BASS 2020: Sarah Thankam Mathews, “Rubberdust” from Kenyon Review Online, Jan/Feb 2019

The seed of what became “Rubberdust” was a lie I told for no reason. I was in a new town, meeting new people. A solar eclipse was happening, and people were passing around those paper glasses. With no motive in mind, I impulsively told the man I was taking a walk with that I feared looking directly at the sun because I had a friend in the second grade who did this every day and lost his sight. Wow, he said. I know, I said, vaguely appalled and amused at myself. I was nervous and wanted to be thought interesting by the new people around me. My lizard brain had complied with the story.
But why that story, and why had it materialized so easily? I cast around in my memory and realized that I had made a friend in second grade, this charming little boy, and our friendship had been based primarily on the joint production of eraser shavings, which we stored in our wooden desks. I could not remember why we did this.

Sarah Thankam Mathews, Contributor Note

What stood out to me most as I was reading this story – until the end – was the doors. Passages between rooms, divisions between spaces, goings out and comings in. Metaphorical doors. Real doors. Doors that open, close, that swing both ways.

The little girl with no friends reads contentedly enough at her small wooden desk during recess. (We pronounced it ri-CESS.) She sits by the corner of the softboard, likes to tenderly peel the crepe paper sheets that Mrs. Lobo has stapled to its expanse away from their moorings. From her schoolbag she pulls out Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl. Books about heroic friends solving crime, tales of spunky weirdos forceful enough to make dents in their worlds. In second grade, you read for the same reasons you eat candy bars, not to see yourself reflected at you as if from mirrors, and in this case that’s just as well; the little girl does not fall into either category.

The location is vague, but hints point to India, which makes it easier to see why our little narrator doesn’t fit in with the British children in the books she’s reading. The teachers interrupt her reading and send her out of the room because they want to gossip. Comings in and goings out.

Anuj, the boy who sits behind her in class pours a handful of leaves onto her hair; she eventually retaliates with a slap, and is sent home with a note her father must sign.

The note says, in a round and spiteful hand, “Did not behave today. Slapped fellow pupil badly.”
“Next time, slap him well,” her father says.
He chuckles, which is a grown man’s way of giggling, and hands the note back to her. He lifts his newspaper back up between the two of them like he is closing a door.

Doors. Divisions between spaces.

In third grade, she again sits in front of Anuj, and behind Karan, a friendless boy so odd even the nicest teacher in school is mean to him. Anuj asks her if she’d like to go on the swings, and they become friends rather than opponents.

Even though she doesn’t turn around to see, a small section of her is aware of Karan sitting at his desk in the now empty classroom, not even a book in front of him, watching the door swing shut, as she and Anuj go out into the bright, hot world.

I suppose if I keep saying “doors” someone’s going to roll their eyes and groan. But, hey, doors, doors closing.

She and Anuj spend their time in class making rubberdust out of their erasers. She pours a handful of rubberdust onto the hair of Karan, but the transformation goes another way, and she is buried by guilt that her action was a cruelty, not a connection. “She runs out to look for Karan, shoving her palms hard into the swinging door.”

A door that swings both ways. But only if you push it right.

Anuj has headaches. Anuj can’t see the board. Anuj is gone, at a special school. More school adventures. Gandhi’s Talisman. A lot of learning.

Then the writer does something shocking: timeshift, self-referential insertion, meta break.

Please listen. I grew up in a place that I cannot return to. When I search for my old home on Google Maps, it says Result Not Found. Shake me, and the past rattles like broken circuitry. I make myself a mug of tea and close my eyes. Heat radiates through the ceramic and into my palms.
I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating heavily, go sit at my computer and type out a story. I title it The Nature of Evil, The Nature of Good. I send the story in to my writing group. They are mystified and slightly uncomfortable. Why is the little girl the only one left without a name, they ask. They are nervous about how to pronounce everything.
“The relevance of this seems grounded in a kind of cultural specificity that the narrator doesn’t include the audience in on,” one man says carefully.
Part of me wants to give the story over to someone in my group to write, start over, make their own in clarity and directness. Maybe someone would set down, clean and loud, right at the start, “The first friend I ever made went blind.”

And finally, our fourth-grade narrator finds her most important door: a computer, “…the door for words to walk out of…”

Doors, rooms.

Since this was one of the shorter stories in the collection, I somehow expected it to be simple and straightforward. Instead it turned out to be complex, weaving past and present, bringing together a semi-autobiographical child and a present-day American immigrant writer whose website gives the pronunciation of her name: “Thankam: thun like thunder, gum like gumdrop.” Because <snark tag> you wouldn’t want any cultural specificity that isn’t familiar to the reader <end snark tag>.

I love the sudden disruption, then just as sudden resumption of the timeline. I love how the parenthetical explanations in the text raise questions (why is she doing this?) that are later addressed. I love the in-your-face otherness just as powerful as the little girl who tells Anuj to stop putting leaves in her hair, then smacks him when he continues. And then accepts his invitation to play on the swings. One place where there is no door, only an opportunity waiting to be realized.

But I loved it even more when I read her Contributor Note. No, not the quote I included at the beginning; that was just for starters. It’s the end of the Note that made everything gel:

I thought back to my school days in Oman and felt a sharp ache. It was the twinge of memories in a setting so far removed from the reality of the people all around you that you fear they are unintelligible to anyone but you. This is the immigrant’s pain, I thought, aside from bureaucracy, provocation, uncertainty, and missing people from the old life; you also have to translate your past, or decide to not even try.
I wrote in a notebook gifted to me by my friend Praveen what I thought would be a first line: “Please listen. I grew up in a place that I cannot return to.” It was wrong somehow. All of a sudden I knew better what I wanted to tell, and it was not a lament. I wanted to write a story of the secret lives, peculiar logic, and intense emotion of children. Of the fear that you are not at your deepest level a Good Person. Of what it is to have to translate for an audience your (foreign) past, which is to say your (foreign) self. Some room was flung open in my brain; I began writing the story poured out of me.

Sarah Thankam Mathews, Contributor Note

The logic of children. Anuj poured leaves on my head, and we became friends. I’m pouring rubberdust on Karan’s head… oops, it doesn’t always work that way, does it. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, forever.

Mathews’ technique of starting things off-balance, of raising questions without answering them, is something I greatly enjoy in fiction. A story becomes a puzzle with the solution given at the end – in this case, in the workshop scene – like a gift.

I’m going to take a bizarre leap here, to science communicator Derek Muller, known for his Veritasium videos and a recent PBS episode on radioactivity. As part of his doctoral dissertation in science education, he conducted an experiment. For one group, he ran an expository video explaining Newtonian forces. For another, the video was a real-conversation dialog about forces. Students found the first video clear, the second confusing. But pre- and post-testing showed the students who watched the clear presentation did not improve at all on a post-test, while the group that watched the confusing video doubled their scores. He explains it as the result of the mental effort expended in engaging with the confusing presentation, an effort that increased their learning significantly.

And so this story, which has pronunciation parentheticals for no particular reason, which doesn’t clearly give a setting (it could be an Indian school in Oman, for all I know), which drops a flash-forward in the middle, which features a nameless narrator (while this is common in first person stories, it’s less usual in third person) engaged me and set me up to receive the gift it wanted to give all along.

I wouldn’t say this would always work. This story was fairly short, so didn’t delay the payoff or overextend the confusion, and had an interesting character and lots of interesting action, with less internal reflection until the crucial moment, to give it momentum and help engage me as a reader. A longer, more introspective story might collapse into a heap of “Hey, I no longer care” before reaching the climax. But here, it worked.

Every story knows how it wants to be told. Sometimes, if readers are lucky, the writer listens.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “The story is so approachable, so immediately accessible, the funniest thing about it is when it breaks the fourth wall to talk about the reception the story got in a writing group, where one participant, seemingly speaking for the group, complains it has a ‘cultural specificity that the narrator doesn’t include the audience in on.’ Yeah, that kind of dumb comment is pretty much every writing group I’ve ever been in, which is why I’m not in writing groups.” [There’s a reason his blog is called Workshop Heretic]

Anna Amundsen from Ink Stains on a Reader’s Blog: “She captures beautifully the moment we first realize that our behavior can have consequences we’ve never thought of, the guilt, the weird and often inadequate ways we say ‘sorry’.”

Story is available online at Kenyon Review Online.

4 responses to “BASS 2020: Sarah Thankam Mathews, “Rubberdust” from Kenyon Review Online, Jan/Feb 2019

    • It’s interesting how she runs into the same things in writing workshops as she did in elementary school. Everyone wants you to be what they expect rather than what you are. Glad you liked it!

  1. Pingback: BASS 2020: Of Mythologies and Misbehaving Men, Among Other Things | A Just Recompense

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