The obvious irony was that she wasn’t from India.
She didn’t know where she was from, ethnically speaking, but she could pretty much count on not being Indian. Why her adoptive parents named her India was not a story she liked to tell.
She bore the burden of being beautiful. A burden few others could stand to hear about. Her friends said she didn’t have the right to complain. She didn’t have the right to downplay it either, but that didn’t stop India from trying. She donned low-brimmed hats and lopped off her hair. She wore chapstick, oversized sweaters, and ugly shoes. Somehow this only added to her charm. There’s nothing more beautiful than a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful.
Everyone she encountered said she needed to model, as if the world would suffer a terrible fate if her face failed to grace its glossy covers. She had been granted the mysterious genes of physical perfection, so she had to pay her dues. It was the right thing to do, and she only had so much time to make it happen.
But India didn’t want to model, or act, or stand in any spotlight. She would use and reuse the same analogy: “Does a tall athlete have to play basketball?” People would laugh politely, appreciating her modesty. Didn’t they know that calling someone pretty could be just as damaging as calling them ugly? How could she live up to such a label, such an enviable identity? And what was beauty, anyway? Was it something in her facial symmetry, something subliminal like the golden ratio? Was there an underlying pattern to the usual culprits: the feline eyes and plump lips?
She knew everyone possessed their own concept of beautiful, yet somehow the world had joined hands in her name. So she kept on fighting her so-called beauty – or the stigma of beauty: the envy, jealousy, and decisions other girls had made about the kind of girl she must be. People asked about her parents – “Is your mother a model? Your father then? That must explain it!” – as if her face had belonged to someone else first. As if she couldn’t claim it as her own. Well, she’d think, I never met my biological parents, so how would I know?
She wasn’t born to be an observer; she was born to be observed. What did she know about rejection and suffering and character flaws, which were all prerequisites for budding writers?”
Deep down, India wanted to write – an art, people said, for the old and ugly. Or at least it didn’t matter if you were old and ugly, especially if you eschewed the quintessential back-cover photo. In fact, the older and uglier, the better the writer. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Relatives laughed when her mother told them about her writing goals, and India knew why. She wasn’t born to be an observer; she was born to be observed. What did she know about rejection and suffering and character flaws, which were all prerequisites for budding writers? How could she capture the messy and degrading human experience? And what kind of idiot would throw away such beauty to pursue the solitary act of writing?
The biggest problem, though, was that India’s stories never had a point. They got off the ground, sure, but they never went anywhere. What was the angle? Where was the story?
Her vignettes were plotless character sketches of protagonists who were universal yet bizarrely specific. Not one of them was beautiful. Each bore the names of countries they weren’t from and had never visited, and none explained why their parents had chosen those names.
Morocco licked the bathroom tiles after taking a shower. Laos built miniature birdhouses. Brazil was allergic to rust. Syria abhorred nudity and kissing. China was terribly pee-shy, suffered recurrent UTIs, and sprinkled apple cider vinegar in her nightly bath. Nepal was schizophrenic and held frequent conversations with the mirror, imagining his reflection as an identical twin. Angola sang lullabies to her pet goat. Israel collected Styrofoam packing peanuts and glued them to his walls.
Did any of these characters resemble the real people walking along Sixth Ave, darting in out of subways, ordering coffee with extra milk, hovering over public toilets, smacking themselves on the forehead, chewing nicotine gum, burning toast, chopping garlic, jumping jacks, popping Tylenol, tying shoes, setting alarms, falling up stairs, using the wrong card, breaking their vows, cracking their necks, testing the water with their big toe… or did India’s characters exist only on the page?
After falling into a sickening depression and dropping out of college, she began taking semester-long “advanced” writing courses at the Y. Her mother tried to be supportive, but cringed whenever India asked her to read a new piece.
So there she was, taking seminars with people much older and uglier and therefore more entitled to the business of words. Week after week, the students tried to perfect their chosen art. I didn’t choose the art, India wrote, the art chose me. Then she crossed out that line and wrote, How pretentious, yuck! with a sideways frowny face…still, she thought it had to be true. She didn’t simply decide one day that she wanted to be a writer, like a stay-at-home mom might decide freelance medical transcription is the perfect job to suit her current situation. No, India had always wanted to write, long before she made her first attempt in tenth grade, at the start of the “you have to model!” mantra.
Back then she had penned a four-page story about Yemen and Somalia: they were very much in love, but their bodies rejected one another like a failed kidney transplant. Eventually the two learned to make love without physically touching, which solved the problem of their apparent anti-magnetism. After handing in the story, her Global History teacher called her mother, not only to discuss the possibility that India might have been inappropriately touched (who hasn’t? India thought), but also to profess her sincere confusion since the assignment was to spotlight a country in need of American aid.
In the quiet of her bedroom, India came to her own secret wonderings: was she really just looking for her Benin, or Peru, or Cyprus, the way a girl named Juliet searches endlessly for her very own Romeo? Or was it that she’d rather write about love, naively and abstractly, than experience it directly? She’d never had a problem attracting boys. But as for their stares, letters, wilted flowers, and uncreative compliments…she didn’t want to deal with it. She fended off all prospects of love, although love – or a false idea of love, a Halloween mask of love, a Top-40 lyric of love – wouldn’t quit knocking at her proverbial door.
At the Y, India scrawled all over her classmates’ pages, requesting they do more to describe the characters, even the minor ones whose names appeared once. “What is Conrad’s biggest fear?” “How often does Faye call her mother?” “Why did John become a mailman?” “Does Emerald like her name?” “When you say here that Vanessa is ‘pretty,’ what do you mean? How pretty are we talking? Does everyone, everywhere, find her beautiful, or just a select few? How often does this word pop up in her daily life? What does she think about being called pretty? Does she actually think she’s pretty, or that there’s such a thing as physical beauty – one person being nicer to look at than another? To whom does she compare herself? Does she ever feel suffocated, with no way out?”
When people turned in revisions, it became obvious to India that her questions and suggestions had not been helpful. Few felt the need for extraneous detail, backstory, or internal dialogue, especially when it didn’t advance the plot. Plot was the important thing. “Plots are for dead people,” experimental writers said, yet nearly all published novels contained them. Plot might be for dead people but they were also for successful writing careers – for the hope that someone, somewhere, would someday take you seriously.
Whenever it was India’s turn to workshop, a sigh rose up from the round table. Her stories were winding, with misplaced metaphors, missing indents, excessive lists, and unanswered questions. Was it worth the time it took to critique them? Were these really stories? “Could something happen here?” someone wrote. “What is the arc?” “What does the narrator want?” “Where are we going?” “What is the conflict?” “Why should we care?”
Sure her characters were suspended by shaky strings, tied to no real setting and no imminent conflict, but they were real, weren’t they? They had landscapes of thought and patterns of behavior.”
She developed a sort of trickery, though. She could trick people into reading her stories by way of a light tone, or by making promises she didn’t keep. This was a serious no-no, teachers told her. If she showed a gun in the opening paragraph, the gun had to go off later. But in India’s tales, the metaphorical gun remained in the opening paragraph and nowhere else. In other words, the gun never left the table. The gun collected dust. Often, she tried to employ her idea of a funny writerly voice, though she knew she wasn’t naturally funny – ironic yes, cynical yes, ill-fated yes, but not funny. Her stories weren’t good enough to be taken at face value, so they were assumed to represent some kind of self-reflexive mockery. Some carefully wrought meta.
Still, she kept at it. Wasn’t it important that Morocco felt a compulsion to drag his tongue along the wet tiles? What did it matter that he never left the bathroom? Sure her characters were suspended by shaky strings, tied to no real setting and no imminent conflict, but they were real, weren’t they? They had landscapes of thought and patterns of behavior. They had habits, hang-ups, dreams, phobias, pimples, pets, regrets, birthmarks, body odors, and oral fixations.
Life wasn’t a tidy chain of cause-and-effect leading to some tied-with-a-bow ending. Life was amorphous and monotonous. Life consisted of microwaved leftovers and misplaced keys. Life was doodling on your fingers, throwing salt over your shoulder, nodding “yes” when you couldn’t hear the question, trying to choose the right jacket for the weather, accidentally buying an overripe avocado, and signing your name as illegibly as possible…even if your name was some foreign country you’d never been to. Life was a myriad of characters milling about, unsure of who they were, where they came from, where they were going, or why they were there in the first place. No one knew this better than India, despite being blessed with the gift of beauty, that bewildering affliction.
So maybe she wouldn’t be known for her writing. Maybe China’s good-luck underwear and Brazil’s phantom cavity and Syria’s habit of pretending she was blind and Nepal’s secret language and Angola’s high-pitched sneeze and Israel’s affinity for the sound of hissing soda didn’t matter to anyone, didn’t amount to anything, didn’t alter India’s fate or help conceal her barefaced beauty. But still the characters came, still their names graced her page. As for India, she wanted to be nameless, to be wholly undefined. And so she was, or at least on the page, in the truth that was fiction.
Amy Dupcak earned her MFA in Fiction from the New School and a BA in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing workshops for kids and teens and is currently writing a novel. She has published stories in journals such as Litro, Fringe, Runaway Parade, Broken Pencil, and The Dirty Napkin, while her creative non-fiction has appeared in Sonora Review, Phoebe, and Chicago Literati. Dust, her first story collection, is published by Lucid River Press. Read more.
Author portrait © Joel Remland