Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Atlas of Unknowns"

Tania James graduated from Harvard University in 2003 with a bachelors degree in Visual and Environmental Studies, with a focus in filmmaking. She received her Masters of Fine Arts in fiction from Columbia’s School of the Arts in 2006. Her work has been published in One Story magazine and the New York Times.

She applied the “Page 69 Test” to Atlas of Unknowns, her debut novel, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Atlas of Unknowns includes a gem of dialogue that, in actuality, fell from a stranger's mouth while I was riding the subway, pretending to read a magazine. I committed that line to memory and promptly inserted it into a scene of my book, wherein Anju, a seventeen year old Indian exchange student, enters a Duane Reade drug store and listens to the conversation between two cashiers:

“‘I know he’s old!’ Danita is telling Cheyenne. ‘But he got a nice house, no kids. I’m looking for a man with one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana peel. Nothing wrong with planning ahead.’”

This is Anju’s first time in New York City, and she is determined to absorb every detail, from the plastic namecards on the chests of Danita and Cheyenne, to their squarish nails, “spangled in mesmerizing purple and red illustrations.” But while Anju forges ahead in New York, her sister Linno is left behind in Kerala, India, and in this passage, Anju considers who Linno might be compelled to marry, out of necessity and family pressure. Maimed by a childhood accident, Linno might have to settle for a suitor of the banana peel variety as well.

Though Danita and Cheyenne aren’t particularly vital to the book, their discussion echoes the kinds of choices that Anju and Linno begin to make as they, too, plan ahead. Anju’s decisions grow increasingly reckless, while Linno reaches beyond the life she had presumed was destined for her. Each sister seeks a self-determined life, and at this point in the novel, those desires have just begun to take shape.

And to my muse from the subway: I hope you found the life and the man you were looking for.
Read an excerpt from Atlas of Unknowns, and learn more about the book and author at Tania James' website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue