Digital painting of the columnist by Jennifer Herrold.
The Wide World of Southern Literature:
Aerogrammes by Tania James
(Knopf, May 2012)
I fell in love with Tania James’s new book of short stories. Aerogrammes, it’s called, after those whisper-thin blue international-mail letters. I haven’t read James’s novel, Atlas of the Unknowns, but I intend to seek it out now. That’s how affecting Aerogrammes is, from its opening story of two Indian brothers —displaced persons living in London while they seek challengers in order to become World Champion wrestlers—to the surprising “Girl Marries Ghost” that concludes the collection.
James was born in Chicago and raised by her Indian parents in Louisville, Kentucky. She went Boston-side for college (Harvard) and to New York City for graduate school (Columbia). She now lives in Washington, DC, and all of her stories unsurprisingly concern people who are transitioning. For years and years, this was not considered a particularly Southern thing, unless, of course, the transition was a homecoming. Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz make plenty of “best international authors” lists, but I don’t recall any of them having stories about Cotillion. James, however, does, and she explores the mysteries of this tradition and others from the perspective of an outsider with both tenderness and a fine-tuned sense of the uncanny.
At the center of, “Ethnic Ken,” which first appeared in Five Points, is Amy, an Indian-American girl who lives with her parents and senile grandfather in Louisville. She has thick black hair that unfairly spills over onto the desks of the primadonnas who sit behind her in school. Her best friend is an effeminate white boy named Newt who comes over to her house to play slap-ball and Barbies. Just as Amy and Newt are beginning to submit to true friendship, Amy suffers deep embarrassment when her grandfather yells at her in Malaysian for clogging the shower drain with her hair, preventing his “time travel.” He is wearing a mundu, or skirt traditionally worn by men in South India, and he has hiked it up like a miniskirt. It is too inexplicable to warrant translation. Newt’s conclusion is that the grandfather is kind of a jerk. Even though he offers to steal a Ken doll from his sister for Amy, whose parents won’t allow her to play with one, she decides to stop inviting Newt over after the clogged-drain/disrupted time-travel incident.
A few days later, her grandfather walks into her room to apologize. He cleaned the drain, he says, but it is still not working properly—still not transporting him to different times. “What happened to your friend?” he asks. “The little one. He never comes around anymore.”
“He moved,” Amy lies, and he attempts to comfort her with an offer to play marbles, but she declines. What she really wants is to play with a Barbie and a Ken. She doesn’t ask for a Ken, but her grandfather understands. One day, he walks seven miles to the nearest Toys “R” Us, where he purchases a real Ken doll for her, a brown-skinned Dream Glow Ken whose Ovaltine coloring warranted a half price reduction. Her parents insist it will have to go back. She can play with Barbies. Not Kens.
Since the previous week, however, times have changed. “Cotillion was shaking up our social order,” Amy bemoans. For any non-Southerner reading now, Cotillion is also sometimes called “manners class,” or “dancing,” and it is a fixture in Southern towns both big and small. Boys learn to ask girls to dance and get them cookies and punch. Girls learn to say yes to dancing and thank you for the punch and cookies. Some classes teach girls when it is appropriate to remove hands from kid gloves. Most teach proper use of silverware. Most teach a waltz and the foxtrot and cha-cha. To Amy, it is a cult where girls wear Laura Ashley dresses and dance with boys in neckties.
Somehow, in that one class, Newt had gained not only friends but female fans. In the hallway, a small flock of them watched as he went over the fox-trot with Betsy Warren, and I pretended not to watch from my desk.
The girls call Newt by his real name now—Daniel. They ignore the bean-shaped welt on his nose, but are disgusted at Amy’s attempts to get his attention. “Ew,” they say, “Amy’s trying to flirt.”
The social chaos is interrupted when the class is roped into an act of charity—collecting toys for Guatemalan children whose lives are made miserable by high infant death rates and unclean drinking water. Newt volunteers his sister’s Barbies. And her Ken. When Amy relays all this to her mother, synapses fire. The solution to all her problems, Amy’s mother decides, is for Amy to donate her chocolate Dream Glow Ken to the Guatemalan children.
“I could buy her a different doll to donate to the school,” Amy’s grandfather offers, but he is told that Amy is too old to play with dolls. She is almost ten. (The box, Amy reasons, says “5 & up,” which leaves no age too old to play with Barbies or Kens.)
She takes the Ken to school, where he is deemed an excellent donation due to his Guatemalan-like ethnicity. For a brief moment, Amy imagines that she and Newt have reconnected over her donation, but by recess he has abandoned her again to dance with the girls from Cotillion. Jealous, Amy stings him where she knows it will hurt: “You look like a total fruit out there,” she says.
At the top of the steps, he turned. I’d gone too far. My words cut close to the truth or what I’d always perceived might be the truth. Last year, someone had penciled Fag Newton on the back of his chair, and I’d erased it, hoping he hadn’t seen.
“At least I don’t play with dolls,” he said loudly.
And then: “At least I have friends! All you have is your crazy grandfather!”
When Amy furiously charges at Newt, he trips down the concrete stairs and falls into a crumpled heap at the bottom, foot twisted, face smushed up against the cement. The teacher and his Cotillion friends rush to his aid, and Amy goes into the classroom to hide. She is alone with Ethnic Ken. No one would know if she took him back, but “5 & up” does, in fact, have a limit. And in a matter of seconds, Amy reached it.
In an interview with the Washington City Paper, James explained that she is drawn to stories of culture, class, and loneliness. “When I was younger (and still now),” she said, “reading books led me to believe that culture clash and loneliness weren’t simply specific to being a first- or second- generation immigrant; it’s an experience far more universal than that.” All of her stories, she reasons, might be considered responses to the fish-out-of-water stories that inspired her: Jane Eyre, for instance; A House for Mr. Biswas; Emily Dickinson’s poems.
Even the way she has assembled the stories that compose Aerogrammes plays homage to these outsider tales. It is not a collection unified entirely by voice, characters, location, or genre. “When I was putting the collection together, I knew that some of the stories strayed from the rest in voice or tone, but I like collections that have a wild card or two, like a hidden track on a CD,” James told Washington City Paper. “I love surprises like that, the way they snag in the memory precisely because of the way they throw the whole slightly off-kilter.” It doesn’t always work. But here, in Aerogrammes, it does.