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Original Essays

Written by the Losers

by Thrity Umrigar
 
  1. If Today Be Sweet
    $7.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    If Today Be Sweet

    Thrity Umrigar
    "Umrigar shows the unseemly side of American excess and prejudice while gently reminding readers of opportunities sometimes taken for granted." Publishers Weekly
  2. The Space between Us (P.S.)
    $2.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Sadness suffuses this eloquent tale, whose heart-stopping plot twists reveal the ferocity of fate." Booklist
  3. Bombay Time
    $17.00 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Bombay Time

    Thrity Umrigar
    "[T]he portrait of the city and its citizens is authoritative, richly textured, and engaging." Kirkus Reviews
Well, the rest of you can debate whether the last Congress has achieved anything significant. I already have my answer — it has allowed my new novel, If Today Be Sweet, to remain relevant.

You see, if the immigration bill proposed by this Congress had actually passed, it would have rendered the central premise of my novel, moot. Sweet tells the story of Tehmina Sethna, a recent widow from Bombay is currently living with her son Sorab's family in Cleveland, Ohio. Tehmina faces a tough choice — whether to return to her native India or to continue living in Ohio, where life is unfamiliar but she has the comfort of her beloved son's love.

But a much-ignored provision of the Congressional bill would have taken away from legal immigrants like Sorab, the right to have sponsored their elderly parents. A woman like Tehmina would not have been allowed the option of deciding which place to call home.

Luckily for me — and perhaps for millions of immigrants whose lives would have been wrecked by this ill-conceived legislation — the bill failed, though (in my opinion) for the wrong reasons.

Life doesn't just imitate art — sometimes it threatens to steamroll over it.

As an immigrant whose first three books were set in India, I'm often asked by readers how I'm sure that I'm getting the details of contemporary Indian life right. After all, I've not lived in India for over two decades. My answer is always the same — that I ignore the transient subjects like the latest hit songs and popular movies and focus on the timeless — the search for self, the quest for love, the power struggle between the haves and the have-nots. These are my themes, the ideas that intrigue me, the ones I keep returning to.

Funny then, that the plot of my latest novel — my first set in the U.S. — threatened to come undone by something very timely indeed.

Since Sweet was my first novel set in America, I wanted to cover three different areas. The first, I've already mentioned — I waned to explore how immigration affects notions of identity, family, home and how these definitions change and evolve over time. I wanted to convey to native-born readers the complexity and the emotional ache that is at the heart of the momentous act of immigration. I wanted to steer away from the headlines, which usually talk about immigration as a problem to be solved, and instead shine a light on how for the individual this decision is not political at all but achingly personal.

I also intended the novel to be a good-natured critique — indeed, a satirical look — at American celebrity culture as well as life in the suburbs. I wanted to weigh in on a culture where people are famous for being famous, where D.J.s and hair dressers to the movie stars are treated as celebrities. To this end, I created, in Sorab's boss Grace Butler, a character who borders on caricature. Grace is an ad executive and she is exactly the kind of artificial, superficial, brittle person who is rewarded and lauded by our culture, while the true heroes in our midst remain obscure and unknown. She is the ultimate triumph of style over substance.

Grace is my most far-out character, a grown woman who uses words like "fabtastic" and "wondersonic." So imagine my surprise when the emails from readers started coming in asking me when and where I'd met their boss. At book readings, people stood up and said Grace reminded them of such-and-such person in their life.

But what I was totally unprepared for was meeting Grace Butler in person. I recently ran into a woman who was my character come to life — she was ultra-thin, with a bitchy wit that she banished like a pair of scissors and happily, defiantly self-absorbed. And when she described an acquaintance as "hunkolicious," I almost fell out of my chair. Hunkolicious. It's a word Grace would have been proud to adopt as her own. I tell you, real life will succeed in doing what governments have never been able to do — put writers out of business. It's getting harder — no, fantabisly harder — to make stuff up.

Speaking of reader's emails, the most touching ones have been from American women roughly Tehmina's age who write to say how much they identify with her struggle. They are not contemplating settling in another country but their stories are no less poignant. They describe lifetimes spent in Wisconsin or Iowa and the untimely deaths of husbands and the pressure of children asking them to move closer to where the kids are. These readers are taking my novel in unexpected and new directions, taking a specific, particular story about a single family and making it universal. In a sense, they are redefining the word immigration, teaching me that migrations within a nation are fraught with the same losses — of homes, neighbors, family friends, communities — as those that cross national boundaries. This is the wonder of email — writing a novel has now truly become an interactive occupation. The old model of the writer spilling her words and ideas into a dark, anonymous void, is now history. For those of us who have chosen a career that will most likely not offer great financial rewards, email has brought us another kind of reward — to hear in their own words, the stories of those lives you've touched. Storytelling is now happening at multiple levels, back and forth.

The third part of what I wanted to accomplish in this novel — the critique of life in the suburbs and the isolating, alienating effect that has on people — has probably been the least commented upon. But I think that when readers comment on Tehmina's character — praising her involvement in the lives of others and her determination to carry her old, traditional ways with her to a new country — they are remembering their own childhoods, which many recall as being less individualistic and more community-focused. In book readings I sense this great desire for communication and community, the very things that the rise of the suburb and gated communities seem to discourage.

This morning on NPR, I heard a line I'd not heard before. It said: History is written by the winners. Literature is written by the losers.

I interpret this line to mean that history is written by the Grace Butlers of this world — people who connive and claw their way to the top of the ladder, in the ultimate triumph of style over substance. They are the dazzling people, the ones that never let us see them sweat, the ones who appear to live charmed, flawless lives.

I prefer to dwell with the losers of history, which is to say the ninety-nine percent of people in this world. To me, they are the ones who live interesting lives, lives that I recognize, lives made up of loss and suffering and pain but also moments of transcendence and joy and communion. My readers come from these people, people who have been dinged and beaten up by life, the bruised and scarred people, and it is in there — among the wreckage and scars — that I find beauty and sustenance and meaning.

÷ ÷ ÷

A journalist for seventeen years, Thrity Umrigar has written for the Washington Post, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and other national newspapers, and contributes regularly to the Boston Globe's book pages. She teaches creative writing and literature at Case Western Reserve University. The author of The Space Between Us, Bombay Time, and the memoir First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood, she was a winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University. She has a Ph.D. in English and lives in Cleveland, Ohio. spacer

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