by Sohrab Homi Fracis
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Remember that lovely old song, “Qué Sera Sera”? Growing up in the great city of Bombay, I found its refrain hauntingly fatalistic: “Whatever will be will be. The future’s not ours to see.” Still, in some ways my future seemed clearly laid out for me. I was to follow in the footsteps of my father and my mother’s father, both civil engineers and senior partners in a thriving construction company. Like them, in time I would marry conservatively if somewhat incestuously within our tiny, inbred Parsi community and generate another Fracis or two to carry on the family line and the family business.
For a while, things went according to plan. Any signs that pointed in other directions were willfully ignored. Aptitude tests at Campion, my Scottish-Jesuit high school, indicated that I had only “average” ability in the sciences, but “superior” ability in the arts. Guess which stream I went into, more or less automatically. An Indian boy in the arts? Ridiculous. How would he support a family? Aptitude or no aptitude, an innate intelligence was enough to get me into the Indian Institute of Technology. The department I chose? Civil engineering, of course. My happy father handed me a hundred-rupee note to celebrate with my also-successful study buddy at a Mughlai restaurant in South Bombay.
At IIT, Kharagpur, on the other side of the country, that well-laid life plan began ever so slightly to go astray. My adventurous friends applied abroad for further studies, and I got caught up in their fever. So, B. Tech. in hand, off I went to the University of, wait for it, Delaware. The next two years in the little campus town of Newark would prove to be among the most disorienting and haunting yet adventure-filled years of my life. Not only could I write a book about them, I actually did. By the end of my stay, all my certainties of how things should and would go had been shaken by events into fuzzy confusion. As I worked on my master’s thesis, I took a grad-level course in business management. Our professor was an admirably composed and intelligent woman in her middle years. But, to my rattled young mind, she seemed to lose it when, toward the end of the semester, her assignment called for each of us to construct a detailed “life plan.” Obviously she meant a career or business plan, but even so, I now found the proposition absurd and turned in a seven-word paper: “My life plan is to be happy.”
Inevitably, I was called in to her office at UD’s business department. The good professor was curious: I’d turned in solid assignments all semester; what had happened this time? Idiot though I was, I did apologize, citing my engineering thesis work as an overriding distraction. Her verdict could not have been fairer: I could continue with the rest of the assignments; she would not put a grade on this paper (if you could call it that), but at the end it would be factored into my final grade. That eventually turned out to be my only B in a graduate course, and, having sat on the other side of a professor’s desk often enough since then, I still count myself lucky.
Fast-forward past a handful of years I worked as a techie in both countries and you find me in Florida. That’s right, Levka Construction of Bombay was out a future junior partner, leaving my father deeply disappointed in me. My mother was spared that disappointment the hard way: she hadn’t lived to see her third civil engineer jump ship. She was just fifty-two. As for my grandfather, the founding partner of Levka couldn’t fathom why I would choose to strike out on my own. Even so, as a software consultant with a hard-earned green card by then, I’d stayed with the breadwinning program. I was still considered a good catch by Parsi women. But the one I was engaged to loved Bombay so much she said either I moved back or it was off. In that case, I said (not without lasting pain at both ends), it’s off.
And that was when the penny finally dropped. I’d spent the first three decades of my life mostly sticking with the program, but now I began to question every bit of it. The growing inclination to bail out was accelerated by my having landed in the worst-managed data processing shop in the brief history of DP shops. Shit really did trickle down, and a contract employee was perfectly positioned for it to drip upon. And even back in top shops such as Ford and Tata Burroughs, I’d started to feel the dreaded burnout. It was a pioneering field, but cooped up in a cubicle all day, day after day, there was little of the wall-to-wall excitement of a Halt and Catch Fire episode.
I had to ask myself, then, could I continue to do this, day in and day out, for the rest of my life? The answer was an unequivocal no. The next logical question arose: if not this, then what? By now I felt it had to be something I loved. My parents, paranoid about kidnappings in Bombay, had bribed my sister and me with a never-ending supply of books to keep us safely at home. Once hooked, we read as if our lives depended on it. And now it turned out mine did. For years the eight-to-five grind had kept me from reading, and when I returned to it, I was stunned by just how much I’d missed it. It was as if a beloved old friend had come back into my life.
So the answer that came to me was maybe I could write. I joined an evening creative-writing workshop, and got an inflated sense of my ability through false comparisons with the mostly hobby work of housewives. After its third year, my contract at the shop of horror was not renewed, and the consultancy that had been taking a big cut of the payments all the while promptly laid me off. I had a tempting offer soon afterward, but with no further need to be a breadwinner and no other lives at risk, the time was ripe for me to finally quit the program. I enrolled for my second master’s, this time in creative writing.
My next two years at the University of North Florida were probably the most exhilarating of my life. There was a sense of freedom from a long-shouldered burden. It was a lot of work, tons of reading and writing for each of several courses at a time. But for the first time in my college experience, studying felt less like work than pleasure. Going to classes felt like going to the movies every day. Sometimes, as in Film Studies, it actually was.
Inevitably, the more great writers I studied, the more realistic became my estimate of my limited talent. Nevertheless, my stories began to be published by magazines. A mini-collection became my creative-writing thesis. So pronounced was my inability to see things as black or white anymore, I called it Gray. Breaking into literary book publication, however, was proving much harder. So when offered an adjunct teaching position upon graduation, I took it. It turned out adjunct professors were the contract programmers of academia, but I was still immersed in a field I loved. So I never regretted my risky career move.
It paid far less than programming, though, and took up far more time. I could barely afford to be in a relationship, never mind support a family. But in some ways that suited me now. Destined for wary bachelorhood, I sent monthly support through Children International to a little girl in India and a little boy in the Dominican Republic. Their thankful and innocent letters accompanied by cheery crayon drawings moved me and gave me a sense of what I came to think of as social continuity rather than genetic. The latter, too, was a joy, thanks to my lovable nieces and cousins’ kids. With or without me, beautiful new lives were springing up and wondering what lay ahead.
I got no writing of my own done during the semesters, so I kept the summers aside for that, returning to India at times to research settings. Sometimes I went for sadder reasons. When my father suffered his penultimate heart attack, I sat by his Parsee General Hospital bed drafting a story unavoidably driven by my ancestry. “Ancient Fire” would become the opening story of a collection I eked out, year by year, across the ’90s. Then, year after year, I sent the manuscript to uninterested literary agents and book editors. I entered it in a handful of university-press competitions, hotly contested nationwide by hundreds of talented literary writers who had no other avenue for book publication. I thought the proverbial lightning had struck and missed when in 1999 my collection was a losing finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award at the University of Georgia Press. Only the winners were published, annually.
I had to face the bitter fact: I’d failed as a book writer. In 2001, for the first time, UNF assigned me to teach a fiction workshop. While holding up the magazines I’d been in, I admitted to the class that I did not have a published book to inspire them with. A week into the course, I stayed after evening class to chat with students, so by the time I got home it was past ten. My answering machine, soon to become a relic, was flashing. A woman with a Midwestern accent introduced herself as director of the University of Iowa Press and wanted to speak with me. I couldn’t think why. UIP annually held contests in short-fiction and poetry, but I didn’t recall having had the balls to enter my manuscript. Those contests were juried by creative writing’s first and greatest university program, known simply as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. My collection’s concluding story, “The Mark Twain Overlook,” was named for a scenic spot in small-town Iowa, where I’d spent a year under contract knowing nothing of the famous program just forty-five miles away. Talk about overlooks.
I called the UIP director’s number and left an inquiry. Needless to say, I got little sleep that night. I concluded I must have sent in the manuscript many months ago, and with some luck maybe I was a finalist again. Rising late, I found another similarly enigmatic message from her. When finally I got her on the line, she apologized for being mysterious. This, she said, was the best part of her job all year: when she got to tell someone somewhere in the country that he or she was the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. I don’t think my reaction disappointed her—I busted her eardrum with my yelling.
Once off the phone and overwhelmed by this entirely unforeseen happy-ending to the years of struggle, I had a thought that you’ll find excessive. And rightly so. I felt my life was so complete that I wouldn’t care if, walking out into the street, I was run over by a car. More than a decade later, I know better, but it remains the high point of my life and I’m thankful for it. In the short run, I was able to hold up a book contract for my students to see and cheer. In the long run, it changed my life in wonderful ways. I’ve had a good ride, and it’s not over yet. That novel based on my dramatic crossover years in Delaware? This time, with four finalist showings and six excerpts published, I knew never to give up on it. Go Home eventually found an agent and then a publisher. Now readers and reviewers call it timely, seeming to imply I must have written it for the current political climate.
Sometimes when I look back on all these twists or wonder what’s to come, somehow it helps to couch the old Spanish in the languages I spoke when I was a young reader in a Far East city—a city whose very name is now changed. In my stumbling Gujarati I think, Jé thuyoo té thuyoo. Jé thussé té thussé. In awkward Hindi I think, Jo hua so hua. Jo hoga honé do. Then I think it in English.
What happened happened. What will be will be.
Sohrab Homi Fracis is the first Asian American to win the Iowa Short Fiction Award, for his collection Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America. His recent novel, Go Home, earned him the Distinguished Achievement Award from the South Asian Literary Association. It is currently shortlisted by Stanford University Libraries for the William Saroyan International Prize. He was Visiting Writer in Residence at Augsburg College and Artist in Residence at Yaddo. He received the Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in Fiction, from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature/Fiction.