Talking Race, Kid Lit, and EVERYBODY’S SON with Thrity Umrigar [in The Booklist Reader]
About 15 years ago, when Thrity Umrigar was already a successful journalist and about to become an English professor, she attended a lecture at Emerson College in Boston and left with her first literary agent. Shortly thereafter, her debut novel, Bombay Time, hit the shelves. Balancing a reporter’s eye for detail with academic rigor, Umrigar has written six more novels, a memoir, and a children’s picture book.
Until now, all of her books have drawn inspiration from Umrigar’s Indian American background. The Space Between Us (2006) examines the relationship between a privileged Bombay woman and her servant. If Today Be Sweet (2007) follows a recently widowed Indian woman who moves to the U.S. to join her son. The World We Found (2012) concerns four college friends from Bombay who reunite decades later in America to fulfill a dying wish. The Story Hour (2014) captures the unconventional relationship between an Indian immigrant bride and her African American therapist.
Umrigar’s ninth and latest book, Everybody’s Son – out today – is her first without Indian or Indian American characters. Instead, at its center is Anton, a nine-year-old African American boy. After surviving an unrelenting heatwave locked alone in an apartment, Anton is removed from his drug-addicted mother’s custody and placed with a white, wealthy couple who recently suffered the loss of their teenage son. With Anton’s mother in jail, his foster father becomes desperate enough to push beyond the limits of the law to keep Anton forever. As part of the Coleman family, Anton inherits their privilege – connections, Harvard, promising career – but the truth won’t stay buried forever, and the consequences prove to be profound.
I caught up with Umrigar online for a lively chat about the creative boundaries around race, the possibility of criticism, pandering, and the promise of a (not) cheesy sequel.
This is your first title without South Asian-inspired characters! How did you prepare to write in the voices of a mixed-race African American boy and a privileged, middle-aged white man?
I had the strangest experience with this book. It came to me whole – finished – in the span of 15 seconds or less. The characters came with their names attached. So, I can’t say that there was a lot of preparation that I did. I could just see Anton and hear his voice so clearly.
Did your decades of experience in journalism play a role in getting the details right?
Absolutely – but then, I think my journalism experience has played a role in everything that I’ve done in my fiction. When I was a social issues reporter, I did do stories on transracial adoptions, so I was familiar with the issues. But there was also a whole other thing that I think helped me: When I was a grad student, I was good friends with an African American student. The first Christmas (I’d only been in the country for about three months), she and her sister invited me to go with them to Georgia to her family’s home for the holidays. I went. It was life-transforming. Her parents were poor, hardworking folks, and they took me in like another daughter, no questions asked. While this was well over 30 years ago, some part of this had stayed with me.
A few years back, Bill Cheng was challenged for writing about rural, predominantly black Mississippi in Southern Cross the Dog; the novel as literature was less important than the fact that a Chinese American was writing from an African American perspective. About the same time, Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer for assuming the voice of a North Korean protagonist in The Orphan Master’s Son. You yourself had an African American main character in your last novel, The Story Hour. What sort of feedback did you get from your audiences? Are you concerned about what sort of reception is ahead for Son?
I got only one kind of feedback from black readers for The Story Hour – they wrote or attended my talks and thanked me. They thanked me for creating a character who was flawed, yes, but who was a middle-class professional in a sane, stable, happy marriage. Their relief was palpable. I remember wanting to cry when those emails started coming in because, good god, the bar was so damn low!
I am bracing myself for some criticism for this book. Unlike Story Hour, where I had the “cushion” of the other main character being Indian, I have no such cushion this time around. And honestly, as long as I feel like I’ve written an ethical, emotionally honest book, I don’t really care. What matters to me for this novel is what has always mattered to me – that my books have integrity, that they don’t take the easy way out, that they don’t pander. I did my due diligence before writing this book, and if I get criticized for writing about a different culture, I can handle this. If writers can write about space aliens, surely I can write about a black family.
Another first for you this year: You recently published your first picture book, When I Carried You in My Belly. Did you always think you might write a kiddie book? Any plans to keep writing for younger readers?
It was a dream come true! Yes, I always wanted to write for kids. Love kids. Think they are the funniest, most brilliant beings that the human species has to offer. I want to keep writing for them. The best part? Having a partner – the illustrator [Ziyue Chen]. Such a different experience than writing a novel. I wrote Belly on the back of a napkin during a short flight, and then to see my words come to life with someone else’s illustrations was a real high.
So what’s next for you?
I’m writing a sequel to The Space Between Us. It’s called The Secrets Between Us. I’d always sworn I’d never write a sequel – it felt so cheesy and trite. But then I got an idea that brings to life someone who is a very, very minor character in Space and it just opened up the book and allowed me to talk about the “new,” globalized India, the promise and perils of this new economic/cultural era, etc. So, I’m excited to be working on this.
Photo credit: Robert Muller