email or comment can make it all worthwhile—the long, lonely hours, the months you spend away from family and friends, the aching hands and sore neck, all of it becomes worth it in that instance. It strikes me now that a book is really an exchange of time. You spend the time writing something that you offer to your readers and they then invest their time to read it. It’s really their investment that makes the whole thing pay off.
TH: The paperback edition is scheduled to hit shelves in July. Will you be hitting the road again for a book tour? What was the best part of the hard cover tour? What might you do differently with the paper tour?
TU: My editor has not yet informed me about her plans for a book tour. I’m speaking at the Southern Voices Festival at the end of February, and the Ohioana Book Festival in April, but of course, those will be before the paperback is released. The best part of a book tour is always the contact with readers. People share aspects of their life stories with me that often leave me in tears and/or speechless. What would I do different with the new tour? I’m not sure. Stage my own death, maybe? Fly in on a flying saucer? Recite Ginsberg’s Howl backwards? Any suggestions for a gimmick that would help me sell a million copies??
TH: Death? Flying saucer? You’ve got some great gimmicks already!
So until now, your previous novels have been fully or partially set in India; Story is the furthest away from your birth country, in that it takes place mostly in the U.S. with flashbacks to India. Seems to be a pattern here … you’re moving more West with each title. Are you anticipating a future title set completely outside India?
TU: I swear, Terry, you’re a savant. In fact, you have anticipated the novel I’m working on right now. It’s tentatively called Everybody’s Son and it features an African American boy who is taken away from his mother and adopted by a white politician. The novel follows the main character, Anton, into adulthood. It is a meditation on race, betrayal, second chances, and human desperation, in its many guises.
TH: Like so many grand writers I know, you’re spreading the love and sharing the wisdom with wannabe literary young kiddies. The new school term is just starting up. How are you planning to balance the teaching with the writing?
TU: Not very well, I’m afraid. I’m constantly juggling several different things, always terrified that I’m going to drop the ball on something. Once in a while I do something really stupid, like stand someone up. But most of the time I fumble and tumble through each day, like all of us do. When I’m really stressed out, I tell myself it beats the alternative, which would be a boring, passive life. And I suppose if I repeat this often enough, it will become true.
TH: 2014 passed way too quickly—since you love it, did you get much reading time in? And if so, wanna share some of your favorite titles?
TU: I enjoyed James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, loved Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members and admired Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.
TH: 2015 is still pretty new … what’s on the resolutions roster? Have you broken any yet?
TU: Same as every year. To be a good person. And to tell as many stories as I can. And I plead the fifth on the second part of your question.
TH: And the inevitable final questions—because your devoted groupies must know … what’s next up with your writing intentions? And when will we be able to proudly display the latest title on our waiting shelves?
TU: It all hangs on whether Anton Coleman decides to be a good, cooperative boy or not.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
Click here to read Terry Hong’s feature piece on Thrity Umrigar.
Feature photo courtesy of Thrity Umrigar’s website.
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