After ten or fifteen years, the confusion and loss had been replaced by
a self-conscious construction of an immigrant self. I’m calling it a
construction because it was an aesthetic and a textual idea. I was
taking pictures of immigrant life; I was reporting on novels and
nonfiction about immigrants; my own words were an edited record of what
I was reading. An eclectic mix of writers: Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire,
June Jordan, Jamaica Kincaid, Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Marguerite
Duras, Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Reagan was still President when I came to
the U.S. The Iran-Contra hearings were my introduction to televised
spectacle. Gap-toothed Ollie North and his proclamations of innocence,
the volume of hair on his secretary Fawn Hall, reports I read of Reagan
declaring, “I am a Contra.” I had consumed all of this as an
innocent—and by writing poems I began issuing my declarations of
independence.

Recently, I was reading the lectures that the novelist James Salter
delivered at age ninety, at the University of Virginia, shortly before
his death. In one of them, he quoted the French writer and critic Paul
Léautaud, who wrote, “Your language is your country.” Salter added,
“I’ve thought about it a great deal, and I may have it backwards—your
country is your language. In either case it has a simple meaning. Either
that your true country is not geographical but lingual, or that you are
really living in a language, presumably your mother tongue.” When I read
those words, I thought of my grandmother, who died a few years after I
came to America. She was the only person to whom I wrote letters in my
mother tongue, Hindi. On pale blue aerograms, I sent her reports of my
new life in an alien land. Although she could sign her own name, my
grandmother was otherwise illiterate and would ask the man who brought
her the mail in the village or a passing schoolchild to read her the
words I had written. And when my grandmother died, I had no reason to
write in Hindi again. Now it is a language that I use only in
conversations, either on the phone, with my friends and relatives in
India, or, on occasion, when I get into cabs in New York City.

At another point in his lectures, Salter told his audience that “style
is the entire writer.” He said, “You can be said to have a style when a
reader, after reading several lines or part of a page, can recognize who
the writer is.” There you have it, another definition of home. In novels
such as “A Sport and a Pastime” and “Light Years,” the sentences have a
particular air, and the light slants through them in a way that
announces Salter’s presence. All the writers I admire, each different
from the other, erect structures that offer refuge. Consider Claudia
Rankine. You are reading her description of a woman’s visit to a new
therapist
.
The woman has arrived at the door, which is locked. She rings the bell.
The therapist opens the door and yells, “Get away from my house. What
are you doing in my yard?” The woman replies that she has an
appointment. A pause. Then an apology that confirms that what just
happened actually happened. If you have been left trembling by someone
yelling racist epithets at you, Rankine’s detached, near-forensic
writing provides you the comfort of clarity that the confusion of the
therapist in the poem does not.

Thirty years have passed since I left India. I have continued to write
journalism about the country of my birth. This has allowed me to cure,
to some degree, the malady of distance. I’ve reflected a great deal on
the literature that is suited to describing the conditions in the
country of my birth. But I have also known for long that I no longer
belonged there.

I haven’t reported in grand detail on rituals of American life, road
journeys or malls or the death of steel-manufacturing towns. I think
this is because I feel a degree of alienation that I cannot combat. I’ve
immersed myself in reading more and more of American literature, but no
editor has asked me to comment on Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan. It
is assumed I’m an expert on writers who need a little less suntan lotion
at the beach. I don’t care. Removed from any intimate connection to a
community or the long association with a single locale, my engagement
with literature is now focussed on style. Do my sentences reveal once
again the voice of the outsider, a mere observer?

In a cemetery that is only a few miles away from my home, in the Hudson
Valley, is the gravestone of an Indian woman. The inscription reads,
“Anandabai Joshee M.D. 1865-1887 First Brahmin Woman to Leave India to
Obtain an Education.” Joshee was nine when she was married to a
twenty-nine-year-old postal clerk in Maharashtra, and twenty-one when
she received a medical degree in Pennsylvania. A few months later,
following her return to India, she died, of tuberculosis, at the age of
twenty-two. Her ashes were sent to the woman who had been her benefactor
in the U.S., and that is how Joshee’s ashes found a place in
Poughkeepsie. I’m aware that, when she died, Joshee was younger than I
was when I left India for America. Involved in medical studies, and
living in a world that must have felt immeasurably more distant than it
does now, she probably didn’t have time to write poems or worry about
style. I recently read that last year a crater on the planet Venus was
named after her. It made me think that brave Anandabai Joshee now has a
home that none of us will ever reach.

This piece has been adapted from an essay that will appear in the
anthology “Go Home!,” which will be published in March, by the Feminist
Press.


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