Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved reading. When I was little, my Mom set up library trips for me and my sister every Thursday.  I would check out an enormous stack of books, devour them in a few days, and wait impatiently for the week to roll by so that I could check out more. I have high standards both for what I write and what I read. (It sounds nicer to say it that way than, “I’m picky.”)

So when I say I’ve discovered one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read in my life, it’s high praise.

Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies

If you’re a writer, you need to read this book. If you’re a reader, you need to read this book. If you’ve never read a book before in your life, you need to read this book.

In her arrangement of creative fiction essays collected as a series of works in Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Indian culture and life, but her overall themes are very broad. She is able to write very specifically about various aspects of her own culture, but she also conveys world truths. This is especially seen in the fact that she frequently talks about relationship in her writings, especially marriage.

Marriage relationships are seen instantly in her first short story in the collection, entitled “A Temporary Matter.” Shoba and Shukumar are struggling after the still birth of their first child, a boy. Neither truly know how to cope with the situation; they retreat rather than attempting to comfort each other and attempt to grieve. As the story progresses, however, they begin to bond and rediscover their relationship. They start sharing secrets about themselves, and Shukumar especially begins to look forward to it every night, where before he had dreaded being alone with Shoba. After their electricity is repaired and they are no longer required to eat their dinner in the dark, Shoba confesses to Shukumar that she has found an apartment and is leaving him. The story ends (as so many of Lahiri’s do) with little resolution; they are simply weeping in each other’s arms. Although the story is distinctively Indian, conveyed by their names, the foods they eat, and the rice ceremony Shoba had been planning for their baby, the loss of a child is a universal pain, as is a struggling and then failed marriage.

The second story in which marriages are discussed is the title story in the collection, “Interpreter of Maladies.” Mr. Kapasi, a tour guide, becomes infatuated with Mrs. Das, does not have a healthy relationship with her husband or children. As he dwells more and more on Mrs. Das, he becomes discontent with the thought of his own wife. Towards the end of the story, Mrs. Das confesses to Mr. Kapasi that her son Bobby is not Mr. Das’s biological son. She tells him because she hopes that he, as a translator for a doctor, can help “cure” her, as well. He is unable to, she becomes angry with him, and the infatuation is over almost as quickly as it began. Unhappy marriages, as well as infidelity, are conveyed strongly in this story, more universal themes.

A third story involving relationships is “Sexy.” Miranda meets Dev, a married man, in a department store, and the two begin an affair. Miranda knows from the beginning that he is married, but chooses to pursue and continue the relationship, anyway. Dev is also not bothered by the fact that he is being unfaithful to his wife. This story is woven in the midst of another story; Miranda’s coworker Laxmi is attempting to counsel her cousin after her husband has been unfaithful. The story ends in disillusionment after Miranda learns the truth of what she is doing from Rohin, the little boy of Laxmi’s cousin. Affairs are again expressed in this story, a (tragically) common occurrence not only in the Indian culture, but also in the world as a whole.

Another story that conveys universal truths is the last in the collection: “The Third and Final Continent.” This story is flavored more heavily with Indian culture and references; the narrator (who is interestingly never named!) moves from India to Boston to begin his new job after an arranged marriage to a woman named Mala. He expresses neither unhappiness nor pleasure over his marriage; it is just his duty. The two have an awkward relationship, especially when she finally arrives in America. As the story progresses, however, things begin to change. For the first six days of their marriage, Mala would cry all through the night about missing her parents. This changes as the two of them become accustomed to each other, and eventually the shyness they feel is replaced by genuine care and love. Perhaps Lahiri makes an intentional choice in ending her collection of stories that ended with unhappy or unresolved marriages with one that is successful and wonderful.

Lahiri is able to express many different features of her culture, conveying important aspects and showing her pride for her heritage. She also writes on the universality of humanity as a whole, however. This enables people to be able to relate to the deeper truths behind the stories she writes, no matter their ethnicity. She is very skilled at having a successful balance between the two.

I was absolutely inspired. I’ll be returning for more, Ms. Lahiri.

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Oh, the Places I’ve Been

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Let me be explicitly clear in saying that I believe that traveling is not only beneficial, but also necessary for people, especially writers. (I should also be clear in saying that the title of this blog post is slightly misleading. I have four stamps in my passport. It’s pretty underwhelming, but I like the sound of the title–thank you, Dr. Seuss–so indulge me, okay?)

There is no comparable experience for learning and being exposed to new material. I’m especially a proponent for visiting countries in which you don’t know how to speak a single word, and spend some of the time you’re there learning how to speak it. Words are beautiful in any language, particularly ones I don’t understand. I also recommend getting lost at least once. Wander around and take in the sights, smells, and sounds and marvel at being in a completely different country. Try a food you can’t identify. Sit in a park and observe people who belong there. There’s just something about sitting on a bench in a completely new country and writing in a notebook.

Recently, I had such an experience. I traveled through my school to Turkey for a whirlwind trip of sightseeing, learning, and visiting Turkish families. It was an incredible, life-changing opportunity that I will never forget.

I don’t remember much of our first night there; we had been traveling for 18 of the last 19 hours and we were all exhausted and bleary from jet lag. I remember sitting in a very nice restaurant and being served an abundance of food, all of which was delicious (other than Ayran, a salty, yogurt drink.) I remember smiling and attempting to say, “Merhaba,” and feeling welcomed by everyone I saw…but that’s about it.

We hit the ground running the next day and didn’t really stop for the rest of the trip. In one afternoon, we toured Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, Basilica Cisterns, and the Blue Mosque. We were all ready for bed by the time dinner rolled around, but then our translator suggested a night walk along the Bosphorus Strait and Rumeli fortress so we instantly shook off our yawns and rubbed the sleepiness out of our eyes. It was a little chilly since we were right on the water, but the air was crisp and the spirit of adventure won out over our exhaustion.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Hippodrome

Hippodrome

Medusa head in the Basilica Cisterns

Medusa head in the Basilica Cisterns

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Remember what I said about trying something you can’t identify?

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SALGAM. Aka, the most vile thing you’ll ever put in your mouth.

My friends tried to convince me that it was grape juice, and, while I knew those unidentifiable objects in the basket were most definitely not grapes, I had no idea what they were. “Is it date juice?” I questioned.

There was the briefest pause before they all exclaimed in unison, “Yeah!…..DATE juice!”

It is not date juice, my friends. It is fermented black carrot juice.

When I finally discovered those tiny English words on the bottle and announced in loud horror what it was, there was such an uproar that our translator came in to see what we were doing. We asked him if he drank Salgam, and he took one horrified look at our faces and said, “With fish, sometimes; never by itself!” Anytime we visited a host family and our translator would be chatting in Turkish, we’d suddenly catch the word “Salgam.” He would look mischievously  over at us and everyone would laugh and say what I’m pretty sure is the Turkish equivalent of, “Never by itself!”

On the second day of our trip, we visited Dolmabacce Palace, enjoyed a boat ride on the Bosphorus, went inside Suleymaniye Mosque, and met our first family! I lost one of the slip on shoes they gave us to protect the Palace and didn’t notice until someone pointed it out to me, so one of my professors told me that basically made me Cinderella and I was totally fine with that.

Dolmabacce Palace

Dolmabacce Palace

Rumeli fortress, by day, from the boat

Rumeli fortress, by day, from the boat

Remember what I said about new experiences?

Suleymaniye Mosque

Suleymaniye Mosque

I have been in everything from Catholic to Pentecostal churches, to Orthodox and Messianic synagogues. I had never once stepped foot in a mosque. It was an enlightening and incredible experience, although I did have issues with my head scarf; do you know how difficult it is to have all your hair covered and still be able to retain your peripheral vision?!

The next day, we toured Fatih University, Zaman Newspaper, and went exploring. We found the best public workout place, one of many that we’d seen around Turkey. Since we were walking and not just seeing them from our bus, of course we had to try them out before we caught our plane flying out to Izmir that evening!

Fatih University

Fatih University

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Workout place with an amazing view of the Bosporus

Workout place with an amazing view of the Bosporus

In Izmir, we toured the ancient city of Ephesus, walked around the remains of the Temple of Artemis, toured a pottery place, and met with another family, where, as usual, we were welcomed with overwhelming hospitality, generosity, and food.

View of the Aegean Sea from our hotel room

View of the Aegean Sea from our hotel room

Celsus Library in Ephesus. INCREDIBLE.

Celsus Library in Ephesus. INCREDIBLE.

Remains of the Temple of Artemis

Remains of the Temple of Artemis

Pottery place in Ephesus

Pottery place in Ephesus

The next morning, we had breakfast with another family and headed off to the ancient city of Laodicea, where we walked among the remains and watched some excavations being done before we headed off to Pamukkale hot springs and visited a high school before flying back over to Istanbul!

Laodicea

Laodicea

Pamukkale ("cotton castles") hot springs

Pamukkale (“cotton castles”) hot springs

Back in Istanbul, we toured a former synagogue turned museum, walked around Taxim Square, toured the military museum, visited St. Antoine’s Church, and met another family.

Turkey is the only predominately Muslim country in the world that has a Jewish museum!

Turkey is the only predominately Muslim country in the world that has a Jewish museum!

Statue in Taxim Square

Statue in Taxim Square

Orchestra performing at the museum

Orchestra performing at the museum

Remember what I said about getting lost at least once?

St. Antoine's Church

St. Antoine’s Church

I guess technically, we weren’t lost; the church was.

Remember also what I said about just sitting on a bench in a park and just taking it all in?

Sunset on the Bosphorus

Sunset on the Bosphorus

Oh, man. Incredible.

The next day, we visited the Journalists and Writers Foundation (HEAVEN) and toured Samanyolu TV station, after which we spent the whole afternoon in the Grand Bazaar, where I learned that I am really, really bad at bargaining. We had dinner one last night with everyone in the restaurant we visited our first night there, and then headed home to pack up. The only thing we had time for our last day was breakfast with everyone, and then it was off to the airport. The flight back to the States was definitely not as thrilling as the flight there.

Loved this place (for obvious reasons)

Loved this place (for obvious reasons)

Turkish TV shows at Samanyolu

Turkish TV shows at Samanyolu

Exploring the park

Exploring the park

Grand Bazaar!

Grand Bazaar!

When I came home, people asked me the same question they asked me when I returned from the Dominican Republic last year: “Would you do it again?” I’m always amazed and slightly confused by this question. Why wouldn’t I? I guess because I love adventures so much, it’s a given that of course I’m going to travel again. Will my next trip be to Turkey? Probably not…the next places on my list are Italy, Israel, and Africa. Who knows where I’ll end up?

Oh, the places I’ll go!

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Writing and Discouragement

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Sometimes when I’m working on writing six academic papers that are all due within 48 hours of each other, I get overwhelmed. I hit a dead end, and even working on writing for fun is daunting. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block; I’m far too dramatic to suffer from such a simple problem as that. No, mine’s more like….writer’s terror. It’s a befitting name considering what goes through my mind.

“Dang. Your writing is really bad.”

“Where are you even going with this idea?”

“Congratulations. You can’t even understand your own story.”

“This character you’ve created is flat. So’s this one. So’s that one. I won’t even mention the Grandpa.”

“Why are you even an English major? You should have gone to med school.”

“Put down the pen and back away slowly. Repeat after me: I will never write again.”

When this happens, I stop analyzing Chopin. I stop my research. I take a break from summarizing JSTOR articles or reading Hamlet for the 115th time.* I stop explicating Frost’s poems, and I even stop writing for fun, especially because my fairly new notebook is showing signs of wear from furious scribbling as I try to obliterate a catastrophically stupid idea.

I put all of these burdens behind me and I pull out one of the notebooks I’ve filled in the past. I flip through the pages and laugh at myself and my writing, and how I thought I was the next F. Scott Fitzgerald with the stories that my 13-year-old mind had concocted. In my defense, not all of them are bad. Sometimes, I laugh because the stories are genuinely funny, and sometimes I turn a page and stop in my reading to brush away a tear. Sometimes, I learn from my 15-year-old self. (Unless it’s my poetry; that just makes me cringe.) I very much feel like Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing. While attempting to read the (horrible) sonnets he’s composed for Beatrice, he bursts out in exasperation, “I was not born under a rhyming planet!”

Word, Benedick. I can only hope my husband does not like and/or appreciate poetry.

Still, I made it out of my senior level class of studying poetry as a genre last semester with a greater understanding and appreciation for both reading (but especially writing) poetry. They weren’t all bad, although I flipped through pages and pages and pages of cheap rhymes and off-beat rhyming schemes, as well as a haiku entitled Frustrations of a Faux Poet: “Oh the joy I’d have/If I could write poetry/I’d fall down and faint.”

Sometimes, I feel that way about all writing in general. I’m pretty sure every writer does. Take heart. As a kid, my favorite story was Anne of Green Gables. I remember being shocked and horrified when I discovered that L.M. Montgomery received several rejections from publishers, and put the story away in a hatbox. Two years later, she found it and decided to send it to a publisher one more time; it was accepted and became an instant best seller.

Close the document. Put the journal in a hatbox, or under your bed, or in the closet. Come back to it. I promise it will be worth it.

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*Disclaimer: In case you haven’t noticed yet, I’m pretty prone to exaggeration. Still, I have had to read this play nine times in the four years I’ve been in college. I know him well, Horatio.

Purim: God’s Faithfulness Then and Now

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God is a huge part of my life. I like my writing to reflect that. Even though my capstone project isn’t necessarily a “Christian” or “religious” one (Ugh. I hate both of those terms), the idea of God heavily influences it. I love writing about the faithfulness of God. I’m so blessed to have a Savior who will never let me down.

Purim is a Jewish holiday that falls between the months of February and March and commemorates the story of the book of Esther. This year, it begins March 14 and ends March 15. We throw big, loud crazy parties where everyone dresses up in a variety costumes and eats fruit filled cookies called Hamentaschen that are supposedly shaped after the hat Haman wore. (They’re triangle shaped, so apparently Haman was part pirate.) Last year, my congregation held a contest for the best costume and we had everything from Willy Wonka to a gypsy to a bunch of grapes. True story.

Somewhere in the midst of all the laughter and celebrating, someone reads the whole book of Esther out loud while all of the little kids cheer and boo respectively when Mordecai and Haman’s names are mentioned. It’s considered a mitzvah (good deed) to give time and money to different homeless shelters and charities, helping out those less fortunate than us. It’s a loud, boisterous and busy holiday, and it’s frequently easy to get caught up in the fun and noise and exciting chaos, while losing sight of the true meaning of the holiday. (And you guys thought I wouldn’t have that problem by not celebrating Christmas!) The truth is that just because I’m Messianic doesn’t mean I get to avoid commercialism.

There’s a story behind Purim (as is frequently the case with holidays.) Esther was stuck in a pretty tough situation. When the Persian King Xerxes decided to kick out his first wife after she wouldn’t parade herself through his court for his drunken friends to admire, he decided he needed a new woman to replace her as queen. He chose Esther, whose uncle Mordecai had raised her from birth and advised her not to tell anyone at the palace that she was Jewish. This turned out to be a wise choice, as Haman began to slowly work his way into power and create a plot to completely destroy the entire Jewish race. Thanks to Persian politics, Esther couldn’t visit the King unless he had invited her first. It was an act punishable by death. With all of her people facing annihilation, Esther stepped out in faith and went before him, anyway. He decided not to lop off her head (spoiler alert), and she revealed Haman’s plot. The King had him killed for his treachery and the people were saved, hence the big day of celebration, even thousands of years later.

Cool story, bro, you’re probably thinking. What in the world does this obscure Jewish holiday have to do with me?

My point is that we’ve all been Esther. We’ve all been in situations where it was terrifying to even consider taking one more step forward, because the way was dark and we didn’t know what was around the corner. We could fall. We could get hurt. It’s hard to step out in faith when it would be much easier (and safer!) to stay within our comfort zones. We can boldly move forward, confident, because our God is not uninvolved or apathetic. He cared about Esther’s life-threatening situation, and He cares about our struggles, no matter how small or enormous they may seem to us. Whether the situation is a problem emotionally, financially, physically, or spiritually, He’s involved….even when it doesn’t feel like it. He’s never failed before, and I don’t expect Him to now. He’ll come through. It may be right at the moment that I’m facing the king, bracing myself for that final, fatal blow, but He’ll step in. He’s never late.

He was faithful for Esther. He’ll be faithful for you. Trust in Him.