Umeeta Sadarangani's "How to Interview Your Mother About Her Lost Childhood"

One question every writer has to face at some point in the drafting process is the question of form. What am I trying to say? How can I shape my material so that I say it well? How can I align form with function? You might know that you’re writing an essay, for example, but this is only the beginning. Essays can take an almost infinite number of forms, from the common narrative structure—with a beginning, middle, and an end—to something more reflective, something that circles or spirals around a central idea or question. Or your essay might look like a series of snapshots, several moments juxtaposed. Or maybe it resembles a braid, with a few different narrative strands, woven into one. There are collage-style essays, which piece together scraps of language from various sources—a phonebook, a newspaper article, a scrap of story, a journal. And there are essays written using a borrowed form, like an invoice or a house inspection report. Why not? The possibilities are endless.

Today I’m going to share with you the beginning of one of these borrowed-form essays by Umeeta Sadarangani, called “How to Interview Your Mother About Her Lost Childhood,” which appeared online in Bluestem Magazine in September 2015. Bluestem is a literary journal published by the English Department at Eastern Illinois University. Umeeta wrote this essay as a kind of faux-instructional guide. I find it both funny and poignant.

Here’s the beginning:

  • a voice recorder (a digital one is best, but an old cassette recorder can work)
  • paper, clipboard, and a fast-writing pen
  • Sweet Parle Gluco biscuits to nibble on when your nervous stomach needs to be soothed
  • facts about the 1947 Partition of India, “the largest forced migration in history”
  • a list of questions you can ask without starting to cry
  • the flexibility and agility to add or delete questions
  • the insensitivity to keep asking questions even when your mother seems troubled
  • forty minutes of uninterrupted time alone with her when your father is not in the room correcting and clarifying everything she says
While standing across the kitchen counter from your mother as she peels potatoes for her famous aloo ki tikki and asks you about your income and savings (she only wants to know you’re doing okay), take the conversation in another direction, the one you want it to go in.  Conceal the voice recorder behind the bag of potatoes.   A small, digital recorder will be easy to hide—until she gets to the last potato.
Forget the paper and pen.  She shouldn’t see you writing, or she might not tell you the sad stories.  Lean on the cool kitchen counter, pick up a peeler, and offer to help your mother.  Smile at her as you steel yourself to begin.
Forget option one.  Forget the whole project.  You were delusional to think you could talk with your mother about this.  You cry when you read novels about the Partition, especially novels in which children are separated from their parents or witness their parents being hurt.  You can’t do this.  Put aside the recorder, take the package of Gluco biscuits, go out to the backyard, and eat the whole pack.