Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is about the friendship of two women from two different cultures, whose complicated personal histories and cultural values eventually lead to judgment and misunderstanding and threaten to end their relationship.

Lakshmi is a 30-something woman who immigrated to the US from India to join her Indian husband, a store and restaurant owner. As we are introduced to Lakshmi, we begin to understand how lonely she is in the US and in her marriage. She feels no love from her husband who treats her more like a possession than a partner and who has forbidden her from ever contacting her family again. Lakshmi tries to kill herself one night (this is written on the back cover), and while hospitalized is assigned to talk to Maggie, an African-American psychologist.

Lakshmi’s husband scoffs at the idea of therapy and tells Maggie they cannot afford it. At that point Maggie tells them that she will meet with Lakshmi in her home without charge.

With the therapy sessions Lakshmi gradually comes to develop a voice for the first time, encouraged to believe that her stories are worth telling. As she tells her stories and becomes braver in her trust in Maggie, she reveals more and more, and we learn that her marriage to her husband is not what it seems.

At the same time, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie is dealing with her own issues in her marriage and questioning how much her abusive relationship with her father has impacted her and her relationships to this day.

Toward the latter half of the book, the issues of the two women clash and come to a head, and both are reeling in their judgment of one another. Both are not the people they had imagined the other to be.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To me it was women’s literature without being chick lit. There is the cultural piece, for those who want to read “diversely”; as an Asian-American who’s very familiar with how it feels to have one foot in one culture, I saw well the cultural differences that Lakshmi and Maggie were dealing with. Do you honor family or do you honor yourself? Is passion in marriage more important or duty? In very traditional Asian cultures, it is often hard to have both.

Mostly, I enjoyed the psychological complexity as I’m always drawn to stories of basically good human beings who are confronted with difficult life decisions and choices. I thought this was an intriguing study of two women with complicated histories that are made more complex by the cultures in which they grew up. It’s also an interesting story about women’s friendship and the expectations we have for our women friends. We can want and love so much and at the same time be very judgmental and unforgiving. In the case of Lakshmi and Maggie, I’ve wondered how much each was projecting on to the other, and did judging the other make it somehow easier to accept (or not think about) one’s own mistakes? This would be a fun book to read in a book club.

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On Loss and Hope: Drown, by Junot Díaz

.
The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else
–Gustavo Pérez Firmat

And so begins Drown, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz’s first short story collection that he jokes “no one ever reads.”

I went about this backwards, having started with This is How You Lose Her when it came out in 2012. A young man named Yunior narrates many of the stories in the two short story collections. Drown covers Yunior’s life as a child and adolescent, while This is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown leaves off.

Yunior is 9 years old in the first story “Ysrael.” He is staying with his brother Rafa and aunt and uncle in the Dominican Republic countryside one summer because his mother is working long hours at the local chocolate factory. Yunior’s father is in the U.S., supposedly working hard to one day send for the rest of his family. In “Ysrael,” guileless and eager-to-please Yunior follows his bored and brutish older brother around, listening to his tales of sexual exploits and accompanying him as he goes to torment the disfigured boy, Ysrael. Slowly, we watch Yunior lose his innocence.

Young Yunior grapples with the fear that his father will never come for them, and later, with the knowledge that he is cheating on his mother. Often it seems, Yunior is longing for either the physical or emotional presence of his father. Yunior’s mother is the anchor in his life but even she, too, eventually drifts away. There is a particularly poignant passage in the story “Aguantando,” heartbreaking in its youthful resignation. “Aguantando” is about the family’s dashed hopes following the father’s many promises to send for them, and Yunior’s mother falls into a depression, leaving her children behind to stay at her sister’s for several months. Of the aftermath Yunior writes:

She didn’t treat me badly on her return but we were no longer close; she did not call me her Prieto or bring chocolates from her work. That seemed to suit her fine. And I was young enough to grow out of her rejection. I still had baseball and my brother. I still had trees to climb and lizards to tear apart.” (page 84)

Without being sentimental or feigning a child’s voice, Díaz seems to capture well the melancholy of a child who longs for parental love while trying to accept what he cannot control. It is interesting to later read This is How You Lose Her and see how the dysfunction has impacted Yunior’s adult attempts at intimacy.

Several of the stories are told from Yunior’s viewpoint while the narrators of the others are unclear. But together the collection paints a vivid picture of the struggles, hopes, and disappointments endured by immigrant families. More specifically, the stories give voice to immigrant adolescent males struggling to love, receive love, and find purpose within the context of barrio life and a machismo culture. Díaz’s writing is spare and poignant but gritty and honest. You can read the strong language, sex, drugs, and petty crime at a superficial level, but palpable beneath all of that is the hurting of Díaz’s characters.

There is some unevenness in the stories but on the whole I was personally touched by this volume. The themes of belonging and daring to hope hit home for me as an immigrant. But I also read this book as a daughter, wife, and mother, and just as powerful for me were the themes of familial connection and sacrifice and coming of age.

No Flowers or Jewelry; Just Love

My husband has rarely bought me flowers, and the few – okay, the two – times that he did, I think he got them from the supermarket. He reminds me that I had once specifically asked for food over flowers.

He used to buy me jewelry too, until I started losing them. And preferring books instead.

And there was a time when he wrote me cards, short reflections on our relationship and restatements of his love. And then he – and we – stopped writing altogether.

Love does evolve over time, into something far grittier. The sacrificing, compromising, forgiving, and understanding seem to take years to fully emerge. It’s only after years together that I looked up and thought, yes, that’s what we are now: a patchwork of butterflies in stomach, respect, fondness, gratitude, minor annoyances, insecurities, cultural and temperamental differences, and hopefully forgiven hurts. This patchwork is love that has been made ironclad through commitment.

In our thirteen years together I have felt Max’s love in unexpected and unscripted ways. I would never find them in a store-bought card, or in the most expensive bouquet. I can find them only in him:

~~~

Not long after we began dating I moved into Max’s place in an unfamiliar suburb 70 minutes outside of Tokyo. On one particular night that I was working late, Tokyo experienced a rare snowfall and commuter trains were delayed and rerouted. Still not comfortable in Japanese, I struggled to understand the announcements over the loudspeakers instructing passengers on new routes. I was nervous and took a chance, boarding a crowded train that only got worse as it sat on the platform waiting to pack in as many people as possible. I called Max and told him that I had no idea when I was getting home, and he asked me to ring him once I reached the station.

I finally arrived two hours later. Exhausted and frustrated and with tears in my eyes, I rang to tell Max that I had made it. “I know,” he said. I looked up and saw him standing at the entrance of the station with an umbrella. I don’t know how long he had been waiting for me.

We weren’t married yet at this point. In fact, we only dated a week before we both knew we were going to marry. The few friends I told thought I was crazy. They were scared for me, believing I was rushing into things. But somehow I always knew that I had found someone rare…a genuinely kind man who would always protect me, look out for me, and put me first in his life.

~~~

We had gotten into a particularly awful fight. As the years went on, I began realizing more and more that even love was not enough to stave off the differences inherent in our international marriage. Neither of us had ever deliberately intended to hurt the other and yet we did. And we struggled to make ourselves understood.

During this fight I went into the guest room where Max had been sleeping. Excessive pride is my weakness in relationships and I often refuse to be the one to “give in,” but this time I was worried. When I walked in, Max reached for a notebook and said, “Please don’t talk and just listen. Please.” He picked up the notebook and began reading to me through tears. In careful and precise English, he told me how much I had hurt him with the casualness with which I attack him with words.

I began to cry, not only because of the realization of what I had done, but because I saw, in the notebook and the hands and voice that trembled with emotion, what he has sacrificed for me. English is not a language he spoke until he met me. He’d studied it, yes, but he’d never had to use it regularly or depend on it for a relationship. He’d never had to struggle this much just to be heard and to be understood.

I was talking with a Japanese client this week about international relationships, as he and his American girlfriend broke up because of distance. He asked me if Max had moved to the U.S. for me. I told him, yes. Max had moved here for me.

~~~

Last year news came out that a private foundation was looking to recruit a married couple to go on the 2018 space mission to Mars. The trip would entail being confined together in a small capsule for 500 days. Max looked at me and beamed, “We can do it! If anyone can do it, it’s you and me!”

After all that we have been through together, it is the most romantic thing he could have ever said to me.

And he is right.

Love, loyalty, hurt and anger – the powerful world of mother-daughter relationships

I am so honored to be contributing to the wonderful writer D.A. Wolf’s series on mother-daughter relationships. This was by far the hardest piece of writing I have ever done, and more than once I asked myself why I had promised to contribute a piece. But I’m so glad for this experience writing and collaborating with D.A., which literally changed me.

~~~~

I’ve just spent my fourteenth holiday without my mother. In the years since I packed up two suitcases and moved from the States to Japan, a defining event in our relationship, we have been a long distance family, missing milestones and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and the birth of her only grandchild.

There have always been reasons: the distance (even now that I’ve moved back to the States), her health, my work. I try to see her once a year and when I do I realize how much I miss her… how for so many years we knew the daily rhythms of each others’ lives and now that’s no longer the case.

For many years I had been the dutiful daughter. I acted as my immigrant parents’ interpreter from the age of seven when they moved from Peru to New England, and I helped them to navigate life in America. I attended college ten miles away from where they lived, and I moved back home after graduation. It was a shameful admission to my American friends that I was choosing to live with my parents, and a slap in my mother’s face that I was wishing I had chosen otherwise.

To continue reading this piece please click here to go to D.A. Wolf’s blog Daily Plate of Crazy.

Disillusionment in marriage, home, and life: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is Julie Otsuka’s 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novella about Japanese picture brides trying to start new lives in California during the first half of the 20th century.

The book opens with the young women’s journey at sea. They are frightened, nervous, hopeful, excited, and uncertain about what awaits them. They are from different walks of life and from different parts of Japan, but they all have in their hands (or in the sleeves of their kimonos) the photos of hope: handsome, young men who have promised that they can provide for them well in the new country.

Once the brides are literally off the boat, they cannot find the faces to match their photos. The young and handsome businessmen are, in fact, older, haggard, and sometimes cruel farmworkers and laborers. It hits the women at this point that they have been deceived and, unbeknownst to them, that this is only the beginning.

The chapters that follow cover the new wives’ lives over the next few decades: marital rape, infidelity, hard labor and long hours, sexual harassment, the struggles to care for their children, children who reject them and are embarrassed by them, acculturation, racism. The book ends with the mass exodus of these now Japanese-American wives and their families and neighbors to internment camps as per Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order issued shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

I’ve read other longer, more plot-driven books about the immigrant experience and I was surprised at how powerful this experimental novella is. This is both for your information and a warning: Otsuka’s narrator is a lyrical, first person plural. The book doesn’t focus on any single character or even a handful of characters, but instead covers the range of experiences of the collective group of brides. Here is an excerpt from the second chapter, entitled “First Night”:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word . . . they took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel . . . They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time . . . they took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was that we were told . . . they took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them . . . They took us shyly, and with great difficulty, as they tried to figure out what to do. “Excuse me,” they said. And, “Is this you?” They said, “Help me out here,” and so we did . . . They took us with more skill than we had ever been taken before and we knew we would always want them. They took us as we cried out with pleasure and then covered our mouths in shame. (pages 19-22)

I didn’t feel that the narration took away from the intimacy I felt with the characters’ experiences (though admittedly it is a different kind of intimacy) and in fact maybe it is the collective voice that makes this book so powerful: seeing the range of experiences drove home for me how much these women were going through and what it meant to be a picture bride in a country that was, at the time, still very hostile to unfamiliar cultures.

The women in this book arrive as strangers to both their Japanese-American husbands and America. It is a tale about what it’s like to land in hostile and unfamiliar hands, and it is as much about marriage (and its disappointments) as it is about immigration. The issues are heavy but somehow Otsuka’s writing translates the difficulties and hopelessness into something that is emotionally impactful and not bleak. I would have read this book in one or two sittings if I had the uninterrupted time (I read it in three); I thought it was wonderful.

The gulfs in marriage and home: Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I am so grateful to a couple of blogger friends who recently urged me to move Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri up on my reading list. This book had been sitting on my shelves unread for maybe three years.

Interpreter of Maladies is Lahiri’s first published work, a collection of short stories that also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

The stories take place in both America and India although we often get the sense that we’re in both: the characters are making a new life in America or traveling back to India to a country that’s unfamiliar or consoling a friend who’s been separated from his family.

The stories are also about marriage, about secrets and lost connections. The opening story is a powerful one about the gulf that takes place in one marriage after the death of the couple’s first baby. Other characters struggle with infidelity, loneliness, hunger to be noticed, and bewilderment at the behavior and thinking of their partners.

And there are stories of women living on the margins of society in India – the ill, the displaced. They, too, long for connection and belonging.

I’m trying hard here not to resort to cliches or overly dramatic expressions to describe how I felt reading these stories, but the only thing I can say is that I was amazed at how much punch each of these short stories could pack. Lahiri captures the immigrant’s and the outsider’s story with such nuance and poignancy – the optimism, the hope, the alienation, the longing, the loneliness…and all of this is rolled together with the parallel emotions faced in each of the characters’ marriages or relationship with the community. These are stories for anyone – Indian or not, immigrant or not – who’s ever felt a part of themselves empty, who’s ever wanted to be full and yet not known how to feel whole.

Americanah

Image courtesy of http://cdn4.fishpond.co.nz

Americanah is the third novel by Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s the story of Ifemelu, a young middle class woman who, due to the many strikes that have disrupted her university at home,  decides to go to the U.S. for college. She attends a school in Pennsylvania and we learn about her experiences as both an international student and a non-American African in America. She struggles financially for quite some time, unable to get hired for part-time work. Out of sheer desperation, she finally takes on a humiliating job in which she compromises her dignity. This leaves her in a depression (or triggers an identity crisis?) during which time she also ends up cutting off all ties to the boyfriend she had left behind in Nigeria.

Her boyfriend Obinze is a seemingly good man, her intellectual equal, and he adores her. He is heartbroken and confused when she no longer returns his calls or e-mails, but eventually moves on. He goes to England but outstays his visa, and soon he is working illegally under someone else’s identity, and he makes arrangements to marry a British citizen in order to stay in the country.

Meanwhile, Ifemelu recovers in the U.S. and finds great success writing an anonymous blog entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American BlackA central part of Americanah is a study on black-white race relations in America, in particular, the experience of the African in America versus that of the African American. Ifemelu says that she never even thought of herself as black – she never thought about race – until she stepped on American soil. She picks up on the peculiar ways in which people react to subtle issues of race. For example, while paying for an item at a clothing store the cashier asks which of the two sales women had helped her. The cashier would identify the two sales women by hair length (if I recall correctly) but not race, when one of them was clearly black and the other white. She finds race a volatile issue yet something that people aren’t really supposed to notice or talk about directly.

She also experiments with her own assimilation, from trying to straighten her hair to letting it go natural, from trying to perfect an upper-middle class (white) American accent to finally returning to her own. After leaving behind Obinze she dates Curt, a wealthy, white software entrepreneur, and then Blaine, an African American faculty member from Yale. One powerful part of the book is when Blaine stops speaking to her because she had chosen to attend a university department talk over the campus protest he had organized to speak up against the unfair arrest of an African American security guard. Such is the terrain that Ifemelu walks, as an African immigrant who has not lived the American black experience and who needs to learn to fully “get it.”

Race is a central theme in the middle of the book, but by the end the story evolves into more of a love story when both Ifemelu and Obinze are back in Nigeria. They meet again, and are faced with a difficult, life-changing decision.

This was my first time to read Adichie, and I have become a new fan. Americanah is one of those books where the author’s writing fit me – the book is no lightweight, at nearly 500 pages, but I glided through for the most part not feeling as though I was reading. There was a lot that I was able to relate to, in my experiences as an expat and immigrant and having worked with many international students. At the same time, it was an eye-opening read for me as it gave me a window into the Nigerian experience in America as well as a first-hand tackling of sensitive race issues.

Many readers, I’ve found, have either loved the book or felt disappointed by it. Those who don’t like it have complained that they felt lectured to on race. There are certainly parts in the book in which the race discussion feels contrived. For example, Ifemelu is a quiet and often uneasy observer in Blaine’s regular get-togethers with his sister and intellectual friends. The group is a diverse one, and during these dinners they would all discuss some topic on race. I felt the same about a conversation between Ifemelu and Obinze about the present state of Nigeria. There’s a bit of unnaturalness there, like the characters are placed there to be sociological mouthpieces.

Adichie also closes some chapters with Ifemelu’s blog posts. The following is an excerpt:

Sometimes they say “culture” when they mean race. They say a film is “mainstream” when they mean “white follks like it or made it.” When they say “urban” it means black and poor and possibly dangerous and potentially exciting. “Racially charged” means we are uncomfortable saying “racist.”

I was probably too fascinated by the discussions to mind the presentation of the race issues. As Ifemelu says, it is more palatable to people if an African rather than an African American writes about race in America. And that is exactly what Adichie has done, albeit to mixed reactions.