Smile! It’s an Identity Crisis

Smile, by Roddy Doyle

Identity 101: The pretend class that everyone takes in college as they sort out their awesome, autonomous selves. Identity 202: The real “class” that all adults will hopefully pass one day when they realize that “identity” is a little trickier and nuanced than a list of clubs and professional organizations – or car magnets.

I can’t imagine that Roddy Doyle sat down at his computer and claimed that he would write about an amorphous notion of “identity” (because that seems like the territory of angsty 20-somethings attempting to write the next best thing) but, really, Smile reads like he did. That is a compliment, by the way, primarily because Doyle’s latest is more of the 202 variety while having a little fun with the 101 level. Doyle is a prolific writer and chronicler of Irish life (more on that in a sec) and Smile is his eleventh novel; he deserves a more mature course load.

Smile is different than most of his other novels, most of which play with a very specific idea of “Irish identity.” (The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van – i.e. The Barrytown Trilogy – along with The Guts and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha take place in Dublin’s working-class Northside; The Last Roundup Trilogy explores Irish identity in the Bloody Sunday era as well as early 20th century Irish emigration to America.)

There’s no way there is not an American driver behind the wheel of this car.

When I lived in Ireland, non-American friends and acquaintances found Americans’ fascination with identity flummoxing and probably amusing in a not-charming way. “Why do Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with such…fervor?” “Why do Americans say they’re 1/8 this or that?” “Why do you only have two thriving political parties, and why does everyone seem to toe a party line?” “Why do you send out Christmas cards with your families’ faces emblazoned on them?” “Why do you showcase your university affiliations on your cars’ back windows?” (I think that the only bumper sticker that I ever saw on an Irish car was the “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas” one.) I have a lot of thoughts on this, but that is for another post or five. But let’s face it, Americans, we generally like to demonstrate to others who we are and where we stand – on everything.

Not that the Irish are immune from inward-looking fascination with its own knotty history. For a nation of less than 5 million that takes up a land mass approximately the size of South Carolina, much of the world knows all about Ireland if only in some superficial way. While Americans like to demonstrate and perhaps embellish the “bumper sticker statements” that pronounce us, you have to admit, Ireland, that you have a really tangled history that makes for some very specific stabs at “identity.” Ireland is used to putting itself – or at least having others put it – in certain categories: The nation that outlaws abortion. The country that blocked birth control until 1985. The place where divorce has been legal for only 22 years and takes years to finalize. And let’s not forget a powerful Church that still manages the majority of schools. On the cheery flip side, this is a population that prides itself on offering good “craic” and a seat at the bar. It’s a nation of storytellers. The Irish always have been – and maybe always will be? – a culture of migrants; most places an Irish person lands will have a built-in community waiting and welcoming. All of these qualities combine for the “car magnet” illustration of the green republic.

On the one hand, Smile is all about the Irish identity. North versus South Dublin; modern morality versus a repressive and controlled past; rugby versus footie: They all have a role and help to define individuals. But at its core, it’s a book about how identity is really just a thing in perpetual flux. As much as you may try to outrun stereotypes and parameters set by social codes, they’re always there to give you a little tap on the shoulder.

Smile is narrated by 54-year-old Victor Forde who is attempting to fit back into his old, Northside world after a divorce from Rachel, a caterer-turned-television-personality (from the traditionally upper-crust Southside, but of course). After spending years trying to assimilate to the more posh and refined world south of the Liffey while simultaneously trying to write a book about “all that is wrong with Ireland,” Victor has this as his goal: “I wanted to move house, get back across the river. Home.”

The socks will tell the story…

Victor tends to the small details that mark one’s identity: “Donnelly’s would be my local. I trained myself to feel that it was mine.” Similarly, as he walks by a Paddy Power every day: “It became – even just walking past and having a look at the World Cup odds in the window – part of the rhythm of my day. Another corner of my new home.”

He’s not quite of that local world, however, as his background as a radio personality as well as his attachment to Rachel (the two were often billed as a “power couple”) positions him as a “success story.” Victor, however, knows that he straddles both worlds: “I was on my way to becoming a successful man. I never became one.”

One evening at the pub, Victor meets an eager Ed Fitzpatrick – a former classmate who is a bit of a blur to Victor. Ed remembers Victor, but the converse isn’t true, although Victor somehow wills a remembrance of Ed. The overbearing and chatty Ed seems to always show up at Donnelly’s when Victor is there and takes him on repeated walks down memory lane until Victor’s school memories and remembrances become unbearable.

Smile is a departure for Doyle; some reviewers are calling his latest a “psychological thriller.” What I would like to think it reflects, though, is a subtle shift in our culture from pigeonholing ourselves (and others) into airtight identifiers – you know, that “car magnet” identity. Migration’s on the upswing throughout the world; it’s becoming harder and harder to align ourselves with every single identifier from this culture or that region. When we lived in Ireland, my daughter was friends with a New Zealander who lived in London prior to Dublin. Her mother called her a “bitser” – someone who had a “bit of that accent, and a bit of that one, and a bit of another.”

Think about some of the popular television shows in the past few years and their somewhat vague and amorphous titles like This is Us and Parenthood and compare to them some exceedingly specific titles of yesteryear: Eight is Enough, The Brady Bunch, Little House on the Prairie. (As a child, I apparently preferred reruns on Channel 13.) Are we moving toward illustration instead of explanation when it comes to defining ourselves?

As Doyle shows us in Smile, we can’t really shake off our past even if we’ve moved far from it – physically, emotionally, or mentally.  Our identity is just an amalgamation of “stuff;” I’d like to think Doyle is telling us that “bitsers” are the future. Which is why, when I stuck a car magnet on my back bumper, I chose my home state with a big heart in the middle of it.

Always a part of me…

Just Do It: On Reading, Writing + Narcissism

The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, by Kjersti A. Skomsvold

Over three years ago, I started this blog as a repository for my musings about books that I read and how their themes or imagery could be viewed through the lens of “real life.” (You can read the “About” page of this blog here.)

Blogging – and my pace of reading – took a hit, however, when we moved back to the US and the details of work and resettling a family took precedence.

I’ve been trying to write a something about this book since we moved in July 2015. That’s over two years ago! (Well, I mean, in spurts. This is not two years’ worth of effort that you’re about to read.) I picked up The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, by Kjersti A. Skomsvold, in April 2015 in Dubray Books in Blackrock Shopping Centre. I love this book – and I’ve actually read it three times – but whenever I sat down to write about it, I struggled with my writing feeling pedantic or non-insightful.

Word to the wise: There comes a point when “thinking about” something for a long, long time results in…nothing.

While I’d love to compare my “nothing” to Seinfeld’s…

Thinking about…myself.

The Faster I Walk is a riff on longevity and what it means to live a satisfying life. It’s “deep” – but I wanted to say a bit more than “it’s deep.” (See, that’s only two words.) The basic gist? The main character, Mathea, is unintentionally hilarious (but a little bit tragic too) because she is a narcissistic nonagenarian with many similarities to stereotypical, media-characterized Millennials. (Is it bad that my compassion for a socially stunted 90-something was not overflowing?) For much of her life, her only point of contact is her husband, Epsilon.

A sampling of Mathea’s thoughts include:

  • “I want to say something meaningful, make my last words rhyme, so I lay awake the whole night trying to think up something appropriate. I know I’ll never get out of bed again. But then morning comes and I feel so hungry.”
  • “I’m wishing I could save what little I have left of my life until I know exactly what to do with it. For that to happen I’d have to lock myself in a freezer, but all we’ve got is the small one in the refrigerator.”
  • When Mathea goes to the store, she is happy to see other customers “so I don’t attract attention.” And when she has to choose between two check-out people she feels tormented because “I don’t want either of them to feel that I’ve rejected them.”

Poor Mathea: so self-deprecating that, ironically, her sense of exceptionalism blasts through the pages. Is it wrong to criticize someone approaching 100 for being narcissistic?

In early October, The New York Times Magazine published a piece about the actress Frances McDormand. My first thought? Fran (as she apparently prefers to be called) should play Mathea. She is exactly the kind of actor – quick to acknowledge that that she’s “really good at being the other” [not a typical starlet] – who could play someone and invoke empathy for a character who at first warrants only pity.

McDormand, too, flirts with the edge of introversion and “who, little ol’ me?” self-deprecation. The author of the piece writes, “She doesn’t do press junkets, and for the most of the 20 years since she won a Best Actress Academy Award for playing Marge Gunderson, the tremendously pregnant, improbably cheerful police detective in ‘Fargo,’ she has refused interviews. Her publicist explained to me that his job is to politely tell people to go away.”

“Go away”?: Frances McDormand posing for The New York Times Magazine

A career’s worth of criticism of her “quirky” appearance has made McDormand reflective and wary:

According to the NYT piece, “Years of hearing this type of thing [that she didn’t fit a typical mold] from casting directors have provoked in her a defiant renunciation of vanity and a deep, though intermittent, self-consciousness. She’ll state her weight in a public interview but avoids looking at the monitor when filming. ‘I’d much rather not be aware of how fat my ass looks,’ she said. She wants the work that is given to stars, but she hates to have her photo taken. She doesn’t own a full-length mirror.”

McDormand is full of seemingly odd thoughts and one-liners, much like Mathea:

  • When discussing her experimental theatre company, she says “We’re avant-garde. It doesn’t mean we have to be unhygienic.”
  • “Around 46 years of age, I became concerned that I may slaughter my family. I was perimenopausal when Pedro [her son] was in the throes of adolescence and at the mercy of testosterone poisoning. I continue to have three hot flashes daily, one bout of cold sweats per night, and have reveled in my invisibility for 10 years. So there.”

So there!

Back to Mathea: Skomsvold is clever to make her protagonist nearly 100. We’re trained to treat older adults with respect (yes, I realize this is arguable) and perhaps even kid gloves. We’ll let Mathea’s idiosyncrasies slide and may even find them sweet. McDormand, however, welcomes a different type of response. Instead of dismissing or even indulging her “don’t look at me, actually please notice me” behavior, we chalk it up to “quirkiness.”

Is the difference in our responses due to these two women’s ages? Or is it because one (McDormand) continues to get ‘er done despite her frustration with “the industry,” while the other (Mathea) mostly eschews any activity at all in fear of being noticed? Why does Mathea make me want to throw a book across the room (after I get a good chuckle from her amusing mental gymnastics), but McDormand makes me want to know her better?

It’s this: After McDormand spends an entire morning directing the Times stylists and photographer, she coyly spends just as much time narrating throughout the photo shoot, “I never do this…I never, ever do this.” Someone finally asks why, then, she is “doing this.” Her answer: “I don’t know! I guess I want more work.”

So there you have it: In a world where women feel the push-pull of wanting success but don’t want to reveal any parts of us that are “odd,” McDormand has basically said, oh well – let’s do this! Whereas Mathea pontificates (and then pontificates some more), McDormand pontificates and acts.

Conclusion: I’m dumping Mathea and embracing Fran. (I’d rather be 60 than pushing 100 anyway.) Instead of merely pontificating about writing this little blog post, here I am with this humble offering.

So, fill me in: Whatcha reading?!

Let’s do this!




Home: What’s the Problem?

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Last weekend in the Guardian’s “Family” section, Sarah Leipciger – a self-proclaimed “Canuck living in London” – addressed a topic that people are more apt to discuss with children rather than with adults. Whether on the first day of kindergarten, in the car before a sleepover, or perhaps at the threshold of a college dorm, one can find parents wiping tears (either theirs or those of their offspring) and offering whispered assurance that this feeling – homesickness – will subside. But as Leipciger, who moved from Canada to London with her English husband fifteen years ago, can attest, “the underrated power of nostalgia” can make even the most adaptable person long for “home.” Adult homesickness is a real thing, and although grown-ups have more tools and mental know-how to combat it than children, the magnetic pull of all that is familiar and yes, comfortable, is a hard one to ignore. As a friend who lives with her husband and children in his home country wrote in an email to me, “There is a day care centre for Alzheimer’s patients near where we live. It’s in a lovely setting with a farm, but I remember once driving by there on a pissed off day and thinking, what if I get early Alzheimer’s and I end up there? What if I never get away? It’s not a true reflection of my foundation feeling which is more balanced and upbeat (I’ve worked hard on that) but I do have days like that. And I too harbour hopes of living in my home country again. Indeed I would be devastated if I thought that would never happen.”

Pin the tail on...home.

Pin the tail on…home.

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum, takes the circumstances of Leipciger and my friend but adds a large heap of dire melancholy and outright depression to the situation. (Let me just say here that my friend does, in fact, love her country of residence, as well as her husband. And if you read Leipciger’s piece, you can infer the same.) Anna, an American, is married to Bruno, a Swiss banker. Between her deceased parents and the admitted “wanderlust” of her youth, Anna seems to be left without an anchor and, perhaps, an emotional “home.” Essbaum describes her protagonist’s fascination with a life (or at least a love) outside of America’s borders: “In her youth Anna dreamed soft, damp dreams of the men she imagined she would one day love, men who would one day love her. She gave them proper names but indistinct, foreign faces: Michel, the French sculptor with long, clay-caked fingers; Dmitri, the verger of an Orthodox church whose skin smelled of camphor, of rockrose, of sandalwood resin and myrrh; Guillermo, her lover with matador hands. They were phantom men, girlhood ideations. But she mounted an entire international army of them. It was the Swiss one she married.” For whatever reason, Anna has refused to see America as her ultimate home and instead has sought out something more exotic – the problem, perhaps, being that “exotic,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Yet Anna is not satisfied. Essbaum writes, “It’s hard to love a man outside his native tongue. And yet, it was the Swiss one Anna married.” Further, “Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days.” Ouch. Not surprisingly, mentions of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary make numerous appearances in reviews of Hausfrau. This is beyond homesickness, which seems merely a quaint inconvenience compared to Anna’s despair.

And on the surface, this depression may startle a reader due to its utter incomprehensibility. Anna has three healthy children, does not have to work, and is being “courted,” if you will, by a cheerful Canadian woman who has moved to suburban Zurich, with her husband, an ice hockey player, and their children. She desperately wants to befriend Anna, who most likely feels like a comfortable reminder of home – hey, at least they’re from the same continent! But Anna has affairs, has only started taking German classes after ten years in Switzerland, and shuns friendships. (Although Mary from Canada and her upbeat ways do start to soften Anna a bit.) Anna, clearly unhappy, embodies the catchphrase “First World Problem” so fully that internal shouts of “Get it together, woman!” interrupted my reading every time I picked up the book.

Maybe Anna just needs some tough love?

Maybe Anna just needs some tough love?

But yet, from the get-go, I had so much compassion for Anna. Essbaum’s writing keeps Anna from keeling over in ridiculous and exhausting territory. Despite one Amazon reviewer’s assessment of Anna as a “narcissistic sociopath,” something about this protagonist’s despair, however self-indulgent, feels sincere and legitimate – and even incurable. The disconnect from her homeland, maybe just a disingenuous conflict erupting from general unhappiness with her life, is real. Essbaum writes, “There was nothing [Anna] missed about America enough to want to return to it. But Switzerland had never felt like home, and never would.” Her psychiatrist (“Doktor”) interprets one of Anna’s dreams: “For you are not Swiss and there is little you identify with in this country.”

She doesn’t identify as Swiss, and she actively eschews the prospect of appearing American, so what, exactly, is Anna? An expat? An immigrant? An American-Swiss? An emotional refugee? Perhaps she’s simply an appendage to her Swiss-and-proud husband or Swiss-born children. Her lack of easy identity is problematic in a world that embraces and encourages labels.

Which came first? The

Which came first? The “expat” community or the Ikea? Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Earlier this year, the Guardian published a snippet of a post by a blogger based in Africa entitled “Why are White People Expats When the Rest of Us are Immigrants?” (His name is Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, and he edits “Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.” This is an interesting conversation, and it’s not the first time it’s been raised in the Guardian, let alone in general conversation. In a “Mind Your Language” column back in 2011, Briton Peter Manatle, who has lived on three continents, reflected on how “when British people overseas, or press organisations such as the Guardian, use the term ‘expat’ with reference to Britons abroad, then use words such as ‘immigrant’ when describing people from other countries who are in the UK. Strangely, this sometimes extends to non-British foreigners overseas. So, a Briton resident in France might refer to himself as an expat, but call a Polish resident of France an immigrant, as if somehow there is a distinction to be made; although he may later refer to someone from the USA as an ‘American expat’, implying that there is a sort of hierarchy of foreignness.”

This hand-wringing over lexicon is an interesting dilemma to me because my definition of the word “expat” differs even more than the ones given above. To me, an “expat” is someone who has been sent to live abroad, usually by a multinational corporation, and is often given a package of benefits in order to ease the transition and entice those (often the “trailing spouse,” which is a terrible bit of terminology) who may be reluctant to embark on the adventure: housing allowance, reimbursement for travel back home, fees for children’s schooling. On the surface, it may seem a minute distinction and that I’m only parsing the term because my family doesn’t fall in to that category: sour grapes! I emphatically believe that to not be the case, though; rather, I think there’s a difference because when faced with a different culture without a back-up plan in place or a built-in, ready-made network, one scrambles pretty quickly to figure out “life” in a foreign land. A desire to sink in to a new culture also stems from the fact that expats, by my own definition, are often in a new place for a finite amount of time – usually two to five years, or whenever their contract finishes.

So what’s the difference? I think an “expat” knows that the grand experiment of living abroad is temporary, but an immigrant or migrant expects that that cord – that lifeline – has most likely been severed, at least until “the kids are out of school,” or “we retire,” or most dramatically, “when they fly my body home.” As the friend noted above feels, living in her home country will always be a possibility, even an absolute given. (It has also always been a possibility for my family. We didn’t think we would want to make the move back as soon as we are, but I’m still not sure we would call ourselves “expats.”)

But I think the only way that Anna can identify herself is “stuck,” and perhaps even “homeless.” Readers learn that an affair with a fellow American, whom she believes is her true love and possibly the bridge between her past and future, is not meant to be. A family tragedy thickens the connection that keeps Anna tethered to Switzerland. And finally, she realizes that any connections she has made in this place she resides are, at best, tenuous and conditional. The tragedy is not so much that she is in Switzerland, or in a bad marriage, or the receiver of horrible news. Instead, anguish erupts because in a heartbreaking finale, Essbaum removes any semblance whatsoever of “home” for her protagonist.

So what is Anna? “She could go anywhere she wanted. The going wasn’t the problem. The problem was belonging where she went. This has been the issue from the beginning.” By her own definition, she is probably not an expat nor an immigrant, and that is because she doesn’t feel at home anywhere – and never has – and therefore doesn’t have a home to be homesick for. Forget first world; that’s just a problem.

Can you find your home?

Can you find your home?

Tell Me a Story

Cavedweller, by Dorothy Allison

Cavedweller, by Dorothy Allison

My son is nine years old and in the equivalent of fourth grade, an age when pupils have one main classroom (or “form,” as his school calls it) teacher save for specials such as science, PE, and art. We’ve been very pleased with this teacher, and one of her exemplary qualities is that she is attempting to teach her charges how to write well. Yes, they try their hands at “creative writing” and learn about different forms of poetry and prose, but most importantly, she is demonstrating how to – and demanding that the children do so, in the way only a good teacher can – “uplevel” their writing. She’s provided them with their own little booklet of mechanical writing tips and suggestions – much like the one I got from the most influential teacher I’ve ever had, although I didn’t learn any of these tricks of the trade in a formalized fashion until high school. (Nonetheless, thank you, Sr. O’Dea!) However, part of learning how to write well is also learning how to read well, which is why I loved looking in my son’s homework folder earlier this year and seeing his notes about context clues and how to interpret an author’s intent via the structure of his or her writing. And, despite not being a huge fan of fiction, he’s learning what makes a story, well, good. (What I’m waiting for is his chance meeting with a piece of fiction that will enchant him and make him want to curl up with a book and jump inside its pages. But I suppose I have to accept that not everyone enjoys this. Le Sigh!)

My son's notes on a story excerpt. My favorite notation is for the last line ("I remember nothing."); his notation is "Brain Damage?"

My son’s notes on a story excerpt. My favorite notation is for the last line (“I remember nothing.”); his notation is “Brain Damage?”

On the surface, a good story for a child will probably be quite formulaic – particularly when he is trying his own hand at writing one.  And businesses and advertisers – being far from dummies when it comes to a demonstrated formula – have glommed onto the idea of “storytelling.” Contemporary business magazines, à la Fast Company and Inc., support the position that storytelling is a vital part of a company’s marketing plan – and that storytelling, therefore, is a profit-making activity. There’s a typical beginning, middle, and end, and the end, of course, means “Buy Our Product.” According to a piece about marketing on, “We are wired for communicating through and learning from stories.” This statement is a fairly obvious one, as all cultures prove this point – take a look at the narrative strength of the Native American community, for instance. Religions employ stories – read through the parables that Jesus told – to help believers understand God. And right here in my neck of the woods, the Storytellers of Ireland (Aos Scéal Éireann) aims to preserve Irish storytelling practices and to encourage others to listen: “The listener is an essential part of the storytelling process. For stories to live, they need the hearts, minds and ears of listeners. Without the listener there is no story.”

Humans have a tendency to think that life should follow a symbolic narrative, don’t we?

Dorothy Allison writes right off the bat in Cavedweller, “Death changes everything.” Well, yes, of course; death is the one predictable part of everyone’s life narrative. Yet Allison begins this particular story with what would typically be seen as an end point. In the first few paragraphs, Allison clues in the reader that Randall, Delia’s estranged romantic partner and co-member of the once-popular band Mud Dog, has died in a motorcycle crash. His seventeen-year-old girlfriend survives. In her grief and confusion – not to mention her quest to escape the Los Angeles that introduced her to a true “rock and roll” lifestyle – Delia packs up her Datsun, and she and her third daughter (who is Randall’s daughter as well), Cissy, start the journey east toward the place Delia left over ten years earlier – Cayro, Georgia. Who’s there to (hopefully) greet them? Cissy’s older half-sisters, Amanda and Dede, as well as their father and her ex-husband, Clint, who by the way, is dying of cancer. But because Delia seems to know how she wants the rest of her story to go, she feels confident in her desires and their outcomes: “Going home was the answer. Making amends, getting her girls, that was the answer.” Delia tells Cissy,  “Don’t worry, baby. It will all be different in Cayro…It an’t like here. People are different there. They care about each other, take time to talk to each other. They don’t lie or cheat or mess with each other all the time. They’re not scared, not having to be so careful all the time. They know who they are, what is important. And you’ll be with your sisters. You won’t be alone, honey. Not being alone in the world, that’s something you’ve never had. That’s something I can give you.” That sounds like the most perfect, sweetest story!

Super Stories

Super Stories

The best part about reading Cavedweller, though, is that despite Delia’s rock-solid assurance and confidence, Allison gives us over 400 detailed pages of the zigs and zags that each character takes as they play a part in Delia’s narrative. This novel is a true story in its very best and straightforward form. It envelopes the reader; Cavedweller is less about presenting a pièce de résistance of a solitary theme, and more about giving the reader a big bowl of topical wonders to ingest. I found myself comparing the book to Richard Russo’s Empire Falls or perhaps a John Steinbeck or John Irving novel. The themes are aplenty; take your pick between female bonding, journeys away from and back to home, finding the power within, and dozens more. According to the book’s New York Times review upon its publication in 1998, Cavedweller “reaches back to the conventions of straightforward storytelling and pays close attention to the way women get by, the way they come to forgive one another, the way they choose who they will be.”

A few years ago, I wrote about The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes and posited that part of the story’s appeal and fascination is due to the fact that any author allows only certain aspects of a character’s life to be written. (Consider this the fictional version of the “you only show the most newsworthy parts of your life on social media” argument.) By no means is Sense formulaic, but the reader is exposed to just a sliver of the characters’ lives – a tidy discussion would easily flow, followed by book club participants restocking their plate with crackers and grapes.

Allison does something different here. We never hear much again about Randall’s young girlfriend, the person who sits behind him on the motorcycle and witnesses his last moments. And I haven’t even touched on the cadre of supporting characters in Los Angeles and Cayro – suffice it to say that they are abundant. Yet from the get-go, we get a sense that Allison is throwing readers head-first into this thrilling story and it’s the whole story, as if a camera is catching every moment whether or not a reader may find it “relevant” to the thematic narrative she’s trying to piece together. It’s not just the two motorcycle riders who play a part in the first scene; “A skinny, pockmarked teenager from Inglewood …crouched nearby, rummaging through a stolen backpack” makes a brief appearance as well. And Delia’s first encounter upon her return to Cayro is not with a family member or old friend, but a diner cook who exclaims, “You that bitch ran off and left her babies.” Readers never encounter either character again, but the author makes sure they’re a part of the written story.

Whoa! Storytelling as Science.

Whoa! Storytelling as Science. © Robert Pratten

I loved this book precisely because I reveled in the story without attempting to figure out how each symbolic gesture helped to move the story forward. (See, I haven’t even touched upon the title of the book and what it may mean.) Good stories aren’t necessarily scientific in the way all the aspects fit together. This past autumn, The Moth, the New York-based storytelling club, came to Ireland. In a piece in the Irish Times, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik explained what makes a good story and an effective storyteller: “A good story has to be extremely particular and peculiar to your life. It has to have an element of singularity and yet – and this is the alchemy and paradox of storytelling – it has to be something immediately universal, part of something that we all experience…Almost always the great raconteurs talk about their failures.” Failure leaves behind a lot of loose ends and just like death, failure is inevitable in some shape or form throughout one’s life. Unlike the simple storytelling that children learn – and businesses adopt – Cavedweller offers readers a big stew full of rich themes and characters and there’s just no clear way how to interpret all of their intersections. The components of one’s life aren’t straightforward, and for better or for worse, failure asserts itself in everyone’s life at some point. I don’t think marketers and advertisers care to admit that. (Unless they’re offering up a product to help rectify said failures.)

Once an author masters the mechanics of “upleveling” her writing – maybe because she was blessed with a fantastic teacher – she can basically do the equivalent of dumping a story on readers without a formulaic finish or easily discernible “strategy.” In the end, Delia is right: She finds “home” in Cayro with her reunited family. But how she gets there is the enjoyable part.

A zig-zagging life, a zig-zagging story. Lombard Street, San Francisco.

A zig-zagging life, a zig-zagging story. Lombard Street, San Francisco.



With a Little Luck

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma

If you have any social media account or at the very least keep up with that pulse on America – I’m talking about The Ellen Show, of course – you probably know about Humans of New York. And if you haven’t? In my opinion, you’re in for a treat: The project, started by photographer Brandon Stanton in 2010, takes him around New York City’s five boroughs as he photographs and interviews people who catch his eye. The subjects and their mini-interviews range from outlandish (“I legally changed my name to Space…”), to the mundane (“Mom is visiting from Barbados. This is her first time seeing snow.”), to the painfully real (“I’ve lost count of how many foster homes I’ve stayed in…”),  to the just plain little (the “Today in microfashion” series, which showcases the sweet and sometimes funny outfits worn by children). Stanton has a knack for asking good questions – or at least pulling out interesting commentary from these people. The success of HONY is based on the premise that everyone has some sort of story to tell and that wisdom or insight can come from seemingly unlikely individuals.

Screen shot from Instagram of the HONY interview with Vidal that gave this story a jump start. (Apologies for the cropping; I did want his words to be readable.)

Screen shot from Instagram of the HONY interview with Vidal that gave this story a jump start. (Apologies for the cropping; I did want his words to be readable. You can click the photo to enlarge it.)

Two weeks ago, Stanton interviewed a boy in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood named Vidal Chastanet. In his response to Stanton’s question (“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”), the 13-year old describes his principal, Ms. Lopez and how “…she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.” Well, lo and behold, someone tracked down Ms. Lopez, and HONY then initiated a meeting with Lopez, dedicated a number of posts profiling Mott Hall Bridges Academy, and subsequently, through HONY’s followers, raised over $1MM. That’s enough to allow incoming 6th grade classes trips to visit Harvard (to broaden the horizons of her “scholars,” according to Lopez) as well as other enrichment programs. The momentum didn’t stop there: Chastanet, Lopez, and Stanton made an appearance on The Ellen Show, and then, in the ultimate affirmation, were received in the Oval Office to meet President Obama. In an interesting and poignant denouement to a heartwarming story, Stanton interviewed the POTUS himself for a few posts on Humans of New York. There are three posts (and in one, Stanton asks Obama the same question he originally presented to Vidal: “Who has influenced the most in your life?”), but my favorite response of Obama’s is this one:

 “You don’t do things alone. Nobody does things alone. Everybody always needs support. For a young man like you [Vidal], you should never be too afraid or too shy to look for people who can encourage you or mentor you. There are a lot of people out there who want to provide advice and support to people who are trying to do the right thing. So you’ll have a lot of people helping you. Just always remember to be open to help. Never think that you know everything. And always be ready to listen.”

This is a great feel-good story, isn’t it? I think that the way Stanton has harnessed his skills as well as his immense social media following speaks to the value of empathy and initiative. But I know there are probably detractors, and their arguments perhaps go a little something like this: “I didn’t get those types of opportunities; I had to work for everything myself.” Or, “What happens when this support ends?” There’s also an argument for lauding Stanton, but simultaneously wondering if better overall systems would prevent the need for this type of grand gesture in the first place. (Fair point.)

These types of arguments play a prominent role in the immigration debate. There’s one extreme camp that says that “model” immigrants “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and never expect any help whatsoever, and then there’s the other side that claims that immigrants, no matter who they are, suck America culturally and economically dry and rely on every available – or unavailable, for that matter – resource to survive. So we’re stuck with a bit of polar situation: Either a migrant to America miraculously assimilates, prospers, and thrives all by himself; or she inhibits and chips away at others in order to survive.  Is it possible that both scenarios can co-exist since, after all, migrants are people and not programmable robots?

I just finished Family Life, the second novel by Delhi-born author Akhil Sharma. (This novel is also based heavily on true events of his life, so there is a very real sense that readers are faced with actual people and their scenarios.) As with other books depicting the life of an immigrant, Family Life delves into the pros and cons of cultural assimilation, the struggle to find one’s place, and how a family unit slowly morphs into something different while withstanding all this emotional and psychological pushing and pulling.

What Family Life does, however, is place a lot of emphasis on the notion of hope, which serves as a survival mechanism in this novel. Instead of a calm assurance, hope stirs up images of jumping off a cliff, fingers crossed and wishing for a good outcome. We all do what we can to prepare in this life, but a level of uncertainty in how this life plays out will always loom. Here is the story of Ajay, who moves from Delhi to America with his parents (his father who “had wanted to emigrate to the West ever since he was in his early twenties” and “saw the West as glamorous with the excitement of science” goes first) and his older brother Birju, who “appeared to be somebody who had a destiny.” The family is hoping, I suppose, for something “better” – to make its mark in a world that represents the way of the future. Birju studies fervently for admission to Bronx High School of Science, and his parents’ demanding study schedule no doubt springs from the hope of a strong education that many immigrant families see as a pathway to success. After the envelope from the school – wherein all the family’s hopes supposedly reside – arrives, they take it to the temple and pray over its contents. The hope comes to fruition, as they celebrate over Birju’s acceptance. However, this notion of placing one’s outcome in the hands of others isn’t just relegated to a deity. Once tales of Birju’s success make the rounds in the Indian community, he himself is seen as a bit of a good-luck charm, and although “pilgrimage” may be too strong a word, families do make efforts to visit with and learn from this success.

Work hard and keep one's fingers crossed?

Work hard and keep one’s fingers crossed?

When tragedy strikes Birju and, subsequently, his family, the “immigrant ideal” crashes. They are now at the mercy of a hospital, science, and yes, God – or maybe a more generic “luck.” Ajay “had never prayed like this before, every day, hour after hour, praying till [his] throat became raw and even my tongue and gums hurt.” When Ajay and his mother pray before the altar every morning, Ajay “traced an om, a crucifix, a Star of David onto the carpet by pressing against the pile. Beneath these [he] drew an S inside an upside-down triangle, for Superman. It seemed to [him that they] should flatter anyone who could help.” Interestingly, despite his situation, Birju and his family are seen as “holy” themselves. When a man comes to their house before his son is scheduled to take the SAT, he asks for a blessing. According to Ajay, “He was asking for a blessing so that something specific would occur and this felt closer to us being treated like we were holy.” People in their community began to see the mother’s blessings “as a form of insurance.” According to Ajay, his “…mother, because she was considered holy, was also seen as someone who would be compassionate and whose very presence might be calming.”

Hard work is important, but isn’t the ability to place one’s hopes on something or someone else a nice security measure? And I think that ultimately this notion of hope puts a chink in the “good immigrant” narrative. Here is a family from the type of non-native demographic that Americans love to trot out as “desirable.” Yet the ways that the characters Sharma writes place their hopes partly on things out of their control allow this notion that people may actually need a little help once in a while to gain momentum and traction. Birju, unfortunately, runs out of luck, and even the hardest, most dedicated work can’t reverse that fate.

There’s a deep belief in the “harder the work, the luckier you get,” which, of course, acknowledges an aspect of success that’s out of one’s control: luck. There’s a dynamic tension in that phrase, and Family Life illustrates that’s there’s often a deep belief in both.


{Around the same time I read Family Life, I was also reading The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success, by Amy Chua (you know: Tiger Mom) and Jed Rubenstein, as well as Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Both gave me a lot to think about as I wrote.}