I have been reading British playwright Hanif Kureishi’s dispatches sent from a hospital bed in Rome. Having suffered a stroke, his fall caused a spinal injury that left him tetraplegic. While he cannot use his hands and legs, his urge to express himself has increased manifold, and it is words that are his lifeline now, spoken by him, and written down by either his son or his wife.
As I write this, Salman Rushdie’s new novel ‘Victory City’ is close to its release, and in its wake is his message, ‘Words are the only victors’.
Stories remain. They keep you enthralled, make you think, prod you to explore your interiority, return time and again to remind you of your truth, and sometimes, incite you to rebellion. They remain long after the storytellers pass on.
Our Missing Hearts
Words and stories find an important place in Celeste Ng’s dystopian novel, ‘Our Missing Hearts’. Set in the not-too-distant future, it begins with the novel’s protagonist, 12-year-old Noah, who insists on being called Bird, receiving a cryptic message from his mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet, who left home when he was eight. Noah lives with his loving but broken father Ethan, a former linguist, who now works in a library. Unknown to Noah, one of his mother’s poems, has become an anthem for groups protesting PACT (“Preserving American Culture and Traditions”), a draconian bill passed by an authoritarian government that has taken over America, ostensibly to maintain peace and prosperity, and preserve American culture. It allows the relocation of children of those perceived as unpatriotic, especially if they are of Asian origin.
Terrified that their son will meet with the same fate, Margaret and Ethan decide that she should leave, though it breaks the latter, makes him hypervigilant, and extremely cautious about remaining inconspicuous, a man always looking out for his son, even as his own parents who were loving towards Margaret now distance themselves from him and Noah.
The mysterious letter pulls Noah into a quest. He is determined to find his mother, to join the dots, to find answers to the questions that have plagued him all through the years. The letter leads him to the stories his mother told him as a child, and to a network of librarians that works to find and reunite the uprooted children with their families, and finally, to New York, where his mother has gone underground but works through the night to on a mission to usher in change. Among the other characters that populate the novel are Sadie, Noah’s friend, who has been removed from her parents, and who tells him details about his mother, whom he knows nothing about.
This nuanced, gripping tale transports you into a frightening world, especially because it doesn’t seem implausible. Given the number of books being banned, voices being silenced, writers being attacked, the othering that still prevails, and an almost tangible fear that stalks those who speak their minds or voice their opinions. It is also a sensitively told tale about how love can overpower fear, and stories can hold us together.
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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