Monday, August 3, 2015

My First Time: Thrity Umrigar

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Thrity Umrigar, the bestselling author of a memoir and six novels, including The Space Between Us, The World We Found and The Story Hour. She is the recipient of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard, a finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins award and winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize and the Seth Rosenberg prize. She is the Armington Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

My First Story

I was fifteen or sixteen when my first short story was published in a national women’s magazine in India. Weeks earlier, I had mailed my story, typed on my aunt’s manual typewriter, to the weekly magazine. I had not mentioned this act of foolish daring to a soul. Unsure of the protocol for such things, not knowing if I would actually receive an acceptance or rejection letter in the mail, I spent the next several weeks hurriedly flipping through the magazine to the fiction section, heart thudding with anticipation, until I saw someone else’s byline where mine ought to have been.

And so it went for several disheartening weeks. And then, one afternoon, somewhere in downtown Bombay, I stopped by a hawker who was selling magazines on the sidewalk. Pretending to purchase one, I picked up the magazine and discreetly leafed through it. I came to the fiction page and there it was—a story titled, “One More Down the Drain.” With an ink illustration. With my name under it.

I stood in the middle of a crowded, noisy Bombay street as the world whizzed past me. The sun beat furiously on my head, as it did everyday. The taxi drivers blew their incessant horns, the old public buses spluttered their black exhaust into the air and the office crowds jostled and moved, a wall-to-wall carpet of people. But I was a still point in the moving world, unable to breathe, unable to think, my eyes blinking furiously. I looked away, then looked at the page again. Yup. It was still there, in black ink. My name. Under my first-ever published short story.

The vendor was grumbling under his breath about the rudeness of people who lingered and flipped through magazines without purchasing them. After a few minutes, when my heart had entered my body again, I heard him and debated briefly whether I should share my good news with him. But I didn’t. For one thing, there was a good chance that he was illiterate. For another, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t give a damn. And so, I paid for the magazine and left. For the rest of the day, I counted the minutes until I would get home, anticipating the delight of the adults when I showed them the centerfold with my name on it.

But another relative, who had a home subscription to the magazine, beat me to it. When I reached home that evening, the news had already gotten around. Even my father, skeptical as he was about my desire to become a writer, was pleased.

The check came in the mail a few days later. It was a laughably small amount but it was the first paycheck I had ever earned and the fact that I had earned it through my writing was enough to make my head bob with pride. If memory serves me well, I think perhaps my father cashed it for me. All I remember is feeling the weight of the money in my pocket, thinking it was a solemn thing, now that I was an earning member of the family. I remember debating how to spend this money wisely and responsibly and finally arriving at the momentous decision—I would buy a cake for the family. And so, on a gray evening, in the midst of a torrential downpour, I got off at the bus stop before my usual stop, went into a bakery and walked home in the rain, arriving with a soggy cake box. But the pride—nay, the satisfaction—that I felt watching my family enjoying it later that evening, was my first intimation of adulthood. I am providing for my family, I thought. I am no longer a dependent child but a grown-up provider.

That was the happy part. But there was another, less-predictable fallout from my first publication. The short story was about a young boy from the slums, whose poverty-stricken father descends into alcoholism, making the boy vow to never follow in the footsteps of his weak, impoverished, ineffectual father.

The story was a figment of my imagination, the product of endless wonderment about how the poor, who lived so close to us but had such radically different lives, existed. The main character’s reality was about as different from mine as possible. The only thing we shared was a city. Beyond that, we had nothing in common: For one thing, I was a girl; I grew up in a spacious, middle-class home; there was thankfully no alcoholism in my immediate family; and instead of being an ordinary laborer, my father was a successful businessman. Most importantly, I loved and admired my father and had never, not once, thought of him as weak.

And so, it took my breath away when my beloved aunt, my father’s unmarried sister who lived with us, leapt ferociously to my dad’s defense. How dare I consider my father weak? she demanded. How dare I publicly humiliate him in this fashion? Did I have any idea how hard my father worked to provide us with the life that he did?

I mounted no defense. I was too aghast at this strange turn of events. My father never once questioned or chastised me. But the damage was done. I felt embarrassed, mortified, as if I indeed was guilty of something. But what? Had I unwittingly stumbled upon some aspect of my proud, noble dad’s character that had erstwhile been a mystery to me? Was I foolish in believing in my own innocence? My aunt was an adult and it was well known within the family that she loved my dad and me more than life itself. Why did she need to protect my father from me? Was that what being a writer entailed—being some kind of a monster, a thing with scales and claws, who drew blood even while unaware of it?

It is easy now, of course, all these decades later, to laugh off my aunt’s ridiculous interpretation. To see it as what it was—a failure of imagination. A gross misunderstanding of what fiction is. But once I got over the initial mortification, I was left with a healthy respect for the power of the written word. What I had never been able to do in real life—have my adoring aunt get so mad at me she refused to speak to me for three days—I had achieved with the flick of a pen. Which meant that words were more than just pretty, decorative things. It meant that words were dangerous as fire, powerful as swords, and open to interpretation and misunderstanding.

Long after the joy of first publication waned, that lesson remained. One didn’t take a professional oath to become a writer; there was no licensure exam to pass. Nevertheless, choosing to be a writer came with a certain responsibility. Words could heal and words could do damage; words could unite but they could also divide; words could soothe and also injure.

Of course, that initial experience hasn’t been the only time someone has taken issue with something I’ve written. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, readers interpret your work in ways that make you scratch your head and think, “Really? How the heck did you reach that conclusion?” But over the course of my literary career the one thing I’ve learned—the minute a book is published, it no longer belongs only to you. Readers become co-writers and each reader “reads” a slightly different book, based on who they are, their values, their life experiences. To set a book free into the world is to rely on the kindness—and thoughtfulness and intelligence—of strangers.

I wish I had had a more uniformly joyous “first publication” experience. But in some strange way, my aunt’s strange reaction proved to be instructive and prepared me better for the careers that followed, first as a journalist and then as a novelist. Writing mattered; words had power. I learned that lesson young and have never forgotten it.

Author photo by Robert Muller