Sisters Take Separate Paths In 'Atlas Of Unknowns'

Two sisters raised in Kerala, India, must go on separate journeys when one wins a scholarship to an American university while the other sets out to become an entrepreneur at home in Kerala. Host Scott Simon talks with author Tania James about her first novel, Atlas of Unknowns.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Linno and Anju are two sisters in Kerala, India who lose their mother in the worst, most mysterious and saddest way. They're raised by Melvin, their father, who's a skeptical Christian. Linno and Anju are close, but Linno's right hand is crippled by a terrible burn. She excels at art but not at school, drops out to help out at home, works as a seamstress, but continues to draw and paint.

Anju is considered the tall, lively, bright one, and she wins a scholarship to an American school, but as the sisters know, only by passing off her sister's sketches as her own. The sisters, growing up apart and together in India and America, is at the center of Tania James's first novel, "Atlas of Unknowns." Tania James joins us from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. TANIA JAMES (Author): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Now, you were one of three sisters, I gather.

Ms. JAMES: Yeah. I have an older sister and a younger sister. And certainly I think, you know, the kind of depth and humor and intensity of our relationship bears resemblance to the relationship between Linno and Anju. But I kind of think that, you know, when you have three sisters verses two sisters is a different dynamic. You know, when two get into a fight the third one will kind of crack a joke or diffuse the tension.

But between Linno and Anju there's a kind of silence, especially about painful subjects that they can't really talk about. And that's the kind of tension that's running through the book.

SIMON: You and was it your older sister used to be a dance duo?

Ms. JAMES: Yes. We were a tap duo from ages seven and nine until an age that I don't want to really disclose, 'cause it's embarrassing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: This is you growing up in Louisville, Kentucky?

Ms. JAMES: Yes. It's not Google-able, so - just so you know.

SIMON: Oh, all right. But it does raise the question, with that last name, James, you at least visibly are an Indian-American…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JAMES: Yes. Inside and out, yeah.

SIMON: This whole theme of growing up between to continents and two cultures, is that something you lived with in your family?

Ms. JAMES: Well, the experience that Anju has is certainly very different from my own because my parents were born in Kerla and I was born here.

SIMON: You were born in Chicago…

Ms. JAMES: Yes, I was born in Chicago. So the kinds of cultural dissonances she experiences are kind of outside my own experience, and I think I sort of imagined outside of myself for that.

SIMON: I want to get you to read a section from the book where Anju is on an airplane and she's coming to America.

Ms. JAMES: Okay. For years Anju has made a habit of mentally penning lines to her autobiography. It is almost always the same line, a variation on the epiphanic flashes found in biographies she has read; most recently, those of Franklin Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi, and an unauthorized tome on Oprah Winfrey. In each, the line always ends with - I found myself at a crossroads. And now, sitting in window seat 29A, selected for its proximity to one of four emergency exits, she thinks, In the airplane I found myself at a crossroads. At the moment there is no crossroads, only a gray runway leading in a singular direction that her tiny window will not allow her to see. But recalling the line gives Anju a modicum of control, a sense of promise: a crossroads does not end in a crash.

SIMON: Some of my favorite sections are when she comes to America and a very worldly Indian family, the Salankis(ph), take her - who are from Bombay - take her in. And the father of the family, patriarch of the family, if you please, is a doctor. And Sonia, the mother, is a star on a show that - it's a lot like "The View."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JAMES: I guess it is. I guess four women, four mugs, a lot of chitchat.

SIMON: Yeah, exactly. Now, help us understand the Salankis. Are they Westernized because they're in America or do they come to America because they want to be something else?

Ms. JAMES: Well, I think they come to America for - at least it goes into the reasons why Mrs. Salanki comes into America. Actually, she comes from pretty humble origins and, you know, really believes that she has some purpose to play in the world. And like Anju, she believes that America is going to be the sort of catalyst or some kind of vehicle for her to jumpstart her life, whereas, you know, remaining behind would mean a life of stagnation. At least those are the assumptions that they share.

SIMON: In America, Anju can't live with her own deception and she eventually runs away, winds up in a Queens beauty salon as a - do we say a bikini wax performance artist?

Ms. JAMES: Well, she…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JAMES: Performance. Well, she diversifies her abilities. She does all kinds of waxing. But she kind of gets the - yeah, she - her first experiences are in the realm of bikini waxing.

SIMON: The good news is back in Kerala, Linno really comes into her own.

Ms. JAMES: Yes. You know, going back to Anju's idea of - her initial idea is that, you know, life in Kerala just stands still. And I think Linno initially - she doesn't really have any, any real attraction to America. At some point she thinks that the only real reason she wants to leave is so as not to be left behind.

But as it happens, she is the one actually who undergoes the greatest transformation, who sort of comes into her own and is able to take some agency in her life through her creative talent.

SIMON: How did you begin writing?

Ms. JAMES: I was always sort of writing. We had this thing at our school called "Young Authors." And you had to build your own book, you had to write it, you had to illustrate it, you had to build the actual binding of it. And you know, of course my - my books were always so hideous. Because my parents really didn't know how to help me with that and there were some parents who really kind of made some amazing creations. But I thought, you know, if I can't make it look good from the outside, I'll make it look good from the inside. And that was the Olympics for me. You know, one year I lost to a children's book about a frog and I was so devastated. But…

SIMON: What was your book about that year, do you recall?

Ms. JAMES: I think it was about some kind of boarding school where the children were all droids. I was really into science fiction. I was really into kind of the shock, the shock value.

SIMON: Does every family have a novel?

Ms. JAMES: Hmm - that - Hmm. I don' think so. I - maybe I'm speaking from my own family's perspective. But I don't think my family is that interesting enough to hold the - hold a reader's interest for that many pages. But I don't know.

SIMON: Excuse me. Tapped dancing daughters, Indian family (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JAMES: Okay. I guess the idea is that what seems totally normal to you is quite exotic to a stranger - to someone else. I guess it's not the sort of novel that I would ever want anyone to read.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Alright. Ms. James, awfully nice talking to you.

Ms. JAMES: Wonderful talking to you, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Tania James, speaking from New York. Her new novel, her first, "Atlas of Unknowns."

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