Tania James follows her well-received debut novel, 2009’s Atlas of Unknowns, with Aerogrammes, a collection of nine short stories which delve into topics as variant as professional wrestling, chimpanzee adoption, and graphology (the study of handwriting). James’s stories are populated by lively, spectacularly fallible (yet persistently hopeful) characters that toil, mourn, dance, and play—sometimes in rapid succession. Two of the stories, “Aerogrammes” and “Girl Marries Ghost,” while not brand new, have been substantially changed since their initial publication.
To read Aerogrammes is to be transported back to adolescent (or pre-adolescent) days dominated by dance classes, playground politiking, and jumping off (or cowering before) the high dive. These rites of American childhood, infused with James’s attention to family discord, ethnic discrimination, and psychological trauma, become crucial to Aerogrammes’ particular sense of social and cultural memory.
James is at her best when chronicling adolescent awkwardness—something she does with unremitting honesty. In “Ethnic Ken” the school’s social order is shaken up by the advent of Cotillion. Amy, an Indian American with a brown Ken doll, can no longer chat with her friend Newt without the Cotillion posse taking offense: “Betsy made a gagging face. Some of the surrounding kids turned to smirk. Amy Abraham: flirting! My face burned.”
Interestingly it is these types of moments which continue to hound (or haunt) adults throughout Aerogrammes. In “Light & Luminous” Minal Auntie, a dance instructor, supermarket checkout worker, and part-time babysitter hones her dance team’s skills for an India Day festival. Minal Auntie is so mortified when her dancers find her using a skin-lightening product (“Ew. It smells like pee.”) that she locks herself in a bathroom stall. It’s something straight out of teen movie, but more wrenching, by far, to see the over-exuberant, self-conscious Minal Auntie falling through these traps.
The struggle to connect to a native cultural narrative from modern, multicultural American or England gets to the heart of conflict in Aerogrammes. In the title story Mr. Panicker receives a script-in-progress from his son Sunit, an aspiring writer in New York: “It belonged to a growing subgenre, he said, not quite Bollywood, not quite Hollywood: Indians in America or England Torn Between Identities.”
This reflexive gesture, half in jest, gets to James’s visions of “Torn Between Identities.” For Aerogrammes the tearing of cultures is, above all, emotionally disruptive. Alienation, prejudice, and overt clashes of multiculturalism factor prevalently, but it is the personal relationships (often between family members) imperiled by differing cultural memories that shapes the sadness of these stories. It is, finally, memory and loss that James meters out among her characters. Tellingly, Mr. Panicker dismisses Sunit’s sentiment, worrying “how a thirty-eight year old man could still be writing about his twenty-year-old self.”
Switching from novel writing (Atlas of Unknowns) to the short story, James, in Aerogrammes, features a disconnectedness that is appropriate to both theme and form. Take this excerpt for “The Scriptological Review”:
Before me the lake seemed to widen in a gray-black haze, and all at once uncertainty swept over me, as it still does sometimes, because I seem to find comfort only in fragments, because there is something impossible about shoring them into something larger, just as there was something futile and frightening about the borderless world beyond that lake, how the sky exhaled and expanded with no outer limit, the stars slipping farther and farther away, like everyone I loved.
This moment is representative: confronted with the “borderless world” characters preserve their cultural memory in small things. Old Ahmed, the partially deaf cook, comes to London with Gama the Great, the Indian wrestling champ, to cook pehlwan food. The narrator of “The Gulf” borrows a violin so that she might hear her father play as he did in Dubai. These moments of smallness build upon on another. The writing, by extension, is a similar attempt to ‘shore’ the memory in a limitless, overflowing world; James writes, “These few words are pinholes of light in an otherwise impenetrable wall.”
Despite its many virtues, Aerogrammes does have several challenges, foremost of which is its over-attention to craft. Objects, endowed with meaning, do too much of the heavy lifting. Photo albums, aerogrammes (light handwritten letters for international postage), and musical instruments are simply given too much intelligence. This can make for neat, clean narrative arcs (each of the nine stories is roughly twenty pages), but can make the stories seem, at times, overwrought. In “Lion and Panther in London” the wrestler Gama the Great plays chess with his brother Imam. Dramatically realizing he has been used by the entertainment industry, Gama corrects his brother’s praise: “No chotu. I am just a pawn.” Disjointed or forced moments like this are scarce, however, and readers will find much of redeeming quality in the endearing moments (awkward though they might be) that James does convincingly render into “pinholes of light.”