“Deception,” the opening story to Anita Felicelli’s short fiction debut Love Songs for a Lost Continent (2018, Stillhouse Press), finds Sita accused of killing her husband, who was loud, garrulous, abusive, and also — a tiger. Sita is an avid reader and intellectual, disgusted at being handed over to him by a family and culture that expects conformity. The police have rigged her to a futuristic machine that causes her to doubt her own innocence, imagining a cruel murder plot that though justified, may not have happened.
As she sits in jail, her innocence doubted by everyone, including her own counsel, she considers: “How easily the fictions that a closed circle of people told each other could grow wings, take flight as if they were truth.”
While this is the only story in which the book takes a true flight of fancy, there is a folkloric, metaphorical quality to the entire collection. Over the course of 13 stories, we follow recurring characters — among them first- and second-generation Tamil Americans — tackling similar themes and making similar choices that, while not contained in a single story arc, give the impression that we are seeing the shades of a life through various vessels.
“How easily the fictions that a closed circle of people told each other could grow wings, take flight as if they were truth.”
The book has two distinct halves, the first about characters who are still minting their adulthood; negotiating love, partners, and a growing sense of identity, against those who’d seek to control them.
In “Elephants in the Pink City,” Kai, who’s recently come out to his parents’ disapproval, sneaks away from them while on vacation to meet an elephant polo player. We pick up with the family later in “Hema and Kathy,” told through the latter’s perspective, about her crumbling friendship to Kai’s sister, over an affair with her older soccer coach.
This story-pairing happens again later with “Snow,” where working model Devi is hosting her cousin Susannah in Manhattan, hoping to keep her life of eating disorders and unwanted sexual advances off-conversation. We meet Susannah later in “The Logic of Someday,” as her own relationship with her weed-producing boyfriend is falling apart. In both, Susannah’s skin color becomes a driving factor with how she relates.
These ideas echo with Tarini in “Once Upon a Great Island,” who ponders her French boyfriend’s near-colonialist venture to make a vanilla farm in Madagascar because of birthright, and again in the title story, where the narrator’s budding love for his lower-caste girlfriend comes to a head.
“One feels as if they are traveling with the author through the places she’s been, the people she’s met, slowly growing and coming out of a newer and newer cocoon.”
One feels as if they are traveling with the author through the places she’s been, the people she’s met, slowly growing and coming out of a newer and newer cocoon. Each of Felicelli’s stories read like amber-encased love notes to their place, of times past yet rooted in vivid reality through the choice detail — the polo grounds of Jaipur, the vanilla plants of Madagascar, the home grown weed lab of Bay Area California.
She moves the characters from home to elsewhere and back, as they look for the spaces where they feel comfortable. They become the setting for them to consider everything from their careers to their romantic partners to their family outlook. As the book moves into the second half, so too do the characters in stories become less concerned with issues of self-identity, and more with the exigent losses of their own families.
In “The Art of Losing,” Maisie’s son goes into a coma, and she considers his upbringing and the choices she’s made. We see a life not lived by Jenny in “Wild Things,” whose relationship with Malik falls apart because she does not want a child, like their upstairs neighbor; or the narrator of “Rampion,” who starts coveting her neighbor’s newborn after her husband’s death.
We dovetail through the stories, in many ways, just as we first leapt into them: deception, secrecy, private thoughts.
In the title story the narrator muses, “when the stories came up in a folklore seminar at UC Berkeley many years later, a strange shiver moved through my heart, a moment of nostalgic recognition.”
Oddly enough, I felt very much the same, as if I was watching a life play out in shades through different vessels, akin to my own life, watching sisters, cousins, and matriarchs across generations deal with issues of womanhood. Though it so often gets watered down into binaries — American versus India, Family Bonds versus Independence — we know deep down that the choices made are too complex to ever truly side with one or the other, and inevitably force some degree of deception.
Felicelli hits on this well, using these moments to push characters into exciting horizons, and no stronger than in “Everywhere, Signs.” Fifth-grader Hagar, feeling the xenophobia of 9/11 all around her, lies about her teacher being abusive. But when confronted, the teacher bursts into xenophobic hate all the same. Hagar feels guilty for the cruel act, and yet, like Sita who killed her tiger-husband, we know her intuition has steered correctly.
In many ways, “Deception” feels like the kind of tale that Felicelli’s characters would have wanted to read in their own childhoods. A story with childlike whimsy, but also enough humility not to lie to them about the impositions of the world and culture in which they’ve been raised. It also pushes its binary conflict and makes it something deeper, richer, offering a verisimilitude that feels fresh and rewarding.
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Aditya Desai lives in Baltimore, currently teaching writing and revising a couple novels that he keeps threatening to finish someday. He received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Maryland, College Park. His stories, essays, and poems have appeared in B O D Y, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Margins, District Lit, The Kartika Review, CultureStrike, and others, which you can find most of at adityadesaiwriter.com. Find him on Twitter @atwittya.