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  • Written by Amulya Malladi
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  • Written by Amulya Malladi
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The Sound of Language

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A Novel

Written by Amulya MalladiAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Amulya Malladi

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: November 26, 2008
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49115-2
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this luminous story of bravery, tradition, and the power of language, an Afghan woman and Danish widower form an unexpected alliance.

Escaping the turmoil and heartbreak of war-torn Kabul, Raihana settles with distant relatives in the strange, cold, damp country of Denmark. Homesick and heartbroken, Raihana bravely attempts to start a new life, trying hard not to ponder the fate of her husband, who was taken prisoner by the Taliban and never heard from again.

Soon after arriving, Raihana finds herself in a language school, struggling to learn Danish, which she thinks sounds like the buzzing of bees. To improve her speaking skills, Raihana apprentices herself to Gunnar, a recent widower who is steadily withdrawing from the world around him, even neglecting the bee colonies he worked so hard to cultivate with his late wife. Over the course of the bee season, Raihana and Gunnar forge an unlikely relationship, despite the disapproval of their friends and relatives. But when the violence Raihana thought she had left behind in Afghanistan rears its head, she and Gunnar are forced to confront the ghosts of the past as they navigate the uncertain future.


Praise for Song of the Cuckoo Bird

“Mesmerizing . . . a sprawling, gorgeous intergenerational saga.”
–Jacquelyn Mitchard.

“An intelligent, absorbing novel.”
–The Boston Globe


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

One

Entry from Anna’s Diary
A Year of Keeping Bees

15 March 1980

When we first decided to become hobby beekeepers, it was because our friend Ole had been doing it for a very long time and seemed to find a lot of solace in the rituals and responsibility. But I had some doubts.

The wings of honeybees stroke about 11,400 times per minute—hence the distinctive buzz. I wondered about the buzzing of the bees. I was sure that constant hum would drive me crazy. But now, after a few seasons, the buzz of the bees is like a soothing rhythm, almost like a song, the song of spring.

Skive, Denmark—January 2002

Bzzzzzz, that was how she thought it sounded.

Bzzzzzz, like the buzzing of a thousand bees.

The same sound she used to hear when she visited her uncle Chacha Bashir in Baharak. He had been one of the wealthiest men in town with his silk and bee farm. Silk and honey, he would say, “The riches of the kings are mine.” Then the Taliban killed him and no one knew what happened to his family.

That was how the Danish language sounded to Raihana, like the buzzing of Chacha Bashir’s bees.

The Danes mumbled, she thought as she watched them in supermarkets, on television, and on the streets. She had never seen so many white people before, and this was the first time she was seeing white people at such close proximity. So she stared at them, she just couldn’t help it.

They were different from what she had imagined. They were not all tall and fair and beautiful, some of them were short and ugly. And they mumbled when they spoke. The standing joke, Layla had told her, was that they spoke like they had hot potatoes in their mouths and Raihana agreed.

She had escaped a second brutally cold winter at the Jalozai refugee camp in North Western Pakistan when the Danish government offered her asylum. It was difficult for a single woman with no family, no husband, and no education to survive. Her choices had been limited. She could either die in a refugee camp where the cold wind from the mountains pierced its frozen fingers through the tents to all but peel the skin off the bones, or she could go to this country where her distant cousin and his wife had agreed to give her a home.

A part of her didn’t want to leave the camp. She had to wait, she thought, wait for Aamir, or maybe go back and look for him? But even she wasn’t foolish enough to go back to Kabul. Everyone knew that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the plane attacks in America and everyone knew that the Taliban were the same species as al- Qaeda. America would attack; that’s what powerful countries did. The Taliban would fight back, they said, and though the Afghans in Denmark, like many others, didn’t like the idea of American troops on Afghan soil, it was better than the Taliban. Some thought the Taliban had been unjustly rousted out of power, that they were the good guys.

So Raihana joined the small number of refugees living in Denmark, all of whom watched the news with desperation, wondering when they could go back. Afghanistan, they knew, would be a war ruin for several decades to come, but there was still hope. They wished that, somehow, Afghanistan would no longer be synonymous with tortured men and women living in penury. Maybe things would change and Afghanistan would become a safe haven, a progressive country, a normal country.

“Have to go home someday, can’t live here all our life can we?” Kabir would say almost every day. “Don’t unpack everything, Raihana, we’ll go back soon.”

“Go back to what?” Layla would ask her husband, her hands on her hips as her son, Shahrukh, pulled at her salwar.

“Mor, slik,” he said, pleading with his mother to give him candy, which she had strict rules about not giving to him.

“Look at him, hai, Shahrukh, it is not Mor, it is Ammi, say Ammi,” Kabir said as he always did, but Shahrukh never took him seriously. “Mor is some Danish woman, not Layla, she is Ammi. Now say Ammi.”

“Leave him alone, he’s just two,” Layla said. “And he’s calling me mother, not some evil name. All his friends call their mothers Mor, so he calls me Mor.”

Raihana watched the young couple battle about going back, about staying. She had been scared when the people from the Danish immigration told her that Kabir wanted her to live with him. She remembered Kabir from her childhood, a long time ago. He was her mother’s sister’s husband’s brother’s son. The families had not been close, only meeting at weddings and celebrations. Kabir’s family had lived in Kabul while hers settled in a village outside Kabul. But he was the only one who had offered her a chance to leave the refugee camp and she had taken it. She hadn’t had much of a choice. The rumor was that Aamir had died in a Taliban prison, but a part of her never believed it. However, she knew she had to leave Pakistan because whether she liked it or not, there was a good chance the rumor about Aamir was true.

But she wished—wished until she went mad with it—that he was alive. She wished they had been able to leave together. She wished she wasn’t alone and cold because even though Kabul had been hell, she’d had someone to share it with, someone to keep her warm. But in the refugee camp in Pakistan, there was emptiness, insecurity, threats from other men, and fear.

It had been a stroke of luck that when she rattled out the names of relatives and where she thought they lived, she had named Kabir. The others had not panned out, maybe they couldn’t be found or maybe they hadn’t wanted her, she didn’t know. What she did know was that Kabir and Layla had welcomed her with open arms and that was a debt she would never be able to repay.

As she sat at the dining table chopping carrots for the Kabuli pilau she was making for dinner, Raihana was grateful for the turn her life had taken after she’d moved to Denmark. When she’d first come to Skive nine months before, she had been worried that Kabir would be a religious type. She didn’t intend to wear a hijab or an abaya, not after having left Afghanistan and the rules of the Taliban so far behind.

Kabir hadn’t asked her to wear a hijab and neither had Layla, who never went out without donning one herself, in addition to an abaya. Kabir, who drank merrily on Friday nights to celebrate the weekend, didn’t ask his wife to get rid of her hijab and she didn’t ask him to stop drinking.

“Islam says smoking and drinking is wrong,” Layla told Raihana on one of the Friday nights when Kabir was out of the house. “What do you think?”

Raihana didn’t know what to say about things like this. She believed that people should do what they wanted but knew that was not what Layla wanted to hear.

“I think it is wrong,” Layla said before Raihana could answer. It wasn’t like Raihana was talkative, and she didn’t always respond to people. Layla had met women like her, men too, people who had scars so big hidden under their skin that they were really one big wound. She didn’t know the details about Raihana’s life in Afghanistan, but no one knew the details. Raihana wasn’t talking and her past was not well known.

When Raihana had first arrived, Khala Soofia, who lived next door, had tried to get Raihana to talk about her past, about her life in Kabul, the dead husband, but Raihana didn’t say anything. Khala Soofia had come to Denmark in the early 1990s. Her husband had been a doctor in Jalalabad. Her son had died of cancer, and her daughter had moved to America with her husband, also a doctor, and their children. Soofia talked about moving there all the time.

Soofia’s husband, Dr. Sidiq Rehman, had spent several years when he first came to Denmark petitioning the Danish integration minister and the Danish Medical Association, and writing letters to EU Parliament members, that he should be allowed to work in Denmark without having to go to medical school again. He understood that he had to learn Danish, which he had done by diligently going to language school.

Now he’d stopped the petitions and the letters. He didn’t come out of his house much. He was depressed, they said, because he couldn’t practice medicine. Still everyone called him Doctor Chacha. While Doctor Chacha silently mourned the loss of his life’s work, Soofia kept hoping that her daughter would send for her. “Visa problems,” she always said. “But it will happen soon. You know daughters, they need their mothers.”

Everyone nodded patiently and no one pointed out that Soofia’s daughter rarely wrote and when she did the letters were filled with excuses as to why she couldn’t find the means to bring her parents to America. Soofia read out the letters to whoever would listen and would try to put a positive spin on her daughter’s excuses.

“You are just like my daughter, my Deena,” Soofia told Raihana when they met at a birthday party. Habib and Jameela were celebrating their son’s first birthday and had invited all the Afghans in Skive for a party. It had been a tumultuous first year for the boy, who had been born with heart problems, but after two surgeries he seemed fine and the doctors predicted he would have no further problems.

Raihana was barely paying attention to Soofia, who talked constantly, either about her daughter or about local Afghan community gossip. But soon enough, Soofia got to Raihana.

“So, where is your husband?” she asked.

Raihana was not stupid. She knew people were curious.

“Dead,” she said quietly and then tried to change the subject by asking Soofia about her gold bangles. Soofia was easily distracted, especially when someone talked about her jewelry or her clothes. She had brought along her things from Jalalabad. She’d had the time. She had not been rushed to save her life. She had not had to escape after seeing a bloodbath, running and hiding through plains and mountains to enter another hell in a refugee camp in Pakistan.

“Dead? How?” Soofia asked and Raihana just smiled and shrugged. “You have to talk, if you keep it bottled in . . . talk, tell us. We’re your family now,” Soofia insisted, but Raihana didn’t have the words. She was considered strange by most, a little too quiet. She had obviously been through some unspeakable tragedy, they all sensed. When she talked about going back to Kabul, it just confirmed their suspicions.

“From Iran it is easier to get into Afghanistan,” Walid Ali Khan told her as he sipped tea from Layla’s prized teacups.

Walid Ali Khan and Zohra were Kabir and Layla’s closest friends and they visited them often for lunch on the weekends and then stayed through dinner and past their children’s bedtime.

Walid and Zohra had come to Denmark six years ago with one child. Between maternity leaves and giving birth to two children, Zohra still went to language school, while Walid worked at the supermarket Kvickly.

“But now is not a good time to go. You know how the Americans are bombing from Kabul to Kandahar and everything in between?” Walid said shaking his head.
Amulya Malladi|Author Q&A

About Amulya Malladi

Amulya Malladi - The Sound of Language

Photo © Soren Rasmussen

Amulya Malladi has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in journalism. Born and raised in India, she lived in the United States for several years before moving to Denmark, where she now lives on the island of Mors with her husband and two sons. You can contact her at www.amulyamalladi.com.

Author Q&A

A Conversation With Amulya Malladi

I moved to Denmark from the United States in 2002 and was immediately struck by how refugees and immigrants in general are treated in this country. We moved to Denmark in large part because my husband is Danish and we wanted our boys to get a dose of Europe. Since I had already been an immigrant in the United States, I didn’t think Denmark would be much different; needless to say, I was wrong. The Sound of Language almost didn’t get written. I had this idea about writing a story about the friendship between an Afghan refugee and an old Danish beekeeper–but I didn’t know where to start. One Christmas, while I was doing the dishes with Dorthe Vejsnæs (my husband’s aunt), I told her my idea about this story. She suggested I speak with her husband, Flemming, a beekeeping expert. Flemming was kind enough to help me with my story by telling me stories about beekeepers and beekeeping. We recently spoke about the origins of the novel.

Flemming Vejsnæs: Why did you choose the title The Sound of Language?

Amulya Malladi: Well, when I first came to Denmark, Danish sounded like the buzzing of bees. I never ever thought I’d learn the language. And that’s when I first started to think about the sound each language has and when I thought about an Afghan refugee in Denmark, I was sure she’d also think about the buzzing of bees when she heard Danish. The title of the book was pretty obvious; I always thought of this story as The Sound of Language.

FV: You wrote this story during a very turbulent period. 9/11 certainly changed the world, but the small kingdom of Denmark came into focus because of the Mohammed cartoons that a Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, published in September 2005. Did this unpleasant situation influence your book?

AM: I can’t say it did. The controversy went into full swing in January 2006 with people burning down Danish (and sometimes even Swedish) embassies in Middle Eastern countries. The base of the book was already in place and the timeline wouldn’t allow me to mention these incidents in the book. But it would have been interesting to see how Layla, Raihana, and Kabir reacted to the Mohammed cartoons. Would they have been offended? Or would they have been like many other moderate Muslims in Denmark who thought that Jyllands Posten’s bad taste didn’t mean that there should be death threats against Danes and Denmark.

FV: You came from an enormous country–the United States–to a small country, Denmark. Now you have been here for almost five years. What is your opinion about Denmark?
AM: That is a loaded question coming from a Dane and I really want to be able to say that Denmark is wonderful–but that wouldn’t be the truth. To be honest, I miss the United States very, very much. I miss the friendly people, I miss the wide-open spaces, I miss the online shopping, the excellent customer service, Barnes & Noble with Starbucks, Denny’s for breakfast. . . .What’s interesting is that I rarely meet immigrants who say they love living in Denmark. It’s a difficult country to immigrate to and I can only imagine how hard it is for people who don’t have my advantages–who are not educated and don’t have the familial support system I do.The hardest part about living in Denmark is that as an immigrant you are expected to leave where you come from behind, completely, and become Danish. But there are good things about Denmark too. My husband and I love the Danish kindergarten and day-care system. First, it’s top-notch child care; second, it’s subsidized, so you can actually afford it. The companies in Denmark don’t expect you to work insane hours, and coming from Silicon Valley, that was a surprise. Companies constantly talk about reducing work pressure, and don’t expect employees to work long hours or on weekends–they want you to go home and be with your family. AND–and this is a big and–we get thirty vacation days a year. The first year we had this luxury, my husband and I couldn’t quite figure out what to do. We’d never taken three weeks vacation in a row and we had to actually work at finding out what kind of vacation we liked to go on.

FV: In the book you describe the horrors Raihana goes through before coming to Denmark and I believe that her story is true. Are the stories you tell about refugees in these books real?

AM: The stories are not real in their entirety. I did speak to refugees and I also read a lot of refugee reports online. So I mixed and matched, I think, to come up with Raihana, Layla, and Kabir’s stories.

FV: Layla, Kabir’s wife, says, “We are here, Raihana, and we live here. If you keep one foot in Afghanistan, you will be neither here nor there.” She is right, but it seems like a very difficult situation. Do you think a lot of refugees feel this way?

AM: The refugees I spoke with all said that they wanted to go home. One man said to me, “You always want to go home. That’s how it is. I’m sure you want to go home too.” I realized then that I was different because I left my country by choice and I could always go back, so I didn’t have this burning desire to go back. I wondered if it would be different if I’d had to run for my life away from my country. I think it would be.

FV: One of the main themes in your book is language barriers. Confusion and misunderstandings are the results. Why is language so important?

AM: When I was young I read a Reader’s Digest story about a couple living on a boat. They spoke different languages and had been together for nearly fifteen years. They had showed up in front of a judge, asking for a divorce. I don’t remember the rest of the story, but the idea of people being unable to communicate and still having a relationship really stuck to me. I still think it’s interesting that people get together even though they can’t communicate very well. When my husband and I first started dating, we’d end up getting into fights because I thought he was rude. Danes are in general a little sarcastic and straightforward, which translates into English as being rude. We had to learn to talk to each other without hurting my finer feelings–we’ve been together now for nearly twelve years, so I guess we figured the language part out. For Gunnar and Raihana, the communication gap is more
extreme.

FV: I am a beekeeper, so a novel about beekeeping makes me very happy. I read Anna’s diary with pleasure. The book actually offers lessons on beekeeping. But why beekeeping?

AM: Since the language sounded to me like the buzzing of bees, I had decided that Gunnar would be a beekeeper. It was a great help that you are a beekeeping expert; otherwise, getting information would have been very difficult.

FV: When you first told me about this idea I told you about a couple similar to Anna and Gunnar. But that woman is fortunately alive. You describe them perfectly. The man you based Gunnar on is also a skilled carpenter and the couple is passionate about beekeeping. Just like in the book, the husband loves his wife, who’s smarter than he is, which also annoys him. For me these characters are very real; and their story is beautiful.

AM: Thanks, Flemming. I was quite enchanted by this couple that loved beekeeping–and it fit perfectly with who I wanted my characters to be. I already knew who Gunnar was, but your story about this beekeeping couple helped me flesh out Anna’s character.

FV: Does Raihana save Gunnar from becoming an alcoholic or does Gunnar save Raihana from being caught up in her past?

AM: I think they both help each other. Raihana gives Gunnar a purpose to live because she needs him. Gunnar gives Raihana a future by teaching her a skill that could help her financially in the future. They also became friends–which is precious to both of them.

FV: Is the relationship between Gunnar and Raihana realistic or do you use it to provoke the reader?

AM: I think it is realistic. Someone like my father-in-law, Ejgil, would happily become friends with an Afghan woman without thinking anything of it. Do you think this is a provocative book? How do you feel about how immigrants are treated in Denmark?

FV: I think this is a provocative book and it brings to light an important point, as Christina, the Danish teacher, says, that the homogenous Danish society needs different skills, cultures, and perspective to grow. I think someone like Christina, who is committed to her job, will bring change and that people like Maria will realize that immigrants are just like regular Danes in what they want out of life. But I do have a problem with one thing in the book. People like Anders and his friends are a minority; why did you feel they needed to be in your story?

AM: I meet many young people who say things like, “I’m afraid of colored men.” Racism is rampant among Danish youth and I’m not sure that boys like Anders and his friends are going to remain a minority in the not-so-distant future. I think we need to be careful about what we say to our children and how we speak with them. The other day I was in my son’s kindergarten and this little girl came and asked me, “Where do you come from?” I said that I came from home and asked her where she came from. She said she comes from “Danish land” and that I did not. It freaked me out. She was all of five. I thought, where is she picking this stuff up and what’s she going to be like when she grows up? Just a couple of years ago, seven neo-Nazi teenagers attacked a Somali family in the town of Langeskove on the island of Fyn. The family was in the house when the young men started to break the windows with bats. The family had to run with their children to a neighbor’s house to avoid getting beaten up. This attack caused quite an outrage in Langeskove. I modified this incident and used it in the book.

FV: Amulya, I think this is a very good and timely book. It’s interesting for me as a Dane to read about an immigrant’s point of view of what’s happening in Denmark.

AM: Thanks, Flemming, for all your help and support; and of course, the honey.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What is the significance of the title The Sound of Language? How does it relate to bees?

2. Is the racism in the novel worse than the racism you see or hear about elsewhere?

3. Do you know any refugees? How are refugees treated in your country? Did the novel affect your sense of the refugee experience?

4. Gunnar is a retired widower who is set in his ways, yet he makes room for Raihana in his life. How does Raihana fit into Gunnar’s life?

5. How would you characterize the reactions of Gunnar’s friends and family toward Raihana and the reaction of the Afghan community toward Raihana’s unusual praktik?

6. Anna’s beekeeping diary opens each chapter. How do these entries enhance the story? What struck you most about the beekeeping practices she outlines?

7. The story takes place in a small town in Denmark. Did the setting remind you of anywhere in America?

8. Why do you think Raihana holds on to the hope that her husband is alive? What allows her to let this go? Do you think she makes the right choice?

9. The incident of the firebomb is based on a real attack against an immigrant family in Denmark. Can you understand the motives of the boys who firebomb Layla and Kabir’s house? How would your community react to racial violence such as this?

10. Since 9/11, discrimination against Muslims has been increasing. In Europe, several countries are even considering banning the scarf and the burkha. What do you think about this development?

11. Honey plays an important part in the book and is almost a character by itself. Did the book inspire you to try different types of honey? Discuss various ways that you have eaten honey and the recipes you use it in.

12. What do you think of the way Denmark is depicted in the novel? Is this how you perceived Denmark to be? Did anything surprise you?

13. Did you think Gunnar and Raihana would become romantically involved? Would that have been a good or a bad thing?


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