Among the array of ignorant comments some Americans make about immigrants is one that anyone is lucky to live here. Setting aside this country’s terrible history (and very flawed present), such reductionist remarks ignore the significant costs of leaving one’s home country. Sindya Bhanoo’s debut story collection, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, confronts these tolls head-on, exploring the lives of immigrants and their families with poignancy and grace.
The collection opens with the O. Henry Prize-winning story “Malliga Homes,” about an elderly woman living in a retirement home in India, while her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter live in America. The widow is tangled in the loneliness of having her family so far away. Bhanoo plays with the tension between the woman as an individual and as one of a collective of residents in a way that highlights that familiar dynamic of how we can be lonely even when—perhaps especially when—we’re surrounded by other people:
“I am lucky to be here, my Kamala likes to remind me. It is only the second place of its kind in South India, and the units sold out quickly. Still, no amount of expensive stone or carefully worded praise from my daughter can change what Malliga Homes is: a place for those who have nowhere else to go.
We are of the upper middle class, here. We do not come from families who own hospitals or factories, or vast tracts of land. We work for those people—worked for those people. Those people belong to a different cut entirely, and will never move here, no matter how beautifully our gardeners maintain the bougainvillea vines and the oleander shrubs. Those people will stay in their posh city flats with their many servants, with their children nearby.”
This line between independence and loneliness is explored in many of the stories—how the price of the former is often the latter. Such is the case in “Buddymoon,” about a woman reckoning with the disconnect between herself and her adult daughters, one of whom is getting married. While it wasn’t her desire to divorce the girls’ father, it was her choice to be the one to move out, and the ramifications of that decision reverberate throughout the story.
Most of the stories straddle the present and past—an echo of the way the characters are straddling cultures—often opening with a clear tension between the two. Such is the case in the memorable “Amma,” which begins: “Before all of this, before they prostrated at her feet, before she wore large, round, dark red bottus with light red namams on her forehead, she was one of us. Before she became chief minister, before she became a star, she was our classmate at Sacred Heart Girls School in Church Park.” The story employs both first person plural and second to dive into memories from when the women were children and their humdrum lives as their classmate rises to fame. Such a narrative technique could backfire, but Bhanoo—whose writing proves the adage less is more—pulls it off.
There’s a quality to the way these stories unfold that’s easy to call “masterful.” Information is dispersed methodically, plots are well constructed with endings that are surprising yet inevitable. A single story, ”Buddymoon,” concludes with a dangling paragraph that would be more effective cut, but otherwise, the stories all end on the right note.
All the central characters struggle with some form of loss. The losses vary: a woman’s son was killed in a school shooting, while a teenage girl has lost the stability of her life after her father quits his job as a religious studies professor to travel around the country, essentially “selling” religion. And of course, immigration itself involves leaving things behind: loved ones and culture. Perhaps that’s why these pages are full of descriptions of food—more than offering a sensory quality to the writing, such descriptions show the characters holding onto their culture. It’s often in small things—like cooking or the mother who has lost her son begins trying to get him “points” from the nature center he loved visiting—that these characters try to reclaim power. In this way, the losses are often the impetus for characters to take control of whatever they can.
While the stories in this collection brim with heartache and loss, they don’t feel heavy. Yes, the moments of humor throughout help, but there’s also a buoyancy beneath the surface. Even when bad things happen to these characters, they don’t feel like victims. The reason is twofold: they’re complex and fully realized, but also there’s an element of agency. Typically, their choices are attempts to assert independence. Rather than pitying them for the regret they’re left with, it’s easy to relate to these characters’ drives and admire how they belong to themselves.
Each of these beautiful stories about dislocation and dissonance explores if the exchange is worth it—losing loved ones, culture, familiarity; and for what? There are no neat or simple answers to that question, just like there is no singular immigrant experience. Each is unique and complicated, which these eight stories show us, affirming humanity like good fiction does. If only those who make ignorant comments about immigrants would read Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, they’d see how complicated it is to emigrate, recognizing the losses that accompany the journey and the cost of leaving.
Seeking Fortune Elsewhere
By Sindya Bhanoo
Published March 8, 2022
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She shares her anxiety and wide-eyed optimism to encourage other writers in the newsletter Pub Cheerleaders, which you can find at: https://pubcheerleader.substack.com