In Felicelli’s (Sparks Off You, 2012, etc.) short story collection, Tamil-Americans struggle to find themselves in a world that persistently marginalizes them.
In the title tale, an unnamed, San Franciscan narrator returns to Chennai, his birthplace, to research the legend of the lost continent of Kumari Kandam. It’s a decision that impresses neither his father in the States nor his girlfriend Komakal’s parents in Tamil Nadu. Like the narrator, other characters in these poignant stories deal with questions of identity. Young Hagar of “Everywhere, Signs,” is attending a Pittsburgh school, where, soon after the 9/11 attacks, her fellow students brand her a terrorist—simply because she’s a person of color. In “Elephants in the Pink City,” Kai Sarma’s traditional parents won’t let him date whom he wishes after he comes out as gay; and Susannah, an Indian, is shunned by white and Tamil Brahmin classmates in “The Logic of Someday.” Felicelli typically steeps her tales in metaphors, resulting in audacious approaches to such issues as racism and sexism. For example, in the opening story, “Deception,” Sita is in an arranged marriage to a Bengal tiger. When the big cat dies from poisoning, Sita becomes a murder suspect; local villagers ignore the fact that her husband, a literal beast, had been abusing her. Many other stories take dark turns, including deaths of loved ones and fractured relationships. The brightness of Felicelli’s prose, however, provides a beautiful contrast: “She kept her good eye closed against the fluorescent hospital lights,” she writes in “Snow,” “trying to forget the humiliating sound of the cocktail glass smashing, the shower of glass splinters.” Although each of the 13 stories here can stand on its own, characters do recur in multiple tales. Kai and his sister, Hema, for instance, both appear in “Elephants in the Pink City” and the later “Hema and Kathy,” and Susannah crops up in “Snow” and “The Art of Losing,” which centers on her former boyfriend’s mother, Maisie.
Somber but undeniably affecting and profound tales.