Shobha Rao on Moving Between Cultures and Loving Little House on the Prairie
In Conversation With Will Schwalbe On But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. I believe that every book you read changes you, but some are so powerful that you remember the exact moment you read them. For me, one of those books was Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind. Most people know Isherwood as the writer whose Berlin Stories were turned into the musical Cabaret. Christopher and His Kind is a memoir from the same era—a recounting of life in Berlin as the Nazis came to power. In the book, Isherwood does something extraordinary that I’d never encountered: he writes in two voices. Through the book, he writes about Christopher, himself in the past. But he also serves as the narrator, and when he uses “I,” it’s the Isherwood who is writing the book and exists only in the present.
When I first read Christopher and His Kind, I was on a train from New York to Westport, Connecticut to visit my grandmother. I had done something I bitterly regretted and was sad and anxious. Then I came across the passage where Isherwood first deploys this technique. And it hit me. There was no Will, there was only I. Isherwood made me realize that I had the opportunity to reinvent myself every minute of every day. I was responsible for everything I had done, but I didn’t needed to be bound by it. I looked up from the book and out the window. We were crossing a bridge. The bridge, the page, the thought—they are all fixed in my mind. And I’ve never been the same. And recently, I got to talking how a book can change the way you think about yourself—for the rest of your life—with today’s guest.
Shobha Rao: I’m Shobha Rao, and I’m the author of An Unrestored Woman and Girls Burn Brighter.
WS: Shobha Rao is a novelist and short story writer and currently, the Grace Paley Teaching Fellow at The New School. But she did not begin her career as a writer.
SR: I’m not one of those people that say, oh, I wrote my first story at four years old. It’s like, no. I came to writing much later in life.
WS: The story of how Shobha came to be a writer is one that is impossible without a different story—the book that changed her life. And yet, when Shobha was a child growing up in northern India, she didn’t spend too much of her time reading.
SR: We didn’t have many books growing up, so I remember the only book I had was Emma and the Garden Imp.
Emma’s a little girl, and she’s playing in her garden and this garden imp jumps out of one of the flowering bushes and starts seducing her into doing really naughty things—messing up her bed after it’s been made, you know, little childhood, mischievous things. And this whole time, Emma’s mom is pregnant. Once the baby is born, Emma has this whole reckoning like, oh, I’m the big sister now. And so she banishes the garden imp and becomes the responsible big sister.
I have no idea what the moral for a child there was because of course, I fell in love with the garden imp. I mean, who wouldn’t? He was like this little green guy, hopping around with these big ears, and he was just adorable and so full of ideas. And I thought, I want to befriend the garden imp. Forget Emma, and the baby, and the mom. I want to be friends with the garden imp. Don’t we all?
You know, maybe that’s where the imagination began to grow. Like, imagining all the bad things I could do. The life of the mind starts somewhere, and maybe it was with Emma and the Garden Imp.
WS: Shobha’s vivid imagination also played a significant role when she was seven, and her family moved to the United States.
SR: Coming to the U.S. was the most profound event in my life. I remember all our friends, my parents’ friends—we just called them aunties and uncles. So I remember an uncle lifted me onto his lap, and he’s like, so, you know you’re moving to America? I said, yes. He said, do you know where America is? And I said, of course. And he said, where is it? And I said, well, we get on a plane—which, I didn’t even know what a plane is—we get on a plane, and there’s a creek, and then you cross the creek, and then it’s America. That’s what I thought it was—that there was a little creek running between the two countries and. . . easy peasy. So a lot of childhood ignorance about obviously the world map, but also maybe a little bit of. . . wishful thinking.
We moved in January, and I remember it snowed within the first few days of us getting there. And I’d never seen snow before. And I ran out—I had no mittens, I had no hat, nothing. And my shoes were not the proper shoes. And I just picked up the snow and just sort of stared at it in awe. My fingers are turning red, my nose is turning red, and that kind of cold, I was, of course, also unfamiliar with. And snow has always had an awe for me. The silence that takes over the world, and just. . . the absolute miracle of snow. I’ve never gotten over it, I have to confess.
WS: But Shobha had more to get used to than the weather—she also had to learn English.
SR: The school was a regular public school, but irregular in a lot of ways. So my sister and I, we would get pulled out of our regular English class time, and we would be taught separately. This teacher—I remember her face, I sadly don’t remember her name—but I remember her. She was so kind, and she taught us English. Literally for me, starting with the alphabet on up. And I don’t think without her instruction—without that very special one on one teaching environment—I don’t know if I would have fallen in love with the language as I have.
WS: While Shobha began to learn English, her aptitude for other subjects brought her closer to mastering it.
SR: Math at the time was my favorite subject, because there was no language barrier. And so, all the kids who did well on their math quizzes—these weekly sort of Friday math quizzes—we were allowed to go to the Bookmobile that would pull up next to our school and we could pick out a book for free.
WS: The bookmobile was a sort of little on the go library—think a Scholastic book fair on wheels.
SR: I got to pick out a book the first time it came around, and I hadn’t learned English enough to really even read the titles by that point, but the book that drew me in was Little House on the Prairie, and I can tell you exactly why it drew me in.
It was a painting of the back of the wagon with Mary and Laura Ingalls looking out as they were sort of, the wagon was being driven across the prairie. And I have an older sister, and those two girls looking out of the back of that wagon, looking so sort of frightened, on the cusp of this new life and this massive change, this huge movement. . . I knew it. I knew it. I could see it in their faces, and I knew that I saw myself and my sister in these two girls. I recognized them, perfectly.
WS: Though the book instantly meant a lot to her, Shobha couldn’t read it immediately.
SR: I picked that book, and it just sat on my shelf for I want to say months and months until I learned enough English to start reading it. And once I read it, that was it. I was a Laura Ingalls fan and continue to be.
WS: Little House on the Prairie was the first book in a series chronicling the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, as they moved from the woods of Wisconsin to Kansas. And despite the different circumstances, Shobha recognized her own story in it.
SR: It described a kind of deeply felt love for the land so I grew up with that book as a sort of lighthouse or a beacon for my own journey—kind of an instruction manual for being a little girl in the United States. And something of it still feels like it represented my childhood, just as much as it did this other girl who lived in the late 1800s. And that’s what’s so remarkable about literature, isn’t it?
WS: When we come back from the break, Little House on the Prairie continues to leave its mark on Shobha as she settles into her new life.
WS: Author Shobha Rao had been uprooted at seven, when she moved from India to the United States. As Shoba adjusted to her new life, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie found her at exactly the right moment.
SR: I think in some ways Little House on the Prairie grounded me during a time of great confusion because Laura in a lot of ways was trying to figure out this prairie life, and everything was so new to her. She’d come from deep, thick forest woods in Wisconsin to this open prairie, and I felt the same. Coming from a very cloistered, sort of comfortable, known life in India where everybody looked like me and everybody spoke the same language, it was a known world. And to come into completely a strange landscape, with strange customs and culture and language, all of that was slightly demystified by reading Little House on the Prairie and seeing another little girl about my age experience the same sort of profound changes in her own life.
WS: For Shobha, the book was so powerful that specific scenes continue to move and shape her life.
SR: One thing that I think I remember very vividly about that book, and I think about more than probably I should, is that they all, the entire family goes to pick blackberries or huckleberries or something—these wild blackberries—and they all catch this illness. And they’re all bedridden. All of them. And she hears her older sister Mary moaning on the bed, asking for water, but both her mom and dad are too ill. So even though Laura is just as ill, she literally drags herself out of bed and crawls to her sister to give her some water.
I remember that scene so clearly because in my mind, I thought, that has to be you. You have to be strong, you have to be defiant, you have to be the one who saves your sister from death, and thirst and hunger. And you have to be the one who preserves. And you have to help the ones who can’t.
Maybe I do that a little bit as a writer. You know? I don’t know, maybe it’s very self congratulatory to say that. But I think to take my own despair or my own hungers and my own thirsts and to put them onto to paper and hopefully in some way feed another. In a small way, I hope I’m doing the same.
WS: And was Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House series a kind of gateway drug to reading?
SR: I would say so. Emma and the Garden Imp was great, but Little House on the Prairie is the one that sort of climbed inside of me. And it showed me that I was not alone. And that is probably the greatest task of literature, is to make us less lonely.
WS: As Shobha found herself moving more throughout her childhood, books remained a source of comfort. And when her family finally settled in Indiana, there was one thing she especially relied on to make it feel more like home.
SR: I turned to libraries quite a bit. And I would just pick up whatever book I hadn’t read. Whatever book I could get my hands on. It was a college town, but just beyond the city limits were corn fields and soybean fields and so forth. So it was quite rural and quite homogenous in a lot of ways. And so, I think I found diversity. I found diversity of not just you know, races and all that, but stories and the way different lives could be lived. That that sort of rural, collegiate environment of my small town, that wasn’t the only way to live. It was perfectly fine, but there was also New York and there was also like, the Sahara. There were also so many places in the world that were so very different and yet we were all so gorgeously connected.
WS: And while Shobha experienced that connection as a reader, she eventually realized she wanted to examine what it would be like as a writer herself.
SR: I thought of myself just as a reader. So, I went to college, I studied engineering, and then I went to law school. And there was no sort of lightbulb moment, but I do, at some point, remember thinking, oh, I wonder if I could write my own story.
I sat down and wrote a story, and as might be guessed, it was awful. But it’s a bug! It’s like, oh, wait, I wonder, how can I make this actually not as bad as the original? So then you start writing more and more, and craving what it did to me. How it, in some ways, made me feel lighter to travel through the world in a different way, with a different outlook, with a kind of self possession that I didn’t have before I was writing. And the better and better I got at it, the more I started to walk through the world with more of a sense of my own worth.
WS: Shobha’s work as a lawyer also began to inform her writing. One particular job, as an advocate for victims of domestic violence, especially stayed with her.
SR: I came to understand that there are far more stories in the world than my own, and that there was a richness and a profound resilience in the lives of these women that I was working with that just astonished me. It just floored me. And witnessing that resilience, witnessing their strength, their warmth, their generosity despite horrible acts of violence perpetrated against them, I walked away from that job with a very clear idea of who I was as a writer and what I needed to write. And it hasn’t changed. It’s just a fist inside of me. It just sits there.
WS: Shobha went on to publish An Unrestored Woman, a collection of short stories, and most recently, Girls Burn Brighter, both works that examine the resilience of women amidst the most difficult circumstances. And she still finds herself returning to the original stories of resilience that helped her become a writer: the ones by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
SR: I’ve read all the biographies. All of them. I was obsessed. And then I’ve been to a few of her homes, like two or three of the cabin sites. In fact, the last one I went to was the Little House on the Prairie. And it had been recreated, so it wasn’t the same cabin because that had been destroyed long ago, but they had recreated it based on her drawings and the descriptions of the cabin. And I remember sitting there—there was all these osage trees or something around there, there was like a creek nearby, just as she described it. And I remember sitting in the cabin—this recreated cabin—and thinking, nothing is the same. This is a bummer. But then, I remembered something was exactly the same. And that was sitting in the cabin, I was alone, and the sound of the wind was, I would guess, exactly the same. It was howling. And she describes the sound of the wind a lot. There’s nothing to break the wind on the prairie, so it just howls past the cabin. And I’m like, wow, they were out here all alone with that wind. It must’ve been so terrifying. And I heard it. And I heard it then in her books. And so it was a really interesting moment because I sat there kind of disappointed in this recreated cabin that seemed so fake, oh, but there’s some things you can’t fake.
WS: But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Shobha Rao and Amelia Possanza. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.