Assembly – Natasha Brown

Assembly is the first novella I read for #NovellasInNovember, a powerful, scathing novella of race, identity, an indictment of the corporate world and a withering statement on the hypocrisy that surrounds the idea of diversity.

Our narrator is a young, black British woman working in a financial firm that involves giving the occasional lectures to younger talent across universities. Intelligent, ambitious and hardworking, she has steadily climbed the corporate ladder, earning her the money and the means to live a comfortable life. And yet a sense of disillusionment and inner conflict is palpable.

For instance, in her public talks with younger students she is ambivalent about championing to them the very career path that she has chosen

What compelled Rach to pursue this career? I knew why I did it. Banks – I understood that they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? Unlike my boyfriend, I didn’t have the prerequisite connections or money to venture into politics. The financial industry was the only viable route upwards. I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities; I felt I could hardly waste mine. Yet, it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent.

Meanwhile, our narrator is in a relationship with a white man, born of wealthy parents of a privileged background. As his latest ‘girlfriend’, our narrator is invited to a weekend party at the family estate, a prospect that she does not much savour.  She bitingly points out how her partner has had it easy in life, unaware of the sacrifices involved in ascending the social ladder and being accepted.

There is a basic physicality to the family’s wealth. The house, these grounds, the staff, art – all things they can touch, inhabit, live on. And the family genealogy; all the documents, photographs. Books! A curated history. I press my palm against the rough bark of a tree trunk and look up at its branches. Cool and leafy, the air here tastes like possibility. Imagine growing up amongst this. The son, of course, insists the best things in life are free. All this was, is, free to him. The school-children here don’t need artificial inspiration from people like me. They take chances, pursue dreams, risk climbing out to the highest, furthest limb. They reach out – knowing the ground beneath is soil, soft grass and dandelions.

Interwoven with these storylines is a medical diagnosis that she can’t ignore, a tough decision looming on the horizon, the implications of which she keeps hidden from her partner.

Through these various vantage points, Assembly explores the themes of race and class, the notions of success and the desire to take control of your own life and shape up your own narrative.

Our narrator, particularly, makes stinging remarks when exposing the hypocrisies of so-called liberals, who harp about diversity to project themselves as ‘inclusive’ individuals, when the hard truth is just the very opposite. For instance, her latest promotion at the firm seems to be a result of not how good she is at her job, but rather more of a strategy to enhance the company’s liberal image. That same attitude is displayed by her boyfriend’s parents. They are courteous and polite to her, she is invited to be a part of family meals, but secretly the parents don’t take her seriously as a woman their son is likely to marry.

Assembly is also about identity and how people of colour are never really accepted into the fabric of society when they have worked just as diligently and paid their taxes just as honestly as their white compatriots. Success is defined by not standing out but blending into the background, invisible and unseen.

The other day, a man called me a fucking n-r. he leaned right into my face and spat out those words. Then, laughing, he just walked away.

You don’t owe anything.

I pay my taxes, each year. Any money that was spent on me: education, healthcare, what – roads? I’ve paid it all back. And then some. Everything now is profit. I am what we’ve always been to the empire: pure, fucking profit. A natural resource to exploit and exploit, denigrate, and exploit. I don’t owe that boy. Or that man. Or those protestors, or the empire, the motherland, anything at all. I don’t owe it my next forty years. I don’t owe it my next fucking minute. What else id left to take? This is it, end of the line.

I am done.

The book has an interesting narrative structure – at times it feels like we are inside the narrator’s mind as she muses on the various facets of her life (her hard-earned path to the summit of her career, her shaky relationship and so on); at other times the story has an essayistic feel with bit-sized, acid-fuelled commentaries on Britain’s colonial past and its terrible legacy of slavery. Then there is one section barely running into two pages, which alternatively lists various attributes associated with black and white.

Natasha Brown’s prose is cool and clipped, stripped off any embellishments, hard and glinting like a diamond. Armed with a new-found clarity on how she wants to chart out her own fate and not kowtow to accepted norms, the novella quickly hurtles towards a powerful climax.


An I-Novel – Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Back in 2017, I was blown away by A True Novel, Minae Mizumura’s 800 page epic, a book that found a place on my ‘Best of’ list that year. And now, this year, it’s An I-Novel which has floored me, another fabulous book which is certainly a strong contender for my Best of 2021 list.

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s.

Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment.

Her relationship with a man having come to an end, and at crossroads in her academic career, Minae stares at an uncertain future. She has completed all the coursework required for her graduate term and all that is required of her is to take the orals. But she postpones this several times on the pretext that her mentor is ill. Now she has reached a crucial stage where any further delay will culminate in the withdrawal of academic support from the university.

The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country. She has vague plans of writing her dissertation while settled in Japan, but before she embarks on that project, Minae has ambitions of writing her first novel, and that too in Japanese. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

“You know, the fear builds up, day after day, month after month, year after year. It just becomes more and more insurmountable.”

Minae is plagued with guilt and foreboding – If she goes back to Japan, her elder sister Nanae will be compelled to fend for herself, all alone in America. On this front, she can’t shake-off the painful ghost of Nanae’s attempted suicide years ago when a romantic attachment goes awry. It’s an incident that only underlines how unstable Nanae can be. Moreover, with their family now torn apart (the father is in a care home, and the mother has left him for a younger man in Singapore), Minae and Nanae rely on each other for emotional support, having become quite close despite their varied personalities.

As Minae and Nanae regularly converse over the phone about the latest happenings in their respective lives, Minae fails to muster the courage to frankly confess to her sister the news of her impending departure for Japan. Meanwhile, as the heavy snowfall amplifies the silence and heightens her solitude, Minae saunters on a trip down memory lane – her nostalgia for the Japan of yore, the awareness of being unmoored in America and never quite feeling at home in her adopted country.

All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that worlds like “yearning” or “nostalgia” could not convey. I felt I was someplace I didn’t belong, where I should not be. Japan steadily grew to near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday.

Like the snow falling steadily outside her apartment window, we are gradually given a glimpse into Minae’s interior life, as she ponders over her family, particularly, her relationship with her sister, her thoughts on life in the US, which in many ways both embraces and perplexes her, and never quite assimilating into its society despite all the privileges she has enjoyed.

Slowly but surely, the sisters’ backstory is fleshed out. When both Nanae and Minae are young girls, their parents jump at the opportunity to begin a new chapter in America. Those were the years when the war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Japanese and so all things American held a dazzling allure. Given the father’s respectable position in the company which posts him to the West, the Mizumuras live in a comfortable home and are reasonably well off. The parents quickly adapt to the country – the father develops a taste for rich American food and shuns the simplicity of Japanese cooked meals, while the mother revels in a slew of luxuries, immersing herself in fashion, art and culture and transforms from a housewife to an independent working woman. The Mizumuras have hazy plans of returning to Japan eventually but never take any decisive step towards that goal.

But while the parents have no qualms about life in America, both Nanae and Minae struggle in their own way. As far as personalities go, Nanae and Minae could not have been more different. Being an elder child, Nanae is the cynosure of her mother’s eye, and the latter pins a lot of hope on her future, sort of relegating Minae to the sidelines. Nanae is admitted to a conservatory for expensive piano lessons, and when she later drops out to attend art school, her parents indulge that whim too.

Of the two, Nanae is more outspoken and prone to throwing tantrums, always sharing a difficult relationship with her mother, the one person she wants to please and defy at the same time. She engages in relationships with a string of men which her mother puts up with in the eternal hope that Nanae will eventually settle down with a respectable Japanese man. Furthermore, in stark contrast to Minae, Nanae takes the initiative to blend in with the crowd, immediately learn English and adopt a plethora of American manners however outlandish they may seem at times. 

On the other hand, Minae is left to fend for herself for the most part.  Even though she displays an aptitude to write and speak English based on her progress in high school, she shows least inclination to do so simply because her inner self rejects the idea of abandoning her Japanese heritage and language and letting English become a dominant force in her life.

Eventually, I became so consumed by this imagined past that my own parents struck me as frivolously modern. Yet I myself never suspected how obsolete I was becoming; I simply thought I was being Japanese.

An I-Novel, then, throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere. No place you can truly call home.

Throughout her formative years Minae spends her time alone, cooped up in the house, getting completely immersed in Japanese novels. These novels conjure up images of a Japan of the olden days, a Japan that has vanished, its remnants barely visible. The modern Japan, fed on a diet of capitalism and commercialism, is not the Japan of Minae’s imagination but her resolve to go back to her country does not diminish although she laments the loss of many of her country’s traditions.

The rebel in her questions the place of English as the most dominant language in the world. Post the war, Japan is clearly attracted by Western influences – not only in food and culture, but also in its bigger ideals of freedom and independence. But these influences don’t remain one-sided. Eventually many facets of the Japanese culture find a way into the fabric of American society. And yet, when it comes to communication and expression, English makes rapid strides to become the most widely spoken language in the world, while the Japanese language is restricted only to the archipelago or spoken by the Japanese expatriates. Minae expresses her desire to pen her first novel in Japanese, and is not daunted by the fact that she has barely spoken or written the language during her long sojourn in the US.

In the final analysis, did not literature arise out of the deep desire to do something wondrous with a language? In my case, it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew. As I spent ungodly amounts of time assembling futile strings of words in languages that remained foreign to me, this desire had grown inexorably, year by year, until my craving to write in Japanese now seemed intense enough to move mountains.

Mizumura also ponders over the question of race in America, the dominance and limited worldview of the whites, and the inability of many Americans to distinguish between various people of the South Asian and Eastern countries. For Minae, who prides herself on being Japanese, it is a shock for her to discover that in the States, she is viewed through the wider prism of being “Asian”, how her Japanese identity is obliterated.

Ultimately, the novel explores the idea of identity – is Minae American or Japanese? Certainly, while her head is in the US, her heart is definitely in Japan. Minae acknowledges the community spirit of America, how her family is warmly welcomed in the town they settle in when they were very new in America, but she admits it’s not sufficient enough for her to settle there permanently.

Another aspect the novel dwells on is how Japanese customs widely differ from those in the States. For instance, in Japan, the education for women was largely relegated to grooming them as “women of accomplishment” to be eventually married to respectable Japanese men. For Japanese families residing abroad, the sons were sent to Japan for education, the daughters had the freedom to pursue an education in the US with the aim of ultimately settling into traditional Japanese families. Having grown up in that atmosphere, Nanae and Minae, pursuing art and French literature respectively, are forced to confront the fact that they will have to employ the education they received not to marry but to support themselves financially, something that becomes painfully clear to them when their family breaks apart. In this vein, other themes expanded upon are the concept of family and how its disintegration can leave an individual engulfed in alienation and loneliness.

The loneliness of such women built up gradually during the day, growing discernably as evening came on and finally exploding in the hush of night, making those lucky enough to have a confidant reach for the telephone. In the middle of the night, the wires across America were filled with the voices of women whose struggle with loneliness had proven too much to bear quietly alone.

Over and over, Nanae and I comforted each other with the same words.

“It’s so hard.”

“It really is.”

“But it’s hard for Americans too, I think.”

Yet were American women really as lonely as we were?

An I-Novel, then, is a deeply absorbing book with its stunning articulation of complex, relevant themes. Having grown and lived in Mumbai all my life, I haven’t experienced firsthand the feeling of being uprooted in a foreign land. But Mizumura has done such a commendable job of conveying the essence of that sentiment that you can actually empathize with the uncertainty and slew of emotions that flood Minae’s mind.  The book is also dotted with a myriad of atmospheric black & white photographs (also a notable feature in A True Novel) that enhances the overall reading experience.

For all her exuberant, outgoing nature and her willingness to integrate herself into the ways of America, is Nanae the one who is really lost? Will Minae finally summon the courage to let Nanae know of her decision to go back to Japan and how will she respond?

Shimmering with a rich kaleidoscope of ideas, An I-Novel certainly is another winner from Minae Mizumura.

American settlers had left the fences of the Old World in search of freedom, making it imperative for them to accept loneliness as a basic condition of life. Perhaps more than an ideology, it was a faith. And what could fortify a human being against life’s adversities better than faith?

Passing – Nella Larsen

Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries.

The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. However, while Irene passes over only occasionally in certain situations, Clare has completely passed over to the other side for good.

Irene has a well-set life. Married to a qualified black doctor with whom she has two sons, Irene is part of an upper class black social circle, heavily involved in organizing charity events. She identifies herself as black and is satisfied and content with the way things are at home barring one fear – her husband’s longing to relocate to South America so that he can work with the poor there.

When the book opens, Irene has received a letter from Clare who expresses a desire to meet. The letter unsettles Irene who is reluctant to resume ties with Clare who she thinks is used to having her way. Clare’s letter sends Irene back to the past to Chicago, as she reflects on certain events that took place then.

Exhausted by the blistering heat, Irene seeks refuge in an upscale rooftop café where for the sake of convenience, she chooses to pass over as white (since blacks are not permitted). There she bumps into Clare Kendry and is struck by her beauty, unable to recognize her at first. When they get talking, Irene learns of Clare’s marriage to a white man, John Bellew, and her subsequent severing of ties with the black community so that she can capitalize on the opportunities otherwise denied to the blacks. In fact, Clare “wondered why more coloured girls…never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve.”

Clare’s husband has no idea that she is white and Irene is keenly aware of how dangerous a game Clare is playing, there is a sense that she is living on the edge.

“What about background? Family, I mean. Surely you can’t just drop down on people from nowhere and expect them to receive you with open arms, can you?”

“Almost,” Clare asserted. “You’d be surprised, Irene, how much easier that is with white people than with us. Maybe because there are so many more of them, or maybe because they are secure and so don’t have to bother. I’ve never quite decided.”

Irene perceives Clare’s re-entry into her life as a threat and is reluctant to have anything more to do with her. But Clare somehow finds a way to insinuate herself into Irene’s well-organised life and this ultimately has consequences.

The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.

Interestingly, Irene belongs to the upper class black community and in terms of lifestyle there is nothing much to differentiate hers from that of well-to-do whites. Other than colour that is. It is this racial fluidity that is one of the core themes of the novel further highlighting the absurdity of race and colour distinctions.

But this is also very much a novel that focuses on the inner drama of the two women. Clare is stunningly beautiful and is attuned to getting what she wants. And yet, she finds herself unable to really belong to either side. She feels out of place with the whites, and her decision to identify with them puts her at odds with her black people. Clare’s subsequent wish to reconnect with her community can possibly be construed as a form of a defiance against her husband’s rampant racism – a decision which has all the makings of playing with fire.

Irene has her own set of insecurities as well. She has worked hard to set up her home and lead a good life. Major changes and disruptions are not something she has an appetite for. And yet, her husband’s increased longing to move to Brazil is a constant source of anxiety and alarm.

Yet all the while, in spite of her searchings and feeling of frustration, she was aware that, to her, security was the most important and desired thing in life. Not for any of the others, or for all of them, would she exchange it. She wanted only to be tranquil. Only, unmolested, to be allowed to direct for their own best good the lives of her sons and her husband.

The friendship between Irene and Clare is an uneasy one – atleast on Irene’s side. The fact that they belong to the same race often deters Irene from criticizing Clare’s actions vocally, even if she is sorely tempted to do so.

That instinctive loyalty to a race. Why couldn’t she get free of it? Why should it include Clare? Clare, who’d shown little enough consideration for her…What she felt was not so much resentment as dull despair because she could not change herself in this respect, could not separate individuals from the race, herself from Clare Kendry.

At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.