by Susan S. Lara
I got addicted to reading because of asthma. When I was a child, I was not allowed to play with the other kids in the neighborhood because a short run, a few jumps, and a few specks of dust triggered a shortness of breath, followed by that dreaded wheezing sound as air struggled through my narrowing airways.
I am also the youngest in the family. My parents had two sons, followed by two daughters, two years apart from one another. Twelve years after their second daughter was born, I came into my parents’ life like an afterthought. When you’re four years old, and the sibling chronologically closest to you is a sixteen-year-old, life can be tough.
So I stayed home and played with dolls while waiting for my father to come home from work to read to me. I would sit on his lap and listen to his voice giving life to book people, vaguely sensing the magic involved in weaving a story from drawings and the symbols above or below them that I was told were called words.
And then, like magic, I found out one day that I could decode those mysterious symbols. Suddenly I didn’t need a go-between between words and me. The discovery was intoxicating, and like most intoxicated people, I became undiscriminating. I walked around the house like the energizer bunny, reading everything I laid my eyes on—newspaper headlines, print ads, product labels. I didn’t know what most words meant and I didn’t care, as long as I could say them out loud. Reg. Phil. Pat. Off, Product of USA., Tel. no., halting only when the words had no vowels: Exp., Mfg., Ltd., tbsp., and quickly resolving the problem by spelling them out.
That sense of wonder never left me. I read first for the sheer pleasure of it, then learned to go beyond the purely affective level to figuring out how a literary piece works when it works well, and diagnosing what went wrong when the piece doesn’t work at all. Much later, I learned to read even the unsaid, the spaces between the lines, the pauses and silences. But I still love reading as a reader, thinking of it as “pure” reading, the kind I usually do when I am on vacation or staycation.
Yet lifelong habits die hard, and I often find myself pausing after a well-rendered scene to figure out how the author did it—trying to guess what choices he had, and how he arrived at his final decision that made the scene so achingly beautiful.
Last year, I reserved the short story collection of Ben Bautista, Stories from Another Time, for my Holy Week reading, and could not help feeling guilty for the sheer pleasure it was giving me.
Most of Bautista’s characters are either adults in the process of changing, or children or teenagers in the process of growing up. Most of them are floating or coasting along, ambivalent, unsure of the right road to take, of the proper decision to make. But whatever decision the character finally makes is always the right one, because even if it costs him something and gives him grief, he learns from it. In Bautista’s stories, a certain sadness is the price of wisdom.
My personal favorite in the collection is “The Baby in the Bottle,” the story of an office drudge, Mr. Libre, whose wife sinks into depression after a miscarriage. All she does is sit and stare at the bottle where “the stiff skinless body of a four-inch boy, now dead for five years, would bob up and down in the green alcohol.”
Mr. Libre’s job—sorting out receipts and recording them—is tedious and causes eye strain, which he tries to ease by closing his eyes, then forcing a smile “because although that didn’t ease the pain any it always held back the tears.” We are struck by the image, but we don’t recognize it as a foreshadowing until the end, when Mr. Libre goes home, and finds his wife exactly as he has found her before, contemplating the baby in the bottle. Except that this time, she doesn’t seem to recognize him. Because he finds it painful to watch her, he looks at the baby in the bottle, its flesh shredding and peeling off and bobbing up and down in its small cramped world. Libre shuts his eyes tightly, forces himself to smile, “because although he felt no pain in his eyes now, he wanted to make sure he could hold back the tears.”
Bautista’s endings resonate; they reverberate in my head even as I turn the page to start the next story; or even when I put the book down to respond to a text message, or heed the call of the waves. His endings give me a sense of closure that is satisfying and unsettling at the same time.
In December 2008, a dear friend came home from the U.S. and gifted me with a hard-bound copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. I could only scan it in the midst of holiday madness, but I knew right away it was going to be a good read, so I set it aside for my summer reading (yes, I believe in delayed gratification).
It was well worth the wait. I have always loved Lahiri’s prose—nothing fancy about it, no verbal somersaults, no attempt to sound “exotic” for a Western audience—just plain, evocative storytelling. Unaccustomed Earth—like Interpreter of Maladies—is not one of those books that a blurb-writer would call a page-turner, to be read in a rush to find out what happens next. It has to be read slowly, its rich details savored like dark chocolate.
The title story is one after my own heart. I have always been a sucker for father-daughter stories, and this, the story of Ruma, daughter of Bengali immigrants, is one of the best I’ve read that dwells on the theme. Ruma’s relationship with her father, although loving, is marked by a certain unease—her “unaccustomed earth” is not only America, but her relationship with her father. She navigates that alien territory during her father’s week-long visit in her place in Seattle, while her husband Adam is away on a business trip. During that week, their relationship evolves—like the backyard flower garden her father has started to tend in her backyard—from loving but uneasy to loving and comfortable. Far from being the dependent father she expected with trepidation, he turns out to be a helpful and undemanding companion to her and her son.
By the end of the visit, by the time her father packs up and says goodbye, she is ready to beg him to stay with them for good. But he has other plans, having fallen in love with another Bengali immigrant whom he met in one of the package tours he has taken after his wife died. The woman teaches in a Long Island university, is fiercely independent, and, like a poet, treats words like precious gems: “her words always measured, as if there were only a limited supply of things she was willing to say on any given day.” Ruma finds out about her only after her father has left—upon discovering a postcard he has meant to send her, which his grandson discovers and innocently “plants” in the garden. It makes her realize the real reason for his good spirits, the reason he doesn’t want to live with them.
Understandably, her first impulse is to shred the postcard; instead, she smooths it out, even takes the trouble to scrape away a bit of dirt that obscures part of the Zip code, puts a stamp on it, ready for mailing. In her supreme moment of epiphany, she embraces her father and at the same time, lets him go.
I took a deep breath after reading the title story and put down the book, surprised that I had not left my hotel room, and tried to recover from the heartache by gazing at the sea from my window.
This is what reading does for me: it gives me more lives than a cat has. Like the women in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, I find freedom in reading. It dissolves the four walls of my room and transports me to another place, another time, even to the mind, heart and soul of another being—human, god or goddess, animal, mythical, extra-terrestrial… It gives me what Lynn Sharon Schwartz calls the “thrill of mysterious connection.” How else could I have known, in high school, both the ecstasy and anguish that forbidden love could bring, if not for Flaubert, who not only created Madame Bovary but became her, so that I, too, could say “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”?
Susan S. Lara has recently been appointed director-in-residence of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop. Her short story “The Reprieve”, which won First Prize for the Short Story in English in the 1984 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, was cited by Isagani Cruz in his anthology “The Best Philippine Short Stories of the Twentieth Century” (Tahanan Books, 2000). Her book “Letting Go and Other Stories” won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1998. She served as the Henry Lee Irwin Chair for Creative Writing at the Ateneo de Manila University in 2010-2011.