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A Road Trip In 'America For Beginners'

Jul 21, 2018
Originally published on July 21, 2018 1:40 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Road trips tell the stories of America - Twain, Kerouac, Nabokov, Steinbeck. Leah Franqui has written her first novel, and it's a road trip about Pival Sengupta, a recent Indian widow of means who books a trip with the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company to see America but, really, to search for her son, Rahi, whom her husband had said had died after he told them he was gay, and he cast him out of their house. She drives about America with Satya, her guide, who really only knows New York and maybe New Jersey, and Rebecca, an aspiring actress who may not have talent to match her dreams, in the new novel "America For Beginners." And Leah Franqui, also a playwright and screenwriter, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

LEAH FRANQUI: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: This is a trio of very disparate characters, but what do they find out they share?

FRANQUI: Well, I think all of these characters, who form this unlikely friendship over the course of this journey, feel totally out of place in this new place that they're in. And for the character of Rebecca, who's actually from the United States, it's a really incredible sensation to feel out of place in her own country. But the sort of surface level thing they share is that being displaced by choice and having to reconcile that new identity, that fish-out-of-water feeling.

SIMON: How did you choose where they'd go in the United States?

FRANQUI: Well, there are a lot of tours that are marketed to people from different countries. When my now in-laws visited the United States...

SIMON: We should explain your husband is Indian and you live in Mumbai now.

FRANQUI: Yes, I should have said. So my husband is Indian and I now live in Mumbai. But my in-laws are actually originally and currently live in Kolkata. They're from Kolkata. And when they visited the United States for the first time, they were very determined to do one of these tours. And when researching the novel, I realized that these tours really take people on a certain set of locations. New York, Niagara, Las Vegas, San Francisco - these are all very popular destinations for Indian tour groups. And I added some other destinations because I felt like these tours were really lacking in some of the cities that I think are the most interesting cities in the United States, including my own hometown, Philadelphia.

SIMON: You make certain they go to (laughter)...

FRANQUI: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...The Corning Museum of Glass.

FRANQUI: That's also on the regular tour group. And I think it's really strange. It's a big hit...

SIMON: I've never been there...

FRANQUI: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...So I have no right to laugh, OK?

FRANQUI: (Laughter) No, what's strange about...

SIMON: For all I know, it's transforming.

FRANQUI: Well, it's a big one on Indian and Chinese tour routes. And I think what's really strange about it - the museum's actually really great. I went as part of my research for the novel and visited. It's really beautiful and unique, but what's weird about it is that you're kind of expected to buy a lot of stuff in the gift shop. And to me, that seems like a really sort of tempting fate thing, to buy a bunch of glass in the beginning of your long, extended road trip.

SIMON: What does Pival see as she looks at America through, what she imagines would be, the eyes of her son, perhaps her late son?

FRANQUI: I think for Pival, America is a blank space for her. It's a kind of quicksand that sunk her son down in it and took him away from her - in some ways, a land of temptation in which he never returned. And so there's something kind of negative about the United States for Pival. Eventually, what I think she comes to see is a freedom of selfhood in America that is different than the life he had living with her and her husband.

SIMON: Pival loves her son but still thinks of his orientation as a sickness.

FRANQUI: Yes, that's true. Actually, I recently read that some psychological organization in India just this past week declared homosexuality not a mental illness. So that gives you some sense of the framework of a lot of the thought process around sexual orientation in India. And when I met my in-laws and people like them, their contemporaries in India, it was the first time I'd met people from a different country who had such a strong feeling about sexual orientation as wrong. And I wanted to internalize that in this character - that conflict of loving somebody and yet not understanding them almost to the point of horror.

SIMON: You are, according to what I've read on the publicity, a Puerto Rican Jewish native of Philadelphia who now lives in Mumbai.

FRANQUI: That is true.

SIMON: Did you have any hesitation to write characters from the Indian point of view?

FRANQUI: Initially, I did feel a little bit worried about writing characters from a different ethnic background, specifically my husband's actual ethnic background, which is why nobody in the book is Punjabi. My husband is actually Punjabi, and I felt like that was too much of an appropriation. But I think having grown up in a mixed cultural marriage - my father is Puerto Rican and was Catholic and my mother is Russian Jewish - I think that that division of my own cultural identity and the ways that I have had to look at both of those as both I'm a part of that, but I'm not a part of that, what does it mean to be a part of that, gave me a kind of sense of freedom in exploring other cultural identities.

SIMON: Throughout the trip, although her companions don't know it, Pival is contemplating what I'll just refer to as a decisive act.

FRANQUI: Yes. She is considering whether her life is worth living without her son in it. I think that, for Pival, this trip is a ritual that she has to do. It's her act of grieving for her son...

SIMON: Even though she isn't quite certain her son is really dead.

FRANQUI: Exactly.

SIMON: This just might be a story her husband - late husband told her.

FRANQUI: Exactly. It's that uncertainty. So there's both the quest for knowledge and, in some way, an act, a ritual of grief.

SIMON: Don't want to give away anything.

FRANQUI: Sure.

SIMON: But the - in the tradition of great road trip novels, the characters get to give themselves fresh starts here, don't they?

FRANQUI: I believe so. I think that's another thing that unites all three of these characters is the search for a better life and, in that, sort of a better self, a shedding of a past self. And that's, I think, why I called the novel "America For Beginners" because I think that that's the dream of the new world, that America is a country of beginners, that you can come to the new world and begin again, even something as fundamental as yourself.

SIMON: Leah Franqui - her novel, "America For Beginners." Thanks so much for being with us.

FRANQUI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.