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Specific and Universal: As Literature Should Be

Specific and Universal: As Literature Should Be

I have found that the most memorable literature is both specific and universal, appealing simultaneously to the solitary reader and to larger groups. Intimate, but painted in broad enough strokes to cross age groups, genders, nationalities. The opening chapter of Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights begins in this vein, with a simple statement on what it means to return:

“Return is never the experience you hope for. After all those lost years in America I wanted to walk into the streets and know them, but there is a new tightness to the city, an exuberance that is difficult to understand.”

Not only can this sentence speak to travelers as a whole, it also brings me to the words of my father. It captures exactly why, after thirty years in America, he never feels comfortable when visiting his former homeland. Specific and universal.

Perhaps this lulled me into a false sense of security. I expected to settle into the more familiar themes of South Asian literature. This was a book about homecoming, being caught between worlds, parental expectations. Right?

Small Days and Nights is not a comforting book. Our central character, Grace Marisola, leaves behind a faltering marriage in the United States to mourn her mother in India. She inherits not only a home but a long-lost sister, and this challenges her self-perception and calls into question the many roles she plays in life. Doshi narrows our distance from Grace with a potent voice, present tense, crisp prose, and a limited cast of characters. Grace grapples with a number of internal conflicts, such as loneliness, aging, family relationships, lust, and womanhood. She jumps from one to the next without pause, and the result is a tightly constructed narrative in which her conflicts become our own. She is not likable, but understandable, almost painfully so. I read this book in a constant state of argument, recognizing a kinship with Grace while repudiating many of her choices.

Doshi further forsakes our comfort by bringing up the role of disability in literature. Lucia, Grace’s sister, has Down Syndrome and has spent her life in a residential facility. Small Days and Nights challenges the maudlin perception of disability in popular media, sparing no detail in Grace’s struggles to care for her sister. The question of Lucia’s very personhood is brought up, directly and indirectly. Her voice is subdued not only by the people around her, but by the society she lives in. Her care brings up ethical questions. What should the role of family be? What of discipline and punishment? Is she a child or an adult? At one point, Grace asks to Lucia’s residential home teacher: “Do you think she feels happiness like you and I do?” 

The fact that some of these questions are even asked can make you squirm. But they’re important questions, relevant, true to the characters themselves. We as readers don’t feel anything when we’re comfortable. In this case, Lucia’s teacher gives an answer: “we can’t even know what we think ourselves, so how can we know about others?”

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And of course, this novel takes place against the backdrop of modern India. Lush jungles, fresh fruits, fishing villages, crowded smoggy cities. Burning dogflesh, leering eyes, wailing families, the push and pull of new and old. Doshi does not spare us the details. But it speaks to the strength of the story itself that this setting does not overwhelm the novel and its characters. Rather, the story of Grace and Lucia could have taken place anywhere. Nowhere have the questions surrounding their lives been fully answered anyway.

In fact, I found that Small Days and Nights speaks to those conflicts relatable to young, modern women of any country. The question of motherhood, of relating to one’s parents as an adult, of assuming responsibility, and of seizing personal freedom when no one gives it out. At the same time, it spoke to me as me. An Indian-American woman, a genetic counselor with her personal and professional experiences surrounding disability, and a post-college woman answering that constant question: what next? Specific and universal, as literature should be.

Small Days and Nights
By Tishani Doshi
Published Apr 18, 2019

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