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On Leaving Home


PUBLISHED: May 21, 2013

 

Pittsburgh by ecstaticist / Flickr

ecstaticist / Flickr

 

The following post is part of our online companion to our Spring 2013 issue on The Business of Literature. Click here for an overview of the issue.

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Some people move to New York to realize their literary dreams, but I had to leave. Born and raised in Manhattan, in 1988 I moved to Pittsburgh, a place I’d never thought about, let alone placed on a map. At twenty-five, working in publishing, I realized that if I wanted to write, I needed space and time, neither of which seemed available to me in New York. I also knew if I stayed in publishing, I’d eventually stop writing; editorial work was low paying, but seductive and more gratifying.

More insidious, and less easily acknowledged, was the pressure I felt as the daughter of two ambitious, highly successful immigrants. My mother worked at the United Nations; recruited through a national exam in India, she’d come to New York, alone, at the age of twenty-two. She lived and worked in New York for ten years before meeting my father at a friend’s house. Chief of Psychiatry at his hospital in Bombay, he had moved to New York on a Fulbright. He had intended to return to India, but after he married my mother, they decided to stay in New York so she could continue working.

“Your mother is a brilliant woman,” my father said any time my sister or I complained about her failings. And my mother described him the same way. Brilliance trumped everything. And not only were they brilliant, they were successful. They worked hard, sent us to the best schools, and made sure we returned to India regularly.

I graduated from college with a degree in Government and Afro-American Studies, and after I returned home, my mother immediately signed me up for typing lessons at Katherine Gibbs. In 1984, the most successful people I knew seemed to be investment bankers. After a job in a bookstore and as a receptionist at a film-editing company, I became an editorial assistant, which had the hours of an investment banker and the salary of a secretary.

I wanted to be a writer, but I knew nothing about writing, other than what I’d learned in college, and I knew no writers. I applied to graduate school because that seemed to be the only option and I got in on probation (since I didn’t major in English, the graduate program considered me a risk). During this time, I lived on and off with my parents. They encouraged this dependence, not only because my father could keep an eye on me and prevent me from dating men who would interfere with my trajectory to fame and fortune, but also because this is what single Indian women do: They live at home until they marry. This is the case even today; despite the growth in jobs for women in India, many young professionals continue to live with their parents until marriage. All of my cousins did this. One of them, a successful doctor in her sixties, still does.

I hated graduate school. Coming home from a workshop in tears, I often sat with my mother, who’d make me a cup of hot milk and listen to me after her own long day at work. Coincidentally, she’d attended graduate school at the same university, so when she said, “It’s a doughnut factory,” she spoke with authority.

“What do you mean?” I sniffed. Maybe this was the time a fellow student wrote a withering assessment of my story that ended with her calling me a racist. Thinking of her as a day-old doughnut would have reduced the sting of her comments. Or maybe this was the time one of my classmates told me she’d lost my story and then whispered and giggled with her friends throughout workshop.

“They just want your money. They don’t care about students.”

My mother was the only reason I stayed in graduate school. She’d quit her Ph.D. program after five years of classes, and she regretted this now. She didn’t want me to have the same regrets. She proofread my papers and talked to me about books. When I began to struggle in my class on the origins of the English language, she found a tutor for me in Queens and paid for my sessions. She was nearing the end of her career at the UN, and during this time, it seemed she understood me best.

My father helped by bestowing on me his “best” ideas about what I should write. I’d be sitting in the living room, trying to watch TV, and he’d suddenly interrupt. “You know, Geeta, I’ve been thinking. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It’s like Congress. Stealing from the people.” His ideas, all political allegories, abstract and confusing, weren’t particularly bad. They just weren’t mine. I began to dread the words, “I’ve been thinking …” because invariably they would introduce something I didn’t want to write about.

After he died, one of my father’s friends referred to him as a “domineering man.” All I knew was that it was easier to agree than disagree. In Indian culture, the man is the king of his household, his authority final. My father, who had so little control at work, exerted this authority at home. It was easier to agree with him than try to explain I had my own ideas about what I should write.

In fact, I had very few ideas. I wasn’t writing a lot, I had no idea how to keep the kind of journal that would be useful to me as a writer, and I felt constantly torn between the life I wanted—centered on reading and writing—and the life that my friends led: parties, bars, and clubs. I hated standing on line to get into a nightclub. I hated dressing up, putting on makeup, and then waiting to see if some meathead thought I was cool enough to enter a dark space with music I didn’t particularly like.

In graduate school, I learned to dread workshop. I began to suspect that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer at all. Some of the students in my class had book contracts; meanwhile, an editor I worked with told me “no one wanted to read about Indians in America.” He meant there was no market for my fiction, and because I hadn’t learned that the market is fickle and ultimately meaningless to good writing, I believed that my writing was worthless. This doubt became my constant companion when I sat down to write and, to counter the anxiety, I went to those parties and nightclubs and spent a little too much time with people whose names I can’t remember now.

I moved five times in three years. I changed jobs three times. I cried every night after workshop. I made no lasting connections in graduate school because, like me, everyone in my program worked full time and showed up for school in the evenings. I felt trapped, and the year I graduated, I fell in love with a man who was moving to Pittsburgh. I followed him a year later, leaving behind high rents and full-time work. My plan was to teach part time and write.

This was not an easy transition. I found myself having to teach more than I anticipated, and my lack of experience meant that some weeks, I had more than 100 papers to grade. I used my time badly, put more into saving my failing relationship than into my writing. Finally, my boyfriend and I broke up, and I started my third year in Pittsburgh living in an apartment by myself. I loved my apartment, a one-bedroom with a hallway, a separate kitchen, and glass doorknobs, all for slightly less than $400 a month. Without anyone—no roommate, no boyfriend, no parents—looking over my shoulder or interrupting me, I wrote. I filled notebooks; I wrote an op-ed piece, which became my first publication; I published my first story. I got a contract to edit an anthology; I wrote a book for hire. Living alone, I found it easy to read two or three books a week and review them. Pre-Internet, silence came easily, and I often had days when I talked to no one. I was surprised to find I had ideas, lots of them, undirected and unformed, imperfect and flawed. But they were mine. Each notebook I filled became an accomplishment in itself.

On the phone with my parents, I remained vague about my writing, sharing only the tangible successes. My father continued to share his “prize-winning” ideas with me, but with nearly 300 miles between us, I could ignore them without rejecting them outright.

Five years, then ten years, went by. I married; I acquired a large dog; I bought a house. My sister, who lived less than a mile away from my parents, started making asides about my selfishness. I was selfish, she implied, because I hadn’t moved back to New York, because I spent more time away from my parents than with them. When my father told me to stop acting like a guest—clueless about the rhythms of a household in which I no longer lived—I felt bad. From my family’s point of view, I taught part time, so why couldn’t I come back to New York more often? Why not for the summer? If I really cared about them, I would have.

The problem was, I did care. I cared too much. I cared so much that every criticism continued to sting, every “prize-winning” idea my father gave me reminded me of my continued failure to write a bestseller, or to win the Nobel Prize (my father’s favorite standard for literary success). I cared deeply what my parents thought of me, and I wanted to make them happy. But when I returned to my bedroom overlooking First Avenue, to the sounds of sirens and construction, to the stuffiness of an overheated apartment, I returned to the person for whom “yes” was easier than “no.” I became my father’s agreeable daughter, the one without a single good idea of her own. My voice, hard won in Pittsburgh, stayed in Pittsburgh. Publishing my work didn’t help. I still found it hard to hear myself think when I returned home to my parents and their ideas.

In retirement, with no hobbies or interests to pursue, both of my parents started writing. They both said they were doing it for me, and I didn’t understand—were the writings themselves a gift or were they writing to show me how it was done? I loved my parents, and I enjoyed spending time with them. I shopped and cooked with my mother. We went to galleries and museums, and took yoga classes together. Afternoons, my father would tell me when it was time to wake my mother from her nap, and I’d go in and lie on the bed, talking to her quietly until we heard the kettle whistling in the kitchen. Then the three of us would sit down for a cup of tea, our habit of many years.

How could the two people who most wanted me to succeed be so unhelpful?  They’d taught me to turn to them for help, but writing was something I had to do alone. It could not be a family affair, not unless one of us was willing to cede. No one would call me brilliant—not even my parents—but I was their daughter: willful, hardworking, persistent. And once I found my writer’s voice, I couldn’t risk losing it.

After my parents died, the city I returned to felt empty without them. For me they had been New York: larger than life and endlessly fascinating, but also loud and overwhelming.  My parents, in leaving India, had given up the extended family, multiple generations under one roof. Their immigrant success story had come at the cost of family.

And so had mine.

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About the author: Geeta Kothari is the editor of Did My Mama Like to Dance?: And Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various journals and anthologies including the Massachusetts Review, Fourth Genre, and Best American Essays. She is the nonfiction editor at the Kenyon Review and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

4 Comments

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Shirley Hershey Showalter's picture
Wow. Lovely story and a great zinger ending. My daughter lives in Pittsburgh. My son in NYC. They are both brilliant. :-)
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Peter Trachtenberg's picture
Gorgeous and heartbreaking and not that different from my own family. Very true to the wrenching–literal or symbolic– that’s essential to writing.
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Ellen Birkett Morris's picture
Ellen Birkett Morris · 5 years ago
Thanks for this deep look at the many ways we writers struggle to find our voice and the many ways society and family work at cross purposes with our quest. I loved the humor, authenticity snd honesty of this piece.
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