Akhil Sharma: 'I feel as if I've shattered my youth on this book'
'It took 12-and-a-half years and I can't believe how bad that time was," says Akhil Sharma. "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." Sharma is talking about his second novel,Family Life, which is published in the UK next week. It tells the autobiographical story of a family's emigration from India to the US in the late 1970s, and how an accident that left the elder son severely brain-damaged brought them close to collapse. The book has already been published to much acclaim in the US – "Deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender at its core" said the New York Times – matching the praise Sharma received when he emerged in the late 90s with prize-winning short stories and then a 2001 debut novel, An Obedient Father, which won the PEN/Hemingway award. But the positive response toFamily Life still feels "almost as unreal as the book being done," he says. The intervening period of silence – although he was named on Granta's 2007 list of best young American writers – has not been easy.
"I remember Gary Shteyngart saying to me that there was a sense that I was going to be the one, but then I just vanished. I was basically forgotten and would apply for all these jobs or small fellowships and nobody knew who I was. I know careers are based on books, not on getting attention all the time, but to get some attention is also nice."
Just as Sharma moved to New York with his parents and elder brother, Anup, so the eight-year-old Ajay Mishra makes the same journey in Family Life. While Ajay finds the transition difficult, his elder brother Birju thrives in America, and even wins a place at a prestigious high school. But shortly before term starts Birju hits his head on the bottom of a swimming pool and lays unconscious underwater for three minutes, resulting in catastrophic brain damage that leaves him blind and unable to communicate or move. After two years in hospital and nursing homes the family take Birju home, and the rest of Ajay's childhood is played out against a backdrop of 24-hour care, a stream of crackpot faith healers and a family increasingly defined by alcoholism, destructive tensions and lies.
But while the broad facts of that story match those of Sharma and his brother Anup's own lives, finding a way to most effectively tell it proved almost insuperable. From the beginning he was aware that it was "a coming-of-age story, an illness story and the story of a child's love for his parents and his brother". It is also an immigrant story. And although Sharma objects to an "often racist category that places white people in a separate category from brown and black people, Family Life is definitely an immigrant novel, and one of its subjects is the Indian community in America of which I am tremendously grateful to be a part," he says. "But while it is a very loving community, if you are perceived as being shameful then you are rejected almost immediately. That is seen with alcoholism and other addictions, but also mental illness. My mother would always say my brother was in a coma, a more acceptable phrase than brain-damaged. I think these are things we should acknowledge and deal with as a community and was an aspect I felt was worth representing."
Although Sharma admits his novel could belong in several literary traditions, "I don't think it belongs in any one tradition. And it is also technically interesting because it is without much of a plot. Something occurs, and then the weight of that causes a bunch of other things. But each thing is not pushing into the next thing, so I read a lot of really great books in trying to find a way to tell my story, a life story, in a way that would hold people's interest."