Friday, September 28, 2012

Aerogrammes by Tania James

Tania James was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in filmmaking and received an MFA from Columbia’s School of the Arts. Knopf published her debut novel Atlas of Unknowns in 2009 and Aerogrammes, a short story collection, in May, 2012. She received fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. From 2011-2012, she was a Fulbright fellow to India living in New Delhi. Now she lives in Washington DC.

The nine stories in Aerogrammes, all very different, all feature Indian characters. In "Lion and Panther in London," two Indian wrestlers have been brought to England in 1912 to challenge all comers. But wrestling has become a staged show and no one wants to challenge them. "What do Do with Henry" shows what could happen when a baby chimp is raised as a human child; the tragedy of the chimp and of the girl who grows up with him. "The Gulf," narrated by an eight-year-old, shows the lives of a family whose father has gone to work in Dubai, returning years later as a stranger.

I found James's writing engaging and supple. Here's the beginning of "Ethnic Ken":

"My grandfather believed that the guest bathroom drain was a portal for time travel. I didn't mind his beliefs until they intruded on my social life, what little I had. My friend Newt and I were playing slapball against the side of my house—I was up to a record sixty-seven slaps—when my grandfather came outside and yelled at me in Malayalam for leaving a clot of my long hair in the bathtub drain, thereby blocking his route. His mundu was tied up like a miniskirt, wet scribbles of hair against his spindly calves. After calling me a 'twit,' my grandfather stormed back inside, leaving Newt to stare at me with a dispiriting combination of pity and shock."

I thoroughly enjoyed these stories for a number of reasons: Even when the premise is fantastic (in the last story, a girl marries a ghost) the situation is comprehensible. James is able to evoke living people in circumstances that seem genuine. In an interview with The Kenyon Review, James says, "...if I’m getting at the core of what I believe, in both writing and reading, I’d say I believe in the potential of words to push a reader to the precipice and look down at what he might normally ignore in his daily life. He may not come away from the experience permanently changed, but he may be momentarily awake to something new, or something slightly familiar but skewed in a surprising way. Such moments are worth all the time and sweat the writer took to produce the book in the first place."

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