Strange and Beautiful Ghosts: Tania James’ ‘Aerogrammes’

 

Two Indian wrestling champions become business and political pawns in “Lion and Panther in London.” A young man looks for hints about his father’s death in handwriting samples in “The Scriptological Review: A Last Letter from the Editor.” A woman applies to be matched with a dead man in “Girl Marries Ghost.”

Author Tania James’ new short story collection “Aerogrammes: And Other Stories” is full of strange and beautiful ghosts—absent parents, a grandfather with dementia, paralyzed limbs, an orphaned chimpanzee. James will read from and sign copies of “Aerogrammes” Wednesday at Carmichael’s Bookstore.

Born in Chicago to immigrant parents from Kerala, a state in southern India, James grew up in Louisville’s East End and attended the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. Many of the characters in “Aerogrammes” are immigrants or second-generation Indians struggling with generational and cultural divides.

In the elegiac “What To Do About Henry,” Cameroon-born Neneh is adopted by Pearl, the wife of Neneh’s absent American father. While in Cameroon to bring Neneh back with her, Pearl also adopts a motherless chimpanzee they name Henry and raise as part of their family.

As he grows, Henry’s potential for violence grows and Pearl donates him to a zoo. Years later, when Pearl dies, Neneh visits Henry, aware that she was perceived as “a girl who had revolved around Pearl for decades and now, having no one else, was a planet spinning out into the unknown.”

James says she’s drawn to writing about outsiders who feel dislocated in their communities or even in their own families.

“There’s a kind of tension between intimacy and distance, that no matter how close two people can be there will always be some unbreachable divide between them,” says James. “I guess I think that tension sort of animates a lot of my work.”

The paradox of the frailty and power of family bonds is a familiar topic for James. Her acclaimed 2009 debut novel “Atlas of Unknowns” tells the story of two sisters from Kerala who are separated when one wins a scholarship to a prestigious New York City prep school. James says when she started writing “Lion and Panther in London,” she wanted to write about the sport and business of wrestling and England in 1910 – something different.

“As the draft went on, I realized I was writing about brothers. I keep circling back to these themes no matter how far I get in subject matter, how far I stray,” she says. “I guess writers keep being plagued by certain obsessions and that’s one of mine, but I try to get at it through unusual means.”

The last story in the collection, “Girl Marries Ghost,” is set in Louisville, and James researched the city’s East End in the 1950s to rediscover her hometown. The story was serialized in The Courier-Journal in 2010. It’s the only actual ghost story in the book – a “wild card,” James calls it – but palpable absence is a common theme throughout the collection.

“In a way a ghost is a metaphor for this unreachable, unattainable person who keeps haunting you. A lot of these characters are haunted by people they can’t quite reach,” says James.

“I think that’s what keeps the themes fresh for me, when I can find a strange way into my own obsessions,” she adds.

 

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