Written by Kamala Nair:
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I was with book, as a woman is with child.” His words capture the experience of publishing my first novel. For many years before I even began writing The Girl in the Garden, it had been gestating within me. During childhood trips to India the seeds were planted, and nourished over the years as I fell in love with literature, reading and re-reading works like The Secret Garden, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca.
My immigrant parents regularly took my sister and me to visit our extended family in India, and I recall those long, scorching summers with intense clarity. I used to feel at once both intimately tied to the people and surroundings, and like a fish out of water. The tiny village in Kerala where my father grew up became a place of myth in my imagination: the lush jungles and flowers, the strange birds and animals, and the customs and rituals I longed to understand. I imagined myself as a modern-day Mary Lennox, the heroine of The Secret Garden, but in reverse, an Indian girl leaving her home in the West for the exotic and bewildering land of her roots.
I moved to New York in my early twenties with a few dollars in my bank account, and a few chapters of a novel. Shortly after I arrived, I landed a job as an assistant to the editor-in-chief of a major magazine, a job that ultimately did not live up to my glamorous and naïve expectations. Some days I felt lucky to be in my position, other days I wondered how I ever could have deluded myself into thinking I could find a place here in this ruthless city. Every morning I rose just after dawn and sat at my desk, writing from that enchanted place just between sleep and consciousness, until my bedroom was filled with sunlight. I spent long hours at the office, then went out with my friends to enjoy the city I had made my home. It was a grueling process, sometimes trying, sometimes exhilarating.
The Girl in the Garden was not a business venture or a job, it was a project of pure passion, a quest upon whose outcome my core sense of identity depended. I sometimes felt, on monotonous days spent photocopying and fetching coffee for my boss, or as I stood crammed in a crowded subway car with my cheek crushed against the glass, that if I didn’t have my book, I wouldn’t know who I was. My sentiments may have been extreme, but they were also necessary. That flickering filament of hope in my art and in myself, that confidence in the face of the doubts and disappointments of the world around me, allowed me to continue.
That sense of urgency carried me through the challenges of the process, from breaking the news to my parents that I was turning down admission to law school in order to be a writer, to completing the book, to finding a literary agent, to selling it to a publisher, to stepping out of my comfort zone to promote it.
The Girl in the Garden has taken me on a wondrous adventure, spiriting me away not only from my magazine jobs, but from a life where my most creative and exciting moments happened in secret, stolen moments, in the mornings while the rest of the city slept. For a long time, only my closest friends and family knew that I was writing a book. When it was published, acquaintances and strangers suddenly got in touch to say they had read a review, or seen it on a bookstore shelf. Suddenly people knew me as a writer, an identity I had yearned to inhabit since childhood. Over the last year, I have spoken on panels, signed piles and piles of books, and learned how to suppress the knocking of my knees as I stand at a podium reading my work aloud to an audience. Most recently I sat in a garden in Milan, Italy, speaking to journalists about the Italian translation of my book, which is called Una Casa di Petali Rossi, and has, to my unexpected delight, enjoyed three weeks on the Italian bestseller list.
I am proud of this past year, but I am also afraid of what lies ahead. Afraid of my second book. Afraid of starting over from scratch, and of fully committing myself to this new story and its cast of characters, who will be replacing Rakhee, Amma, Krishna, and all the other figures from my first novel who I have lived with and loved for so long.
The paperback version of The Girl in the Garden is out on June 12th and with its release, I feel the bittersweet emotion that accompanies the closing of one door, and the opening of another. This is the final stage of the publishing process, the equivalent of sending your child off to college. As I say goodbye to my story’s eleven-year-old heroine, Rakhee, and immerse myself entirely in my second book, a historical novel that I have spent the last year researching, I realize I’m really an adult now. This is no longer a secret passion, but my job.
Last week a box was delivered to my apartment. The striking image of two white peacocks emerged from within the folds of bubble wrap, and as I picked up the pristine book and held it in my hands, my eyes filled with tears.
I clung to the book, letting my fingertips slide across the smooth cover, this tangible thing into which I poured all of myself, my childhood innocence, the confusion of adolescence, and all the tumultuous hopes, missteps, fears, and loves of my early adulthood. I held on tightly for a few minutes, and then, at last, I let go. I slid it into an empty space in my bookshelf, opened up the document called “Novel 2” on my laptop, and threw myself without any further hesitation into the frightening and thrilling unknown of my future.