Excerpted from Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James. Copyright © 2009 by Tania James. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
TANIA JAMES is the author of the novel Atlas of Unknowns and the short story collection Aerogrammes. Her fiction has appeared in Boston Review, Granta, Guernica, One Story, A Public Space, and The Kenyon Review. She lives in Washington, DC.
Q: You’re only 28, you have degrees from Harvard and Columbia and this is your debut novel. Have you always been an overachiever?
A: Until recently, one of my grandmothers was under the impression that I was on my way to becoming a Supreme Court Justice. Which is what I told her when I was ten, and ever since, she’d been cherishing an image of me as an Indian Bader-Ginsburg. So I guess I’ve overachieved in some respects, and underachieved in others.
Q: Your undergraduate degree was in filmmaking. What made you want to get an MFA in writing?
A: For me, college was a completely wonderful and unrealistic place where I could write short stories and make 16mm films, simultaneously, but I also became aware that if I never focused on one discipline at a time, after college, they would both remain hobbies. I decided to apply to film and writing MFA programs, and in the end, I was drawn toward writing. Looking back, I don’t think that writing was ever really a choice; it was the landscape I felt most comfortable in, the medium in which I felt most free to explore. But I can’t say that the multitude of film students in this city, hulking around their trunks of equipment, don’t make me nostalgic and jealous. Maybe that’s why I wrote about one.
Q: One of the (fairly insufferable and always hilarious) characters in Atla s o f Unknowns, Rohit, is a filmmaker. Did you use your undergraduate experience to create this character?
A: I worry that Rohit reflects badly on personal documentaries, though some of my favorite films are personal documentaries. When I was an undergraduate, the film faculty was well known for filmmakers who had accomplished a great deal in that form, people like Robb Moss and Ross McElwee, and I, like many students, found myself trying to make films like theirs. I watched McElwee’s Six O’Clock News at some point during the writing of this novel, and was impressed, all over again, with the way the film’s narrative feels immediate and spontaneous, and yet so beautifully structured. My fictional filmmaker, Rohit, approaches his documentary very differently, in that he has a sense of what his film should look like, before filming even begins, and is less interested in the particulars of life, the unexpected discoveries that unfold in a film like Six O’Clock News.
But I have to say that I do feel an affection for Rohit. He was a pleasure to write. I recognize that anxiety of wanting to be taken seriously, the fragile shell of self-assurance he builds around himself.
Q: You were raised in Louisville, Kentucky, yet the locales of Linno and Anju Vallara—Kerala and New York—are worlds away. How did you write about places that were foreign to you, especially Kerala, and make them feel like home?
A: It’s a nice relief to hear that both Manhattan and Kerala felt like home. I’ve been living in New York for five years now, so Manhattan and Jackson Heights were somewhat familiar to me. And my father is from Kumarakom, a village near the coast of southern Kerala, where my family and I have been visiting for years. The last time we went, in 2006, we visited my father’s family home, which is shuttered and abandoned now, and I remember feeling a sense of loss for the many people who had passed through there. I suppose, in an indirect sense, I was drawn to that place out of personal attachment and family history, but I wanted to write about a Kumarakom that was grounded in the present, and not confined to the stories I had been told by my family members. So I researched Kerala and Kumarakom as I would any place I wanted to write about: I read books and newspapers; I interviewed locals; I pored over maps and blogs; I asked my father to connect me to his network of old friends so they could name an obscure brand of 1975 rum.
But too much research can also defamiliarize a town, if the writing is bogged down in encyclopedic explanations. So it was a challenge for me, to represent Kumarakom through the eyes of the character I was writing about, without romanticization, while still conveying what I found fascinating about that environment.
Q: One of the strongest themes in Atla s o f Unknowns is the unbreakable bond of sisterhood. What is your family like? Do you also have a sister?
A: I have two sisters; I’m the middle. Each family member has a strikingly different personality from the next, and different interests. And each of us thinks he/she is very amusing, so we spend a considerable amount of time in the kitchen, embarrassing each other with old stories, interrupting each other, eating. Being the only male, my father makes the occasional cameo appearance and then goes back to his library. There are aspects of my family that permeate my writing, but no one-to-one correllation between my father and Melvin Vallara, for example, though my father has been known to sleep through church.
And as with any close family, the Vallaras believe that they know and understand each other. But when a child or a parent acts outside of the family’s understanding of her, suddenly her mysteries are thrown into relief. Every family has such moments, when the familiar becomes foreign for an uncomfortable moment, and it seems easiest to treat that tension with silence.
Q: You write both eloquently and humorously about the immigrant experience. What sort of research did you do for this portion of the book?
A: I once went to Jackson Heights, in Queens, to interview a group of threaders at an Indian beauty salon for the New York Times. The newspaper ultimately took a very compressed version of our conversation, but the pages and pages of transcripts kept me wondering about those women, the salon, their neighborhood. I began looking through archived articles on Jackson Heights, ones that mentioned South Asian immigration in particular. One of the first articles I read involved the abuse of the legal system by fraudulent lawyers, who offered illegal aliens a fantastically swift path to citizenship, basically in exchange for the client’s life savings. Of course those clients ended up broke and unable, as non-citizens, to report their grievances. And it seemed to me that this was exactly the kind of thing that might befall one of my characters.
Probably the most complicated world to navigate was that of the American immigration system, despite all the time I spent scouring official websites that purported to make things clear. In the end, what saved me was a conversation or two with an immigration law expert named Arlene Lyons who set me straight on the messy ins and outs of the system. And in retrospect, questioning her was probably a safer route than emailing Homeland Security to see just what an illegal alien can get away with these days.
Q: You’re a young writer living in New York. Do you feel a part of the literary community in the city? How important is that for you and for other young writers?
A: I do have a group of fellow writers in the city, all former classmates from Columbia. We used to be a workshop of sorts, but the workshop has evolved into a mostly social creature, which suits me fine. They’re all excellent writers and readers, and they high-five with abandon when someone in the group has good news. That kind of community is very important to me, and maybe I’ve gotten a bit needy over the years. I don’t think that there’s a single piece of writing I’ve done that my writer-friend Jenny Assef hasn’t heavily pencilled, and this will continue to be the case until she stops replying to my emails. I can’t say whether all young writers would benefit from a literary community, but I’ve always felt that a few good readers, even one or two, can be community enough.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: A bicycle. I’m determined to buy one, and to remember how to ride it, even if only on a short stretch of sidewalk. I’m also working on a new short story or two.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What is the significance, both literal and metaphorical, of the novel's title?
2. What does America symbolize to Anju and her family? In what ways is the influence of the West felt in their small village?
3. In an attempt both to condone and to apologize for Anju's betrayal, Melvin says, “There is good and there is bad, Linno. And then there is bad for good's sake” (page 32). Is Melvin right about this? How does Anju justify her betrayal? How can Linno's inability to confront Anju be explained?
4. How does the Vallara family's Christian heritage influence the way Ammachi, Melvin, Linno, and Anju make sense of their experiences?
5. The narrator only gradually reveals aspects of Gracie's personality and the circumstances surrounding her death. How does this serve to build dramatic tension throughout the novel? How does Gracie's death affect the main characters?
6. As Bird is planning to approach Anju for the first time, she thinks, “Time is but a circle, and a person might run from the past only to find herself faced with it in the end” (page 66). How does the past influence Bird's present life? In what ways do other characters try to flee from their pasts? Do they succeed, or are they also forced to face the past in some way?
7. What is pleasurable for Anju about life in America? What is disappointing? What cultural differences are most jarring? What is pleasurable for Anju about life in America? What is disappointing? What cultural differences are most jarring?
8. How do wealth and fame figure into the narrative? Consider the characters of Mrs. Solanki, Kuku, and Abraham Chandy: What advantages do they possess? What kinds of limitations do they experience, either because of or in spite of their positions?
9. How does Linno view her talent as an artist? What role does the creative process play in her life?
10. Anju observes of the Solankis: “There is no discussion that this family will not touch, no question unposed, no secret kept. Yet for all their honesty, all these freedoms of speech, neither Rohit nor his parents seem to know what to make of one another. . . . Whether this is better or worse than her own family, Anju cannot tell” (page 111). Is the honesty among the Solankis better or worse than the secrecy maintained in Anju's family?
11. How do women's desires conflict with the roles they are expected to play in the novel? How does this conflict change over the course of generations, in the lives of Ammachi and her sister; Gracie, Bird, and Mrs. Solanki; Alice, Linno, and Anju?
12. When the sisters are finally reunited, Anju chooses to face Linno away from the cameras. How does this decision reflect a change in Anju's values? What does Linno's response say about her own internal transformation? What does this ending reveal about their relationship?
13. What role do prophecy, guilt, confession, and redemption play in the novel?
14. How does the novel illuminate the contentious issues surrounding immigration in a post-9/11 world? What does it say about the cultural differences between contemporary India and America?
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