Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Biography in Books

This weekend I did a little writing workshop with a mom's group. It was so lovely; gosh, I miss teaching on a regular basis and I'm thinking I will start offering these again when Dagny too, flies the nest. We spoke about mining our own lives and the books that impacted us. When I took the Magazine course (2002-2004) at the Institute of Children's Literature, I was asked to write a biography. This is what came out. I remember my life through the books I was reading at the time. When I took the Book course (2009-2011), I used the same biography, slightly amended regarding goals and such. Here is the biographical portion:

I am the youngest of four children, born and raised in India. My oldest brother died before I was born but lives on through stories that my mother told me about him. I’ve always thought of him as my guardian angel. My father went to Germany and then to the US for graduate studies. When I was six, we all moved to Cincinnati, OH. But my parents didn’t get along and my mother wanted to return to India, so she brought my sister and me back with her. My brother was fourteen at the time and he wanted to stay in the US. So we were a divided family, a family of letter-writers from a very young age. 

Our life in India was hard, especially for my mother. We were poor. My mother insisted on us girls having a good education, especially since she herself had been denied one. I did well. I enjoyed it. And I knew it was a privilege. I had a few chores at home. Then I was free to play.

My mother had a small collection of books and we went to the library regularly. I loved reading and books opened up the world for me. My favorite children’s author was Enid Blyton. Dickens was a close second. I read my first adult novel when I was twelve –  Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas. It is based upon the sentence in the Bible – let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. And I understood my mother’s charity, in spite of our own poverty. The physician-turned-writer, A. J. Cronin, was also a favorite. I dreamed that I would be like him one day. But it was not to be.

We moved to the US again when I was fourteen. This time to Pullman, WA, a small college town. My father was a professor there in the engineering department. But my parents’ marriage dissolved within a year. They had grown apart. My mother got a divorce and set up a babysitting business. My sister and I did odd jobs and helped out. We lived simply. When I was sixteen I started taking piano lessons and we saved enough money in a year to buy a used piano. I still have it! I quit taking lessons when I started college – I went full-time on scholarships and worked half-time and there just wasn’t time for serious study of the piano. Science became more important. I was focused on becoming a doctor. I graduated from college in 1987.




My mother died after suffering from stomach cancer for six months. My sister got married and had a baby and moved to Greece with her new family. It was the loneliest time for me. I never knew that I would miss them so much. And when the acceptance for medical school came, I was terrified. My faith eroded. There was no buffer. How could I borrow such a huge amount of money just to go to school? So I did the most practical thing I knew. I got a job.

In college I met the love of my life and after ten years, we married. Michael and I had a long-distance relationship. Both of us were independent and selfish and it took us that long to actually become ready for the commitment of marriage. After my mother died, I moved to California because that’s where Michael was. I lived there for two years, working as a microbiologist in a research laboratory. I did a bit of cancer research too and decided that I had to get an advanced degree. I didn’t like living there – I am a small town girl and I disliked the hustle and bustle and the bad air. But I did enjoy going fishing with Michael and reading tons of books. One book stands out in particular – Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Powerful book. It gave me a moral compass at a time when I had turned my back on God. Our daughter, Dagny, is named after the heroine in that book!

I went back to Pullman for my PhD. It was rich time for me. I missed Michael terribly but thoroughly enjoyed my intellectual growth. I had a terrific mentor (this is one dept. where I’ve always been blessed). I didn’t just learn science. I learned to think, design experiments, critically evaluate data. It was a heady time, solving puzzles about the nature of life, of battles fought at the molecular level. And I got introduced to fine dining and dance.

Michael and I got married the last year I was in graduate school (after a rough patch – another long story :). He was working for a Belgian machine tool company and had to write some technical manuals. So he worked from home in Pullman. I got my PhD in Biochemistry and Biophysics, studying protein folding and protein export in the lowly bacterium, Escherichia coli. But I decided that last year that I would prefer to work on plant-microbe interactions at the molecular level in the future. Plants don’t scream and they make a wonderful addition to the bench.

Michael and I moved to Belgium for two years. He worked for the same Belgian company and I worked at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, Germany. I examined the very early events in plant-fungus interactions and how a plant resists infections. And I learned a bit of French and German. We traveled and ate wonderful food and drank cheap French wine and enjoyed our pan-European stay. Three outstanding books that I read during that time are  Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose.

Michael and I made a trip to India at the end of our European stay. When we got out of customs and made our way outside, I smelled the humid air, touched the soil and I wept. It had been 18 years since I’d left. We never had the money to go back and once I started working, never had the time. How I long to take my children there, to show them a piece of their history. Soon, soon …

I started a new job at Purdue University in Indiana. This time I examined wheat-virus interactions. And I put off reading a book – A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – because it dredged up so many memories. Especially since I had just returned from India. But I read it eventually. Nancy, I now realize that this is the book that propelled me to write later. I bought Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott on a lark. My first writing book J   I was in Indiana only six months – Michael didn’t find any suitable work in the Midwest. He did get two good offers in Seattle and so we moved. All of his family is around here. On our long drive to the beautiful Northwest, I found out I was pregnant!  So I never bothered looking for a new job. I stayed home with my baby.

And how these babies grow! I will never regret staying at home. Max is almost ten now. And Dagny almost eight. I wish I could slow down time. I’m very aware of how little time we actually do have together, so I try to make the most of it by including the children in everything I do. In fact, when I said that I will need more help since I’m taking this book course, everybody chimed in and said that they’ll write a chapter for me! What a hoot! They’re terrific! All of them, including the pets. Wouldn’t know what I would do without them. Katherine Paterson in Gates of Excellence says, “For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.This resonates deeply for me. Because if it weren’t for my kids, I’d still be a lab rat. And if I hadn’t stayed home, I wouldn’t have found my second calling – to be a writer.

It’s strange to write an *all about me* letter after I’ve already met you. Feels terribly self-centered. But it is a good exercise. Looking back at this letter, I see that I define my growth through the books I’ve read. I have been transformed, Nancy, by some of these books. And that’s what I hope for my books, that they are that powerful, compelling. I know, too lofty, but I’ve always dreamed big. Jesse Winchester said, “If you’re skating on thin ice, you might as well dance.” Yeah!

A most recent development is my return to God and the Catholic Church. It has changed everything for me, including my writing. I won’t say more right now because this letter is already too long …  Your turn: tell me the books that shaped you.
My babies! Wouldn't have started writing without them
Easter Vigil, Apr. 11, 2009


Mirka Breen said...

Glad I got to read this, Vijaya. Like you, I made a very different nest from the one I grew up in.

I hope you do get to go back to teaching.

Faith E. Hough said...

This is beautiful! I love hearing how reading and books have been milestones of your life.
And those babies! My, think of what beauty you've added to the world with those two wonderful humans!

Vijaya said...

Mirka, we are richer for it, no? I am already plotting and planning! Teaching is so rewarding!

Faith, thank you! I do believe my greatest contribution to this world are the children. Just today I was looking through the old albums and I got misty-eyed at how quickly they are growing up and away.

Unknown said...


I ran on to you on Write Sanctum . . . and I'm glad. First, just have to say . . . you have such beautiful children. And I'm glad to find another RC who views writing as a vocation. I write Flannery O'Connor-ish stories (I think). I like 'em, but reader apparently don't.

Anyhow, I'm usually nit given to commenting anywhere. But you seem such a lovely person--a breath of fresh air really in all this.

So, the books that shape me . . .

First would have to be Lewis' "Mere Christianity" and after that Chesterton, esp. "Orthodoxy" and "The Everlasting Man." Then Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory," which is particularly relevant right now. And after that everything by O'Connor.

Keep up the good work.

Michael Hearing

Vijaya said...

Michael, thank you for stopping by and the lovely comment. Those kids--my heart! And they're one up on me, having read Power & Glory.

It's great to meet another lover of Flannery. But that style is definitely one that hasn't won many hearts. I didn't discover her until someone compared one of my stories to hers, and when I read them, I simply did not understand them. I thought the characters so very obnoxious (she was holding up a mirror to myself, I think that's why I reacted so strongly). It took conversion before I could see grace operating in the lives of those people. I think she's probably one of the best American writers of the 20th century now! Her work will endure. I still marvel at how much depth of understanding she had and for one so young.

I love Lewis and Chesterton too. What wit! Sometimes I imagine them up in heaven having marvelous discourses.