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Switching her editorial pens: Jennifer Acker, editor of The Common, writes debut novel

  • Jennifer Acker, founder and editor in chief of The Common, the Amherst College literary magazine, has published her debut novel, "The Limits of the World.”  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Acker, seen here at Amherst College, has published her debut novel, "The Limits of the World,” a story about the Indian community in East Africa and America. She is the founder and editor of The Common, the college-based literary mag azine. STAFF PHOTO/ KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Acker, founder and editor in chief of The Common, the Amherst College literary magazine, has published her debut novel, "The Limits of the World.”  STAFF PHOTO/ KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Acker, seen here at Amherst College's Cooper House, has published her debut novel, "The Limits of the World,” a story about the Indian community in East Africa and America. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “The Limits of the World” explores the lives of Indians and Indian-Americans whose roots trace to East Africa.

  • An Indian trader’s family, circa early 1900s, in German East Africa, a colony that included modern-day Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania. Photo by Walther Dobbertin/Bundesarchiv/WikiCommons



Staff Writer
Thursday, April 11, 2019

Jennifer Acker didn’t imagine when she started work on her debut novel, “The Limits of the World,” that it would take about 10 years to complete.

But real life has a way of getting in the way of many things.

For Acker, the founder and editor of The Common, the Amherst College-based literary magazine, there was the need to finish graduate school, then the work of getting The Common off the ground, teaching various writing courses at Amherst (and overseas one year) and doing other writing such as short fiction and essays.

“This novel was done pretty much in bits and pieces,” she said during a recent interview at the college. “I actually finished the first draft in 2012, but then I needed to find an agent, and then editors [at publishing houses] wanted to see some changes, so it wasn’t completely finished till the book went to print last October.”

But now that “The Limits of the World” (Delphinium Books) is about to make its debut, Acker is thrilled — and relieved. “My main thought right now is ‘It took 10 years to write this book, and I want to enjoy this moment,’ ” she said with a laugh.

And in hanging with her novel all these years, Acker, a 2000 graduate of Amherst, has given readers a rare fictional look at a community likely not well known, at least in the United States: Indians and Indian-Americans from East Africa, who in turn trace their ancestry to Indians brought by the British to Kenya and Uganda as indentured laborers in the late 19th century to build a railroad.

It’s a story that ranges across four generations and takes a thoughtful look at a number of issues —  immigration and migration, cross-cultural and generational misunderstandings, the history of a minority community, ethics — while also presenting an intimate look at a family with roots in the Indian enclave of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

Set primarily around the year 2000 in the United States and Kenya, “The Limits of the World” follows the Chandaria family — Premchand, his wife, Urmila, and their son, Sunil — Indian-Americans from Kenya who present a picture of a successful immigrant family. Premchand is a respected doctor in Columbus, Ohio; Urmila runs a shop that sells artisanal Kenyan crafts; and the American-born Sunil, who’s 30, is a doctoral student in philosophy at Harvard University.

But beneath the surface, all is not well. Premchand and Urmila’s marriage seems a largely empty one, and Urmila, even after more than 30 years in America, feels isolated and adrift. Urmila and Sunil also have a strained relationship, and Sunil feels he’s losing his way in his studies.

He’s also been keeping a secret from his parents: He and his Jewish girlfriend, Amy, are about to be married.

But Sunil’s parents have long kept a secret from him, too: One of his relatives in Nairobi, Bimal, who Sunil thinks is his cousin, is actually his brother. And on a trip the family (and Amy) make to Nairobi in the wake of a serious injury to Bimal, more complications, cultural clashes and a dramatic event will ensue, enough to shake the family’s foundations to the core. 

Acker also weaves in some history of the Indian community in East Africa. One example is the infamous story of how two man-eating lions killed many railway laborers — brought to Africa by the British primarily from Gujarat, a region of western India — in the late 1890s in Kenya. In the following decades, Indians steadily found a niche in Kenya, Uganda and other parts of Africa as merchants, artisans and business owners.

But as Acker notes, that financial success created resentment among some native Africans, and the Indian community was thrown into uncertainty when Kenya and Uganda gained independence from Britain in the 1960s. Idi Amin, Uganda’s notorious president in the 1970s, expelled 60,000 Asians (predominantly of Indian origin) from the country in 1972.

She relates much of that history through the character of Sunil and Bimal’s grandfather, who makes a tape for his grandsons to listen to; his voice is added in separate chapters in the narrative.

“Using a collective voice — ‘we’ — was my first idea,” Acker said. “I thought it brought in this poetic element, but some of my early readers felt it distanced them from the story. Then someone suggested using the first person [voice], a specific person with a particular story. I think that makes for a voice that’s not disconnected from the rest of the narrative.”

The connections

Acker has drawn on some firsthand experience to write “The Limits of the World.” After graduating from high school in Maine, she spent several months living in a Kenyan village, teaching English and other subjects in a local school as part of a service program. As well, her husband, Nishi Shah, a professor of philosophy at Amherst College, traces his roots to the Indian community in Kenya.

It’s not an autobiographical novel, Acker notes. But she has used her experience within the Indian community, and traveling to Kenya a few times, to help shape the story. For instance, her observation is that many Indian-Americans with roots from East Africa marry other Indian-Americans; her marriage to Shah, she says, is not common in that community (though she adds that she has been completely accepted by her husband’s family).

She’s also created a particularly vivid and complicated character in Urmila, who at first glance appears a cold fish. She seems unhappy with everything — the slow sales in her shop, her husband’s solitary nature, her son’s decision to study philosophy, and especially his marriage to a Jewish-American woman (“Urmila … admitted then that Amy was a nice girl — kind, intelligent, pretty enough — it’s just that she wasn’t one of them”). In Nairobi, as she chats with her sister and other relatives in Gujarati, Urmila seemingly goes out of her way to make Amy feel unwanted and uncomfortable.

But in Urmila’s isolation in America, and her determination to soldier on regardless, she’s also a sympathetic character. As Acker sees it, Urmila speaks to an issue confronting many immigrant women, in that their husbands usually obtain jobs in a new country, allowing them to integrate much more easily than their wives, who are home with children — who in turn are forging connections with their English-speaking classmates, leaving their mothers further behind.

“I saw Urmila from the start as a kind of tough character … [who] would be behaving in ways that people would not expect for an immigrant woman of her generation,” said Acker. “That was challenging, like it was to create the dynamic with her son, who grows up with much more privilege and opportunity than she did but is also subject to her whims — not given much warmth from her as a child.”

Acker, who has used The Common to highlight the work of writers from different parts of the world, turned to one of her favorite writers, V.S. Naipul, for additional inspiration for her novel. The late Trinidadian-British novelist, who was of Indian descent, also plumbed the Indian diaspora and immigrant experience in his work, and his 1979 book “A Bend in the River” is one of the few works of fiction in English that profiles the Indian community in East Africa, Acker says.

But Acker says she also did a lot of research about that community for “The Limits of the World,” though she was never tempted to write any nonfiction about it: “I just thought it would be more fun to create my characters and really build the story around them.”

And as she prepares for a book tour that will take her to Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and a few Midwestern cities, she’ll take some good early reviews with her, like one from Kirkus Reviews that calls the novel a “thoughtful, deeply researched debut…. It's a rare but honest look at the way parents, children, and spouses talk to one another but don't always hear what's being said.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

There will be a book launch for “The Limits of the World” on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, in the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College. Jennifer Acker’s website is jenniferacker.com.