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When Concealed History Disconnects A Family

Under British rule starting in the late 19th century, many thousands crossed the sea to Kenya from India. This history is central to Amherst, Massachusetts, writer Jennifer Acker's novel, "The Limits of the World."

Acker is editor of the Amherst College literary journal "The Common," and she teaches writing. This is her first novel, in which we meet Sunil, 30, and his immigrant parents living in the United States.

Jennifer Acker: "The Limits of the World" is an immigration story. It's a mother-son story, and it's a love story. It takes place in the year 2000, and it is over the span of about six months in which Sunil discovers something that he didn't know for all of his 30 years, which is that he actually has a brother — a biological brother — but born in Kenya, and raised in Kenya.

Jill Kaufman, NEPR: How did you develop the story — and how much of this might be autobiographical?

My first experience in Kenya was in 1995. I went there and spent some time living with an African family. It was during that time that I saw there was an Indian community living in East Africa, which was a huge surprise to me.

Then about five or six years later, I ended up meeting a man who was born in the U.S. but who is Indian, but whose parents were from Nairobi. So I married into this East African-Indian family. 

And so certainly, the idea that a family would move to a different continent almost every generation was the inspiration for this story.

This piece of history — migration under British Rule and then beyond — happened to several generations of the family in your book. Can you talk about the tension between Urmila and Sunil, mother and son? He is at Harvard, an all-but-dissertation philosophy major. She is a mother in Columbus, Ohio, who runs a store. Her husband is a doctor. What's going on?

Well, Sunil was raised as an only child in Columbus, Ohio, with these parents who are immigrants, but who are Indian, but from Nairobi. So there is already a kind of disconnect in the identification.

Urmila is always feeling left behind and resentful, and trying to make something of herself, sort of grateful for the opportunities that she has in the U.S. — which she knows she wouldn't have if she were in a more patriarchal place growing up with her family in Nairobi. But she's isolated, and can't understand why she doesn't get all the things that she wants.

You don't write her very sympathetically, at least in the beginning. Premchand, her husband, calls her "darling" often, and yet on the surface it appears not a very loving marriage, though a committed one, and certainly one that's been through quite a lot, given that we learn early on in the story they have a son who they left in Kenya after he was born. You give this away on the book flap — this is not a spoiler alert.

Exactly. That's where the story takes off — where Sunil learns this, and it feels like such a huge betrayal for him.

He is writing his dissertation on the origins of morality, and the idea that his parents would keep this information from him is devastating. And the revelation of this information convenes a family reunion of sorts, and everyone goes to Nairobi and digs around family history, and tries to understand each other.

If there are themes, one of them could be "disconnect." Another could be "acceptance" — of the situations people find themselves in.

That's particularly crucial in families. And so we have this family that is disconnected by circumstance and by culture, but also by personality. And, you know, that all of these people are so different.

One of the things that Sunil really balks at is this idea that his mother doesn't apologize for anything, and that's just sort of unthinkable to him — that there can't be acceptance if there is no willingness to speak forgiveness.

Keep up here with the NEPR Summer Fiction Series.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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