BY BHARTI KIRCHNER
Special to the Examiner
Samina Ali’s debut novel, “Madras on Rainy Days,” has created quite a buzz.
Described by critics as “lyrical,” “compelling,” and “deeply feminist,” it is the story of a Muslim woman’s struggle in the modern world. Layla, raised in India and the United States, returns to India to marry a stranger in a match arranged by her family. Losing the freedom she is accustomed to, the young bride navigates through much superstition, soon meeting a crisis that shatters her heart.
The author, who also inhabits the cultures of India and the United States, openly speaks of the novel as being autobiographical. At a young age, she had similarly submitted to a stifling arranged marriage. She soon discovered incompatibility in her relationship with her husband, but tried to make adjustments. When the marriage ended, she was ostracized by her kin and community. She eventually returned to America.
These days Ali publicly asserts her opinion on women’s rights, especially in the context of Islam. She would like to see Muslin women, especially those in the United States, interpret Islam independently and claim their powers, rather than accept views that are passed on to them.
In discussing the theme of the novel, Ali points out that the family members don’t connect to each other well. They live a rather restricted, loveless life, a reflection of the outside world perhaps. “My book is ultimately about bonding and love,” she says. “We all need to find a common connection. We must become bigger than that which holds us back.”
Ali has certainly risen above the limits placed by her circumstances. Earlier in her studies, she had dropped out of business school, abandoning its promise of a lucrative career, to study writing, a move her parents didn’t consider wise.
Because so much personal story has gone into it, writing the novel has been a difficult process, taking Ali 10 years to complete it. “This is how I write,” she says. “I finish a draft, throw it away, and rewrite.”
Her devotion to her chosen profession shows in the luminous prose and fine crafting. Here is how the book begins: “Suffering in a room not my own. The door locked. The wooden shutters pulled closed and bolted. No breeze out there, nothing to rustle the leaves of the mango or coconut trees. Only stillness.”
Ali went through innumerable drafts, changed from first person to third person, and shifted from memoir to fiction. She still found it difficult to complete. It was when she finally forgave her ex-husband that the story became truer and sprung to life.
At one point during the multi-phase editing process, her editor suggested small changes to a paragraph. When Ali didn’t get back to her in a week, the editor called and said, “You’ve rewritten that part, haven’t you?”
Ali admitted she did.
The title for the novel has a history of its own. The story is mostly set in Hyderabad, with the exception of a section that takes place in Madras. Ali reminisces that she’d written a scene for a class assignment long ago and given it the title of “Madras on Rainy Days.” Much to her surprise, the teacher saw the beginning of a novel, told her not to listen to her peers’ criticisms but to keep writing. Ali followed the teacher’s advice. Eventually when she completed the novel and sent it out, her publisher liked both the story and the title.
With a successful novel in the market and a nonfiction book in the making, Ali is well able to give advice to new writers.
“Follow your inner voice. Don’t believe what others are saying about your writing. See the illusion in their perception. Seek your own truth and write from that. Writing is about telling the truth. If you’re not doing that, why write?”
Bharti Kirchner is a Seattle novelist whose latest novel “Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries” is now available in paperback from St. Martin’s Press. Kirchner reads from her novel on Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Bellevue. 626 – 106th N.E. (425) 451-8463.