Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
Stories can be powerful agents of change that reflect reality and move us towards a better future, if only we have the courage to share them.
“Stories bring us together, untold stories keep us apart” ~ Elif Shafak.
For a long time I was just a reader. First as a bookish schoolgirl and later as a quiet teenager who preferred the sensibly laid out plots in novels and logically solved thrillers to the confusing world around me. I graduated from Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers to Agatha Christie and Sidney Sheldon, reading whatever I could find in the homes of friends and relatives – dog-eared books, old magazines and past issues of Reader’s Digest. Sometimes I shelled out precious rupees from my monthly pocket money for dusty bargain paperbacks from street vendors and occasionally I borrowed books from the hole-in-the-wall Mumbai bookshops that doubled as lending libraries.
Too naive to distinguish between literary fiction and pulp fiction, chick-lit and magic realism, to me a book was a book. I read for the pleasure of it. My science education was a blessing because I was not trained to read between and below the lines of the words on the page. I simply admired the stories. And authors remained mysterious creatures who concocted fabulous tales from the recesses of their imagination, forever to be admired for their storytelling skills.
Plenty to read
It wasn’t until I arrived in the US that I began to look at books more closely. From well-stocked public libraries to well-lit bookstores that also served coffee, it was a book lover’s heaven. Unlike the outdated, soiled collections that I previously had to make do with, now I could touch pristine paperbacks and glossy jacketed hardbound books. New releases and New York Times bestsellers, fiction and nonfiction books were neatly stacked at Barnes and Noble and were also freely available at my local library.
Through interviews with authors that aired on television and appeared in newspapers, I saw the people who wrote these books. From mythical creatures, authors became accessible humans who walked and spoke and ate and slept just like me. And once the connection between story and storyteller was made, I began to look for stories that spoke to me as a student, an immigrant, and a working mother, a search that grew with each year that I lived in the US.
Stories connect us
While I am transported by all stories, I cannot find myself reflected in every book I read. Yet, when I see parts of myself reflected in a character in a story, even if they don’t always look like me or share my cultural background or my life trajectory, I feel seen and valued. In Maeve Binchy’s novel Echoes, set in a small Irish town, I felt a sense of kinship with the nerdy protagonist who excels in school. And when I suffered through a phase of infertility, the protagonist of Linda Crew’s novel Ordinary Miracles set in Oregon mirrored my pain and feelings of inadequacy.
Writing about the self
While in the US, I went through a phase where I actively sought writing by Indian American writers. In the pre-Jhumpa Lahiri phase, I read contemporary novels by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruini and Bharti Mukherjee and revisited V.S Naipaul. When I returned to India, in the pre-Chetan Bhagat phase, I binge-read Shashi Deshpande’s fiction. Each of these satisfied the reader in me to various extents.
Following the huge success of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in the US in the nineties, I came across other memoirs. Later when I began to dabble in personal essays, I became curious about the process of writing a full-length book of a person’s true story. Were there any memoirs by Indian authors I wondered? Of course, there were biographies and autobiographies, but these were typically about famous politicians, artists or celebrities with highly unusual life stories.
Memoirs appealed to me because they depicted the often ignored extraordinary undercurrent of the lives of ordinary people whose stories were valuable to the rest of us precisely for the ordinariness that was our shared experience.
Of writing and publishing
Earlier this year when I embarked on writing my memoir, I became even more curious about other Indian authors like me who had stepped into the untested waters of memoir writing. Culturally we are primed to celebrate outward success but keep the failures and tribulations under wraps. Infertility, divorce, mental health and other topics are all too often brushed under the rug, further isolating the individuals who are going through a difficult phase. Had anyone attempted to write about these topics? I had several questions that I knew would be of interest to readers and other writers.
Why did they write their story? And how? What was their path to publication? What did they learn from their writing journey? What did they want readers and other aspiring writers to know?
In The Power of Meaning – Crafting a Life That Matters, researcher and author Emily Esfahani Smith claims that storytelling forms one of four pillars of meaning. Our storytelling impulse arises from a deep-seated human instinct to “make sense of our world and our place in it, and understand why things happen the way they do”.
I tentatively approached one author after another, to ask them the story behind their books. With each interview, I felt inspired and energized by their desire and commitment to share their story. I began to feature a monthly author interview segment on my blog where I highlighted their books and writing journeys which allowed me to refuel my creative tank as I wrote about my own difficult journey through separation and divorce.
The process of reaching out to memoir writers, of getting to know their struggles with the story and the craft of writing has helped me tremendously as a writer and made me even more aware of the difficulties of sharing personal stories that demand both vulnerability and grit.
Publishing houses look for books that sell, a decision often made not on the basis of the inherent value of the story but on the author’s platform and the fit of the narrative in the current context. What about the ordinary stories of ordinary people that have the power to move us?
My goal for my memoir is for it to initiate conversations about divorce, which is becoming common in Indian society. My book may not reflect everyone’s experience but by putting it out there, I am adding to the practically non-existent body of literature on the subject of desi divorce.
It is only by having many voices telling their story that we can truly break the hold of a dominant narrative that may be true but flawed, because it does not reflect the whole.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. She is the author of three books and is the co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her memoir – Rewriting My Happily Ever After will be available in October 2021. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram