“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.”—Edward P. Morgan, American journalist and writer
Books make us feel, think, wonder, question, understand. The best linger, haunt, guide, tempt. Months, years later, a novel may steal into the reader’s consciousness with the recollection of a particular scene, passage, or even a bit of dialogue, a description, a revelation. Something, from a page once read, connects the reader to the moment.
When I find myself discussing or asking for recommendations of books, the talk invariably turns to why we book lovers gravitate toward novels. More often than not, the answer is, for entertainment and pleasure. I, too, often fall into that easy category. But even so, truth—sometimes hard truth—must be present in order to make the fiction credible, and within that truth, we discover the purpose of the book. The most compelling novels offer more than just a good story. They provide many things, including reflection, enlightenment, instruction, remembrance, enrichment, connection, enhancement, introspection, surprise, empowerment, inspiration, education, reinforcement, or activation.
As I watched the recent election cycle unfold, four works of fiction that impacted me as a person prodded, tickled, and filled my mind. One novel inspired me as a woman. The second re-educated me about human awareness and understanding. The third reinforced my belief in the basic goodness of people. And the fourth persuaded me to answer its call to action. The messages of these novels became doubly important during the months of political debates, campaigns, controversies.
Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupé (India Currents, August 2004) is a series of short stories in novel form representing women of different ages and circumstances. Because these stories are told within the privacy of a train car designated only for women, the characters’ honesty and frank reflection are enhanced. Akhila opens the conversation by saying, “… everyone tells me that no woman can live alone.” In response, each mother, sister, cousin, aunt travelling in the car shares her personal trials, tribulations, tragedies, triumphs. When women realize there is more to their lives than what they were given and have the strength to take their destinies into their own hands, the result is empowerment. Some of the women in Ladies Coupé did not reach their goals, but they embodied the spirit of trying. Others succeeded and became the women they longed to be.
Nair rejoices in the strength that women possess. Her confidence in the power of taking control is evident in her attitude toward her characters, the ordeals they face, and their ultimate decisions and outcomes. With recurring political discussions about women’s rights, the ladies of Ladies Coupé served as my inspiration to stay strong in the belief that rights, once granted, cannot and should not be eliminated.
The Groom to Have Been (India Currents, October 2008), Saher Alam’s potent debut novel, offers a lesson that, sadly, too many people still need to learn and of which others should be reminded. With 9/11 figuring into the setting, Groom is an important novel because it promotes three key elements required for the dissolution of prejudice: the need for human awareness; the necessity of understanding; and the importance of concrete knowledge when forming opinions or beliefs.
While Groom isn’t predominantly about the events of 9/11, its inclusion teaches how vital it is to be aware of the world outside of one’s personal space or comfort zone. It is fact that not all Muslims are Arabs and, conversely, not all Arabs are Muslims. This novel tells the story of Nasr, a Canadian Muslim of Indian origin, who happens to live and work in New York City at the time of the terrorist attacks. Alam’s confident handling of such a delicate matter speaks firmly as a reminder that we must look before leaping, learn before instructing, and think before making ourselves heard. Each time a news cycle included someone’s demand for the President’s birth certificate or included another misguided declaration on the subject of his origins, I was reminded of Nasr and the turmoil he endured at the hands of the ignorant.
The 2012 election cycle also included myriad discussions pertaining to widespread partisanship. Interestingly enough, Roopa Farooki’s The Way Things Look to Me (India Currents, March 2012) lends itself to examination as an allegory regarding the importance of working together when there is dissent and self-absorption involved. Her novel illustrates the challenges of living with and caring for a sibling with Asperger’s Syndrome and Synesthesia, long-misunderstood conditions that are slowly becoming more recognized and, therefore, properly diagnosed. Often, and in the case of Farooki’s book, one family member assumes the position of caregiver for a parent, a friend, a sibling, or some other relative. In fortunate cases, it is a matter of community in that caregiving.
Farooki’s poignant yet hopeful novel shows how a family breaks and subsequently finds a way to weld itself back together. The story reinforced my belief and experience that every such family, no matter how perfect it may seem or diverse in its advantages/disadvantages, is due respect for whatever healing efforts it undertakes. By extension, the novel exemplifies the concept that when we work together, we can create a world of good even if it faces daily obstacles and tests of will. This goodness can be a family, a neighborhood, a community, a world—one in which politicians and political strategists can be included.
The novel that most intensely resonated with me was Thrity Umrigar’s The World We Found (India Currents, July 2012) and its focus on personal convictions: how they affect a person and the world over time; how the convictions may change; and how they may change a person. During the election cycle, it reminded me that while no one is static, neither stagnation nor superficial changeability is acceptable.
In the novel, Umrigar presents a group of 50 year olds, once close college friends who engaged in political debate and activism. The question posed throughout the story is: How do their actions, decisions, and beliefs of 30 years ago square with their lives today? Over the course of the novel, they are forced to reconcile the world they once fought for with the world in which they now live. When one member of the group reveals that she is dying and wishes to see her friends one last time, each character begins a journey of self-inventory and self-evaluation. As a reader, I was not exempt from joining them.
So many issues bombarded the airwaves, populated the written word, and infected even casual conversation over the course of the past year that it was an indispensable exercise to revisit my once and future beliefs. I stepped back to the late 1960s, when I was a senior in high school, deeply involved in the “Let Us Vote” campaign to lower the voting age to 18. From there, I moved forward through and scrutinized where I had been, where I am now, and where I might go with regard to the trinity of political, economic, and social convictions.
I was, for the most part, pleased with my personal assessment, and I rejoiced in the truth one character earnestly states in The World We Found: “… we never have to settle for things as they were …”
“The best of a book is not the thought which it contains, but the thought which it suggests; just as the charm of music swells not in the tones but in the echoes of our hearts.”—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1902-1932.
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Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes from Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is happily at work on her young adult novel.