Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Semi-autobiographical ‘Family Life’ wins the Folio Prize for Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma’s second novel, FAMILY LIFE, has won the Folio Prize which is given to a work of fiction written in English and published in Britain and carries an award of approximately $60,000.

William Fiennes, who chaired the committee of judges called it a “lucid, compassionate, quietly funny account of one family’s life across continents and cultures.”

Sharma has said that the book is semi-autobiographical, but is not a memoir. “For me, a memoir is nonfiction and nonfiction has to be absolutely true.” However, he added, “Almost everything in the novel is true.” (“A Conversation Between Akhil Sharma and Mohsin Hamid,”
contained in the back material of the book.) That “almost everything” includes the fact that the father in the book is an alcoholic; Sharma’s father was not. Rather, he suffered from severe depression. (Gaby Wood, The Telegraph, 4/4/15)

The book is dedicated to his wife as well as “my poor brother Anup Sharma, and my brave and faithful parents, Pritam and Jai Narayan Sharma.” The phrase “my poor brother” is more important than I realized when I began reading.

“For me, a memoir is nonfiction and nonfiction has to be absolutely true... Almost everything in the novel is true.”

FAMILY LIFE tells the story of an Indian family who immigrated to the U.S. when the narrator was eight and his brother a few years older. The father is described as having a “glum nature” and is so distant that “I used to think that my father had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose.” The narrator describes his parents: “While my mother was interested in status, being better educated than others or being considered more proper, my father was just interested in being rich….he cared less about convincing people of his merits and more about just owning things.”

The father longs to immigrate to the West. His wife agrees but only because she believes there will be better opportunities for her two boys there. The family moves into a tiny apartment in a poor neighborhood in Queens and the father finds work as a clerk with a government agency.

The older son, Birju, is the family’s golden boy. First in his class, he adapts to his new circumstances quickly and is accepted to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science and Math. His parents envision a future for him that includes medical school, wealth, and prestige. All their dreams are wiped away in an instant when Birju dives into a swimming pool, hits his head, loses consciousness and remains underwater for too long. He suffers a severe brain injury and, doctors say, will never be able to talk or walk again. He is blind, has seizures, and will have a feeding tube for the rest of his life.  The family decides to bring him home for the constant care he must have.

The book traces the effect of this horrendous event on each member of the family in the terrible years that follow. As Sonali Deraniyagala wrote in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (4/3/14):

‘Family Life’ is devastating as it reveals how love becomes warped and jagged and even seemingly vanishes in the midst of huge grief. But it also gives us beautiful, heart-stopping scenes where love in the Mishra family finds air and ease.

…But where ‘Family Life’ really blazes is in its handling of Mrs. Mishra’s grief. Sharma is compassionate but unflinching as he tells of this mother’s persistent and desperate efforts to cope over the years.

Again, William Fiennes, chair of the judges’ committee: “Family Life is a masterful novel of distilled complexity: about catastrophe and survival; attachment and independence; the tension between selfishness and responsibility. We loved its deceptive simplicity and rare warmth. More than a decade in the writing, this is a work of art that expands with each re-reading and a novel that will endure.”

Sharma himself has described the book:

To me the novel is about a child in a claustrophobic family turning into a self – and about the grown-up going back and trying to figure out what happened. This, as you know, is a traditional thing for a modernist novel to do. I would compare Family Life to The Way of All Flesh, for example, or to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was inspired by The Way of All Flesh. But to me it is also the story of my generation of Indian Americans. My sense is that this is something new: a rigorous modernist novel of the childhood self that deals specifically with the Indian immigrant experience. (“A Conversation Between Akhil Sharma and Mohsin Hamid,”)

Photo by Andrew Crowley
Akhil Sharma earned a B.A. in public policy at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. While at Princeton, he also studied under Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster, John McPhee, Tony Kushner, Russell Banks, and Toni Morrison. He won a fellowship to the writing program at Stanford but left there for Harvard Law School and eventually became an investment banker.

Sharma’s first novel, AN OBEDIENT FATHER, won both the 2001 PEN/Hemingway Award and Whiting Writers’ Award. FAMILY LIFE was named one of the 2014 Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Quarterly, Fiction, Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Award Winners anthology. He is an assistant professor in the Rutgers-Newark MFA program.

Sharma also wrote an article for Elle Magazine entitled “I Resent My Wife’s Earning Potential” (5/5/14).  In it, he tells how, shortly after their marriage, he went to his wife’s office and asked her if he could quit his very, very lucrative job as an investment banker to write this novel. He told her that it would probably take him about three years. She agreed. Publication of the book occurred approximately thirteen years after that conversation. 

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