I’m on a mini roll lately with reading lesser known books that I can’t remember where/how I heard about them. I finished Monster Portraits a few weeks ago and this is another, similarly experimental/unique-style memoir-based-ish novel (though without the accompanying illustrations). In any case, this fairly recent release (Feb 2019) is not one that I have seen around often, if at all, so I’m happy to see that I can/do still choose books for reasons other than general hype. Social media has not won yet! Haha.
After our narrator moves with her family from Atlanta to the suburbs, she faces daily interactions/struggles that call to mind her childhood – basically proving that even though years have passed, there is no difference in the way America treats people that look different (even though, as the daughter of Bengali immigrants, she was born in the US). When an unfounded police raid on her home ends with her being shot, the narrator finds herself looking back on her life, everything from growing up with her younger sister to visits to family in India to meeting her husband, what her job was like, and her time as a mother to her three daughters.
It’s a little hard to say what this story is actually about. It’s more a compilation of related experiences than anything else, but along with that, there are kind of memoir-like vibes to the telling. Which, after reading a little more about the novel, makes sense, since the plot (as it were) is based on her understandably traumatizing personal experience with a raid on her home. The entire story is framed by that moment. The book opens with her lying on the ground, feeling the awkward splay of her limbs and the concrete on her face. And from there, we read through myriad incredibly short chapters, some just a line or two, as her mind skips and flashes from past to present and everything in between in short bursts of remembrance. It’s an incredibly experimental type style, both as far as structure and in the staccato lyricism of the words/sentences. It’s choppy and fragmented in a poetic sort of way, which did not necessarily make for an easy read of the narrator’s life, but did fit perfectly considering the circumstances she’s “telling” it under.
There were other interesting stylistic choices as well, like the fact that not a single character was ever named, but was instead referred to by short descriptors or monikers, like “mother” for herself and “her hero” for her husband and “her presently nonexistent sister” for her younger sister. Well, I take that back slightly, her dog, Greta, was named and reference throughout…but none of the primary human characters had names. Another peculiar thing was the inclusion of sections all the way through about Barbie: the company behind Barbie, the changes to Barbie over the years and, even as social consciousness worked to affect the doll/toy industry, the fact that Barbies of color came/are coming so late and minimally (in comparison to other issues, like healthier body standards, which were/are still, to be honest, quite slow). It was interesting, but also odd. I understood the message and role in the story that it took, and appreciated it objectively…but subjectively, I am not a doll person and I think they’re a bit creepy, so it sat a little weird for me personally. As a side note, and because I’m not sure where to put this so I’ll just drop it here, the author grew up outside Chapel Hill, NC (which is where I live now) so it was very cool to recognize the town and street names that she specifically references, and be able to picture them in my head. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book set, or even partially set, here, so that was fun!
As far as the topics covered, this is definitely correctly billed as an exploration of what it’s like to be a second-generation immigrant to America. To constantly be asked “Where are you from?” or told to “Go back where you came from.” (especially post 9/11), despite the fact that you are American, born in America, never lived anywhere else but America. It’s disheartening to the extreme to see how pervasive this was and remains, as it’s not just for our narrator but her daughters, third-generation Americans, who continue to experience this trauma and outsider-ness as well. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of this, I felt, beyond the obvious, is the way that she and her daughters kept everything they were going through a secret from their “hero”/father, who presumably was white (based on context clues). In addition to the fact that he traveled so often for work and wasn’t around enough to truly support them through it, it’s like they didn’t want to worry him, because it’s an issue that’s private and embarrassing and, clearly, not one he would understand or be able to usefully help deal with. That divide caused even within the family, stemming from the way America treats the “other,” is just so quietly tragic. The insight into that here is spectacular and eye-opening and affecting. Also, the look at general societal norms, through the narrator’s experiences at work/with her boss, the interactions with her daughter’s schools, the continuous profiling by law enforcement, the petty mistreatment from new neighbors, and what that says about the overall mindset of Americans about who “belongs” here, is also quite distressing. One wants to hope, to think, that we have progressed as a nation, but it’s clear from so many instances/examples that we have not. And the literature like this that helps bring that to the forefront of our minds, especially when the media is not usually doing its job to that same end, is beyond important.
Although the writing and presentation style of this novel makes it a bit inaccessible to the reader (I felt distant from, and partly confused by, everything happening for the majority of the novel), perhaps that’s the point. Maybe that feeling of being disconnected, of being an outsider, is the one the author wanted us to feel…just as she has. If that’s the case (and, truly, even if it’s not), my heart goes out to her and everyone who has experienced similar things. And I appreciate her sharing her story. This is a fascinatingly written and unique novel that tells an important and emotional story. While it is not a favorite for me, I do not regret my time spent reading it.