Making The Most of The Time We Have

Join author, educator, and learner, Annmarie Kelly as she laughs, cries, and kvetches with the writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, and wanderers who inspire all of us to reach beyond our divisions and discover what it means to be wild, precious, and brave.

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Keep the Flame Alive with Thrity Umrigar

Keep the Flame Alive with Thrity Umrigar

At the age of 21, Thrity Umrigar left India to study journalism in the United States. Decades later, she is the acclaimed author of more than a dozen books, including her latest, HONOR, in which a reporter searches for courage amid the ashes of hatred. Annmarie and Thrity talk about the resilience of women, our need to protect the most vulnerable among us, and how to find love hidden in the boredom of ordinary days.

Episode Sponsors:

Loganberry Books – An independently owned and operated bookstore in the historic Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, Loganberry features a carefully curated collection of new, used and rare books for both readers and collectors, with an inventory over 100,000 volumes. Learn more and shop online at loganberrrybooks.com.

Mac’s Backs – A proud Cleveland indie bookstore with three floors for browsing, great online service, and chocolate milkshakes right next door. Find your next great read and shop online at macsbacks.com.


A Selection of Books by Ms. Umrigar and Other Great Authors Mentioned in This Episode:

Honor

The Secrets Between Us

The Space Between Us

Sugar in Milk

Binny’s Diwali

Everybody’s Son

The Story Hour

The World We Found

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain

For Your Listening Enjoyment: “A Day in the Life,” by The Beatles


Follow Thrity:

umrigar.com

Twitter: @ThrityUmrigar

Facebook: Thrity Umrigar Author

Instagram: @thrity_umrigar




Annmarie Kelly:
Wild Precious Life is brought to you in part by Logan Berry Books, an independently owned and operated bookstore in the historic large mirrored neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio.

Annmarie Kelly:
Logan Berry features a carefully curated collection of new, used and rare books for both readers and collectors, with an inventory over 100,000 volumes. Learn more and shop online @loganberrybooks.com. And we're brought to you by Mac's Backs, a proud Cleveland indie bookstore with three floors for browsing, great online service and chocolate milkshakes right next door. Find your next great read and shop online @mac'sbacks.com.

Annmarie Kelly:
Where does courage come from? Are you a courageous person? Spoiler alert. I'm not. At least not courageous enough, but I'm working on it. As a young girl, I was not raised to raise my voice. I was raised to be quiet, to help in the kitchen, to set the table, to listen to my elders, to be small.

Annmarie Kelly:
And there was certainly a time and a place for all that. I had good manners. I was polite. I smiled. But as I get older and think about how I want to raise my children, especially my girls, I dream more than obedience for them. I want them to find their of voices and use them. I want them to speak up in the face of injustice. And honestly, this is something I'm still learning myself. But I think you can practice courage. You can practice trying things that scare you.

Annmarie Kelly:
I started weightlifting when I was 40. I remember driving up to the gym. People were doing pull ups and climbing ropes and heaving barbells over their heads. I was terrified. I was a marshmallow mother of three who could do exactly zero pull ups. If my kids had not been in the car, I would've left. Instead, because they were watching, I gave it a try and it was absolutely miserable. I couldn't do the exercises.

Annmarie Kelly:
The next day, everything hurt. But it was also thrilling. I was not a girl who was raised to lift heavy things. But as an adult, I have learned to love feeling strong. Since then, I've been stand up, paddle boarding, climbing, hiking, and kayaking. I'm pretty good at practicing physical courage. But what about verbal courage? What about speaking up when you disagree with someone? Yikes. This one is really hard for me. I don't like to ruffle feathers. I don't want people to be angry at me.

Annmarie Kelly:
But again, I think this kind of courage can be practiced. Maybe you don't start with a disagreement with your boss that could get you fired. Maybe you set a goal to speak up at least once during staff meetings, or ask clarifying questions when someone's opinion differs from your own. Courage can be practiced. Lately, I've been helping my kids disagree with me instead of soliciting their obedience.

Annmarie Kelly:
I've tried to make space for their opinions, often about small things. What are we cooking for dinner or whether they need to wear boots to school? I want my kids to practice the idea that their opinions matter and their ideas have merit. And even if yours are different, your ideas matter too. I was thinking so much about all of this during today's conversation with writer, Thrity Umrigar, whose characters speak their minds. Especially as a woman, I search for lessons in courage anywhere I can find them.

Annmarie Kelly:
And today, Thrity delivers. So let me tell you a little more about her. Thrity Umrigar is the best selling author of more than a dozen books, including the novels Bombay Time, The Space Between Us and The Secrets Between Us. Her highly anticipated new novel, Honor, was recently chosen as a selection for Reese Witherspoon's book club.

Annmarie Kelly:
Thrity's books have been translated into many languages and published in over 15 countries. She is a distinguished university professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Thrity Umrigar, welcome to Wild Precious Life.

Thrity Umrigar:
Thank you. Thank you.

Annmarie Kelly:
I'm in an amazing book club, and I've been lucky enough to meet you before. I'm just delighted that you're here because in that group, there's always a gaggle of us nudging each other to be able to ask a question to the amazing Thrity Umrigar.

Annmarie Kelly:
But I'm still kind of a fan girl in that I'm here by myself. If there are a few listeners maybe, who don't yet know you and your work, I'm wondering if you would be willing to just tell us a little of your story. It can be long and winding. It can be bullet points. But Thrity, what is the story of you?

Thrity Umrigar:
I guess the story of me is the story of my formation as a writer. And I think that happened at a very, very young age. When I was a child in Bombay India, we grew up in a middle class, perhaps even an upper middle class family. My father had his own business that he had started when he was very young.

Thrity Umrigar:
And for whatever reason, I wasn't born with the blinders that I think most affluent people who grow up in poor countries need to wear just for the sake of their own sanity so that they can survive perhaps the guilt of the obvious differences between those who have and those who don't. And I somehow, those blinders fell off at birth or something. And my earliest memories of myself was being excruciatingly aware of the poverty around us, even though we were not directly affected by it.

Thrity Umrigar:
And somehow, that seeped into my earliest writings. From the time that I sort of started writing in a concentrated way, in a formal way, I remember the first ever short story that I had published in this Women's Magazine in India when I was 15. It was a story about a kid who looks up to his father who is very, very poor, is an alcoholic, blah, blah.

Thrity Umrigar:
So I think seeing the issues of power around me really, really shaped me as a person, for sure, shaped my politics, shaped my sense of morality, but also shaped me as a writer. And it's interesting to me how all these years later in my old age, I still seem obsessed with more or less the same issues. And writing also fueled my desire to not join my father in his business, which was very painful for him, but instead, to come here at the age of 21 to get a master's in journalism.

Thrity Umrigar:
I don't think the kind of upbringing that I had in India, it was an aspirational middle class, business oriented family. There was just no role models or any path towards publicly proclaiming that I wanted to be a creative writer. In those days, I wrote mostly poetry, and there was certainly no path to saying I wanted to be a poet and not get laughed out of town. So I did the next best thing. I went around from the time I was seven years old saying I wanted to be a journalist.

Thrity Umrigar:
I wanted to write for newspapers. And I don't even know how I knew that somehow that was less dangerous than saying I wanted to be a creative writer. And there was, God knows there was enough pushback even against that. My father was petrified, especially by the time I was a rebellious teenager. He was petrified that I would land myself in jail or something, writing columns against the government. God knows what he was afraid of, but he was.

Thrity Umrigar:
And of course, that desire to have me take over the business was very strong in him. Understandably so. But it's one of few times in my life, I was very close to my father, I adored him, I respected him, but there was some light in me that I just had to heed. And it was that light, I think, that brought me to America. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's beautiful. The light in me that I had to heed. Do you think your father saw that?

Thrity Umrigar:
Very much so. Very much so, in later years. When I speak before young people, I always tell them that it's a fine line to walk because on one hand, if you are lucky enough to have the kind of parents that I did, who genuinely love you and want what's best for you, it behooves us to pay attention to the advice that they're giving us.

Thrity Umrigar:
But sometimes it also makes sense to not follow their advice and pay attention to what's deep within us. And I guess wisdom comes from knowing the difference between the two. And maybe I just got lucky, but I'm very, very happy because it ended up having good consequences for all.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's wonderful. I read that here in the States, you actually were a reporter for Time. First, I think in Lorraine and then I know at the Akron Beacon Journal.

Thrity Umrigar:
Beacon Journal. Yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
As someone who wrote poetry. What was it like to then be a reporter?

Thrity Umrigar:
When I was a journalist, and I did that for 17 years. So long time, half my-

Annmarie Kelly:
That's longer than I think I knew. Wow.

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. Half my career was spent as a journalist. I never shared this with anybody. But my own personal challenge to myself was always to write the kind of journalism. To do the kind of journalism that had the techniques, or at least the feel and the spirit of literature. I was very drawn to long form narrative journalism. I wanted to tell stories.

Thrity Umrigar:
So it was the perfect opportunity to blend the two. Not to make up stories as one can do in novel writing and fiction, to tell true stories, but to tell them kind of borrowing the techniques, if you will, of fiction.

Thrity Umrigar:
In some strange way, all of this was just great exercise. It really exercised that muscle, not just the writing muscle, but also the muscle that has to embrace and accept criticism and editorial comments by other people. I've always said that the greatest gift that those years of journalism gave me as a writer today is that it just made me realize the importance of getting feedback from other people.

Thrity Umrigar:
You have to be able to take rejection. There's lots and lots of forces from the publishing industry, from readers, from critics, who will always try and blow out that flame. And your job as a writer is to somehow through it all, keep that flame alive.

Annmarie Kelly:
Yes. We think about being precious about a sentence, but what if we're the only one who likes that sentence? It's kind of referring back to what you were saying about growing up with parents who love you. When do you listen to others and when do you listen to yourself?

Annmarie Kelly:
It is a balancing act. But being able to take in feedback and know what serves you. And that you are not writing in a vacuum. You're writing for readers. And if they're not responding to what you're writing, is it them? Is it you? Is it the words? It's a transaction, this writing.

Annmarie Kelly:
I think you've referred to it somewhere as a dance between partners, and that, that contract does involve receiving feedback and also listening to when it doesn't serve you. I'm thinking about Hemingway. I think it was one of Paula McLean's stories, where I learned that Hemingway had been a reporter on a beat somewhere in Canada sent to cover a polar bear at the zoo or things like that.

Annmarie Kelly:
But many, many writers come up through all manner of writing. Some of my first writing jobs were writing the boxes for advertisements for the boxes for deodorant. Deodorant goes in a box and someone has to write what's on that box and make sure it's spelled right.

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. Absolutely. I've always said that I read everything. I read the copy on the back of a cereal box, and I can learn something from there. There can be a phrase there or a word there that you just absorb. So, absolutely.

Annmarie Kelly:
Ah, that's very true.

Thrity Umrigar:
I once was sent on, I believe the day before Thanksgiving, to write about term, The 50 Pound Turkey, because the food writer at the beacon got a call from a very concerned reader who had actually turned out, had raised a 50 pound turkey. Had hand fed that 50 pound turkey, and then realized to her dismay, she couldn't fit the turkey in her oven. And some editor thought this would make a wonderful front page, Thanksgiving Day story. So guess who they picked to cover that story. So you have to be humble about these things.

Annmarie Kelly:
Very true. Well, so your main character in your most recent book. Your most recent book being Honor, is also a journalist. I'll be at a international correspondent. Did you find yourself drawing upon any inspiration from your own experience to write this character?

Thrity Umrigar:
As you said, she's a foreign correspondent, which I have never been. Her world, her beat, if you will, is much larger than mine has ever been. So not in terms of the story itself. And she's a very different person. Smita, as she presents herself to us in the novel, is this rather cloistered, narrow, she has a narrow life. She has a full and rich life, but within herself, she has a lot of hurt. She has lot of trauma, and she comes across as this rather cold person.

Thrity Umrigar:
But what I did remember, when I was still at the Beacon, I had this wonderful opportunity where I won something called the Nieman Fellowship, which allowed me a year of study at Harvard. And there were 12 of us American journalists that year and 12 international fellows. And one of the things I remember, we all got very close to each other. We were together almost all the time everyday.

Thrity Umrigar:
But there was this ongoing tension between the American journalists, who, of course, this was in, I think this was in the late, late, late 1990s. We were all devotees of what we had learned in journalism school, in the States, which was objectivity in journalism.

Thrity Umrigar:
And the international fellows who came from all across the globe and some from countries that had known war and civil war and all kinds of traumas, had a very different opinion of what the role of journalists and journalism should be. And they were much more for advocacy journalism. They completely rejected our model of, give equal importance to both sides of a story even if one is patently false or untrue.

Thrity Umrigar:
And so over lots and lots of glasses of wine, we would have these conversations. And I think some of that perhaps stayed with me because my character, Smita, finds herself. She's an Indian-American journalist, has basically not been in India in 20 years, finds herself thrown back to cover this story.

Thrity Umrigar:
And she, for the first time in her life, really begins to question whether the same rules that apply for us here are actually transferable in a Indian context or in a Third World context. So that part, I think, I drew from what I remembered from those Nieman year conversations.

Annmarie Kelly:
Well, when we first meet Smita, she's on, what sounds like a fantastic holiday in the Maldives. She ends up leaving that vacation, going to the aid of a reporter friend in India.

Annmarie Kelly:
And as you say, covering a horrific story about a woman named Meena, who's been attacked. She's been in a fire. Her husband has been in this fire and lost his life. And it was her two brothers, two Hindu brothers who then burned Meena, who lives, and her husband, who does not. Her husband was Muslim. What made you want to write this story?

Thrity Umrigar:
I don't know want is the right word. I don't know that I was chomping at the bit to tell this story. But a few years prior to starting this book, I had come across a series of stories in the New York Times done by this extremely brilliant and talented reporter, Ellen Berry, where, I think, she was based in south Asia at that time. And so she'd done a series of stories about small town, India, Life In The Villages.

Thrity Umrigar:
And some of the stories were just about the conditions of women in rural India. And I think she did a masterful job capturing a snapshot of a country in transition. And those stories made a deep impression on me. It's not like I put them down and immediately thought, "Oh, this is a book. I should write a book about this."

Thrity Umrigar:
And a few years after that, I've been increasingly concerned with the condition of, not just women in rural parts of the country, but also what I'm seeing as this growing fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism that seems to be on the rise. And the parallels between what's happening here and what I was reading about and seeing happening in India, it just felt to me like I wanted to weigh in on this subject.

Thrity Umrigar:
And so I came up with this story of these two women from very, very different backgrounds, but who both in their own ways have been victimized by the same forces of a patriarchal society of religious bigotry, all those things.

Annmarie Kelly:
But it certainly was the treatment of women that really was at the center of this book. I think Smita says, not too far in, I'm not giving anything away here. She says everywhere she went, it seemed it was open season on women. Rape, female genital mutilation, bride burnings, domestic abuse.

Annmarie Kelly:
Everywhere, in every country, women were abused, isolated, silenced, imprisoned, controlled, punished and killed. Sometimes it seemed to Smita that the history of the world was written in female blood. First off, the writing in this book throughout is gorgeous, evocative and gut wrenching sometimes.

Annmarie Kelly:
I know that you're not your main character. She is fictional. You are here. And yet this was one of those lines that made me just halt in my tracks. As we stand here beginning a new year in 2022, does it still seem to you that it is open season on women?

Thrity Umrigar:
Well, yes. I mean, look at what's happening in our own country, if any country should be a beacon for parody in the world, given all the material advantages that we have in this country. Look at what's happening in Texas. Look at what's about to happen with the Supreme court.

Thrity Umrigar:
It seems to me that one should judge any society by its treatment of its elderly, it's children and its female population. Because in most societies, these are the most vulnerable. And depending on what as good a job as any society does in protecting its most vulnerable populations, one knows whether it's a successful experiment in humanity or not.

Annmarie Kelly:
Yeah. I was raised in the Catholic religion and took much of that as just what it meant to go on a Sunday and take in these things. And it wasn't until I had daughters, that my oldest daughter, who's now 16, asked me why there weren't any mommy priests or something like that. It was, "Why aren't there any mommies on there?" And she didn't even say in the altar. She just wanted to know where were the mommy priests.

Annmarie Kelly:
And that opened my eyes. At that point, I was in my 30s. I hadn't seen that this tradition, there's much about the Catholic faith that is still beautiful to me. There are songs that can bring me to my knees, there is social justice warrior within me. I can name some nuns, both on and off of buses who I would follow to battle. Much about that.

Thrity Umrigar:
Liberation theology. Just that alone. Beautiful stuff. Yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
Absolutely. And yet, it took my daughter for me to see the patriarchy, to see the oppression, to see the inequity. And I did not want to raise a child to believe that there were spaces where women could not be. And it's hard enough that we have to raise a child who doesn't know if a woman can be president yet.

Annmarie Kelly:
There are plenty of areas where she can look to the Supreme court and believe a woman can be there. She can look to astronauts and see there's a place for us, but it's a hard enough battle to make place for women that I don't need to contribute to it by bringing my child to places where women can't be.

Thrity Umrigar:
Right. Yeah. Well said. Well, I want to just go back to a very early question that you asked about how this book came about. And I want to tell you a missing piece as to why I felt it necessary to tell this story. When I was on book tour for my last book called, The Secrets Between Us, which is a sequel to an earlier book called, The Space Between Us, I was doing a luncheon event somewhere out west at a country club. It was a Posh event.

Thrity Umrigar:
And after I got done with my book talk during the audience Q & A, this older woman raised her hand and stood up and asked a question that just really knocked me back. And her question was basically, "Why are people in India so nasty and mean? Why is the country like this?" And I could hear sort of the horror and the disgust and the concern even, in her voice.

Thrity Umrigar:
And I have to say that that question threw me for a loop, because even though I write often about India, and I certainly write about difficult things in that country and society, I never mean for my readers to take that message away, that it's just a country filled with mean and nasty people, because it's just not true. It's as complicated and as messy as any other nation on earth.

Thrity Umrigar:
So I sort of fumbled my way through what I hope was a satisfying answer. But the question haunted me for a long time. And I don't think I knew this when I started writing the book or even when I wrote and finished the book. I think it's only now that the book is about to be out in the world, that I'm realizing that I wrote the book, partially an answer to that question.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's wonderful. How great would it be to encounter that woman again, and for her to know that she's part of the itch that you needed to scratch to make this novel come to light. Honor, that's a big concept title. Doing what is right or what's considered right. When did that title come to you?

Thrity Umrigar:
A lot of other books, you mentioned, The Space Between Us, it had a completely different working title altogether. Honor was there from the very beginning. Strange. I would say it's half and a half, maybe. Some books have started under different working titles and then changed. But I think Honor was the only title I had for this book.

Annmarie Kelly:
Well, it definitely haunted me throughout the pages because I was being asked to think about what people did in the name of honor. It does not seem honorable to me at all to set fire to a man and his wife. But the men in this book, the Hindu men in this book believed that they had been dishonored when their sister married a Muslim man. And so they felt they were behaving-

Thrity Umrigar:
Honorably.

Annmarie Kelly:
In an honorable way. Even the lawyer. There's a lawyer we learn early on, there's a lawsuit, Meena, this woman who has been burned is suing the people who did this.

Thrity Umrigar:
The brothers.

Annmarie Kelly:
Everyone knows who did it. The brothers who did this. And we learn that there is a lawyer who has taken her case, which I initially think is a very honorable thing to do. But I'm even asked to question some of her motives.

Annmarie Kelly:
Is it honorable to sweep in and use someone's situation to draw attention to the India's national battles with justice, and to lose sight of perhaps the human at the heart of the story who will be more tormented, who will have less of a home perhaps in a village? So I really did appreciate that that title made me view the character's actions differently because it was under the banner of the word honor.

Thrity Umrigar:
There's a line in the book, I think, that says something to the effect of nobody's a villain in their own story. I'm paraphrasing broadly, but it's something to that effect, but the sentiment is accurate. And it's one of my core beliefs as a human being. I think as we all know, human beings are capable of really, really awful behavior.

Thrity Umrigar:
But for the most part, maybe this is the tragedy of being human, is that even when people are doing really awful stuff, they can always justify it, it seems like. They always have some explanation for why they were forced to act the way they did. And Meena's brothers, most certainly, feel almost pious and very, very self righteous about their actions. They present themselves as if they had no choice in the matter.

Annmarie Kelly:
And she made them do this by flashing her love.

Thrity Umrigar:
She made them do this. Exactly. She forced them into this action. And that of course, is horrifying in itself. That kind of a mentality.

Annmarie Kelly:
Well, we get a line from Meena in her reflections, where she says, "As children, we were taught to be afraid of tigers and lions. Nobody taught us what I know today, the most dangerous animal in this world is a man with wounded pride." Again and again, I found myself writing down lines and underlining lines just throughout. When you say that women, or when you write that a woman can live in one of two houses, fear or love, it is impossible to live in both at the same time.

Annmarie Kelly:
I think as a nation right now, in our country, we are struggling quite a bit with acting in fear or acting in love. And it can be so hard to tell the difference. Even in my own life as a parent of three children, when my child wants to climb high and jump from something, it's fear that makes me want to say, no. I can think it's love, but it's not. Love makes me want my child to climb higher and to jump far. Love is what makes me let go of him and see what he can do.

Thrity Umrigar:
That's so beautiful.

Annmarie Kelly:
I think we mistake the two.

Thrity Umrigar:
You must be a great mom. That's really lovely. That's perfect, really.

Annmarie Kelly:
Thank you. Thank you. I love thinking about that confluence of love and fear though, that I think what we do when we're afraid ... In fact, it was Rebecca Makkai, someone else you and I have in common because we both esteem her.

Thrity Umrigar:
Oh, I adore her.

Annmarie Kelly:
She was talking about, just look at what we do when we're afraid. Look at how we behave when we are afraid. Look at what we reach for. We are at our worst when we're afraid. And how we make our way back to love, tells us a lot about who we are.

Thrity Umrigar:
And for that reason, I truly believe that in every society, in every nation, whatever governments or society can do to alleviate people's fear, we should do. I feel like that principle should inform all economic and political policy, because there are things that no government, no society can control. I can get cancer today and nothing can protect me from that. And that would cause its own kind of fear. I could kill over with a heart attack, and most likely, nobody can prevent that.

Thrity Umrigar:
But if somebody can give me healthcare, then that would alleviate a lot of the fears that would follow getting a disease. In your case, if there was a support system for young mothers and for those who need it, if there was a daycare system, anything that we can do for each other to make this fraught business of being human a little more bearable, I feel like no questions asked, that's what our priority should be.

Thrity Umrigar:
So it's real simple. I don't know what ism that falls under. You can call it any ism you want. Call it socialism, call it capitalism. Call it by any name. Call it friend, makes no difference to me, but take care of people.

Annmarie Kelly:
I think I would call that love. In fact, you define love in this book. And ever since reading love story years ago as a teenager, I'm always on the alert when a writer defines love, because I'm always afraid, because we all know that love, in fact, requires you to say you're sorry that that was a terrible. With regards to, was it Eric Siegel? Yes. But you talk about, I think it's Smita who reflects, but it could have been Meena. I've read the book, but-

Thrity Umrigar:
Tell me, I'll tell you.

Annmarie Kelly:
Very recently. So maybe in the end, that's all that love was. Doing the hard thing. Not roses and valentines and walks on the beach-

Thrity Umrigar:
Smita [crosstalk 00:33:49].

Annmarie Kelly:
Smita. But simply being present day after ordinary day. How we care for each other on ordinary days. I think what you were referring to is those things that make life able to be lived. That make people be able to go to the doctor when they're sick. That make it so that I can go to my job and know that my children will be cared for. How we love one another and care for one another on ordinary days is a great measure of, as you say, as a society, as a measure of who we are. I love that difference [crosstalk 00:34:22].

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. No, I think that comes from lived experience. It's easy and it's fun to send somebody flowers on Valentine's day. And those walks on the beach, even in Cleveland, Ohio, who doesn't enjoy walks on the beach. That's the fun part of love. But if that's all it is, it's not going to work. It's that holding up that barf bag when somebody's puking. It's a cold compress on somebody's hot forehead. It's watching TV and being a little bored in the evenings. That's what love is, I think.

Annmarie Kelly:
I love that. Love is vacuuming or unloading the dishwasher [crosstalk 00:35:13] or my husband vacuuming.

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. That's love. You feel love for him when he's vacuuming. That's right.

Annmarie Kelly:
Yes. Or loading the dishwasher or packing a lunch on a rainy Tuesday. Just being at our best when we're reading a story to our kids at night. Love in those everyday details. That was great.

Annmarie Kelly:
There was another theme, a thread that I saw in this book about, Mohan says to Smita, "All important things in life are supposed to scare you", which echoes back to something her brother says, when he quits his job to start his own business, he says, "Look, I know it's a risk, but at some point you have to jump. Either I'll land on my feet or I'll land on my face, but either way I'll own the fall."

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, I just stopped in my tracks and thought about the times when we're afraid to own our own fall. That important things in life are scary but that they're worth it. Have you found this to be true in your own life?

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. Very much so. And I have to say, when I left the Beacon Journal and became a professor at Case Western, I left a job that I'd done for many, many years. Knew the community, knew my readership, knew certainly my colleagues, loved them all. Could do at that point, with almost both hands tied behind my back. And I took a 10-month appointment as a visiting professor at Case.

Thrity Umrigar:
And while I was there in the first year, I so fell in love with my students and my colleagues at Case. And there was just absolutely no possibility. I was just replacing my friend and colleague, Mary Grim, beautiful fiction writer herself, who was on sabbatical for just one year. That's all. That was the gig. And I was supposed to be booted out after Mary came back.

Thrity Umrigar:
And I, of course, did the smart thing after I took that job and went on the job market, the academic job market immediately. Got a tenure track offer that was like, they were promising me the sun and the moon. And I said no to them, which nobody says no to a tenure track job offer. It just doesn't happen unless you have a better tenure track job offer, which I did not. All I had was that one year of visiting professorship. But it was just a leap of faith.

Thrity Umrigar:
And as it turned out, the journalism guy went on a two-year sabbatical immediately after that. I was at Case for three years in just this very ambiguous status of being a visiting prof. But while I was there for those three years, my colleagues started going to the Dean's office and to the chair's office and saying, "Let's figure out a way to keep her." And all these years later, I'm now a full professor at Case.

Thrity Umrigar:
And I'm deeply, deeply grateful, of course, for the institutional support that my colleagues have given me all these years. And I'm also deeply grateful for whatever that voice was that told me, "Stick around. Cleveland's beautiful. Case is great university. Just believe, with all evidence to the contrary, just believe that something good will come out of being here." And it has.

Thrity Umrigar:
So it's hard to know, not every single decision that one makes results in success. But if you don't make a decision, you also know what the inevitable end is going to be. The fact is, it might have looked foolish on paper to leave journalism when I did, but we all know what's happened to the newspaper industry.

Thrity Umrigar:
So it was just a matter of, maybe I would've made it another couple of years, maybe three years, but sooner or later, something would've had to change anyway. So why not be a little bit one step ahead of that change? That's then forced on you.

Annmarie Kelly:
Yeah. And willing to own your own fall.

Thrity Umrigar:
Exactly.

Annmarie Kelly:
That either way you'll know. Well, you must be a pretty tremendous teacher that what started as a 10-month temporary gig has lasted as long as it has.

Thrity Umrigar:
My students are just incredible. K students are just incredible. When I started there, there were times when I wondered if I wouldn't be happier on a campus that was just a liberal arts campus, because Case, as you know, is mostly, many of them are English majors, but we get students from all the hard sciences who take writing classes and that kind of thing.

Thrity Umrigar:
And honestly, all these years later, I wouldn't change a thing, because they're just so smart, the kids who come to us. And this is something that they enjoy doing. And what a treat it is, I think a lot of students come because they think it's going to be an easy light class after the heavy science classes that they're used to. And I take great, sadistic pleasure in pointing out to them that writing too comes with its own rules and its own structure.

Thrity Umrigar:
And yes, you can break those rules. But by golly, you better know those rules first, before you even think about breaking them. So they find out to their amazement that it's a little harder than what they did in high school. And I rub my hands with glee when I see that light bulb going off.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, that's great fun. That's great fun. I have a million other things I could ask you about, but they always make me do wrap up. So most teachers are supposed to start with like, get to know your questions at the beginning of class, I like to do them at the end. So at the end of our conversation, I'm just going to ask you a few ... There's no point system. A few multiple choice questions and short answer. So these are multiple choice. Coffee or tea?

Thrity Umrigar:
Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh, I like this. I'm a tea in the morning, coffee in the afternoon girl. So I like this. Mountains or beach?

Thrity Umrigar:
So when I was six and seven years old, I used to sit by myself on our beautiful balcony in my Bombay apartment and ask myself exactly this question for like hours at a time thinking there had to be one right answer.

Thrity Umrigar:
And then when I was in my 20s or 30s, I discovered the coast of Oregon and realized one doesn't have to choose. You can have both. Definitely, the ocean speaks to me like nothing else in the world, but the mountains have a kind of majesty and loneliness to them that also tugs at my heart. But if you held a gun to my head-

Annmarie Kelly:
Yeah. Which I never would do.

Thrity Umrigar:
Ocean girl.

Annmarie Kelly:
Love that answer. That's beautiful. Those torn paper mountains I used to live in Washington State. So those torn paper mountains along the coast.

Thrity Umrigar:
Oh, my God.

Annmarie Kelly:
And I never tired of looking at them. Dogs or cats?

Thrity Umrigar:
These are all both answers. I've had both. My most recent pets were cats. But I love all animals. You can add a monkey to the mix and I would say all of the above.

Annmarie Kelly:
Next time we talk, I would love to see a monkey just peeking around the corner to say, "How's it going?"

Thrity Umrigar:
I can probably produce a stuffed monkey right now.

Annmarie Kelly:
I like this.

Thrity Umrigar:
There's a beanie baby on my bookshelves behind me. Yeah.

Annmarie Kelly:
Perfect. Early bird or night owl.

Thrity Umrigar:
Night owl.

Annmarie Kelly:
Cake or pie?

Thrity Umrigar:
Cake.

Annmarie Kelly:
Are you a risk taker or the person who knows where the bandaids are?

Thrity Umrigar:
I think more of a risk taker. I certainly don't know where the bandaids are.

Annmarie Kelly:
What is the song that you love?

Thrity Umrigar:
I love, A Day In The Life, by The Beatles on Sergeant Pepper.

Annmarie Kelly:
How about favorite book or film or both? Movie or book?

Thrity Umrigar:
Oh my God. Love Beloved by Toni Morrison. Love just about any novel by Virginia Wolf. But like so many, I love, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. Just so many, many books.

Annmarie Kelly:
I don't know if I complained to you in a nice way that I had been lobbying for The Great Believers for easily a year.

Thrity Umrigar:
You told me.

Annmarie Kelly:
Before my book club heard you mention it. And then they said, "Oh, Thrity, why would you do that?" And we did it.

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. And you all did do it.

Annmarie Kelly:
[crosstalk 00:44:33] So mad, but then also very happy.

Thrity Umrigar:
Sorry.

Annmarie Kelly:
It was funny. I was just glad that we read it. It's a wonderful book. Do you have a favorite ice cream?

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. Mitchell's. What is it called? It's black raspberry with chocolate chip. Yeah, it is.

Annmarie Kelly:
It's delightful. I think I have some in the basement and I might, right after this, have too. Good idea. Last one. If we were to take a picture of you, happy, doing something you love, what would we see you doing?

Thrity Umrigar:
Walking in the woods?

Annmarie Kelly:
That's a great image. Well, thank you for sharing that, and thank you, Thrity Umrigar, for coming on the show today, for reminding us to follow our light, for reminding us to not be afraid to write the biggest story that we can. I'm fascinated by your work, by your wisdom.

Annmarie Kelly:
And for folks who aren't familiar, Thrity Umrigar is the author of many books, including, The Secrets Between Us, The Space Between Us, Sugar in Milk, thank you for writing that. What a beautiful. We didn't talk about that today. But for folks who are looking for a way to talk about, I'm going to use the word immigration, but just talk about hospitality and welcoming the stranger, please check out Sugar in Milk. That's a beautiful story, by the way.

Thrity Umrigar:
Thank you.

Annmarie Kelly:
Thank you for writing that.

Thrity Umrigar:
It's a children's book.

Annmarie Kelly:
Yes. It is a children's book, but I think for all ages. I think for all ages. We all need to be reminded about what it means to welcome the stranger. Most of us, we're welcomed to this country from away and we forget that.

Annmarie Kelly:
And then what we've been discussing today, which is Thrity's latest book, which is called Honor. It has just been released and I tour right through it. I'm going to have to read it yet again because I read it just in a race to have a conversation with you, but I will slow down and read it again.

Annmarie Kelly:
I loved these characters. I loved their journey. I have a bit of a crush on one of the people and I won't say who. I'll let others decide. But you did. You wrote that a book is a interplay, a dance that only comes alive when there are two partners, the writer and the reader. And I know that you thank us for dancing with you, but I thank you for composing the music and writing the steps and making our lives better because of the connections that you write for us. So thank you.

Thrity Umrigar:
Annmarie, you just might be the most musical and eloquent interviewer I've ever encountered. So thank you so much. This was a great, it wasn't even an interview, it was just a great conversation. Thank you.

Annmarie Kelly:
Wild Precious Life is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to executive producers, Gerardo Orlando, and Michael DeAloia. Producer, Sarah Willgrube and audio engineer, Ian Douglas. Be sure to subscribe and follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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