OCTOBER 15, 2018
ONE OF THE MOST frustrating things to witness in the present-day 24-hour news cycle, the Twitter spats, the reactionary Facebook posts, et cetera, is, often, the lack of nuance. The nuance about people’s place within a particular struggle, the way marginalized folks especially are so often pushed into positions from which they must represent a group, as if any group of people is homogeneous, and as if each member of said group must bear the burden of spokesmanship.
Here is an example: recently, I found myself sitting in a room full of wonderful artists and writers, watching The Rachel Maddow Show. The topic of World War II somehow came up during a commercial break, and I, a queer, Jewish, Israeli-American person, commented that I was very exhausted with Holocaust narratives. I asked idly why and how World War II novels continue to be published even as other faddish publishing narratives go out of style. Dystopian fiction, for example, boomed for a while there; before that, there was a plethora of vampire novels; both have, by now, given way to other literary trends, such as autofiction and multigenerational novels. One of my fellow writers pointed out that the Holocaust has, at its center, the ultimate fight between good and evil.
I responded, “But does it, really?”
Shocked faces twisted toward me. How dare you, these expressions conveyed, How dare you complicate the neat boxes of Good and Evil we’ve put that narrative into.
I quickly explained, “Evil, yes, sure. But good? Where’s the good?” Jewish people, Romani folks, people of color, disabled people — none of these got imprisoned, worked to death, euthanized, murdered because they represented the good. They were not all good. They didn’t need to be good to deserve their basic human rights. They were human. The Nazi party line and its actions were certainly evil, and there were definitely plenty of people in power who were truly evil, but evil wore the face of people with families they loved, dogs they cared about, and children they tried to raise well. They, too, were human. Evil is human, just as good is, and the many and various shades in between these two make up the vast majority of the human population.
Maybe my fellow writer meant good versus evil another way — maybe she meant that the evil were the Nazis and the good were the allies. But, again, the United States didn’t enter the war because it was good. It entered because it was attacked by Japan and because its allies in the USSR and the United Kingdom needed military help. It wasn’t about being good or even right. It was about politics, and saving face, and needing to answer to American people who put into place their own version of concentration camps — the Japanese internment camps — even as they were holding the moral high ground in Europe as they began liberating the Nazi-made work and death camps.
Am I self-hating Jew for holding all this nuance in my head about this painful topic? I don’t think so, though some might call me that.
Nuance is one of the reasons I love fiction, because it builds empathy and understanding. Love Songs for a Lost Continent by Anita Felicelli, her debut short story collection out with Stillhouse Press on October 1, is a marvel of nuance, each and every story complicating the narrative it sets out to explore. It provides no easy answers — and thank goodness for that.
Love Songs for a Lost Continent explores many kinds of stories — about love, escape, independence — but at its core, it tackles the difficulty of living in the in-between, in the interstices of identities, and the often deeply flawed way human beings deal with this liminality and confusion.
This is amply visible in “Deception,” one of two (maybe three, depending on how you read the collection’s very short final entry) stories in Love Songs that have magical realist texture. “Deception” features Sita, whose family has married her to Anand, a Bengal tiger — an actual tiger, all paws, claws, and orange fur. When Anand is murdered just after Sita leaves him to run away with another man, she is immediately suspected, arrested, and given a high-tech polygraph that uses fMRI technology to confirm the police’s working theory on how the murder occurred. But Sita didn’t murder Anand, no matter what the machine claims to confirm. Her lawyer, who “returned to India to ‘do good’” and who hasn’t “even the slightest hint of wit or amusement” about that intention, believes the machine over Sita’s memory. He tells her, “People don’t always know the truth about themselves or what’s happened to them.”
Sita’s lawyer is wrong in this case — at first, anyway. Sita remembers clearly what happened, but as everyone else is convinced of a different sequence of events, she begins doubting herself: “How easily the fictions that a closed circle of people told each other could grow wings, take flight as if they were truth.” The irony here, of course, is that while the fMRI technician, the police, and even Sita’s brothers believe in the infallibility of science, the fact of the matter is that Sita’s husband was a tiger. This is an impossibility in and of itself, making the entirety of the story sit in a liminal space that is not quite reality and not quite dream. It’s uncomfortable, as a reader, to read about an abusive tiger husband and a wrongfully convicted human wife who loses her freedom twice: first when she is married, and next when she is imprisoned.
There are no comforting answers in this story. Felicelli has that rare and wonderful quality as a writer: she doesn’t require each story to end neatly, letting the lingering frustration and injustice remain in a reader’s mind, just as they would outside the bounds of fiction.
“Once Upon the Great Red Island” is the other story that hints at magical realism, but only at the very end, and I won’t spoil it by giving it away. The majority of the story deals with the tangling and untangling of identity, of colonialism, and feels haunted by the words of Sita’s lawyer earlier in the book — that people don’t always know the truth about themselves. Set in Madagascar, this story is narrated by Tarini, an Indian-American woman, daughter to two Tamil immigrants. Along with her boyfriend, Leon, the narrator moves to Madagascar to start a vanilla farm. During a guided hike through the forest, she discovers an injured baby babakoto, or indri, one of the largest kinds of lemurs and considered critically endangered. They are fuzzy creatures, beautiful and sharp-eyed, and look extremely cuddly, especially to a Western, pet-oriented eye. Tarini, seeing the helpless animal, doesn’t hesitate — she fights off the predator about to snatch it up, and takes the babakoto home, despite the local guide, Solomon, telling her it is illegal in Madagascar to keep one as a pet.
In the village where Tarini and Leon have settled, Tarini feels largely useless. She tries teaching English to the local boys that Leon hires to help with the farm:
“English could be useful someday, if you do business with Europeans, or even if you’re just dealing with tourists like Solomon does,” I tell them. I’m not sure these boys in their frayed hand-me-downs will ever go to school, much less take jobs that require them to speak English, but it makes me feel better to believe I’m helping them, that I’m useful somehow.
For all Tarini’s self-awareness in this moment — teaching the boys English is useful to her, not to them — she is painfully unaware in other areas. She chastises Leon for not listening to Solomon and other locals who recommend that he hire guards for the farm. Leon’s ancestors were French colonizers on the big red island, and he conducts himself much like they did, with a sense of ownership and brazen confidence in his right to be there. He also considers Tarini “exotic and domestic. A perfect combination,” which isn’t at all how Tarini sees herself, and it makes her realize that he doesn’t know her at all. But does Tarini know herself?
On the one hand, Tarini has experienced the exhausting pressures of San Francisco civilization as it pertains to her, a brown woman in corporate America: “The coffee dates, the efforts to get mentorship, the casually racist remarks and the self-righteous gaslighting when you confront it, getting cornered by groping drunk tech bros at office parties or the boss over the copy machine.” On the other hand, Leon tells her that she is just as American and bougie as him and the white couple who has moved into the region and befriended them. His words are confirmed by Solomon soon after:
You ignore the traditions of the local people in favor of what you think should be done—I tell you it is bad for that indri, for our way of life, but you insist that your way is the only right way. This is what imperialists do … and I care for this job, but you and Leon are barely paying those boys anything. Oh, they appreciate the pay, I’m sure! But you can’t say you are different than Leon when you are making money from our land and barely putting it back.
When Tarini tells him that she doesn’t feel powerful enough to be what Solomon says she is, he tells her, decisively, correctly: “How you feel about it doesn’t change what it is.”
While this story is perhaps the most blatant in its treatment of colonialism and imperialism, it is also one of the subtlest because of the internal, mostly unspoken conflict occurring within Tarini. She is a brown woman in the United States, marking her as foreign even though she isn’t, marking her as a body to be owned by others against her will. The oppression she experienced in the place she calls home is real. But in Madagascar, she is, in the end, a presumptuous American. It’s a duality that Tarini doesn’t openly reckon with in the story, and it is, again, an uncomfortable space that lacks a clear resolution.
It’s this dual space, of privilege on the one hand and oppression on the other, that marks many of the stories. There are two families whose narratives are separately complicated over the course of several interlinked stories, and these are especially clear examples of the relativity and positionality of privilege and exemplify the nuanced space that Felicelli is so good at occupying in her fiction.
One family, who appears first in “Elephants in the Pink City,” features Kai, a teenager who has recently come out to his parents, Gopal and Prabha. In Jaipur, the pink city of the title, Kai must reckon with his parents continued refusal to accept his sexuality. The next story about the family, “Hema and Kathy,” features Kai’s little sister, Hema, and her next-door neighbor and best friend, Kathy Yang. It too deals with sexuality, this time through Hema’s affair with her older, French soccer coach. Both Kai and Hema rebel against their upbringing and their parents’ protectiveness, in different ways. Kai, a teenager on a family trip to Jaipur, rages at his parents: “Engineering college, no dating boys, skipping the spring break trip, visits to India year after year. Everything in my life has to be your way,” he says. Hema, years later, tells her best friend Kathy, “You’re the one who cares about going to an Ivy League school, about making sure everyone knows how smart you are, how successful you are, how important you are. All that model-minority crap. What do I care about any of that? I want to live! I’m going to live!” Both Kai and Hema, though, are undoubtedly shaped by their parents’ expectations of them, just as strongly as if they’d followed their parents’ prescribed paths; their rebellions are another kind of reaction to the pressure of being the children of immigrants.
The second family twining through various stories is viewed through Susannah, an Indian-American woman brought to America as a baby. In “Snow,” the story focuses not on her, but on her cousin Devi, who came to the United States to attend Yale, and then moved to New York City to become a model. The second story, “The Logic of Someday,” features Susannah herself as its main character. The third, “The Art of Losing,” features her again on the periphery. But each of these stories complicates a particular narrative of what is expected of or assumed about Indian women, and further, rests on misunderstandings between people who are tangled up in their own identities and so cannot see beyond their pain to recognize what they share with those close to them.
In “Snow,” Devi sees Susannah as American, even though Susannah considers herself an immigrant and the child of immigrants. And Devi has a point — when she first arrived in the United States, Susannah complained to her mother that Devi peed on the toilet seat:
Susannah’s overworked and proper mother admonished her that the splashed liquid wasn’t pee, but water, and that using cups of water to wash as people did in Chennai was far more hygienic than using toilet paper. The memory still made Devi burn with shame.
And so, from the beginning of her time in the United States, Devi was shamed for being different, but Devi isn’t free of judgment for others. When Susannah wants to go to a museum with her cousins from her father’s Dalit side of the family, Devi says, “They aren’t the type of people who go to art museums.” When pressed, she adds, “Those kinds of people are not cultured, are they?” It isn’t until the story’s denouement that Devi is confronted with how differently Susannah has seen their relationship, their similarities rather than their differences.
This is echoed in the final story in which Susannah makes an appearance. In the middle story, “The Logic of Someday,” Susannah is confronted with her pothead boyfriend Drew’s parents, who are extremely rich and conservative to boot. Over dinner, Drew’s mother starts to “reminisce about the good old days when you could get a colored girl to clean your house for dirt cheap. Colored girl.” Susannah is shocked by the phrase, dropped so casually amid a nice family dinner.
In “The Art of Losing,” that very mother is the protagonist, Maisie. And though she gets a kind of karmic payback for her behavior, Felicelli nevertheless builds sympathy for her, tries to understand her. Maisie didn’t grow up with anyone cleaning her house for dirt cheap. She grew up in Appalachia, with an alcoholic, failed novelist father who once chased Maisie and her sisters into the woods with a shotgun. She was almost killed by her first husband who returned from Vietnam with PTSD and only one hand. Maisie has had a tough road, and along the way, she has become callous, guarding herself and her ignorance, protecting herself within the cocoon of her second husband’s wealth. It doesn’t excuse her behavior toward Susannah, but it contextualizes it.
Felicelli’s ability to try to empathize with the villains of one story by making them the protagonists of another is another testament to her nuanced writing. By attempting to get at the heart of painful spaces, by exploring the complex realities of her characters, and by refusing to let any of them emerge from a history-less vacuum, Felicelli seems to be asking us to pause, to consider, to try to understand those around us. Her stories ask us to recognize that marginalization and privilege are so often dependent on space and context, and that no one is easily categorizable as good or evil. Instead, we are all human, flawed in different ways, dependent on others to understand ourselves.