Both books this week made me cognisant of the places and people we belong to – and how that sense of belonging can be as much about who and what we take as our own as it is about where and to whom we are born.
‘The Namesake’, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, published by 4th Estate, is a book about wanting to be something other than ourselves. Events can seem unconnected and inconsequential, yet they sit firmly as part of the stage that forms our lives.
The book opens in 1968 in Cambridge, a suburb of Boston city in the US. Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, a not-long-married couple recently moved from Calcutta, India, are just about to welcome a baby son. He arrives a little earlier than expected, leaving no time for Ashima’s grandmother to name the child as is their Bengali tradition. They cannot leave the hospital without registering the baby and they can’t register the baby without a chosen name. They decide on Gogol, after the Russian Nikolai Gogol, his father’s favourite author.
The grandmother’s letter never arrives due to illness, and Gogol remains his name. It comes to represent the fusion and confliction of identities that living in America brings to the boy. His mother Ashima describes being a foreigner as a lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. A previous life has been replaced by something more complicated.
The book has a slow, even, beautiful pace.
We journey with Gogol and his family from that time in 1968 through to the year 2000. It feels like we are walking hand in hand with them through the intimate details of their lives as events change and mould who they are and who they become.
Another book, ‘All This Happened, More or Less’ is a breathtaking collection of essays by Jayne A Quan, just published by Skein Press. The essays centre on the medically assisted transition as a person who identifies as both transmasculine and non-binary.
Jayne A Quan shares their experiences openly with us as ‘a particular person at a particular point in time’. They are Asian American and grew up in California. Their family suffered tremendous loss and grief at the death of their brother.
Quan’s decision to transition is such a personal one, I felt it was an absolute privilege to share this journey just a little through their words.
There is so much humility and humanity in this short collection.
I was struck by the kindness and love Quan showed to themselves while choosing to know their own truth. They talk about being queer as being 1 percent about their sexuality and 99 percent about their identity, community, friendships and ultimately choosing their own sense of belonging.
Truly we can never really understand anyone till we walk in their shoes. Both these books offer us a chance to do just that.
Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.