A journalist for seventeen years, Thrity Umrigar has written for the Washington Post, the Plain Dealer, and other national newspapers, andcontributes regularly to the Boston Globe’s book pages. She teaches creative writing and literature at Case Western Reserve University. The author of the novel Bombay Time and the memoir First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood, she was a winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University. She has a Ph.D. in English and lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
Tell us a little bit about your growing up years.
Well, I was born in Bombay and lived there until I was 21, when I came to the U.S. I was raised in a joint family, which meant I grew up around very loving aunts and uncles. And since I was an only child, it helped to have all those extra adults in my life, for love and guidance. I’ve always had many sets of parents and even today, have a knack for “adopting” parents.
What do you remember most about growing up in Bombay?
I have two overriding childhood memories or impressions: One, was always being excruciating aware of the poverty around me. Now, as a middle-class kid, you’re not supposed to be that aware of–or certainly not supposed to be tortured by–the poverty around you. It’s a defense mechanism of sorts, to be able to ignore it. For whatever reason, I was never able to ignore it and to some extent, it really affected my childhood, made me a hypersensitive child.
Two, I always wrote. Writing was my way to make sense of the world outside and inside my home. Despite the recollections of the adults in my life, I don’t think I was a terribly articulate child. Writing was a way to give wings to the inchoate emotions and feelings inside of me.
When did you know you were a writer?
Well, I was writing poems at a very young age. As a child, I would write ‘anonymous’ poems to my parents whenever I felt wronged by them and then secretly pin them on their closet door. So I learned early on that writing was a good way to get rid of pent-up feelings.
All through my teen years I wrote poetry and short stories and essays. I think I knew I was a writer–not that I was necessarily a good writer, just that I was a writer–one evening when I was 14 or so. I remember sitting in my living room and writing this long poem called The Old Man that came out of me as if someone was dictating it. It was a terribly sappy poem but I felt compelled to write it and when I was done, I was exhausted but I knew something about myself that I didn’t before.
Why did you decide to come to the U.S.?
I’ve never had an easy answer to that question. In some sense, my whole life prepared me for moving to the U.S. I was a product of an educational system that was very colonial and very Western in its orientation. I still remember my fourth-grade composition teacher telling the class not to create characters who were blond and blue-eyed.
Her statement came as a shock because that was all we knew, you know?
When I was a child, I read everything ever written by the British children’s writer Enid Blyton and later, the Billy Bunter and William series of novels. And as I got older, all I was reading was Western literature. American pop culture was a big influence, also. I mean, until I picked up Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I had hardly ever read a novel by an Indian writer. Rushdie was a revelation for me. So that’s the “sociological” answer. But of course, there were also a hundred personal reasons–wanting to travel, wanting an adventure, wanting to be independent, wanting to get away from certain aspects of my life, not knowing what the heck to do with myself after I’d finished college. I remember the day when it occurred to me very clearly that if I lived in India, I would never be totally independent and would never discover who exactly I was as a person. I wanted to live in a place where I would rise or fall based on my own efforts and talents. And I was very lucky to have a father, who, despite his immense sadness at having me so far away from home, always encouraged me to reach for my dreams and never held me back. . . But I’m not even sure it was this complicated. Remember, I was 21. Weird as it may sound, not much thought went into it.
So you came to Ohio State? Why Ohio State?
Well, that’s a funny story. It’s indicative of how so many major decisions in my life have been made. I was sitting in my living room in Bombay, checking off a list of American universities that offered a M.A. in journalism, when my eyes fell on “Ohio State University.” There was a Joan Baez record playing on the turntable and right then, her song, Banks of the Ohio, came on. I looked up and thought, “It’s a sign.”
Hmmm. Well, I hope the experience there was worth it.
Oh, OSU was a blast. Two of the happiest years of my life. Within days of being there, I made friendships that have lasted till today. Those two years taught me that one can make new families at any point in one’s life. I had such positive experiences there that it made me want to live in the U.S. forever. That one line in Bombay Time, where Jimmy Kanga feels like he loved Oxford so much he felt he could’ve gone to war for it, that’s what it used to feel like to me. I’ll always be grateful.
After OSU, I worked for two years at the Lorain Journal, a small but feisty little paper near Cleveland. It was a grueling experience, long hours, all that, but when I left there, I knew I could tackle anything that daily journalism threw my way.
So you came to the Akron Beacon Journal when?
In 1987. The Beacon had the reputation of being a real writer’s paper and had just won yet another Pulitzer. It was a great paper to work at. Still is.
Who are your favorite authors?
I draw inspiration from everywhere. I’m one of those people who even reads cereal boxes. But my favorite authors are Salman Rushdie (I recently re-read Midnight’s Children and wept in awe and gratitude), Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid. But influence is a hard thing to account for–I think Bob Dylan and Emily Dickinson have probably influenced my writing–in terms of making me crazy about words–as much as anybody.
THE SPACE BETWEEN US by Thrity Umrigar
Publication Date: January 10, 2006
William Morrow/An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers