Category Archives: books

Same/Not Same

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“The impulse to write a book appears to run like a fever through those of us who’ve lived with apes,” declares Rosemary Cooke, the narrator of Karen Joy Fowler’s recent novel We are all Completely Besides Ourselves. Rosemary goes on to list those who came before her: “The Ape and the Child is about the Kellogs. Next of Kin is about Washoe. Viki is The Ape in Our House. The Chimp Who Would be Human is Nim.”

I’m no stranger to the genre of primate memoir, particular the stories of chimpanzees who were cross fostered and raised as human children to participate in language studies. I read Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin in college. It inspired me to learn American Sign Language and spend a summer with Washoe, Moja, Tatu, Dar and Loulis in Ellensburg Washington. It was at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute that I was then introduced to others who had spent their lives among apes. Like Rosemary, I discovered Leakey’s women: “…I checked out every book, I could find on the monkey girls‑Jane Goodall (Chimps), Dian Fossey (gorillas), and Birute Galdikas (orangutans)”

Years later, I read In the Kingdom of Gorillas, before a trip to Rwanda. When discussing primate memoirs, I cannot forget to mention Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir, which opens with the  line: “I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.”

Fowler’s novel is a fictional primate memoir, but hers is not the story of a researcher and his/her subject, but rather about the fate of the human children of researchers who were raised, briefly, with a chimpanzee. There’s not too much known about the human siblings of these cross-fostering experiments. Donald Kellogg was raised with the chimpanzee Gua for the first 19 months of his life. His parents terminated the experiment when Donald started picking up chimpanzee vocalizations rather than Gua picking up human ones. Later in life, Donald committed suicide in his early 40s.

Fowler’s story is loosely based on the Kellogg’s experiment, but also draws from other chimpanzees’ stories. The Cooke Family is based in Bloomington Indiana, where the Kelloggs did their research several decades earlier. At the time of writing the book, Fowler didn’t know the Kellogg’s had another child. Their daughter contacted Fowler after the reading the book. In an interview with BookSlut, Fowler notes “She was born about the time the experiment ended, so she has no memory of it herself, nor would her brother, who was only nineteen months old when the experiment ended. But she feels strongly that it completely deformed her family.”

In the beginning of Fowler’s novel, the reader learns only that our narrator, Rosemary Cooke, has a mysterious sister named Fern who disappeared when Rosemary was 5 years old and an older brother named Lowell who left home when she was 12. Rosemary only reveals the fact that Fern is a chimpanzee about a third of the way into the book. She has her reasons for withholding.

“I wanted you to see how it really was. I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. You’re thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet.”

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Next Big Thing

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The Next Big Thing Project is traveling post where writers answer questions about their works in progress and tag others to do the same.   Thank you Sunil Yapa for inviting me to participate. I look forward to your book.

So here goes. This is my next big thing:

2004 02 India - 034What is the working title of your book?


Divining Water.

What genre does your book fall under?


Literary nonfiction. I often describe the book as blending memoir, history and reportage. I’m interested in the nexus of the personal and the political, what the fabulous Minal Hajratwala calls “intimate history.

The work aspires to employ the language of a poet, the skills of a journalist/scholar, and the insights of personal experience. Two other writers I recently discovered whose work  falls in this realm are Susan Griffin and Rebecca Solnit.

In A Chorus of Stones, Griffin argues:

“We are not used to associating our private lives with public events. Yet the histories of families cannot be separated from the histories of nations. To divide them is part of our denial.”

And in the introduction of the essay collection: Storming at the Gates of Paradise, Solnit writes::

“I needed to describe, to analyze, to connect, to critique and to report on both international politics and personal experience. That is, I needed to write as a memoirist or diarist, and as a journalist , and a critic—and these three voices were one voice in everything except the conventions that sort our experience out and censor what doesn’t belong… Since then, I have been fascinated by trying to map the ways that we think and talk, the unsorted experience where in one can start by complaining about politics and end by confessing about passions, the ease with which we can get to any point from any other point. Such conversation is sometimes described as being “all over the place,” which is another way to say that it connects everything back up.”

My work in progress often seems “all over the place,” but the  writing is rooted in these intersections of form and content.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?


As a writer, this is the question I dread the most. This reluctance to answer has several components. Part of it is the fear that reducing the work into a single sentence reduces the work—that it cheapens and commodifies it. Another part is just the difficulty of the task- to summarize years of work that is seemingly “all over the place.”  Rather than provide clarity and insight, the fear is that I’ll be misunderstood. And the last part of it has to do with the unknown. Many assume that in writing nonfiction, the story is already there, but I’m constantly discovering new things that complicate and drive the story into unchartered terrain. It is one of the joys of writing, but it can be difficult to summarize whenI’m still finding my way.

So with that I’m going to allow myself to ramble here for a bit. Divining Water is a story about three generations reconciling violence and disparity and their search for nonviolence in the modern world. I am researching the life of my paternal grandfather, who was stationed as a civil engineer in Burma from 1919 to 1934, when he had a radical shift, and decided to quit the British, give up all worldly possessions and join the Freedom Movement in India. He moved his family to the rural town of Kallakurichi, where my father, the youngest of thirteen children, was born. There, my grandfather became a water diviner and developed wells in the surrounding villages.I never met my grandfather, but like him, I studied civil engineering, worked on water supply projects and pursued social activism. I left my engineering job to work for a magazine called Satya, which was inspired by the Satyagraha movement that influenced my grandfather.

As an engineer, I studied hydrology and geology. I wanted to understand how the earth responds to human pressures. My stories here are set around rivers: Ganga, Gaumukhi, Yamuna and the Irrawaddy. Understanding the history and fate of these rivers also serves as a lens through which to examine larger social and environmental issues— both in my forbearers’ time and mine. The book is about losses (personal, political, environmental) and if/how we can recover from them. It is about the linkages between sanitation and social justice. It also examines the tension in the choices we make between family responsibilities and social activism.

DSC_5782Where did the idea come from for the book?

The first fragments of this book were written long before I knew I would be writing a book. “Our journey began in North India, but this story really begins in South India, in a place called Kallakurichi, where my father was born…” began a letter I sent to friends after immersing my father’s ashes in the River Ganga.

Losing a parent leaves you with many questions. My father’s death in 2003 had set me on two parallel journeys, one that sought the unearth the past, and another that tried to understand the present. But it would be several years before I would revisit these pages. Nancy Rawlinson, a former writing instructor of mine,  suggested I consider writing a book.  I let that idea sink in and applied to the MFA program in nonfiction at Hunter College in 2008 with a proposal to work on this project. Prior to this, the various aspects of my life-—family, engineering, and activism were compartmentalized. It has been through writing that I’ve found ways to integrate them, and the idea for the book has since evolved.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?


Still working on it. I had a good start with my MFA thesis, “Earth, Water Animal.”  Since then, I’ve been slowly continuing on the journey of writing and research, while juggling a day job and other writing projects. Most of my writing these days occurs during my daily subway commute and vacation days. I recently received a Literature Travel Grant from the Jerome Foundation for this project to do so some  research in London and Burma, where I’ll be traveling soon.  (Thank you Jerome!)

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?


Hmm…Good question. I’m working on how to do justice to my characters on the page, and I’m not sure yet who would serve them well on the big screen. Suggestions welcome.

Who or what inspires you?


I’m inspired by people who pursue their passions and live their truths. I am inspired by acts of compassion. I’m inspired by  the natural and the urban world, and the many creatures within them.

Who’s next?

I’m grateful and honored to have many wonderful writers in my life. Here’s a start. I can’t wait for your books and your interviews. Tell us about your next big thing Emily Bass, Laura May Hoopes, Amy Jo Kandathil, Parul Kapur Hinzen, Geeta Kothari, Anna Marrian, Cynthia Polutanovich and Krystal  Sital.

Letters on Civil Disobedience

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I spent my last morning at the British Library pouring over a volume of letters marked confidential and private “Correspondence with and Noting about Mr. Gandhi 1931-1932, ” which provided a glimpse into the lives of those engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience movement in India as well as the colonial response to those efforts.

The beginning of the collection includes a letter from Gandhi to the Viceroy regarding police brutality against those participating in nonviolent protest. On one incident women who were organizing “to protest against a brutal treatment of a girl 17 years old by a police official,” found themselves too, the victims of such brutality. Gandhi writes:

“The injuries were severe in several cases. Some of those who were assaulted belong to the Satyagraha Ashram at Sabarmati. One of them, an old widow, a Member of the Managing Board of the Ashram, was drenched in blood. To give you some idea of the nature of the police barbarity I give a free translation of her letter to me.”

This translated letter describes not only the abuse these women endured, but also the strength of their conviction and compassion:

“It was on this occasion that I understood somewhat the meaning of Ahimsa. I was quite fearless when the blows were coming down upon me, and I assure you I had no hatred or anger in me. Even now I feel no resentments toward the police, and its is growing upon me that we shall achieve success to the extent we cultivate the spirit of Ahimsa.”

Gandhi implored that the Viceroy look into this matter and set up a Committee “to investigate the allegations of excesses against officials in different parts of India since the inauguration of the Civil Disobedience Campaign…Till I hear from you and know your wish in this matter I am not sending this letter to the press.”

This file did not contain the actual letter back to Gandhi from the Viceroy, but rather draft notes on how to respond. While Gandhi’s letter is a moral plea, the draft response is an offering of advice regarding political strategy.  The language is what Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night called “totalitarianese which is to say ,technologese, which is to say any language which succeeds in stripping itself of any moral content.” Read the rest of this entry

Deciphering Place in Numbers: A Rosetta Stone in Annual Budget Reports

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DSCF3635The opening pages of  the  1877-1878 report from the Superintendent of Lighthouses in British Burma reads like a novel:

“The most noteworthy event in the history of the year was the total destruction in 1877 of the Krishna Shoal light-house , on the south coast of Pegu.”

While this report was extracted from the “Proceedings of the Commissioner of British Burma in the Revenue Department”, it contained these wonderful narrative and descriptive elements:

“This light-house, built throughout of iron, and supported on screw piles, stood on the south-eastern point of the shoal from which it takes its name, the depth of water round it at low water being three fathoms, with a rise and fall of 12 feet, and a tide running six knots and hour. It was begun in 1868 and completed in May 1869 at a cost of 16,000 pounds , the light being shown for the first time on 10th June in the latter year.”

Previous inspections  suggested vulnerability due to scouring, and while  subsequent repairs were carried out by the Public Works Department, they  proved insufficient.  Another noteworthy event that year, (though apparently not the most noteworthy) was the murder of Mr. E.R. Woodcock, “the only European ligthkeeper stationed at Table Island lighthouse,” by one of the “menial employees” there.  There were both civil engineering and criminal mysteries to unravel in this tale!

I came across this Report on Lighthouses off the Coast of British Burma in the India Office Records at the British Library. Thought it was before my grandfather’s time working on lighthouses there, I read these pages with deep interest for the texture they contained.  John O’Brien, the archivist of the India Office Records, shared with me that many of the reports and correspondences of the 19th century carried a level of detail that later ones in the twentieth century lacked.

I was curious to know if similar accounts existed for public works projects in Burma in the 1920s and 1930s. O’Brien pointed me to an index of the Proceedings of the Government of Burma, Public Works Department which contained reports of correspondences until 1924. I requested the volumes from 1919-1924. In each of these volumes there was a section called “Establishment,” which included notes about engineer appointments and transfers, as well as a section on “Accounts”.

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Researching the India Office Records at the British Library- Time and Timelines

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photo 1Eager to resume research from where I left off on Saturday,   I  arrived at the  British Library  bright and early at 9 am on photo 2Monday morning.   However, it didn’t open until 9:30, so grabbed some Vanilla Roobois Tea with Soy Milk at the Last Word cafe in front of library.  It was kind of fun watching the queue form of other researchers/writers  ready to start their work.

Once opened, we locked up our bags in the locker room and  I proceeded to the Asian and African Studies room with my clear plastic photo 4bag, only to discover on Mondays, this reading room doesn’t open until 10. (9:30 am the rest of the week).  Took the extra minutes to peer down from the top floor, and also  do a bit of wandering around.  I discovered a Map room that I hope to further explore.

photo 3When the Asian and African Studies reading room finally opened, I had a chance to meet Margaret Makepeace, the Lead Curator of East India Company records, who I had connected with over twitter @UntoldLives.  [Check out  the Untold Lives Blog]  She introduced me to John O’Brien, Curator of Post 1858 India Office Records, who had been of great help to me via email preparing for this trip.  It was nice to finally meet in person and discuss my project.

I then got straight  to work.  During the  early part of this week, I was largely been going through the yearly “Civil Lists,” where I had first located my grandfather’s name.  These volumes are broken into quarters for each year.  There is an index buried toward the end of each quarter, so I can look up “Narayanan” and find the listing of my grandfather, though the correct page number is not always provided.  I’ve found that his name can be listed in several locations 1) Under Burma Engineering Service 2) Under the Geographic Division where he was stationed 3) Under Officers on Leave, if he had taken any leave.

I’m slowly making my way through his entire service record, compiling notes in a massive spreadsheet, tracking changes over time.  I’m learning all the places he was posted, sometimes what project he was working on (i.e. lighthouses) changes in his salary, when he passed his Hindustani exam and received an ( h.) next to his name, when he passed his Burmese exam and received and (h.) ( b.)  next to his name.    I am grateful for each tiny fragment I am learning.

Equally as interesting is what is not contained in these records.  I learned that from July 1929- August 1930, my grandfather took a 13 month leave of absence.  Part of it was paid (A.P.- Average Pay), then H.P. (half pay), then unpaid.   There were other leaves noted during his service, but none of this length.  What did he do? Where did he go?

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Dispatches from London- An Introduction to the British Library

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DSCF3564Greetings from London!

Several years ago when I was pursuing my MFA at Hunter, I attended these research seminars that were meant to show  the many resources available to us as creative writers.  I tried to make the best use of that time, attempting to find records of my paternal grandfather’s work as a civil engineer in Burma, before he quit to join the Freedom Movement in India. I was looking for historical documents that could shed light and add detail to tidbits of family narrative.  Most of my searches came up empty then.  I sent queries to other librarians, historians and scholars about my particular interests in Burmese Public Works projects and life in the 1920s and 1930s.  The responses I received were warm and inquisitive.  While they themselves did not have information that could help me, most thought my best bet would be the India Office at the British Library.   Since then, I’ve gathered more fragments of family history about this time which resulted in some answers, but even more questions,  pointing me once again to the British Library.   So here I am in London with the support of a Literature Travel Grant  (Thank you Jerome Foundation!)

The vastness of the  collections housed here—the legacy of colonialism—is  both impressing and unsettling.   With a  list of questions and gap-filled narratives, I arrived at the library with both hope  in the possibility of what I might find, but also fear of what I may not.   The fear is two-pronged: 1) that some records are truly and forever lost  and 2) that they are in fact here, but I won’t be able to find them.

I have spent a great part of the past year perusing historical records from a much smaller archive researching a different writing project, and even on that small scale, I never felt I had enough time to satisfy my increasing curiousity.  How does one even begin navigating the archives of an empire?  The British Library can be a bit overwhelming and distracting for inquisitive and wandering minds.  I’m trying to stay focused on the quest at hand, and not veer off into the stacks on Tamil literature, the encyclopedia of Hindu Architecture or Indian Cinema.  I thought I’d share some of my experiences from my first day. Read the rest of this entry