One of the truths about reading stories that writing this blog has reaffirmed for me is the desire of both writers and readers to get a confirming response from someone else. This is usually expressed by the phrase, “I would really like to know what you think about….” When I am presented with this tacit request, I am pleased that someone “really” wants to know what I think about a story. After all, I have made a career of sorts out of expressing my thoughts about stories, and, although I have retired from the classroom, I am obviously not quite ready to give that career up, even if it is now de facto and unpaid. So when a fellow reader asks me what I think about a story or a collection of stories, I always try to oblige. If you have followed this blog in the past couple of years, you will know that I am a little behind in these obligations as the story collections pile up around me. But I will get to them. I promise.
Less frequently, writers contact me, thanking me for favorably mentioning their work and for my efforts in behalf of the underestimated short story form. I always respond to these comments with a review or some informal remarks, for I appreciate writers who acknowledge and value their readers. So when I got an email from a writer named Ramola D a few weeks ago, asking me if I would be interested in reading her collection of stories Temporary Lives and commenting on it on my blog, I said, “Sure.”
Then I started to worry. What if I don’t like it? That is, what if I think it is poorly written? I never worry about such things when I am reviewing a book for a newspaper, for then the paper sends me the book and pays me for an honest review that has nothing to do with the author. But this was different. The author herself had said to me, “I would really like to know what you think about….” Although I knew the old axiom, “Even a bad review is better than no review at all,” I tentatively decided that if I thought the book was poorly written I would just not say anything. While waiting to receive it, I did the usual Internet research about this woman named Ramola D. Here is what I found out:
Ramola D was born and grew up in what was then Madras, India, where she got a B.A. in physics and an MBA in marketing. She also got a degree in journalism and worked as a free lance writer for a while in India before getting a teaching assistantship and graduate fellowship to study creative writing at George Mason University, where she received her MFA. She has since taught composition and creative writing at various universities and companies. Ramola Dharmaraj is now forty-five and lives with her husband and young daughter in Arlington, VA. She teaches creative writing part-time at The George Washington University and The Writers Center, Bethesda.
Ramola D has published short stories, poetry, and essays in such places as Prairie Schooner, Green Mountain Review, Agni, and Indiana Review. One of her stories, “The Next Corpse Collector,” appeared in Best American Fantasy in 2007 and was included on the “100 Other Distinguished Stories” list in Best American Short Stories 2007. Her short story collection Temporary Lives won the AWP Grace Paley Award in Short Fiction in 2008. Her poetry has been published in various places, including The Best American Poetry 1994. Her first collection of poems, Invisible Season, published in 1998, won a Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize.
I was beginning to feel a lot better. Ramola D’s career seemed like a paradigm of the serious writer devoted to her craft. The couple of interviews I read reaffirmed that impression. She has been writing the stories in Temporary Lives over the past twelve or thirteen years, beginning with impressionistic, lyrical stories, “playing,” as she says “with language and form a good deal.” However, she soon found out that the New York publishers thought the stories were “too literary” to merit publication. So she started work on a novel, coming back to the story collection, periodically adding a few more traditional, i.e. less “literary,” stories, and sending it out again. Then, after making the finalist list of the 2004 Nebraska Book Series, Temporary Lives was selected winner of the 2008 AWP Grace Paley Short Fiction competition.
When I received the book from the University of Massachusetts Press, I read all the stories in about three settings, and I was happy that I thought they were well written, honest, serious stories. Of course, I was happy. I certainly get no pleasure out of reading careless stories, cynical stories, coldly calculated stories, stories that underestimate my intelligence and attention. Then, of course, as I always do, I waited a few days and read the stories again, more slowly and carefully. A serious short story writer deserves this close second reading. Indeed, one of the reasons that so many readers do not like short stories is that they hurry through a story once and, finding no easy plot, simple character, or transparent style, they toss it aside with a uncomprehending shrug. One of my great disappointments when I was teaching was failing to get my students to read a story assignment more than once before they came to class. What they usually did was read the story once, perform the obligatory shrug, and then come to class to watch me struggle guiding them through the “second” reading as a group.
After reading Ramola D’s stories twice, I was sorry to discover that Temporary Lives had not received any reviews. It only reminded me of the problem that writers face getting their books noticed, especially when they are short stories, and especially when they are published by an underfunded university press that cannot afford to promote them, even when they win prizes that are especially created to encourage attention. A couple of weeks ago, after I had read Ramola D’s book, I did receive a notice by Julia Bohanna in The Short Review, a journal that does an energetic job to promote the short story. Placing her in the Chekhov tradition for her empathy with her characters, Bohanna says that Ramola D’s stories provide “poetic lessons of life that the reader may take away with them. Carpe diem, perhaps. Or that risk-taking and passion rather than passivity is the secret to living a solid and sated life.” Well, I am not sure about lessons; that’s not what I go to short fiction for. But I do think that the stories in Temporary Lives are scrupulous explorations of the secrets that Ramola D’s characters hold and harbor, and which sometimes entrap them in isolation and loneliness. Here are my favorites:
“In Another World” and “Room Enough for the Sky” are both tightly controlled lyrical evocations of the secret lives of young Indian women who feel caught by their inescapable being as women. In the first, a young girl rejects her budding breasts and is horrified by her first period. In the second, a young pregnant wife is tormented by the memory of her tyrannical father, controlled by a traditional husband, and threatened by his leering younger brother. There is no reason these two women should be so limited in their dreams, except the weight of a culture that clings to the past. The story about women trapped by cultural bias and male ignorance that most strongly garnered my sympathy, however, is “The Couple in the Park,” in which a mother is haunted by a beguiling image that seems to embody all that she is and all that she would wish to be.
“The Next Corpse Collector” is a more plot-based story about a man who brings up his two sons in the honorable task of preparing for burial the corpses of those who live on the streets. When the older son rebels and leaves home, the younger son feels trapped in this task he would put from him if he could. The story is thematically controlled around the fear of death and the possible redemption of the body.
In “The Man on the Veranda” and “What the Watchman Saw,” Ramola D channels the voices of two men—one who is caught in an intrigue with a robbery, involving an even more serious theft, torn by his responsibility to his role as a night watchman and his fear of involvement—and another who has spent his life posturing and parading and now feels the rest of the world, particularly his wife, owes him obeisance.
In an interview, Ramola D said she knew early on what the title of her book would be: “Temporary Lives is also the name of a story, one of the early-written ones --and I tried to listen for echoes to this center in the other stories I had. Rose Ammal, the main character in Temporary Lives, modelled on my grandmother’s generation, and privy to all sorts of oppression and repression by way of being female, as well as some rather extraordinary betrayal --comes to something of an understanding of her hardships as temporary, in her struggle to find meaning and reclaim her life.”
I understand Ramola D’s thinking about this title for her book. But for me, the title that best sums up the stories is the first one in the collection, “In Another World.” When asked in an interview what the word “story” meant to her, Ramola D said: “I think to me a story is a movement into another space, its own dimension. Stories create their own worlds. The more a story can draw me into its space, into someone’s experience - -through whatever means it chooses, language or event or sensibility --the more power it has to affect me, to impact, to resonate.”
Yes, indeed! And it is precisely Ramola D’s ability to create these alternate worlds, allowing me to participate in the secret lives of her characters that I find most irresistible. I thank her for honoring me by posing my favorite introit: “I would really like to know what you think about these stories.”