Nishanth Injam on 'The Best Possible Experience', his collection of short stories
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Nishanth Injam grew up in a small town in India, and he struggled to adapt to life in the U.S. He wasn't a writer. He worked as a software engineer. But he found himself pouring his immigration experiences into short stories. The title of his debut collection is "The Best Possible Experience." It's about being an immigrant, living in a new culture that's sometimes confusing and longing for your home country even though you no longer feel quite at home there. In a story called "The Math Of Living," a software developer anticipates his annual trip to India.
NISHANTH INJAM: (Reading) In the cab, my father will ask me either F or G before proceeding to tell me everything that has changed in the city since I last visited. My mother will ask H questions about the food I would like to eat. I will enjoy this attention, this care that was missing when I was a child.
PFEIFFER: As you can hear in that excerpt read by Nishanth Injam, his character uses the language of math to explain what he expects when he finally gets there.
INJAM: (Reading) It's inevitable that J minutes later, my parents will start quarrelling. That's just who they are. They can't help it. I'll start feeling anxious. I'll never be as happy as I am in the moment I arrive. The magic will be over. All that's left - mundanity. I'll briefly feel like rescheduling the return flight I have in K days and going back to work. But I can't do that to my parents. Their faces are still glowing, and I wonder if love is a candle lit by distance.
PFEIFFER: Nishanth, I love that last line - I wonder whether love is a candle lit by distance. It says so much about being together, being apart. The character in this story works for the Chicago Tribune. So did you. Can you tell us about that character and how that person connects to you in your life?
INJAM: I think this story is very closely drawn from my own life in that I also worked at the Chicago Tribune, and I was doing these flights back home. And I would always be counting down the months before I would go home just so that I could be home, united not only with my family but also united with the self that I was before I left home. Immigration is - it's a sort of one-way journey in a way.
PFEIFFER: That's interesting. You're right. It ends one version of you and then creates another version in a sense.
INJAM: Right. In this country, we glorify immigrants, and sometimes rightly so. But I think there is a real cost to immigration that happens on a personal level. And I think that not only do you lose that self, but you also lose the memories that made up who you are because memory is ultimately anchored in place. And so I feel like when you immigrate, the memories that you used to call yours are a bit more difficult to access than they are for somebody who grew up in their own country and who lives in their own country.
PFEIFFER: This is a collection of short stories, all of which have something to do with the immigrant experience - some of them in their home country, some of them in their new country - and this is your first book. Why did you want it to be about immigration?
INJAM: I'll be completely honest. So the minute I landed in Philadelphia International Airport at the immigration counter, I saw an officer, and they were saying something to me. And I was really struggling to understand what they were saying, and immediately I had a sense that I'd made the biggest mistake of my life.
PFEIFFER: Oh, wow.
INJAM: And I say that not because I feel like I can't survive or adapt in America because I can. It's just that the sense of self you have as a child growing up is that you sometimes don't understand life around you. You don't understand why people behave the way they do. But then one day you understand it as you become at home in a country, in a culture, and then you are able to read people. You're able to understand people. You're able to analyze and think through and just be at home. I felt like that sort of - that level of cognitive understanding is something that would take me many, many, many years for me to achieve the same level of cognitive understanding in a new country.
PFEIFFER: I want to ask you about some of your individual stories. And there's a story called "The Immigrant" where you describe what you call the new etiquette that many immigrants have to learn, like wearing deodorant and not eating with your hands in public. How much does that story reflect your own surprise at what you encountered when you arrived in the U.S.?
INJAM: Definitely a lot of it, even some of the things that I had heard - like, for instance, I had heard about the toilet paper thing, but then...
PFEIFFER: (Laughter) This part of your book is so funny, by the way.
INJAM: Thank you. I had heard of - actually heard about the toilet paper thing, but I had actually never held a roll of toilet paper in my hand before.
PFEIFFER: We should explain that you were looking for a bidet. And what I find funny about this is many Americans can't believe you would spray your backside with water, but you couldn't believe we would wipe our backside with paper. It's, like, a sort of a clash of cultures playing out. Anything else in that realm you can think of?
INJAM: I think I was always surprised by the public transport system in America. And also I had this question about why people lived so far in the suburbs 'cause...
PFEIFFER: Oh, interesting.
INJAM: ...That was something that I didn't expect at all.
PFEIFFER: You also write about food which, of course, is an enormous part of many cultures, an enormous part of the immigration experience for many people. And it's often been described by immigrants as a comfort, as a taste of back home. You have a very funny story called "Lunch At Paddy's," where you describe how food can also be a source of anxiety. Can you talk about how that played out for you a bit?
INJAM: I mean, the feeling of eating something, even in an Indian restaurant, and people telling you that it's spicy, and then me personally feeling that it was not spicy at all, like, that was a pretty common experience. Food feeling so bland - I was really genuinely surprised that people could eat such bland food. And I think that was something that made it into the story, that became a huge part of the story.
PFEIFFER: In "Lunch At Paddy's," of course, this young Indian boy has invited a white friend over for lunch. And his dad in particular is just panicking. What does a little white boy want to eat? What do we put on salad? How do you make a sandwich? Again, very, very funny because it's not what a typical Indian family might eat in their home country.
INJAM: Yeah. I had actually never eaten a sandwich before I moved here. I'd never had pasta before. I didn't know what constituted salad.
INJAM: And to hear, you know, all those terms and then learn what those are, that was a - definitely a part of my experience. Yeah.
PFEIFFER: You know, we have touched on this a bit, but I noticed that on Twitter, you wrote - and this is the quote - "I wrote this book over seven difficult years in this country. In the course of writing this book, I lost nearly everything I cared about. This book kept me going when everything seemed pointless." And I was surprised to hear that because the book is so rich and so beautiful, and I enjoyed reading it. And to think, in a way, that it came out a place of sadness - was the book kind of a joyful counterpoint to some of the hard things you were going through, or a way for you to channel your loneliness as well as your happiness?
INJAM: Certainly. I mean, for example, if I was - you know, writing those comic scenes can be funny and therapeutic in some ways. But certainly, when I was working at the Tribune and trying to maintain my own sanity - 'cause I felt suffocated. I felt like I couldn't go back to India. I felt like I couldn't do the job. I couldn't quit. It felt like I had a chain around my neck. And so to escape that feeling, I began writing as a way of, like, creating this alternative world where I could be free, where I could be, in a way, close to the home and to the self I was. And so over the course of writing this book, the real-world me experienced loss after loss. And the book self - I mean, the worlds that I was creating - I kept them as alive as possible because I needed to find beauty so that I could still live a meaningful life.
PFEIFFER: That's Nishanth Injam. He is the author of "The Best Possible Experience." Thank you very much.
INJAM: Thank you.
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