A Vague, Meandering Post

This year's Booker prizewinner Kiran Desai reports that her mother, the novelist Anita Desai, helped her write the novel that won the Booker, and I do not doubt it. One of my treasured possessions is a copy of the very first short story I published, marked up with Anita Desai's handwritten notes, in delicate purple pen; she was indeed a wonderful teacher. My own mother -- also a writer, also a teacher, also my teacher -- broke her knee last week, a problem that required major surgery under general anesthesia to correct. She is recovering in a hospital not far from her old house, where I, too, spent a portion of my childhood. The place figures in my novel the way it figures in my dreams -- crabgrass, poison oak, swing shifts, linoleum. I am tempted to say, dismissively, You get the picture, but I don't because it isn't true. In Joyce Carol Oates' new collection, High Lonesome, Oates does get the picture -- she has her finger on something important that otherwise resists lyric description, & fits better into the more familiar and more distanced and antiseptic discourses about jobs, economic insecurity, mandatory overtime, minimum wage. A place where reading novels (let alone writing them) is suspect and barely tolerated when there is so much else to do. I read Oates' stories with a tight chest, thinking about Oates' childhood (she was no stranger, I bet, to linoleum), her hunger for books, and about the books she has written, the sheer quantity of them, as if, finding the world lacking the books she wanted to read, she simply made them herself, as you might make furniture to suit an odd-shaped room. Also thinking about the fact of Oates' childlessness. Kiran Desai says she won't have children because then she would have to break her writerly solitude and "be sweet" , which gets in the way of her writing. Her mother, I want to remind her, wrote wonderful books with four children underfoot, along with teaching duties and office hours, including one session in which she gently insisted that yes, I had talent and yes, it was not only worth developing but probably the most important thing I could do -- and her encouragement made all the difference.