Tag Archives: Jeanne E. Fredriksen

The Elephant Never Forgets

THE TUSK THAT DID THE DAMAGE by Tania James. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book. Hardcover $22.73.

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With novels constructed on interlocking stories, authors run the risk of one or more of the tales not meeting the same mark on the compelling scale, leaving perhaps, a story that doesn’t hold its own against the others. In The Tusk That Did the Damage, short-listed for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize, Tania James (The Atlas of Unknowns—reviewed in IC August 2009; Aerogrammes—reviewed in IC October 2012) nearly falls into that trap but manages to step back before being completely snared.

Taking the reader into the jungles of South India, James’ writing continues to refine in her third book and second novel. In it, she takes on the reprehensible slaughter of elephants for the ivory trade. James tells three stories that alternate and converge, and the book begins with beautifully-written chapters that ooze with the promise of continued excellence: “The Elephant,” “The Poacher,” “The Filmmaker,” each introduced in succession, and as it happens, each in their proper order of accomplished storytelling.

“The Elephant,” also known as “The Gravedigger,” has his own story. It is a biography of hardship, loneliness, misunderstanding, and struggle. Told in third person, this is arguably the most compelling of the three stories, with James nearly getting into the elephant’s head close enough to have written it in first person. However, by resisting that first-person temptation, “The Gravedigger” isn’t self-viewed as a victim. Rather, he is developed as a product of his environment and personal history. By accomplishing this feat, the debate over elephants being living, breathing creatures of beauty vs. killers, destroyers of life and property, becomes all the more complex.

The poacher’s story, like the filmmaker’s, is told in first person, but unlike the other two stories, it could well have been a standalone novella. Here, the covert world of the ivory trade is introduced along with the poverty that drives men to think there will be fast, easy cash involved. Manu, who desires acceptance like his poacher brother Jayan, wrestles with his moral compass in an attempt to seek revenge for a family death and impress the woman he loves.

The filmmaker’s story brings an “observer” factor to the novel and, in comparison, loses strength even as it adds a thorny layer when the focus shifts to sex and 23-year old Emma—the narrator and filmmaker—goes against her own code of not getting involved with her subjects. Eventually, this story recharges itself when Emma uncovers much more than what her documentary of a renowned elephant veterinarian was meant to be; she discovers dark proceedings that only lead to danger and tragedy.

Tusk raises important questions about conservationism, morality, and mortality. There is a near-human embodiment of “The Elephant”—as imperfect as we humans and as vulnerable as any of us in situations we don’t understand—and a creative examination of those who engage in the illegal ivory trade. In the end, the haunting question that lingers is not “Is poaching a crime?” for we know that it is. The question becomes, “When the tusk did the damage, what damage was done to whom?”

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. Between assignments, she writes fiction, hunts for the perfect Bloody Mary, and heads to the beach as often as she can.

The Princess Doth Protest

SOPHIA–Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand. New York: Bloomsbury USA bloomsbury.comanitaanand.com. 432 pages.

Exhumed from obscurity, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (1876-1948) is celebrated in Anita Anand’s ambitious but often-didactic biography, Sophia–Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. The youngest daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh—robbed of his kingdom when he was a child and brought to England at age 15—and the granddaughter of the “Lion of Punjab,” Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Sophia was born and raised in exiled English comfort and royal lavishness.

Because of her exotic heritage and because her godmother was Queen Victoria, Sophia was internationally known as one of the “Duleep Singh Princesses.” Her life as a socialite was fulfilling but only insofar as party-going, wearing the latest Paris fashions, and raising champion show dogs; she was never considered marriageable because of the color of her skin.

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Nevertheless, she was her own woman, boldly devoted to the new rage of cycling, photography, and, to her family’s dismay, smoking. For all the pleasure Sophia experienced in English society, though, it is clear she lived with equal parts of loneliness and depression that receded when a sibling required her help or companionship.

One British newspaper called her a “thoroughly English girl,” yet she was always searching for purpose in life to seal the society-imposed gaps. Allowed to visit India for the first time in 1903, she saw “poverty and depravation on a scale that overwhelmed her. Also, she came face to face with all that her family had lost.” The realism that kills the debutante gives birth to the revolutionary, and Sophia would never be a carefree socialite again.

Back in England, Sophia focuses her energy on promoting awareness of and fundraising in aid of the lascars—Indian sailors who were stranded on the English coast and abused by their employer, the East India Company. Three years later, Sophia returns to India at which time her political views begin to find definition. As political turbulence grows in India, the princess befriends activists Sarla Devi Choudrani, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Sophia goes back to England in 1907 with a renewed passion to agitate and act.

Sophia steps wholeheartedly into the women’s suffragette movement, most notably by spearheading firm personal protests against paying taxes because she had no representation. She sits with suffragette leaders at rallies, sells the movement’s newspaper on the street, chants slogans at meetings, and lends her presence to help women gain their voting rights. Unlike her compatriots who suffer indignities at the hands of the police, Sophia is never arrested despite the Political and Secret Department of the India Office having kept a dossier on her activities since before she was ten years old.

Even as she grew older, she continued to lead. During World War I, she undertook the role of nurse to wounded Indian soldiers who fought on the Western front. During World War II, she moved to the English countryside for safety and sheltered a family of children, something she reveled in as she had no children of her own.

The highlights of the book lie firmly in Sophia’s letters to her sisters and to the India Office as well as her personal diary, her father’s letters, and newspaper clippings. In her own hand, Sophia’s concerns, fears, and joys reveal her voice on matters both pressing and dear. Anand’s research is impressive, but she reports rather than rejuvenates. Still, the subject itself is lively enough.

Although the book can be as dry as a textbook, without Anand’s interest and her primary sources, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and her contributions to the world would remain buried in the manner which British officials had wished it to be. It is a shame that last year’s film titled Suffragette made no mention of this plucky and influential woman who helped shape that period of time when women began to stand tall and break free of some of the constraints under which they were forced to exist.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. Between assignments, she writes fiction, hunts for the perfect Bloody Mary, and heads to the beach as often as she can.

 

Educated Women

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One day in 1995, Bela Dewan telephones her mother outside of Kolkota, begging her to talk sense into Tara, the granddaughter she’s only seen in photographs. Tara wants to quit college, and Bela, in Houston, is terrified that her daughter is making a mistake and throwing away her future—just as she had. Unable to communicate face-to-face, Sabitri begins to write a letter to Tara, explaining why she should stay in school, and as she writes, memories return of her own life as a servant’s daughter who dreamed of an education. She spares herself no criticism in her memoir.

So begins Before We Visit the Goddess, by award-winning and best-selling author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

The three generations of women on two continents comprise one family, fractured by an insurmountable distance born of prickly relations between mothers and daughters. Sabitri, born and raised in India, tested but not broken, never leaves the country. Bela, born and raised in India, elopes to America to her political activist boyfriend who forces her to sever ties with her mother. Tara, born and raised in America, struggles to find self-significance on her own terms.

Before We Visit The Goddess is a bittersweet collection of nine related short stories stretching from 1963 to 2020, featuring different points of view at different times in the characters’ histories. Divakaruni, the author of 16 previous books, found stepping out of her comfort zone and into a novel-in-stories rewarding.

“I have long loved reading this form in works such as Louise Erdrich’s wonderful Love Medicine, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad,” Divakaruni explained. “It combines the best aspects, for me, of the novel and the short story. It allowed me to deal with a three-generational family saga in a succinct and (I hope) elegant manner. It allowed me to leap from across decades in some cases, and yet create a sense of continuity through the generations and continents where these women live.”

Structured in this way, the book is able to focus on the most important and most dramatic decisions, events, and realizations in the characters’ lives. Misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and missteps, as well as each character’s regrets, successes, and personal victories are carefully revealed and painstakingly examined from one story to the next. Moreover, Before We Visit The Goddess is a portrait of how we, as women, fail ourselves and what we lose in our lives when we turn away from our elders—and vice versa.

“[Those are] important aspects in the lives of these … women that I wanted to illuminate,” said Divakaruni in e-correspondence. “In addition, I wanted the book to ask the questions, What is the meaning of success for a woman? What gives her happiness? Does this change as we moved from generation to generation and from India to America? Is it possible to learn from inherited wisdom, or does each generation have to find wisdom the hard way?”

The topic of immigration is nothing new in literature; however, according to Divakaruni, it’s the changes caused by such movement as they affect the individuals and their families, the losses and the gains, that interest her the most. What better way to explore that concept than by placing one character firmly in India, the second straddling continents, and the third firmly in America? To tie the characters together as three generations of one family adds another dimension.

“I am also fascinated by inter-generational relationships,” Divakaruni added, “and in my own life I am very aware of how my relationship with my children is very different from the relationship I have with my mother.”

The novel traces the author’s own geographical route as it moves from a small village in Bengal to California and then to Texas, where she currently lives and teaches. Education plays a significant role in the lives of Sabitri, Bela, and Tara—the desire, the regret, the second chance.

When asked if education is one of the book’s focal points because she’s an educator, or might it be a comment on gender politics, Divakaruni responded, “Both, really.” Education was always essential in her family. Divakaruni teaches at the University of Houston, where she is the McDavid Professor of Creative Writing, her mother was a schoolteacher, and one of her uncles taught college in a village in India.

“I came from a family of very modest financial means, but my mother always made sure that I had a good education, even if she had to skimp on clothing and housing—and sometimes even food,” Divakaruni said.

Involved with Pratham, a non-profit which educates underprivileged children in the slums of India, and Daya, a domestic violence organization in Houston, Divakaruni likewise brings to this work primary insight into myriad issues facing single women/single mothers and the means to empowerment.

“I know that education is often an individual’s only path to success and transformation. So Sabitri’s longing for education is something that rises from deep within myself,” Divakaruni said. “I also learned, by observing the women around me … that economic independence, a career or business, is extremely important for women if they are to live a life of dignity. All of these thoughts, feelings and beliefs are interwoven into the lives of the three main characters.”

The losses and successes in the stories are the characters’ own responsibility as much as they are attributed to any outside relationships. Actions beget subsequent actions, positive or negative, and the daisy-chain of events affects succeeding generations. Mix in a helping of fate, and the complexity magnifies.

“That is what I wanted to depict in this novel: an intersection of fate, which we cannot control, and our passions and desires, which push us inexorably in a certain direction, even when we know it’s wrong,” said Divakaruni.

Divakaruni has created characters to be embraced despite their difficulties with each other; learned from when they stumble and fall; and celebrated as they pick themselves up again. There is grace and compassion in her writing as emotions spike and subside. Life-changing disappointments are tempered with kindness, and at no time does the author chastise a character for her imperfections; she allows her characters to learn from their mistakes and restore their lives as best they can.

As for what she hopes readers will glean from reading Before We Visit The Goddess, she said, “When I write a book, I don’t have a particular agenda. I’m really only offering the readers a story, a story that interested and moved me, because I believe that through stories we understand the world in a deeper, richer way. I hope the stories of these three women, and the men who love, support, transform and/or betray them, will touch the hearts of readers and make them examine their own lives anew.”

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. Between assignments, she writes fiction, hunts for the perfect Bloody Mary, and heads to the beach as often as she can.

 

A Quartet of Mighty Women

INDIA GRAY: HISTORICAL FICTION by Sujata Massey. Ikat Press, Baltimore. 2015. Available as an e-book and print paperpack. $16 paperback. 316 pages.

If you’re looking for something fresh that offers variety and suspense in storytelling, Sujata Massey’s latest book, India Gray: Historical Fiction, is the perfect read. Even if the genre isn’t your first choice for reading material, Massey’s writing is so fluid and captivating that her smartly-drawn characters—definitely products of their time—are easy to love for who they are and what they champion: truth, love, compassion, and determination.books_india_gray

The book contains two novellas and two short stories that offer something for everyone. Each of the four stories features a strong female lead that demands the reader’s attention, supporting characters that satisfy, and conflicts that intrigue.

“Outnumbered” is a novella set in 1919 at St. Hilda’s and Balliol Colleges at Oxford. Perveen Mistry of Bombay, a law student with a secret, and her lively friend, mathematics student the Honourable Alice Hobson-Jones, are drawn into a missing person case when an Indian domestic disappears along with a male student’s proprietary paper.

Like characters in good buddy stories, Perveen and Alice turn stuffy Oxford on its heels and deliver the yin and the yang that make the story fun. Watch out for a good amount of intellectual adventurousness tempered by a dash of daredevil decorum in the pursuit of truth.

The novella, however, happily is not the end of Perveen and Alice, who are slated to star in their own series. In late 2015, Massey signed a contract with Soho Crime, and the series will be set in Bombay where Perveen has returned to her father’s law practice. There she’ll encounter “all kinds of fascinating characters and clients,” according Massey. Alice tags along to give her a hand as they tackle cases drawn from real events of the time. Look for the first book in 2017.

The second novella in the collection is “The Ayah’s Tale,” a story that heartbreakingly demonstrates the triumphs and failings of humans delicately bound by relationships complicated by race, education, culture, and colonialism. “The Ayah’s Tale” was originally published as a standalone novella by Sujata Massey and Ikat Press in 2013.

In 1952 Malaya, a collection of stories by a British war hero stuns Menakshi because the author writes of his childhood in India when she was his caregiver.

As she reads, Menakshi is swept back to the 1920s when she was a 16-year old ruled not only by the Raj but also by Julian’s cruelly-domineering mother and unsympathetic father. Alternating between Julian’s stories and Menakshi’s own memories, the full picture of her dashed personal dreams and love for the children are laid bare against the lavishness and deception within the household.

Readers who enjoyed Massey’s The Sleeping Dictionary (IC, September 2014) will be pleased to read “India Gray,” a short story featuring Kamala, the steadfast heroine of the novel, and her husband, Simon Lewes.

The year is 1945, and as a high-ranking British official with the Indian Civil Service, Simon is temporarily moved from Calcutta to an Allied military installation in Assam. Never one to rest, Kamala joins him, volunteering to work at the Allied hospital. There she learns that wounded prisoners of war—members of the Japanese-supported India National Army—are treated and held until their sentences have been decided.

Kamala’s innate compassion, coupled with being the wife of the man who will decide the prisoners’ fates, puts her in a challenging situation with hospital personnel and Simon.

When asked about a sequel to her novel, Massey said, “a full sequel … is years away because [I’m] so busy with Perveen and Alice and their series.” Alas, this is a catch-22 simply because a “Dictionary” sequel would be wonderful, but the new series is thoroughly appealing.

Taking a leap into more recent memory, the short story “Bitter Tea” moves us to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier when the Taliban imposed their strict religious laws on villages. This story originally appeared titled “The Mayor’s Movie” in the short story anthology Politics Noir: Dark Tales From the Corridors of Power, edited by Gary Philips and published by Verso in 2008. In the story, fourteen-year old Shazia, annoyed that she can neither go to school nor leave the house (unless covered by a burka and accompanied by a male), discovers that a friend and her friend’s mother have been forced into a situation that could be dangerous.

Restless but determined to find a way to rescue them, Shazia and her trusted cousins devise a bold plan to free Farida and her mother. With that plan comes the knowledge that failure will result in the worst of all punishments. A simple twist of fate, however, shocks them all.

Sujata Massey is a seasoned author with eleven books in her popular Rei Shimura series plus her superb aforementioned entrance into India-centric historical fiction. Despite her publishing prowess, India Gray: Historical Fiction is a departure for her because it is self-published under her own Ikat Press imprint.

Aside from having a traditional publishing history, her motive for self-publishing is simple: “It allows me to publish more frequently … material that might not seem profitable to a publisher,” she explained.

To maintain the quality of her traditionally-published books, she personally hires independent pre-production personnel. The result is this beautiful and inspiring collection of extraordinary female protagonists that well represent their histories and cultures.

Crafted with Massey’s special brand of mystery, this volume is a gem that might otherwise have gone unexcavated.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. Between assignments, she writes fiction, hunts for the perfect Bloody Mary, and heads to the beach as often as she can.