The Limits of the World: A Novel - A Conversation with Jennifer Acker '00 and Aatish Taseer '03

Aatish Taseer: Hi, this is Aatish Taseer with the class of '03 and I'm speaking today to Jennifer Acker of the class of 2000, the editor and chief of The Common magazine. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Literary Hub, n+1. She lives in Amherst with her husband Nishi Shah. And her spectacular first novel is The Limits of the World which is what we're talking about today. Jen, thank you so much for making the time.

Jennifer Acker: I'm looking forward to it, thanks Aatish.

AT: So I wanted to ask you straight off the bat, at the heart of this novel is a family of Indian extraction who've come to the United States via Kenya. And before we speak more about the novel, why don't you tell us a little bit about how it came to be that Indians were in Kenya in the first place. Or in East Africa, rather.

JA: Yeah sure, it's a really interesting story and not very well known but in two words the answer is - the British empire. And at the time that Indians first started migrating to Kenya, both of their own volition but also under some false promises from the British. The large migration sort of started in the late 19th century, the British had a real need for labor, specifically to build this railroad that they wanted wanted to build across the protectorate of Kenya. But there had been some migration from the Western part of India to the East Coast of Africa across the Indian Ocean for centuries before that but they had largely been a different population than the one that started in the 19th century.

AT: Interesting, one of the things I wanted to ask you about, and I class this novel in many ways as an immigrant novel, but I've been thinking about it a little bit and I realized that about the same time as Indians went to Kenya, Indians also went to Trinidad and the Caribbean after the abolition of slavery and one of the famous voices to emerge from that diaspora was V.S. Naipaul. And Naipaul, who wrote A House for Mr. Biswas which is a book haunted by the death of a father and when I think about other books like that, like James Agee's A Death in the Family, or Legend of a Suicide by David Vann, I would say your novel is also a novel which, at the heart of it, is the death of a father and the implications of that, the violent death of a father. Why don't you tell us a little bit about what happened and what it means for this family.

JA: Wel I love that you mentioned Naipaul of course because he was the foremost example for me and I read and reread A House for Mr. Biswas over the course of writing this book. And the writing and revision of this book it's about a decade in the making so I had a lot of opportunity to study that book so I'm so glad that you mentioned it. Yeah, switching to the outline of my book or the major plot points, it's a family saga in which there are four main voices - a grandfather, a mother, her husband, and their son. And it's very much about these family connections and what it means to be connected to family or to be related to people across time and space and changing ideas of family as you grow older. And the father figure in this book is, in some ways, the most mild. He and his wife Premchand is the father and Urmila is his wife and they both grew up in Nairobi. And in many ways, he is the quietest figure and his internal space is a little more distant and reflective. And then, of course, he does have a tragic accident and dies during sort of a mugging gone wrong in Nairobi about halfway or two thirds of the way through the book and then the son is really left, and mother, left to pick up the pieces and reconstitute their family once again.

AT: Now you mentioned Premchand being a very mild figure. In this family, before we get to the wider sort of spectrum of characters, we have Sunil who's a PhD student, philosophy at Harvard. And then we have his mother who's one of sort of the great (?) sort of shrewish women who have ever been portrayed in any kind of fiction that I've read. Tell me about the relationship of this mother and son.

JA: Well it's very troubled, this relationship. And as I mentioned before, they have very different upbringings, the mother and son as is often the case with immigrants. So her generation and she grew up in Nairobi and then moved to the US around the time Kenya gained independence in the 60's and her son, Sunil, he's an only child, grows up in America with a completely different set of expectations and a different set of cultural circumstances, different economic circumstances. And, you know, from the beginning they are sort of off on the wrong foot. I think they do share some internal fireyness which puts them even more at odds with each other. But yeah, Urmila is really someone who struggles to articulate what she wants, or doesn't often know what she wants, or she is able to articulate it but she has no ability to see things from other people's point of view. And this makes it very difficult for her to have any kind of regula4 or peaceful relationships with her family or with her son in particular who has certain expectations about what his family should look like.

AT: Right. Now one of the main characters in this novel is the United States itself, in a way. It's an obstacle, it's a facilitator. Sunil's ease in America, his fluency with American manner, his wife to be, or the girl who becomes his wife, Amy who's of a Jewish family. So we have that standing very much in contrast the fact that America is something that Urmila never understands, I mean she spends many many years here and in the end of the novel she kind of negates the migration of her husband to the United States and actually leaves. What is it about this sort of very strange immigrant experience, what is it about America that is so difficult for Urmila to understand? There's a sort of triangular tension. What's going on here?

JA: That's a really good question, I think that in her mind she has this idea that she wants independence and freedom but I think that's what many people find with America - when you get independence and freedom and mobility, you also get a kind of fracture and distance and you have to create your own life and your own relationships in a way that sort of really makes no sense to her. In the community that she grew up in, many things were prescribed, you understood how you were supposed to relate to your family, your relationships to your family members and those dynamics were very well understood and I think as much as she says that she wants things to be different, it really just baffles her in the end and makes her feel even more alone. People in the States don't act in a way that she thinks that they should and I think that there's this real disconnect in almost everything that she does between what her expectations are and what she thinks she needs to do have the kinds of relationships she wants. And in many ways, I think it is kind of the lack of scripts in America that really turns her upside down.

AT: Her husband, also an immigrant, seems very at home in American, Sunil of course grew up there and there seems to be... Well one of the things I wanted to talk to you is, and both Amitava Kumar as well as Karan Mahajan both writers of the immigrant experience have written about this, of a kind of freedom that comes to Indian men in the United States. This leaving the joint family, being their own man, living in their own house. It sort of sets them free in a way it kind of helps them realize possibilities. Tell me a little bit about that.

JA: I think the key word there is man, right? That the men when transplanted to America get all the benefits that American men have which is stature and independence and income and they are freed from these sort of familial grips that we were just talking about. And I think that is beneficial to a certain kind of person. And until you mentioned it, I hadn't realized that this was sort of a wider trope or a wider experience but when I was writing this character it did seem sort of natural to me that that would be his experience. The fruition of his education and his study would be these much more expansive opportunities in the states and that he also would be blind to the experience of those around him. Yeah, in many ways every member of this family has a hard time understanding the experiences of the other.

AT: Right, that's actually a very nice way to put it. In fact one of the things that happens over the course of the novel is that at least two of the characters, Sunil and his father, there's not an estrangement between them but there's a distance and they seem in some ways to be able to close that distance. Now, Urmila and Sunil have an amazing opportunity at the end of the novel where there's a kind of meeting orchestrated between them after the death of the father, after the death of Premchand, and there's a real opportunity for them to make a rapport more, to kind of come to a place of understanding but that doesn't happen, does it?

JA: No, it's sort of fated never to happen. Of course, that's not really the way I think about it, they're individual aspirations and characters and in this instance, namely Urmila who is sort of unable to get out of her own way to have this closer relationship with her son...

AT: What happens instead?

JA: So it seems like they're going to be able to reconcile, seems like they're seeing things from other points of view and instead she comes back to actually criticizing his choices and not being able to... She thinks that she is trying to be supportive by telling him how he ought to live his life, and he can't accept what she's suggesting. And she, at that point, has sort of run out of options for sustaining herself in the US and she goes back to Nairobi.

AT: So there's an interesting moment there where she realizes that the way to her son, or the way to her son's affections, the road may run through Amy, the woman he's chosen to marry, that she could be near to her son again. But then she rejects that course of action. I mean what is the problem she has with Amy?

JA: I think in her mind she has this soft idea that if Amy were Indian, were from their community, that they would all know what to do, that they would all know how to behave, that Amy would behave in a way that would be bringing Sunil closer to his family. And I think that it's her thought that if there wasn't this outsider bringing the different kinds of values and expectations to their family that they would be much more harmonious, this is obviously false from what we learn from being inside these character's heads. But I think that's sort of her idea. She has these sort of false ideas about what brings family together that the kind of similarity of backgrounds is what brings people together.

AT: A kind of cultural similarity and at the same time, Amy is sort of an expression of her distance from her son.

JA: Right, how far away from her he's gotten. Exactly.

AT: She has a shop, which we learn later, it's a shop that sells African goods, African tourist junk we may even say, in Ohio like a strange proposition. And she doesn't seem particularly near to African culture but she's got the stuff. we learn that the shop is subsidized by her husband as a kind of vanity project and yet the shop is of immense importance to her. What does it give her? What does it mean to her, this shop?

JA: It does represent to her this independence, which again is something that she feels very fiercely that she wants. And she grew up in a large family, in a patriarchal family where she was doing what her father said or what her older brother said. Sort of following their directions without a lot of opportunity to chose her own way and this shop represents, this is her chance. This is her opportunity to have her own space, to sort of make her own name, and to give herself some worth, some independence from her husband or from her family. So I think that's quite a common idea, especially in America. You think, if I have my own business, I'm gonna make my own way, I'm my own person.

AT: It's fraudulent, I mean she's not really independent. And it's this, you know how we talk about shops being a kind of fun, is this another way that she's kind of projecting a sort of prestige but she doesn't really care about the reality of it?

JA: I think it's another way in which she's self-deceived. So she's gonna inject herself into this position of thinking that it's her husband's fault that the shop is failing because he hasn't been subsidizing enough but of course, all the successes are hers and none of the failures are hers. And yeah, I think that's just sort of another example of the distance between herself and her aspirations, I suppose, another kind of delusion.

AT: One last question about Urmila, because she really is one of the fascinating characters of this book.

JA: Thank you.

AT: I want you to take us a little bit further in time, let's say Sunil is 50 or 60, the first part of the question is does he find a kind of reunion with his mother? Does he find a place for her in his life? And also should he have her in his live, is he well rid of her?

JA: Wow, yeah let me think about that. I sort of see them as not being out of contact, there are opportunities that they see each other and have polite conversations but they never really have the same opportunity again to bridge that distance. Adn, of course, at the end of the book she moves back to Nairobi and Sunil is making his life in the states, they're very far apart geographically and I don't really see that changing over the course of their lives. They've lost the person who might potentially bring them together which is Sunil's father. There would have to be someone else, some outside force whether it be Amy or maybe Bimul, Sunil's cousin brother who really makes the effort and somehow finds a way to do it that the two of them, the mother and son, have not thought of before.

AT: Now that you've mentioned Bimul, let's just say that there is kind of an astonishing secret at the heart of this novel which is that Bimul is not really Sunil's cousin but his actual brother and Urmila has given away this first son of hers to her brother who is childless and he's brought up in Nairobi. And through the course of the novel she seems to be full of regret or certainly she feels the pangs of separation and she wants to sort of be near him again so what exactly is going on here? First is this a common practice? And secondly, what is the kind of emotional toll it takes on her, this giving up one's first son?

JA: Yeah at the time that the decision was made to sort of give the first son to be raised by the brother, it was a time when Urmila was not sure if she was going to stay with her husband in the States as he pursued his career there and she thinks that she'll be better off if she is living her life in Kenya, she discovers that she's pregnant. And it's not really sustainable for her to be a single mother in that community and that sort of spurs the decision. And then after that, she and her husband reconcile and they have Sunil when she comes back to the states to rejoin her husband. But I think Bimul always represents for her the life that she didn't have that she could have stayed in this community that she knew with the support of her family, even though in many moments she thinks that she doesn't want that, that it's restrictive and it doesn't give her the kinds of opportunities that she wants, it would have given her that feeling of connectedness. And Bimul is a child that she understands. She understands the way he grows up and the way he behaves because he is very much a part of this community, she recognizes him in a way that Sunil feels like a stranger to her. She doesn't recognize this American child.

AT: Right, now there's a very interesting moment where it's suggested that Sunil and Urmila are very similar. And I want to talk, for the remainder of our time about Sunil because he's this guy working through a moral problem in philosophy and yet there's a kind of moral ambivalence about him. He's sort of like there's a kind of Hamlet like paralysis. What is Sunil trying to work out?

JA: I think his problem is that he has an idea about how one should live his life. And he's a philosophy graduate, as you mentioned, and he studies ethics and one of the things that invigorates him about this field is that it gives him an opportunity to think about ethical questions. He has a sort of intuitive sense of how we should treat people. But the view, the philosophical view that he comes up with during his coursework and during graduate school, if you follow that view to its natural conclusion, it is actually the opposite of how he has been living this life up until then. So he ends up with this very dark view about moral behavior in humans and where our ethical impulses come from that is at odds with how he's living his life and how he would prefer to live his life. And that brings him to that moment of paralysis where if he follows to this intellectual line, it leads him to a particular conclusion that he really doesn't want.

AT: At the end of the novel , he almost seems to stumble into an affair with his thesis advisor and there's something very weird for me in this about this guy who seems very intellectually well constituted and yet his behavior has a kind of moral vagueness about it. Certainly it's wildly different from Amy who by far seems like the most well constituted, well put together individual in the novel. What is that affair? What is he doing there?

JA: I think it happens in the sort of desperate low moment where he's so stuck with his work that when there's finally someone who helps him through this process of developing the view or actually writing it, the problem is really sort of the paralysis about getting things onto the page, that he sort of mistakes gratitude for love in a brief moment. And of course there is often, much is made of the mentor student relationship, particularly in academia, that one develops all kinds of inappropriate feelings about the person who is teaching you. So I sort of wanted to illustrate that briefly and to show that it can be very powerful, that relationship of learning from someone and mistaking what that relationship is about.

AT: For me it was like one more moment in the novel where literally every woman is a kind of lioness. And I don't really want to get into the metaphor of the lions which is a very important metaphor in this novel, but the women are tigers, kind of really strong characters, and the men are all sort of like soft and vague and a little weak. Do you think that's right? Like do you think there's something like that in the contrast between men and women in this novel.

JA: That's funny, you know I never thought of it that way. I mean I see Urmila as a kind of lion figure, you know she makes a lot of noise and she can really go after her prey in a kind of way. I don't see Amy in that way although I do see her as a kind of determined strong figure. I don't know, yeah, I'll have to think about that. I don't think of the thesis advisor as quite being in that role.

AT: So my last question for you is a political question. I don't particularly subscribe to the politics behind it but we live in a politically sensitive time where there's all sorts of talk about cultural appropriation and this and that and here you are, you know, writing about a culture other than your own or a culture that you've been introduced to in a way through your husband's family. Tell me firstly, what were the challenges of bringing an unfamiliar culture to the page as successfully as you have. And two, what are the political implications, were you worried about all of this or did you set those worries aside?

JA: No, of course, they were very real concerns although when I first started working on the book now ten years ago, those concerns were not so present at the time. I mean there's always been a worry about, as you say, cultural appropriation, about writing about a culture that is not your own. And white writers have been getting in hot water for that for decades for understandable reasons, in some cases. But I think that, you know, marrying into this family and discovering and then doing the reading and the research and discovering how fascinating this journey was, I just thought that maybe I can get inside this in a way that will not be taking what's not mine but will be illuminating a story that will be valuable. But, you know, it's plagued with insecurities, of course. And thinking about how to present these characters and no matter how much research you do or reading around or listening carefully, you know in trying to get inside someone else's skin there's a worry about making mistakes.

AT: Right, as a final point, is there a rule? Like is there a principle? What should someone who wants to write about a culture other than their own and if we acknowledge that not all relationships like this have the same power, some cultures are more powerful than others, what's the rule, what's the principle that one should follow?

JA: It's such a good question and I'm not sure that I could come up with a rule. I think that, as fiction writers, we are interested in portraying lives that are not our own. And in the same way that we think about researching the 19th century and imagining what life in the 19th century was like when there were many different cultural expectations and different languages, I think we have to allow for the possibility of these imaginative excursions. And the best we can do is try to do it with as much of an open mind and being open to criticism and sharing it with people who are from the community you're writing about so that you have the opportunity to be corrected or to have that conversation. But imagining a world in which we can all only write about our own experiences seems quite bleak and impoverished.

AT: Jennifer Acker, we'll leave it there. Thank you so much and congratulations on your wonderful novel.

JA: Thank you, this is so much fun.