Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Lunch With Thrity Umrigar - Sort Of

Well, I squee'd about it, I gushed about it, I exhorted you to join me at it. "It" would be lunch with Thrity Umrigar, author of The Weight of Heaven, The Space Between Us, and, most recently, The World We Found. Right here in Omaha. I ordered my ticket as soon as I found out about the lunch, I rearranged my work schedule to be there on time, I drove there in a snowstorm. Guess who wasn't there? That's right. Thrity Umrigar.

Apparently, in Chicago, they decided they would let a little snow stop them and shut down their airports, preventing Umrigar from physically joining us. That didn't stop the staff at the College of St. Mary, the hosts of the luncheon. After our authentic Indian lunch, sitting in a room decorated in the colors of beautiful saris, Umrigar did join us after all, via Skype on a projector screen. As soon as she started talking, it almost didn't matter that she wasn't there.

She talked about how she'd been a writer as long as she could remember. When she was five or six, she wrote hate poems to her parent, venting her anger at things like not being allowed to have chocolate when she wanted some. She'd write the poems in her room then sneak them into her parents' room. For years she thought her parents were genius' because they always seemed to be able to figure out who had left the poems. You should know here that Umrigar is an only child.

When Umrigar decided to come to the U.S. to study, she wasn't sure which college she wanted to attend. Joan Baez (Banks of the Ohio) helped her make the decision to attend Ohio State and she has been there ever since. After college, she began working as a journalist but eventually decided that she would return to school to earn a PhD. It was during this time that she decided to write her first novel. She'll be the first to admit that she got extremely lucky when she found an agent without even looking; at a literary event an agent actually approached her and, based strictly on a question she'd asked the speaker, asked if she was working on something before that first novel was even finished.

Umrigar says that she writes about race, gender, class but mostly her books are about power - who has it, who doesn't. It's a theme she finds to be universal. "Writers," she said, "know that life is lived in the grey." That's something readers find again and again in her books as well.

Having been raised in an upper middle-class family, Umrigar admitted to sometimes wondering if she had the right to write about people who have lived far different lives, questioning whether she is making their lives look too easy, or perhaps even more difficult than they actually are. Perhaps that accounts for why her books are so good - she is always so aware that she wants to get it right.

Ms. Umrigar closed by telling the story of how her descendants came to India hundreds of years ago. Parsis, they were being chased out of what is now Iran. To convince the king that his people should be allowed to settle in this new land, while not speaking a word of each other's language, Umrigar's ancestor used sugar in milk to demonstrate how his people would blend into the land, disturbing no one and adding some sweetness to their lives. Umrigar challenged us to all live our lives with the idea that we should add some sweetness in our lives. I exceed that challenge to you. 

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