Thrity Umrigar, Author
2009 MID-CAREER AWARD FOR LITERATURE
As a young child growing up in Bombay, India, author Thrity Umrigar first explored her urge to write by crafting ‘anonymous’ poems to her parents whenever she felt wronged by them, then secretly pinning them to their closet door. “I learned early on that writing was a good way to get rid of pent-up feelings,” she recalls.
She continued to write poems, short stories and essays throughout her teen years. She didn’t really consider herself a writer, though, until that night in her living room when a poem called “The Old Man” just flowed through her hands, as if someone were dictating it to the 14-year-old girl. Today, she considers the piece sappy, but when she set down her pen that night, she was exhausted and fully conscious of something new and exciting stirring within herself.
Throughout her youth, Umrigar’s ancient, mysterious and complex homeland gave her much to write about, instilling in her a hypersensitive awareness of the abject poverty all around her. Writing gave her the tools to make sense of it all and “give wings to the inchoate feelings and emotions” she experienced.
Still, a couple of things needed to happen before she could truly capture the worlds swirling inside of her and put them into words. It was becoming clear to her that she needed to leave India to gain a clearer perspective, become independent and discover exactly who she was as a person. She also realized she must live in a place where she knew she would be able to succeed or fail purely on her own talents.
After graduating from college in Bombay, Umrigar decided to move to the U.S. Once again, her living room was the scene of a turning point in her life. As she sat one day checking off a list of American universities that offered a master's in journalism, her eyes fell on The Ohio State University. Just then, the record that happened to be on the turntable began the next cut: It was Joan Baez’s song “Banks of the Ohio.” She interpreted this happy coincidence as a sign she should relocate to Columbus, Ohio. Three years later, in 1985, her M.A .in Journalism from OSU in hand, she embarked on an award-winning journalism career, first at the Lorain Morning Journal, then with the Akron Beacon Journal.
In 1997, Umrigar earned her Ph.D. in English at nearby Kent State University and a few years later, won a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University, where she wrote her first novel, Bombay Time. In 2002 she joined the faculty of Case Western Reserve University. Now an associate professor, Umrigar teaches fiction, nonfiction, journalism and African-American and American literature.
But she’s perhaps best known internationally for the depth and meticulous storytelling that define her novels Bombay Time (USA Picador, 2001; a Spanish translation came out in Barcelona in 2006), The Space Between Us (William Morrow, 2005) and If Today Be Sweet (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2007), as well as a memoir, First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood (HarperCollins, 2004; released in both New York and New Delhi). In 2009 Harper brought out her fourth novel, The Weight of Heaven, which would be reissued the following year, as were the memoir and The Space Between Us, in the Harper Perennial series. It chronicles the triumphs and tribulations of an American couple who move to India shortly after their seven-year-old son dies from meningitis, where they endure a monumental clash of cultures.
The book adeptly tackles Umrigar’s favorite topics. “I am simply a writer who is interested in examining issues of power and community,” she observes. “Whether it’s power arising from gender or class or caste or race differences; who has it and who doesn’t; and how each responds. It’s just something that endlessly fascinates me.”