Tag Archives: immigrants

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

Sea Prayer Title: Sea Prayer
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Illustrator: Dan Williams
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526605917
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Fiction, Immigrant Fiction
Pages: 48
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Before I start this review, I would just like to make one thing clear from point of view, a book is a book is a book. Yes, big books and expansive stories make a lot of difference (and I am the kind of reader that loves to read big books and I cannot lie), at the same time, short books (as some might call them and roll their eyes to pay for them) make an impact as well. They have the power to transform and make you introspect the world and yourself in it. “Sea Prayer” by Khaled Hosseini is one such book.

“Sea Prayer” is a lot of things. It is a cry for comfort, of the known, the familiar and what it means to not know or identify home anymore. What does it even mean to not have a home? To me, more than anything else, “Sea Prayer” is about loss and in a very strange way, a story of hope, as most Hosseini’s stories are. They are hopeful, in times of bleakness. There is some ray of sunshine, something to help people get by and in the case of this book it is the sea – both hopeful and dangerous.

SP 1

“Sea Prayer” is written in the form of a short letter, from a father to his son, on the eve of their journey, far away from home. The book is a portrait of their life in Homs, Syria, before and after the war. The gorgeous water colour and ink illustrations by Dan Williams complement the book in so many ways, that you cannot think of the book without it. The interplay of word and image on every page will leave you breathless, wanting so much more, that you wouldn’t mind rereading (re-watching?) the book over and over again.

SP 2

More than anything else anyone who reads, “Sea Prayer” should be affected by it mainly because of the times we live in. We unfortunately guard our spaces and privacy and boundaries so fiercely that we forget to be humane and compassionate. We have seen enough and more of brutality when it comes to the Trump administration and their stance on refugees and immigrants and on the other, the Rohingya crisis – a people almost forgotten, a people not acknowledged at all. And but of course, at the core of the book is the Syrian crisis.

SP 3

“Sea Prayer” will make you realize your own indifference to everything that goes on around us, and at the same time make you check your privilege. It is the kind of book that seeps through and stays in your subconscious, whether you like it or not. All in all, a read that shakes you up and leaves you more empathetic and kinder.

 

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Ayiti by Roxane Gay

Ayiti by Roxane Gay Title: Ayiti
Author: Roxane Gay
Publisher: Corsair, Hachette UK
ISBN: 9781472154224
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

We are sometimes (perhaps most of the time or even all the time) lost in our individual bubbles – the ones that we create, the ones that protect us from most realities, so much so that we aren’t even aware of them. I say this because before reading “Ayiti” by Roxane Gay I wasn’t aware of what the Haitians went through or are going through on a daily basis and for that, I have no one else to blame but myself.

Having said that, “Ayiti” (the way Haiti is pronounced by the Haitians and is the original way of referring to their country) has made me want to know more about the country. How it was ruled by the French and how did they get their freedom and what were the consequences that made it reach this state in the larger scheme of things.

Roxane Gay’s prose is not forgiving nor is it all roses along the way. Her stories are brutal, real, visceral and jump at you without warning – just the way a well-written short-story should be. At the same time, humanity (or the lack of it) runs deep in these fifteen stories – some medium-sized, mostly vignettes and three long stories that will cut through your heart and make you sometimes weep with helplessness.

“Ayiti” is a collection that makes you see the mirror of the world. A country that is forgotten not only by the world but sometimes also its own people. The people who have perhaps given up on a God to come and rescue them from their fate. Some of whom who make it to America and try too hard, so their family can make it. The people who will eat mud in Haiti because there is nothing else to consume. The characters are always in conflict – between home and what they want to make a home but will never be.

“Haiti is not a perfect home, but it is a home nonetheless” thinks the protagonist of the last story in this collection, “A Cool, Dry Place” – a story of a couple who want to leave Haiti – dreaming of Little Haiti in Miami, where there is air-conditioning and cable TV all-day long. And yet, she doesn’t want to leave. She wants to stay with their loved ones, the familiar. Between them, what keeps them going is the love and lust they share.

Roxane Gay’s stories are for sure semi-autobiographical if not all-autobiographical in nature. She was born and raised in the US, though Haitian and I am sure there must have been stories that traveled and found their way in this book.

These stories were published earlier in 2011 and are now published in a new format, but the voice, the situations, the conditions are still the same. The book couldn’t have been more relevant than today when the world is in a state of limbo – when we need to be human, accept, own and belong. In a world where children are being separated from their parents, the part of the world in which Trump makes decisions, we really need to wake up and smell the coffee.

“Cheap, Fast, Filling” was another favourite of mine – about a man named Lucien and his arrival in the United States via Canada and again right into Miami. He has been told that eat Hot Pockets until he finds a job since they are cheap and taste good. He survives on those and Super Big Gulp. To him, even this taste is wonderful. All he wants is his children left in Haiti, to be able to taste these treats.

“We are the keeper of secrets. We are secrets ourselves. We try to protect each other from the geography of so much sorry.” These are some of the thoughts of the narrator of “In the Manner of Water or Light” – a story of a woman conceiving her daughter on the bank of a river while running away from a horrific massacre. The story is achingly told from the perspective of the granddaughter.

“Sweet on the Tongue” is a story of humiliation, love, redemption and somehow making peace with the ghosts of the past. It is also the story of women loving women, women who love their men fiercely and sometimes when it becomes difficult to love your own child.

Roxane Gay’s writing is not limited by anything. The plot could take you anywhere. Even in the shortest of vignettes, she packs a punch of a nine-page story. “Of Ghosts and Shadows” is a longish story of two women who just want to be left alone, loving each other and not caring about the world. The world they are born into and must whether they like it or not care about. This is one story I could relate with the most – maybe because being gay is really the same anywhere after all.

Gay’s Haiti is weak, broken like one character says something to the effect that it is turning on into itself. Its people do not want to leave and yet there is no choice. The ones who have left try every day to get their loved ones home, USA – which could never be what Haiti is or was and yet it seems like a lot for now. “Ayiti” is a book that must be read and after you have read it, read more on Haiti and its people, its history – what came to be and why. I know I will.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Title: The Buddha in the Attic
Author: Julie Otsuka
Publisher: Penguin Fig Tree
ISBN: 9781905490875
Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories
Pages: 129
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

What does home mean to you? That was a very difficult question posed to me at the end of “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka. Julie Otsuka’s book is about immigrant Japanese women, set about a century ago, who have come to America to their husbands and new lives. Their lives away from their homes to create new ones – the magic and dream of America that once existed, is revived in this beautifully written short book.

The eight almost inter-linked (because of the theme) and yet isolated (because of what each story centers on) stories are real, heartbreaking and sometimes hopeful. For me immigration has not been an alien concept. I have heard stories from my grandparents about how they had to move from Pakistan to India during Partition (though it is very different from these tales) and it does ring a bell when I read anything about leaving your country for a new one. To start anew and especially when you are expected to be the obedient Japanese wife to her husband who has not told her about the truth of his job, what she would have to undergo in a strange place and what her life would be like. These women worked from dawn to dusk, lived with men who they did not love or loved but their love was not returned. They worked in fields, as maids, as anything, as long as it was work and paid them.

I had read a part of this book; the first story that is, “Come, Japanese!” in a Granta series titled, “Aliens” and was immediately taken in by it. I knew then that I would read it when it would be made available. The stories are subtle, sharp and sometimes they wrench the heart and make you want more. The basic idea of having to master a new language after say thirteen years (as young) or thirty seven (as old) of thinking and dreaming in Japanese is a task for these women. Otsuka follows these women as they enter the early days of WWII, when entire Japanese-American communities disappeared (Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and Nagasaki being the reasons) to their relocation to desert camps.

The Buddha in the Attic is about the human touch. Always about it. Julie Otsuka does not for once waver from it. The writing is beautiful and easy to read, without losing the emotion it wants to convey. At the heart of the book, there is a lot of hope and love for the women in strange ways. I cannot for one wait to read her first book, “When the Emperor was Divine”.

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An Interview with Tishani Doshi

So I finished reading The Pleasure Seekers and so wanted to know more about the writer and how did the book was born. Here’s a short interview with Tishani Doshi via email. Hope you enjoy. I certainly did. Thanks Tishani. How did the title come to you?

 How did the title come to you?

There’s a quote from the Bible on a billboard outside a cheese shop in Kodaikannal, which I use in the book: “In the last days, men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, proud, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” There was such wonderful cadence in that line unholy lovers of pleasure. Perhaps that’s where it began.   

You have also written a book of poems, “Countries of the Body”. I have always had the opinion that poetry for most part gets lost in our country. Why is that? Was your book of poems received as well as the novel?

I’m not sure why poetry has gotten so sidetracked in recent times. Perhaps there’s a prevailing notion that it’s inaccessible or old-fashioned, but that’s completely untrue. Song lyrics and rap owe their origins to poetry. If Seamus Heaney can applaud the poetic powers of Eminem, then I think it should work the other way around too.

Mixed Parentage also to a large extent means being seen as an outsider from almost both sides and may be that’s what Bean and Mayuri largely feel. Is that true? 

Straddling two worlds is a large part of this novel, and for me personally, yes, the exploration began because I’m a product of two cultures. But I think being the outsider is a universal human experience. You don’t need to be a product of different religions or caste to long for a sense of belonging. It’s the most natural human emotion: to try and find your place in the world.

My favourite character/s in the entire book were Sian and Ba. Which ones were yours (though I realize it is not easy to choose) and why? 

I think I was fond of all my characters, even the ones that were a bit pernickety and difficult. For me, the story really begins once you create the characters; they make things happen. Ba was initially a minor character, but as I wrote she took over! It’s always interesting to see how the direction of the narrative changes as you go along. Chotu was another character that surprised me. I felt a great deal of tenderness towards him.

I loved the vibrancy and use of colours in the book. Right from the blues of the peacocks to the reds of the lizards. Did you live those during your childhood as well?

I think most people in India have had some experience with lizards, right? I personally love lizards, although I’m not sure about peacocks. I’ve always hated the sound they make, like babies crying, and they’re such awkward birds – beautiful but slightly absurd. As for colour, it’s probably the reason why I moved back to India from London. Once you’ve lived life in Technicolor it’s difficult to get used to a palette of greys.

My most favourite part in the book is at the end of chapter 6 about “Six Months of Waiting”. Which one is your most favourite part. How did the title come to you?

The title for the chapter you like is: This is the world. Have Faith, and it’s taken from the Dylan Thomas poem “Our Eunuch Dreams.” One of my favourite chapters is So this is where, at the start of Part Two. It’s a fast forward vignette style growing up of the two daughters, Bean and Mayuri. I’ve always loved how in Hindi films they use a song to show a passage of time – at the start the hero and heroine are young kids, and by the end they’re grown up and are in love. It’s a very effective tool to speed up the narrative, and I guess that chapter was my attempt at a song. Some of the titles are taken from bits of poetry and philosophy, others are my own concoctions.

What is the true essence of Sian? Was the character based on someone you know?

When I was growing up in Madras I got to know a great deal of foreign women, married to Indian men, who had made India their home. My mother, of course, was part of that community, and a lot of Sian’s story – the small village in North Wales etc, is taken directly from her experience. But there were so many stories I heard from women born in Sweden, America, Denmark, Germany, England – all who had met their husbands in the 50s or 60s, and who had decided to make their families and home in India. I felt their stories were very different from the immigrant experience of say, the Indian abroad. This was a reverse immigration story in a way. Because their motivations to come to India were not economic. They came for love, and they mostly stayed, with a great deal of difficulty of course – some never went home again, some lost touch with their families. And I was always touched by the ways in which they tried to integrate themselves, by the way they dealt with the immense separation and sacrifice. They were all remarkable women.   

How did the book come to you?

I think I went after it, actually. It was a very slow process, lots of layers and edits and re-thinking.

Writers often put themselves in their first book. How much of the book is you?

This book is in part a reinvention of family history, and so there’s a fair bit of me and other members of my family in it. But there are bits and pieces of other people’s family and experiences that have also fed into it. While I was writing the book I spoke to other people about the love story of their parents and all of it gradually grew in my mind as one grand story about a gigantic, idealized kind of love, which became Babo and Sian.

How close is dance to the form of writing?

Both are a form of creative discipline in a way, but the practice is very different. There’s a wonderful physicality involved in dance – daily rehearsals, performance, realizing the body’s limitations and possibilities. With writing, you’re doing the same thing without actually breaking into sweat. Writing is harder, I think, because it’s solitary and sedentary. Perhaps not if you’re one of those writers like Hemmingway, who stands up while they work – but I tend to crouch over a desk or write splayed out on a bed – very bad for posture. So I’m thankful for the dance element in my life. It keeps things in balance.

Next book in the pipeline?

A collection of poems, I hope.

Any literary influences?

Artistic influences, I would say – across the board – painters, musicians, writers, philosophers, photographers, dancers, architects, sculptors…. 

Most romantic book ever read?

Pride & Prejudice in any form always makes me a bit gushy. But I think I probably read most books as love stories. I’ve just read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray – both tremendous books, which have love at the centre of them (dysfunctional love, but still, love).

Most favourite book? and why?

Alice in Wonderland. It’s poetic, imaginative, whacky, wonderful, and works on many levels.

The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi

In the early hours of 20 August 1968, the morning of his son’s departure, Prem Kumar Patel succumbed to a luxury he had never, in all his forty-seven years of living, experienced before: he had a dream.

And with such magnificence the story of Patel-Joneses begins in Madras (Chennai formerly as). The story is rather simple: About a mixed-up love between two people, one a Gujarati and the other a Welsh girl. Both belonging to different worlds and different ideas, till they merge.

Babo, who travels to London for further education, leaving his family behind in Madras and Sian who flees her small Welsh village to come to London to work. The saga has only begun. With colourful characters such as Sian’s parents and Babo’s Ba, the novel kickstarts and preaches one constant throughout: Love. Love that brings Sian all the way from London to India to get married and have kids and find home at last, and yet continue searching throughout the book to find a place – their own speacial place.  To Babo who seeks his unique identity amidst the chaos and the business of being a family man, and to their children, Mayuri and Bean who struggle also to call a place home.

I have loved reading this book. More so because of the brilliant writing and use of language which is seamless. The terms used such as, “shabang shibing” and the bursts of poetry (since Ms. Doshi is first a poet) reminded me of a favourite song sung in a different language which I could fathom with ease.

My perosonal most favourite character in the book is Ba – the magical grandmother who can smell her family members from miles away (they all smell like spices) and takes a heartfelt interest in her children’s lives. There are blue peacocks and red lizards and then this tapestry of emotions that pull you away. At least they did for me. I loved Ms. Doshi’s prose and the story grew on me.

Beneath the layer of the narrative, there is the question of identity and which place is called home. The children – a result of a union of two different people, from different religions, races, cultures and countries. The country goes on with its life and historic incidents like Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Gujrat earthquake, the Bhopal gas tragedy and their lives go on, intertwined with each other.

Prose becomes poetry. Savour this work of brilliance.

Published by Bloomsbury, The Penguin Book Group, Available at all leading book stores, Rs. 499/-