WHAT I HAVE BEEN READING LATELY
Immigrant, Montana, by Amitava Kumar, Hamish Hamilton, $32. Carrying a single suitcase Kailash arrives in post-Reagan America from India to attend graduate school.
I had left home willing but was still struck by how little I had brought with me. It was as if I imagined I was going to discover a new self.
His new friends in New York teasingly call him Kalashnikov, then AK-47 and then just AK. He takes it all in his stride. He wants to fit in and he wants to shine.
He settles in, he falls in and out of love, and he remains lonely.
For many years, often full of self-pity, I would think that Lata Mangeshkar was singing the anthem for people like me: Tum na jaane kis jahan mein kho gaye...
For a school assignment, Kailash studies letters Indian soldiers serving in France during the First World War wrote home.
Too readily, I identified with what was in the letters: the desire to report on what was new but also to exaggerate, to make things extraordinary, to say that I eat meat every day or that I am served juice and wine.
And he greets spring like all new immigrants do. ...is there an immigrant from India or Jamaica or Kenya who isn’t thrilled to see the first daffodils of spring? The honest person forced to memorize Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils without having a clue about what those flowers looked like can celebrate spring with the kind of joy that the native born can never know. This is how we know we have arrived!
Many of us will recognize some part of themselves in Amitava Kumar’s Immigrant, Montana.
The Beautifull Cassandra, by Jane Austen, Princeton University Press. Most people think Jane Austen wrote only six novels. Fortunately for her legions of fans, she wrote several others, though very short ones, while still a young girl.
Austen was only twelve or thirteen when she wrote The Beautifull Cassandra (and yes, that’s beautifull with ll) recounting the adventures of the naughty but nice sixteen-year-old Cassandra.
Characters who would show up fully-fleshed out in her adult novels – countesses, viscounts, even coachmen and pastry cooks – make their debut in this humorous little masterpiece which weighs in at 465 occasionally misspelled words with twelve chapters, each consisting of a sentence or two.
Described as “among the most brilliant and polished” of Austen’s youthful writings by leading Austen scholar Claudia L. Johnson in her afterword, the precocious work written for the amusement of her family but already anticipating her mature irony, sense of the absurd, gift for parody, and, above all, stylistic mastery, is sure to delight ardent Janeites.
Elegant and edgy watercolor drawings by Leon Steinmetzhe make this perfectly delightful novel-in-miniature a book to treasure.
Not Quite Not White, by Sharmila Sen, Penguin, $22. The objects Sharmila Sen brings to America as a 12-year-old – a red plastic Viewmaster, four Bengali books, school report cards, and her “beloved collection of miniature plastic animals” that came free with Binaca toothpaste, among them – paint a picture of the girl she was in a few strokes.
The girl who excelled at school and went on to create an imaginary field guide for Going Native.
This includes her notes on the correct response on receiving a gift, on sneezing, the correct volume and pitch or the “indoor voice”, the unfortunate smell of curry, etc.
A searing appraisal of race and assimilation in the US, the book has also echoes in where she comes from – Kolkata, India.
Educated at Harvard and Yale and having taught courses in literature at Harvard and as the executive editor-at-large at Harvard University Press, Sen is uniquely positioned to comment on immigration and racism.
She asks a fellow student why they smile so much.
“We smile,” he tells me, “because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man.” Or an angry brown woman, I add, silently editing our conversation.
Years later, she is angry at herself for hushing her “native-born son when he complains that a teacher systematically confuses the names of all the brown boys in class”.
Sen also describes the divisions back home. North-Indian-South Indian, Hindu-Muslim, upper caste-lower caste, rich-poor and, light-skinned and dark.
Her observations on human behaviour are sharp and true.
Of the slums in India she didn’t “see”, Sen writes, “When I lived in India, I was blind to them. The greatest division in society is one that makes an entire group of humans simply invisible to us”.
She wore whiteface so well, that one day, a sari felt like a Halloween costume.
I was an ex-Indian Woman who had accidentally gone native in the old colonial style. I was reclining on daybeds, sitting cross-legged on the floor, lining my eyes with kohl, and smoking hookahs. I was a brown woman mimicking a white man pretending to be a brown man.
And she chooses to identify as Not White. Because no one can call themselves a person of colour without implicitly seeing their colour against a backdrop of whiteness.
Part memoir, part manifesto, Not Quite Not White is a witty, honest and poignant story of discovering how her not-whiteness in America defines her.
And yet, a part of me wonders if even she realizes just how ingrained the colour lens is in her psyche as I lose count of the number of times she describes or mentions her light complexion in this slim book.
The Scent of Mogra And Other Stories, by Aparna Kaji Shah, Inanna Press, $19.95. The collection of short stories about women dealing with difficult situations delves into the impact of social structures that discriminates against women.
Set mainly in India – in a village and in modern-day Mumbai – but Canada, too, they lay bare the isolation, the pain, and the strength beneath the soft, pliant exterior.
The Last Letter, written in the form of letters a lonely young woman writes home to her brother and close friend is heartbreaking in the build-up of details of her longing for love and respect.
Ba describes a feisty, sprightly grandmother who passes on valuable life lessons to her grandson in Toronto.
Drawing on the theme of reincarnation, The Scent of Mogra captures the sense of dislocation immigrants deal with. Yes, it drains you both physically and emotionally to live in different places, and then pack up and leave again, just when the unfamiliar has become familiar...
Maya dresses in festive Indian clothes and takes gajar halwa for her niece’s graduation party. The niece and sister-in-law are dismissive of the dessert and her brother is embarrassed by her dress. Everyone stopped talking when they entered, some looking at her as if she had come from another planet.
This particular passage had this reviewer pause and think. Now many people have or at least know of near ones who are less than loving, but a room of strangers looking askance at a newcomer in an Indian outfit?
Be that as it may, these real and moving stories are redolent with the sights, sounds, and yes, scent of places many of us called home.
The women in these stories will haunt you after you put down the book.
Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise, by David Ezra Stein. Elephant of surprise or element of surprise? Interrupting chicken is convinced it’s the former and it’s up to Papa to convince her otherwise!
“It’s the part of the story that makes you say, ‘Whoa! I didn’t know that was going to happen,” said Papa.
“An elephant in a story always makes me say, ‘Whoa!’” says Interrupting chicken.
And they are off to a gleeful reading of classics such as The Ugly Duckling, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid...
Will they find the elephant of surprise?
Sanyukta Ghag’s Teen Review of Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk, W. W. Norton & Company, $30.15. Adjustment Day explores author Chuck Palahniuk’s sense of dark humour, literary satire, and vivid language and imagery.
The book is set in the near future in America, where a third world war is about to begin.
Politicians, in pretence of maintaining peace and balance, are also trying to eliminate the young leaders of the pending uprising.
By reinstalling ‘drafting of young men to go to war to protect their nation’ they plan and hope to kill all the young men on both sides, who they know defy their power.
During this chaos, ‘The List’ appears on the internet, displaying a list of names. Anyone is allowed to add names of anyone who they think could be a public enemy, and are given the right to vote to select the names. The problem arises when the names that grow increasingly popular are those of the politicians, and highly respected individuals of the society.
At the same time, a blue-black book also begins going around, that everyone must carry and make it visible at all times, upon arrival of Adjustment Day.
The book is a commentary on our current society, and it pokes fun at aspects that are ridiculous, and speaks of issues that are worth talking about. Delivering the plot through a balanced cast instead of a set of main characters, Palahniuk brings a fresh style of writing to the table.
Those who liked Fight Club or read dystopian fiction will thoroughly enjoy this book.
• Sanyukta Ghag is a grade 10 student and a member of Brampton Library’s Teen Library Council.