Kolkata’s Noisy Hope + HerStory by Pat Wahler – Happiness Between Tails
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“Kolkata (Calcutta) … this is a city you ‘feel’ more than simply visit.” lonely planet India, 19th edition.
With jello for equilibriums, my husband and I landed there a few weeks ago (most if not all international flights arrive at a cruel 3am) after 23 sleepless hours thanks to the ceaseless shrieks of one small boy.
Kolkata slumbered. Despite few cars on the night road — why all the honking?
Lonely and disquieted is how I imagine any Kolkatan must feel if they visit my neck of the woods. In Los Angeles, honks can elicit bullets. Kolkata drivers beep-beep-beep minimum once a minute. Be the vehicle a taxi, motorcycle, electric rickshaw, or bicycle, honks there are “honk-tra honk-la honk-las” of “hello,” “I’m here,” “coming through,” “watch out,” and probably, “I love making sound.”
Whatever the intention, the cacophony is constant. Don’t get me started on what the actual driving is like. Suffice to say, I was informed that their driving tests are conducted in parking lots, not amid actual traffic.
From my 6th floor hotel double-paned window, the din rang loud and clear. We were in a Kolkata suburb called New Town that’s thriving with local investor money in housing and air-conditioned malls…
A huge qualm I had before visiting was that Indian poverty would gut me. Sadly, Kolkata poverty is alive and well, part of and inexcusable tragedy that needs to be remedied worldwide. What I hadn’t anticipated was that I’d return to California thinking what’s going on in the U.S. might be more brutish.
In Kolkata (and I wrote and podcasted a little about the city before), they’ve got actual communities. In my part of the world, the tanking healthcare system and economy force more and more people into tent villages. Ones that, amid dueling compassion and loathing for our unfortunate, are continually raided and uprooted without warning by our police.
Anyway, we both came home with terrible colds. What an odd post-pandemic phenom it is to say, “At least it wasn’t Covid (and whatever happened to the ’19’ part?).” Still, our nightly hacking coughs make healing sleep more than a little elusive.
Ok — my head’s a bit floaty — thank goodness for pharmaceuticals — so the rest of my trip will have to wait.
For more of this journey, click here and here and here and here and here.
Oh, and did I mention we were there for a wedding?…
In the meantime, here’s a more coherent post about how blogger/author Pat Wahler journeys through her books. She writes from Missouri and has garnered many awards for her many novels.
Writing Herstory by Pat Wahler
If you enjoy reading biographical historical fiction as much as I do, you may recognize some of my favorites of the genre. The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain gives us the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin tells the story of Anne Lindbergh. The First Actress by C.W. Gortner is the journey of Sarah Bernhardt. I enjoy learning about women from history, or herstory, as I like to call it. True, a reader could find a nonfiction biography and get the facts. But what I love about historical fiction is the way it puts a reader right in the story to experience what the protagonist does in an immersive and entertaining way.
Based on my love of this genre, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that biographical historical fiction isn’t only my favorite story to read. It’s also my favorite story to write. However, choosing a subject can be a difficult proposition. In my 2018 debut novel, I am Mrs. Jesse James, I was fortunate to find a character who people knew next to nothing about. Writing Zee James also gave me a built-in audience. To this day, people are mesmerized by any topic related to the James family. As a bonus, the family had major ties to Missouri, my home state, which made research much more convenient. So when the time came to work on my second historical novel, I decided to search for a subject within the same type of parameters, hoping to find another woman from Missouri whose experiences were unknown, forgotten, or erased. But I needed a subject who left behind a skeleton of facts rather than a detailed account of every moment of her life, giving me room to flesh out her story in the narrative.
With this in mind, I compiled a list of half a dozen possibilities. Then I did a general search on each woman and considered whether available information on the candidates lent themselves to building a story arc. Several of them did, but one name jumped right to the top of the list—Rose Cecil O’Neill. I didn’t know much about her, although I’d certainly heard of her most famous creation, the Kewpie doll. As I did a deeper dive into her story, I found there was much more to her accomplishments than the iconic Kewpies. During her lifetime, Rose produced a prodigious body of literary and artistic work, something I knew I’d never be able to incorporate into a novel. Besides, other people had spent a fair amount of effort in analyzing her artistic creations, particularly the Kewpies, who at one time consumed the world’s imagination. However, the areas that interested me most about Rose were her personal relationships. How did they guide her journey from nineteen-year-old girl to a determined woman of world fame? This was an approach no one else had used, and it seemed the perfect springboard from which to craft a story.
After finding my focus, it was back to learning everything I could about Rose O’Neill. I spent more than a year in initial research dipping into family correspondence, books, articles, and newspaper accounts.
And then, after I had absorbed every bit of information I could find, I let Rose take over the job of guiding me forward. Odd as it sounds, after immersing myself in the life of a figure from history, it’s as if I take on a new persona, and channel the subject I’ve studied. That’s when I know I’m ready to write the story. (Lest you wonder about my sanity, I’ve heard other authors make similar claims.)
In truth, I consider writing herstory—tales from the lives of women who came before me—to be an honor and a privilege. Yes, historical fiction, especially biographical historical fiction, is definitely a challenge to research and write. It takes a great deal of time and patience (not to mention a good pair of glasses) while poring over old documents. But it’s true we learn from the past; and what could be more gratifying than introducing to the world the untold story of a deserving woman.
Better yet is discovering her story is one that resonates with readers.
What cities inspire your reading and writing?