Akhil Sharma

January 27, 2015
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Acclaimed author Akhil Sharma to read from novel Family Life 

Critically acclaimed author Akhil Sharma appears on campus this week to read from his latest novel, Family Life, which was selected as one of the New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books of 2014.”

In the review, Sonali Deraniyagala wrote: “This book, deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender at its core, charts the young life of Ajay Mishra as he struggles to grow within a family shattered by loss and disoriented by a recent move from India to America. Family Life is equally the story of Ajay’s parents, whose response to grief renders them unable to find the space in which to cherish and raise him.”

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, Family Life is a semi-autobiographical novel that mirrors Sharma’s personal experiences. In the book he is Ajay Mishra. His older brother is Birju. The Mishras are a middle-class family from Delhi dealing with instabilities in their native India. The uncertainties lead them to emigrate to the United States.

The family settles in Queens, N.Y., and begins making its way in America when tragedy strikes. At a local swimming pool, Birju suffers a horrible accident. He is left with brain damage. He cannot walk or talk and is rendered blind. The trauma sends the family into a tailspin of alcohol and dysfunction.

What: Reading by author Akhil Sharma

Where: Salisbury Labs 104

When: Thursday, Jan. 29, 4 p.m.

Cost: Free and open to the public

Continuing with his review of Family Life, Deraniyagala says the book “chronicles Ajay’s passage through this wreckage. … He begins to understand that the difference between his life and his brother’s is permanent. He talks to God (who looks more like Superman than Krishna) about his distress at being the sole recipient of his family’s luck.”

Sharma spent 12 and a half years writing Family Life. In a recent interview with the Guardian, the author said: “I was such a different person when I began writing it that I feel as if I’ve shattered my youth on this book. I still find it hard to believe that it’s over, and I have this constant fear that I need to go and sit at my computer.”

Born in Delhi, India, in 1971, Sharma, like his protagonist, emigrated to the United States in 1979. He lives in New York City and is an assistant professor of English in the MFA program at Rutgers University, Newark. Family Life is his second novel. He has also authored An Obedient Father (2000), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has appeared in The New YorkerThe Atlantic, “Best American Short Stories,” and “The O. Henry Award Winners.”

While on campus, Sharma will also give a lecture on his work and participate in a conversation about the act and art of writing. Professor Aarti Madan, who teaches languages and culture in the Humanities and Arts Department, is responsible for suggesting Sharma’s appearance.

“After reading Family and being a fan of his other work, I proposed Mr. Sharma as a potential speaker to the 2014–15 Humanities and Arts Speaker Series Committee,” Madan says. “They selected him, along with others, to visit us at WPI this year. In order to round up the necessary honorarium, I had to reach out to the Consortium schools. The English Department at Worcester State pitched in to get us where we needed.”

Sharma’s real-life brother’s name is Anup, who died two years ago, 30 years after the accident. In his Guardian interview, Sharma said there was no correlation between his brother’s death and his finally finishing the book. “The thing that took the time was figuring out the issue of the sensorium, when that was solved I was finished. What I wanted is a book that can’t be resisted. A book that demands to be known. … It is a sense of wanting to write something that is undeniable. It took such a long time, but in the end the finished product is very close to what I wanted to achieve at the beginning.”

– BY DAVID SNEADE