By David Lynn, Editor
So I’m reading unsolicited submissions. Some fail to grab me at all. Others get off to a good start, only to flag, to wither. Ah well. Open another.
“It’s seven in the morning on a Thursday, and I’m already late for school when I walk into the dining room for breakfast and find Debi, my newborn sister, floating in the aquarium. My dead newborn sister. She must be dead—after all, humans can’t survive underwater—but the magnitude of this doesn’t register.”
That opening, to “A Family Matter” by Keya Mitra, surely stops me in my tracks. Beginnings are important—that’s Writing 101. You’ve got to grab a reader’s attention, keep him or her reading until fully engaged with a story. Good openings usually give off all kinds of signals about what kind of story lies ahead—how a reader should read, make sense of what it to come. But a dead baby floating in an aquarium? Is it going to be a horror story? An absurdist romp? A black comedy? What sense can be made?
Here’s what I’m thinking with my editor’s cap on: that creating a story able to live up to and support—justify—such an over-the-top beginning is going to be a hell of a challenge. But I do keep reading.
“Last week Ms. Monroe taught my eleventh-grade Spanish class the difference between ser and estar.” So begins the next paragraph. Huh? What does this have to do with a dead baby in an aquarium? Where’s the logic, the transition? What’s going on?
Without giving too much away I can assure you there is logic to it—though it doesn’t come clear for a few pages. But the story speeds on, pulling us along. What emerges is a fresh take on what has become, in recent years, a familiar situation—an Indian family adjusting to everyday life in America, the parents still feeling trapped between cultures, the children fully American in language, tastes, schooling. Yet they are also set apart by their skin tones, by their family.
If the everyday world reflected in “A Family Matter” is made up of its very ordinariness, with a dysfunctional Indian family paralleled by an equally askew American one, there is also a thread of profound disorder that runs through it, starting with that dead baby in the aquarium. The narrator’s father, we are told, is crazy. And the narrator worries that the craziness may be transmutable, which leads to brilliant sentences such as this: “What if Crazy is not confined to a single body but instead circulates through a family like an illness, settling in one person, then taking up residency in another, secure in the knowledge that constant movement keeps infections alive.” The action of the language, the imagery, the sense of an imagination playing with a disturbing, haunting idea, that is very fine indeed.
The cruelest moment for an editor is when, coming to the end of a story that has been so promising all along, the narrative suddenly veers into disaster, beyond revision, beyond saving. Many good writers paint themselves into corners. “And then he woke up,” is rarely a successful solution. This conundrum happens more often than you might think because, if beginnings are the most important part of a story, endings are by far the hardest. So I was relieved—gladdened—to find that Keya Mitra does not provide easy answers or a neat resolution to all the questions and dramas that have been raised by this story. The ending is sad and sweet, powerful and disturbing, light as a feather in its deftness, and deeply moving in its human wisdom. What a wonderful discovery.