In my last post, I reviewed Mridula Koshy’s debut novel, Not Only the Things That Have Happened. I was so intrigued with the book that I asked Mridula if she would be open to an interview, and she graciously said yes. I hope that you will read the interview below in its entirety. Mridula shares not only her thoughts on the book, but on important social issues especially as they pertain to women (including video footage). I would like to thank Mridula for taking time out for the interview.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and what led you to writing?
I grew up hearing I would become a writer. This was presented as an inevitable future for a talker like me. What scared me was the other connection drawn – to my aunt, Mary John Thottam, a well-known poet in Kerala, India. I was frightened by this idea of writing as a family trait surfacing in the same way a pudgy nose might every generation or so. What if my parents were mistaken and I wasn’t nearly smart enough to be a writer.
At thirty-five, it was no longer an option to turn my back on something that felt like my re-entry ticket to home. Back in Delhi after a twenty year stay in the US, this talker no longer knew anyone in a town so intensely alive with talk that ‘belonging’ depended on gaining entry into the conversation. I was home with my youngest child, my dear daughter who had just turned three a year after joining the family. It was too soon to enroll her in school and to seek full time work outside the home. I began writing as a way to enter the conversation and found to my relief that writing is no more dependent on inherited genius than it is on inspiration. Paper, pencil and disciplined engagement is all it takes.
What inspired you to write, Not Only the Things That Have Happened?
The ethical and legal problems with inter-country adoption were hard to escape once I became intimately aware of them through my experience of adopting my daughter. When I began work on Not Only the Things That Have Happened, I knew a critique of inter-country adoption would be one of the book’s reasons for being. I also knew this book would be would be a fictional work, that is to say it would not be my family’s story. In fiction I could access the historical and political story of adoption, and as well characters whose circumstances called for more courage and more imagination than I have ever had to summon.
In the story, “time” is a character. Can you talk about how this character is central to the theme of the story?
Toward the end of my protagonist Annakutty’s life she lies on her deathbed struggling to see her life. Her eleven-year-old niece, Nina, tells her that although the sun is indeed too bright and wavery and impossible to see, she can draw it. She draws the sun not by trying to see it as it is, but by trying to see it as she imagines it is. So she draws it “with two eyes and a nose and a smile on its face…by imagining about the sun.”
Not Only the Things That Have Happened is not a book about life as it is. It is about how I imagine life is – for Annakutty and Asa and a host of others. One reason the book is structured in a somewhat non-linear fashion is because linearity is only one way to imagine life. By imagining it anew I open myself to the possibility and usefulness of the many other ways in which it can be imagined.
Asa’s story is the story of someone plucked from the narrative of his life, displaced from the story he tells himself about himself first in his mother-tongue, Malayalam, when he is a baby, then in Hindi as a four year old street child in Delhi, and finally in English when he is adopted as a nine year old by his American family. Time is born and dies with each of these narratives as Asa is effaced again and again. There is no linear order for Asa and inevitably there can be none for the writer or the reader.
Can you tell us more about the title of the book and its significance to the story?
I remember the first stories in my life were always about ‘Once upon a time’ and this phrase I think is an important marker of the effort to contain the uncontainable, to contain the things that happened. The best of the stories hinted at or at least begged the question of what happened twice upon a time and thrice. They hinted at how untidy stories actually are.
The story of inter-country adoption is a contained and tidy story. It has a ‘once upon a time,’ the act of adoption, as its arbitrary beginning and permits itself no other ending but ‘happily ever after.’ This story of the things that have happened begs the question of what might be found if one were to look at ‘not only the things that have happened.’
Outside of literature, when a young adoptee asks the adoptive parent ‘Why did she leave me,” or “Will I ever see her again,” or “Is she alright,” and “my brothers and sisters, are they alright, do I have any,” the narrative breaks. The compassionate adoptive parent answers these questions with an attempt to comfort even as she imparts the painfully uncomfortable truth, “I don’t know.” In fiction, it is possible to complicate “I don’t know” with knowing. Though Asa doesn’t know whether his first mother lives or dies, the reader knows. Though Annakutty doesn’t know whether Asa thrives or suffers, we know.
The young Annakutty falls in love with a young man who does not marry her and then has a child out of wedlock. She experiences stigmatization and is ostracized by her family and community, her head is shaved and at one point her clothes confiscated to keep her under control. How common are such practices?
Annakutty walks naked through her town in a dangerous act of defiance. This cannot be characterised as a common form of protest, but neither is it unknown. Here is a video of a woman who as an act of protest walked in her underclothes through the city. Notice the baseball bat in her hand. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/woman-strips-walks-in-city-against-dowry-demand/44089-3.html. Perhaps the most famous image of woman using their nudity to protest their oppression is this one in which a group of Manipuri women protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows the Indian Army to act with impunity in some parts of the country where civil rights have been suspended, resulting in rape and other atrocities by the army. http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0719-03.htm
It will take too long to answer the question of how women are oppressed in India. Suffice it to say patriarchy is alive and well here, as elsewhere, although it takes some unique turns here. But whether manifested uniquely or otherwise, patriarchy looks different in different parts of this huge and diverse country. For example, the birth ratio of baby girls to boys is skewed by selective abortions in one half of the country but not in the other half. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/oct/10/indias-women-mixed-truth/?page=2
Annakutty raises her son alone and eventually makes the heart wrenching decision to relinquish him around the age of four to tourists passing through. What is it, ultimately, that forces her to make this difficult decision?
The long answer to the question of what forces Annakutty to relinquish her son is in the 350 pages of the novel. The short answer is she relinquishes him because someone shows up to adopt him. She withstands a tremendous amount of pressure to be done with her child, pressure that includes an attempt to kill her child in the delivery room, and pressure that has resulted in her terrible isolation from her family and community, isolation she fears will be visited on her child as he grows. But until someone comes to adopt her child, she continues to struggle with the circumstances of her life, agonizing over what to feed him on his birthday as any mother anywhere of any circumstance will. Absent the pressure of adoption, she would in all likelihood have continued to struggle to provide for him.
Annakutty regrets her decision throughout her lifetime as she remembers and even tries to search for her son. How does this story speak to other birth mothers who are forced to relinquish a child(ren)?
Annakutty is left with little besides regret. What legal recourses does she or any birthmother have? How does her economic poverty and the beliefs of those around her equip her to fight for her child? It does not. Of course, as readers will find, Annakutty does not stop at weeping over her loss. She may not be able to rewrite the rules of the engagement, but engage she does with life, above all by grappling the question of how she will live with her loss.
I think regret is real for everyone in the triad. Adoptive parents are regretful and even remorseful that the very circumstances which allow them to become parents are also the circumstances which leave them unable to answer their children’s most anguished questions. Loss marks all the relationships in the triad, and this loss extends beyond the triad. Recently, the Australian government apologized to women who were coerced in the past to give their children up for adoption. This coercion was cultural and political. The apology is an acknowledgment that regret is not just a birth mother’s obligation. It is from the owning up to our regret that we can step toward the kind of legal reform that is needed in inter-country adoption.
Annakutty suffers many losses in her life, yet possesses a certain strength and dignity despite her painful circumstances. From your perspective, what gives Annakutty such resilience in the face of her experiences? Would you consider her a heroine? If so, in what ways?
Annakutty’s powerlessness is not far from the experience of most women on the planet today. I’d like to believe she is a heroine in the way most women are: she tells the truth, the complicated truth, regardless of her inability to command an audience for it. She does not, for example embrace the idea her neighbours offer her – that her child is lucky for being adopted, that he has gone to “a good life such as none of us can give our children.” She fights for the return of her child whom she herself handed over to another family. Gretchen, who is the child’s first adoptive mother, is another example of this courage I admire in women. Late in life she voices the difficult truth that “she made a huge mistake.” The child she saw calling to her in her dreams, the child she was forced to abort, cannot be replaced by a child she adopts. Gretchen has no one with whom she can share her regrets, no way to correct the mistake she made. Her courage is evidenced in the endless calls she makes to random toll-free numbers in India, an attempt to find the child she adopted and lost.
Asa, Annakutty’s son, struggles to remember the events that led up to his relinquishment and is frustrated by the lack of information available to him. This manifests in anger and a deep sense of loss, which greatly affects his life and relationships with significant others. From your perspective, how do the losses experienced by adoptees shape who they become?
I don’t believe Asa is condemned to a life of anger and nothing but anger. He is shown in the novel attempting to love and to be loved, for example in his relationship with his daughter. This work of loving which is painful and filled with risk for most of us is made more painful for Asa by the fact that he has no narrative to explain the loss of his first love, his mother. Barred access to this narrative, he needs at least an acknowledgement of this loss if he is to ever sustain himself in the work of loving his daughter. Even given such an acknowledgment, many adoptees will struggle with anger as they encounter each new loss life brings them. Some of the new losses will be related directly to the original loss. Other losses (the loss of a lover or a job) may not be directly related to the original loss, but will recall its helplessness. Some adoptees do not accept the idea of loss as a recurring event in life. Others are vocal in their acceptance of this idea. And certainly society with its celebratory embrace of adoption cannot accept the idea that loss is a part of adoption.
At the end of the story, Asa decides not to go to India to search for some of the missing pieces to his past, yet leaves the airport having gained some insights about his life. Do you foresee Asa returning to India one day to search for answers? And, in the book, nearly all of the characters experience some sort of loss, including Asa’s adoptive parents, Marge and David. How does loss factor into the theme of the story?
Oh my gosh, I really don’t know about Asa returning to India. I write to discover answer to the questions I don’t have answers for. I would have to write another story to find out if Asa ever makes it to India. In writing Not Only the Things That Have Happened, I wanted to answer a different question: how can a person live with profound loss and disruption? And of course I wanted to know, how can a parent leave their child? Can a child recover? I found in Annakutty’s story a remarkable example of someone who lived and lived well by allowing loss to remain with her, to keep faith with that loss. She does not give in to the pressure to put it behind her. Whether Asa is scamming old ladies into adopting him or scamming himself into thinking that he need not be a parent to his daughter, his life seems to be a dizzying scramble to escape loss.
Readers will quarrel with the disappointment of not being able to see Asa return to India. Instead of the music soaring as the curtain falls there will only be the static of CNN’s botched weather report, the man snoring in the seat next to Asa, the whoosh of the revolving door ushering Asa out of the airport and into the rest of his unknown life. In the first pages of the novel, Anakutty’s niece Nina exits the stories Anakutty likes to tell about her Lost Boy because Nina dreads the way they all end in the unknown. I hope that forewarned by Annakuttys death on the first page, readers will know this is not a story about reconciliation. I hope readers will wonder as I did what one can take away from a story that ends in the unknown. Perhaps uneasiness. And uneasiness is useful. Perhaps a little bit of the sense I gained writing this book that even the unknown future is not entirely unknowable. Annakutty certainly believed in keeping faith with her loss, which cannot be read as anything but faith in her future.
What would you like most for readers to take away from the book?
Two things actually, the first is a political and the second a literary/philosophical objective. One, we need to reform inter-country adoption and two, our narratives must of necessity be as complicated as the stories we hope to tell.
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