“An Acquaintance” by Saba Syed can leave the reader either disappointed or delighted.
Syed opens with a jarring scene depicting Islamophobia that anyone following the rise of current events will recognize for its frequency. It’s a sad reflection of where we are now as a country when a traumatic event like this one can make a reader feel heartbroken at how it’s so familiar and so painful all at the same time.
The opening is then promptly set aside and the reader can safely assume that we’ll be brought back to it later. This is when the narrative briefly drags. That may have been intentional, as the author spends a significant part of the beginning of the book setting the story up. A reader needs this, of course, but it seems to have been done formulaically. It felt almost as if the author were simply going through a checklist to make sure that all important characters, premises, and settings were displayed and thoroughly fleshed out so that we could finally give the story permission to move on to the plot itself.
But once we move on, oh my! Syed really gave herself permission to draw the reader in. This is the story of Sarah Ali (a high school senior and a Muslim) and her struggle to determine exactly she feels about her classmate Jason, who’s new to her town and her school – and is not a Muslim. Is he an acquaintance? Does she want him to be more than an acquaintance? And while she struggles to label what he is to her, how does she navigate their relationship at this moment? There probably isn’t a medium, genre or time in history that hasn’t visited some version of the classic cross-culture, interfaith, “forbidden love” story so I expected the narrative to move along rather predictably and end with a “Happily Ever After, The End.”
However, Syed manages to fill this story not only with everything I predicted but also with plenty of distinctive touches to make it a memorable read. Sure, there’s a typical high school setting: the cool kids, the jocks, the cafeteria seating politics. But there are an Islamic conference and a retreat, a protective older brother whose religiosity borders on the extreme and an Islamic “scholar” who promptly shuts down anyone questioning the reasoning behind Islamic moral codes. We meet broken families, a judgmental best friend and a mosque community so gossipy, hypocritical and drama-filled that they could (and would probably love to!) have their own daytime soap opera.
As the story progresses, Sarah manages every once in a while to catch herself making (and often verbalizing) assumptions about Jason that she shouldn’t have because they’re based on his skin color. This comes off feeling almost apologetic, like an attempt to hint at “reverse racism.” While stereotypes serve no one, these moments happen slightly too frequently and Sarah dwells on her slipups too much. Also, though she is quite capable of addressing instances of Islamophobia with maturity and wisdom, she is at the same time severely lacking in how she broaches the general subject of Islam with Jason. I found Sarah disappointing in these ways. Yes, as a mom of three high school teens, I’m confident that my husband and I have raised our children with enough awareness of social justice issues to know that “reverse racism” doesn’t exist and enough awareness of themselves as Muslims to be able to relate Islam to others with clarity. But this isn’t why I find it disappointing. It’s because we also get to know her father very well and I was surprised that she doesn’t rise to the challenges of these scenarios given how Professor Omar Ali raised her.
Sarah’s father is incredibly well-written and developed. He’s undoubtedly the hero of this story – and everything a modern Muslim parent should aspire to be. In Professor Ali, we see a widower still mourning the love of his life, while supporting every dream his children have as a single father. We see a father who is pained by what his daughter is going through while resisting the protective urge to swoop in and rescue her. We see a mosque community leader who handles the challenges the community lobs at him with grace and dignity.
It’s Professor Ali’s role that makes how this book ends almost inconsequential to me. Almost. I felt that it wrapped up too quickly. Though it took fewer pages and less storytelling to close the story than to open it, it felt just as routine – as if the author here again had made a checklist, except this time it was a list of loose ends (characters, storylines) to make sure to tie up and call it “The End.”
Ultimately, what “An Acquaintance” left me with was an ending that I simply didn’t like. There are obviously only two outcomes: Sarah and her Acquaintance either end up together, or they don’t. Which of these is your “Happily Ever After” is what determines whether you’ll be left disappointed or left delighted.
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For BGM Literary’s third short story of the year, editor Nimarta Narang is excited to share Ankita Saxena’s short story titled “Date Night.” Chronicling Anapurna’s dates with Oscar, the story delves deeper into Anapurna’s relationship, well, relationships, as we learn more about her family and her parents. Saxena, a British Indian poet and performer, has also recently launched her debut called Mother / Line.
It is Saturday night. The drizzle has left Anapurna’s hair a little wet. She walks in and scans the room. The waiter at the entrance pauses before speaking, as if also unsure what she is doing here. At that moment, she remembers she has left her umbrella on the tube. Fuck.
The booking is under Annie, she says — and the waiter pauses again, as if unsure how such a light name could belong to such a dark girl. She remembers then, that whatever happens, the clocks will change overnight. Tomorrow, daylight will squeeze into a smaller dress size, diet all the way through winter.
Follow me, he says, suddenly in a rush, grabbing two laminated menus from his podium. He reminds Annie of the black cat that crossed her path earlier — its back slightly arched. She did not know then, or now, whether to feel scared or lucky.
He places the menus on a round table for two in the back of the restaurant.
Oscar arrives like a train, leaving only a breath of silence before opening with the customary: Hi, sorry I’m late. It is nice to finally meet you. By the time he arrives, Annie has already read through the menu in Italian and English. She is deciding between the prawn and the spaghetti, but of course — it is never down to the best option.
In the next moment, she is standing, smiling, extending her right hand, and then her left arm, for a sideways embrace. He smells like cologne, of course, and as their cheeks bristle, he feels like rain.
So, how has your week been? She starts, adding Did the curry turn out well last night? A mark of familiarity, a gesture that this is something more than small talk. Yeah, it was suitably spicy. My flatmates were very impressed. He pauses, and takes a sip of the tap water that has by now appeared on his left-hand side. I like your look, a polite way of expressing surprise at her low-cut body, blazer and culottes.
Annie orders the prawn in the end. Better conversation starter.
They talk of holidays to Spanish seaside resorts, getting piss drunk and spilling onto the streets from one bar to the next, with the same light thrum of English pop songs playing in each. They talk of his work trips to Belgium and Buenos Aires, the time he was nearly mugged in Lagos after taking one too many unknown pills from strangers. These are extravagances Annie has never known.
Would you take a random pill from a stranger? he asks, and she thinks of her mother, which she hoped would not happen this early in the conversation. Her mother, who gets ‘drunk’ from half a glass of wine, her austere façade crumbling to a giggling mess. Her mother, asks time and time again what people mean by kissing strangers on the lips in nightclubs: how do they trust them like that?
No, she says, I like being in control.
Oscar shifts his weight forward on his chair and lays down his cutlery like a declaration. They have had a glass of wine each by this point, and something about her caution makes him bold.
So, what’s your story?
My story? – the last prawn hung on a fork like a question mark.
Annie does not know which version to tell. Oscar is both familiar and from a different world. In one breath, he talks about his immigrant grandmother; in another, of Yacht Week with his university friends and the time he trashed his parents’ house when they were ‘away’ for the weekend.
Annie cannot imagine trashing her parents’ house. At the age of 11, when she got into her first-choice secondary school, she realised how easy it was to please them. She got good grades, did not cause any chaos, and in return, they left her alone. All her friends would envy her for her harmonious relationship with her family. But it was not difficult with a little pragmatism. She was never too deliberate about being ‘good’ — she just had no desire to be ‘bad’. In return, she had her own set of keys from the age of 14 and returned home often well after they went to bed.
More than this, Annie cannot imagine her parents being ‘away,’ that too, with just each other for company. Their marriage, and everything that came with it — discussion over discounted items in the supermarket, loud Saturday morning calls to old relatives, their hands joined in monthly prayer — always seemed more ritualistic than love. On family drives, Annie would sit in the back seat with headphones plugged in, watching for signs of love. Maybe a casual hand on a thigh? A sideways look in the mirror. A laugh over an in-joke. But every time the music quietened, all she could hear was her mother cursing at her father’s driving, her father demanding directions, or, more often than not, the silence of people who have nothing more to say to each other.
One Valentine’s Day, she sent them on a dinner date to the new Chinese restaurant on their local high street. She and her brother put on a movie at home, and they returned well after the credits, faces giddy like new lovers. But the next morning, they were back to their usual selves — her father complaining about the bill, her mother complaining about the way he treated her family.
Annie and Oscar talk of hobbies then. She mentions dancing at university. He mentions winter sports and cooking. She cannot imagine anything worse than falling on ice.
She notices the restaurant has thinned behind them, all the old-fashioned wall hangings suddenly visible, like shells in low tide. Everything alright Sir? Ma’am? the waiter asks, and they request the bill, going Dutch as she has been trained to do by now.
Outside, the rain has stilled, leaving large puddles reflecting the streetlights. Annie slips inside her coat, imagining slipping into his — the baggy weight of it, the cliché. He places his hand instinctively on her lower back, laughing as the splash of a puddle makes a small smudge on his suede shoes.
As they near the station, he extends the hand to an arm again, and this time she lets her body bend in the fold of his, noticing suddenly how thin her jacket is, how little fabric and skin separate their bones.
She does not say, I do not know how to be more intimate than this. Instead, she rubs her palms against his spine, and then draws back quickly taking her and her shadow into the darkness.
What’s your story? The question plays back in her head. They have come to see an exhibition. It is precisely six days and 15 hours after their first meeting. They walk side by side, Oscar slightly behind, Annie’s shoulder occasionally and intentionally pressing into his chest.
They glide through the gallery like a pair of ducks. She has never observed still objects so close to someone else. She is fascinated by how long he looks at the sculpture, and how he takes her around them like a waltz. She notices how well-dressed he is for the gallery in his light blue chinos and black coat. She notices, once again, his cologne.
She had come to this gallery last with Zeina and Chrissie — Zeina in a rush to get out the door and get some food, Chrissie taking pictures of every painting to send to her boyfriend. Annie always felt peaceful around her friends — each of their habits etched into her like a chant from childhood. Zeina started adding flat peaches to their shopping list in the second year. By the time they graduated, the kitchen cupboard was stocked with Molasses, Sumac, heaps of chickpeas. Annie imagined growing up with Zeina and her sisters, and when Zeina facetimed her mother in the middle of their flat dinners, Annie almost felt she had.
And Chrissie — who stuck to Annie from the first day of uni, later introducing her to all her theatre friends, saying: this girl is an angel. Once, before a black-tie ball, she had shown Annie how to read her eyes: your eyes are long, not wide, so you should draw your liner thick on the lid ratherthan with wings. That night, she felt like Beyoncé. When Annie was shaking uncontrollably the morning she was expecting her university results, they both gathered around her. She nearly asked them to open the email — don’t be dramatic, Zeina said, Chrissie on the other side smoothing out Annie’s hair out like a bed.
What do you think of this one? Oscar asks, looking at an abstract piece. She cocks her head, It looks like a city.
Really? To me, it looks like the peaks of mountains.
Annie remembers stories of the college ski trip — the hot tub with the whole milky way in view, the excessive drinking, reckless life-changing accidents. What would she do with a world like Oscar’s? What new perspective could he offer?
Oscar takes that moment to put his hand around her shoulder — her skin tingles unexpectedly under the layers.
Or a face, maybe. See, that jagged streak of red could be a smile.
She relaxes. He starts pointing out the chin and the eyebrows. They laugh. It is a chaotic old woman, they decide. It is always easy to find faces in abstracts.
Later, they go for a walk by the river. He asks her about her job. She says all the buzzwords. Product manager. Start-up. Incubator. He asks her what she loves about her job.
She remembers getting the offer in April of her third year. She was at home, in her bedroom. She had been juggling applications and interviews with finals preparations for three months. The phone call comes as a shock. She is expecting an email. She starts screaming at the top of her voice. Guys! Guys, I got the offer!
What? What? Her mother, always the first to listen, appearing from nowhere in a sudden gust of elation, jumping with her until their feet are sore. Her brother bolting up the stairs: What? How much are they paying you? Her father pausing the football downstairs, What? What?
Later that evening, the family meal — spicy chicken,a rare bottle of wine. Her heart is full. Her parents laughing across the table. This is better than any grade she has received.
I like the stimulation. She says. How each day is a new challenge.
Annie has learnt the art of sculling through bar queues — how you must pick a corner edge and gradually navigate inwards diagonally, shoulders guiding you through like oars.
I’ll get this round.
You paid for the gallery tickets. Only fair.
Once a group of bulky, beer-breathed men appeared behind her, laughing loudly over her head. Excuse me, two G+Ts please, she yelled over their grunts. You alright, love? one of them slurred into her hair, his T-shirt exposing muscles like hedges lining his arms. We’ll get her those, he said, one bulbous hand on her waist, another extending his card to the slobbery bar top. She let him pay. Grabbed both G+Ts shiny on the counters, drained half of one by the time reached Chrissie, pristine at the back of the queue. Some old creeps in this bar. Let’s go find your boyfriend.
When he drove her to university the first time, her father switched off the radio halfway through the journey. You know, Beta — you must be careful in the nightclubs. Men can be mad. Don’t drink, shink there. They can put things in them.
I know Papa. Relax.
Just be careful.
Months after, she found Zeina at the corner of a club, pulled her up by the elbows, hair matted with sweat, eyes dilated. Annie — what is happening to me? Nee, am I drunk? Anapurna — don’t tell my mother about this. Zeina, who had never had a sip of alcohol. Never intentionally.
She orders two Espresso Martinis — Oscar had posed with some in his dating profile, and it’s time she made an effort.
When she returns, he is on his phone, smiling.
Sorry, those were my friends. They’re getting wasted tonight. A party? Yeah. Rob’s flatmate’s 25th. You should go! No, no. I’m here now. We could go together. Really? You’d be up for that? Yeah.
The Uber drops them off by a semi-detached house on a dark street lined with lamplights. Just before they enter, Oscar touches Annie on the waist turning her around. She is conscious of the thick layer of faux fur between them.
You sure about this? His breath leaving a cigarette trail in the November air. My friends can be intimidating. She lets her chin fall on his chest, Come on, I’m cold.
Inside, there are fewer people than she anticipated. It is less a party, more a circle of friends passing around pringles and tin cans — lights on, the vague attempt at bunting, the bass of speakers filtering from another room.
In the presence of friends, Oscar is louder; more sarcastic. He introduces Annie by her job description — Annie works in tech, by Southwark — the first time she realises he cares. They meet Johnny, who is doing a Ph.D. in Literature, and Elisa, who has just come back from six months abroad. Annie scans the circle, realises she is at least three foundation shades darker than the rest of them. In her fur jacket, heeled boots and red lip, she is also the best dressed.
She posts a dancing girl emoji in her WhatsApp chat with Zeina and Chrissie. Guess where I am?
Oscar takes off his coat. I’ll be back soon, he says, slipping through an arch underneath the stairs. Annie makes small talk with Elisa — So where did you travel? They talk of backpacking in Cambodia and Vietnam, You know how it is on a budget? I need to go back there sometime, spend a few months in each place. Annie pretends to understand. Other friends float over — Michael who has beautiful long hair, and Lucy, who is a newly-qualified lawyer.
She walks over to the window — if she squints, she can make out train tracks buried beneath the room’s bright reflections. She watches the quick passage of tubes rubbing bodies for a few loud seconds, before going their separate ways.
Behind her, Oscar comes over with two plastic cups. Punch he says, gesturing to a large bowl on the TV stand. Annie remembers the housewarming party she and Zeina threw after university, both their mothers calling them to ask about the food arrangements. Ma, it’s fine – you don’t need to feed people here, she said, still impulse-buying a few boxes of Tesco-branded samosas and tortilla chips for nachos. What kind of people will they think you are if you don’t even give them food?
Annie’s mother would begin a cooking operation each time her friends came over for the weekend: chili chicken and noodles, pasta with an onion-fried tomato sauce, vegetables baked in cheese sauce. Get the nice stuff, not discounted, she would say, pushing her daughter to make a last-minute trip to the supermarket, returning to a dry-cleaned house, each unnecessary item hidden like lightbulbs inside drawers.
Zeina was the only friend who was not considered a guest. In the absence of any relatives outside the Middle East other than an uncle in Canada, she adopted Annie’s as her own. She would arrive on Friday evenings and eat what the family ate, not leaving until Sunday morning, when she needed to get back to study for her Monday morning seminar.
They would stay up until two or three in the morning, lying on Annie’s beige carpet, drawing pictures and coded messages with colouring pencils in the cork underside of her desk. These are for our eyes only — Annie would say — write whatever you want, no one will see them.
Once, Annie’s parents were fighting downstairs, the odd word occasionally slipping into focus like letters in the last row of an opticians’ screen.
You have no bloody right to – Why do you always have to bring my mother into – I don’t care if the kids are – Oh, so I’m – am I?
Zeina got up early the next morning as if nothing has happened. You know me, Annie, I can sleep through anything, between toothpaste gargles.
What you looking at? Oscar asks, following Annie’s eye-line. She is reminded of the art gallery — how they learnt to observe minutiae side by side, read the other person’s gaze. She wonders at what point her parents forgot to do this.
Annie tells him about Zeina and Chrissie, about her family — how her mother was the one who pushed her to start dating at the age of 24. You have to live your life Anapurna. You cannot use me as an excuse for everything.
She talks and talks until the drinks evaporate, and she reaches for him with the abandon of prayer, nerves racing to her toes, chest aching, neck pulsing.
What’s your story? Oscar had asked barely half an hour into their first conversation. And what could she say?
Liberal Londoner in trendy tech job OR Second-generation immigrant with traditional family values
As they walk in the bright sunlight, three weeks after their first date, Oscar squeezes Annie’s right earlobe in his index and thumb.
Are you always this cautious?
The park’s molten brown foliage shimmers in a large, grey lake, where a dog has plunged into the cold water, creating ripples that land within metres of their feet.
Only when I am worried I might slip.
The hours after she hears of her parents’ separation, Annie does not tell anyone. Annie, come look at this. The girls are watching Zeina’s cousin’s wedding videos. How unfair is this? She curls up with them, comforted by the lack of questioning. They remind her of her father — always there to pick her up, never bothered about the details.
Chrissie is trying to explain the situation to the co-director of her play. He gaslighted me. Are you even listening?
That evening, her mother calls her, cool and blabbering. It’s only been a couple of months. We didn’t want to tell anyone until it was official. We didn’t want to distract you. The words months and official repeating in her head for weeks to come. She remembers the night she got her job offer — how could her mother have laughed like that on the verge of separation? How could she have lied for so long?
When Zeina finally finds out, she moves into Annie’s bed. Don’t worry. I won’t let you down. Later, Annie slips away to the sofa and lies there all night, ghost-like in the green of her WhatsApp screen, trying to memorise the timelines, her thighs rubbing against each other, sweaty in the August heat.
She does not answer her mother’s calls for another two months, until the day before she starts her job, and her mother, as usual, makes up for it: I have so much faith in you, Anapurna. You have nothing to worry about. Call me in your lunch break. Or whenever. I love you.
What’s your story? Oscar will ask again. And what will she say now, three weeks into knowing him? And what will she say to all those who ask after him?
Afraid of ending up like her parents OR Afraid of not ending up like them.
Experienced in heartbreak, in friendshipOR Hugely inexperienced in intimacy, in love.
In the winter sun, the birds are creating raucous in the trees. The dog is shaking off lake water, more alive for having taken the dive.
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, being the only brown face in a room has never fazed me. I was always the little brown girl in the corner with waist-length hair and a name that made every teacher pause, but the feeling of “otherness” captured in this line was something I knew all too well.
This feeling isn’t unique. It’s the same experience of many immigrants and first-generation South Asian Americans, and that of the main character of “The East Indian”as well.
While a work of fiction set in the 1630s, the novel paints a very real picture of immigration and race in the United States today and the human need to belong.
It is the story of Tony East Indian, inspired by a real person documented in the country’s archives as the first known East Indian in the American colonies, but who is otherwise a work of the author’s imagination and research.
The son of a courtesan from the Coromandel coast of India, Tony unwittingly finds himself as an indentured servant in the plantations of Jamestown, Virginia at just 11 years old.
He accepts “Tony” as his first name — though he doesn’t care for it — because a fellow Tamil once suggested others in the world would find his real name “too hard to utter.” Then he adopts the surname “East Indian” simply because it is thrust upon him when he arrived in Jamestown. The protagonist can no longer even recall his birth name, but soon, he accepts it as a thing of his past.
Over the course of the novel, Tony lands at the center of scandal as he works to establish a new identity as a physician. All the while, he also struggles with isolation, prejudice and the challenges of trying to maintain pieces of the culture he carried with him from abroad.
He is confused as to why Native Americans are also called “Indians” and many colonists simply label him a “moor,” a term used for North Africans or anyone with darker skin, with no context for India or its people in this new world.
He, feeling disloyal to his “many Gods,” converts from Hinduism to Christianity, believing it will give him more credibility and a sense of connection to his peers. He begins to eat meat and spend time at taverns, all in hopes of belonging, and assimilating with colonist ways.
As he comes of age and furthers his physician’s apprenticeship, Tony also begins to ponder questions of race and social class to no avail. He reflects:
“I would talk to Doctor Herman and try to understand the reason behind white skin and black and brown and, more important, what greater distinctions of wit, sensibility, and soul the differences in hue signified. I read and was taught by my master the new ideas put forth by men of learning in England and Europe on the workings of the bowels, the brain, the blood; the causes of migraines, melancholy, and madness, but I never got closer to understanding the real meaning behind what they called different races of men, and if such difference exists in any profound sense that really matters.”
Overall, in “The East Indian,” Tony becomes a man. He learns of the world’s cruelty and its kindness. He learns to work, play, love, hate, scheme, grieve and care for himself and others. But, like most immigrants, he still longs for home.
“For home is singular and unique. Everywhere else is but a stopping place, a bed in a stranger’s house, eating off plates not one’s own, an unfamiliar view from a casement,” Tony said.
When attempts to head West and find an ocean back to India fail, Tony accepts that returning to his motherland is unlikely and resolves that he must learn to adapt.
He worries his love interest, born in the colonies, will not relate to him, for “her heart did not ache for another place beyond the sea” and also wonders what the future of his children will be. Nevertheless, he is never defeated.
“I would thrive wherever the wind laid me,” says Tony. “[I] will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me.”
Leaving or even kidnapped from their homes with little to no hope of return, thousands of Indians faced journeys fraught with violence, condemnation and injustice trying to create new lives and identities away from their homeland in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, and Jamaica. However, like Tony, they also found the strength and courage to survive and establish their own cultures and communities.
While no details are known about the real Tony East Indian, Charry weaves a compelling coming-of-age tale that takes him as well as readers across three continents.
The novel, like life itself, has fast and slow moments, but it is filled with vivid, historically accurate depictions of the colonial world and moving moments that keep you rooting for the main character’s triumph.
It is this authenticity and compassion that makes “The East Indian” an invaluable modern work. There are no known first-hand accounts of the indentured or South Asian colonists in America. The only proof of the mere existence of many are the generations that have come after them.
With several years of research put into it, Charry’s “The East Indian” serves as a rare realistic portrayal of what life may have been for these individuals; the hardships they endured, and the strength they embodied. South Asian or not, it is a rich history not only worth reading but sharing and celebrating.
To learn more about Brinda Charry and her professional work visit her website. The East Indian is now available in print and audiobooks from all major book retailers.
Featured Image: Author Brinda Charry was born and raised in India before moving to the United States for graduate school two decades ago. She considers herself “a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist | Photo Credit: Lisa Arnold Photography
I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.
When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?
It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.
How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?
Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community.
Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?
My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience.
It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.
The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?
I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.
One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?
For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.
Why explore the psychology of a house?
It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.
What makes a family?
I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.
The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?
Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.
What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”
I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.
Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.
“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.