Critics Say Patients of Regulatory Board Aren’t Top Priority

By Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

A surveillance camera recorded dentist Bradley D. Hagen fondling a female patient at the Del Valle correctional facility in 1997. The Travis County sheriff’s department arrested, then fired him. Criminal charges are pending, and five inmates have sued Hagen, alleging sexual assault.

Still, Hagen continues to practice in Manchaca. His profession’s oversight body, the Texas Board of Dental Examiners, did not temporarily suspend Hagen’s license — as state rules empower it to do and as other state agencies routinely do, even when criminal charges are pending.

Hagen, who did not return calls for comment, is contesting the criminal charges and has settled two of the lawsuits, involving three plaintiffs, said his lawyer, Scott Young.

Still, the treatment of Hagen fits a pattern: The state’s primary agency empowered with protecting consumers from bad dentists has a lower record of revoking licenses than kindred boards and has a big tent of critics including former and current employees, patients and their advocates, and state lawmakers.

The agency’s executive director, Jeff Hill, said state law prevents him from disclosing whether his agency has investigated Hagen.

“I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this, OK? Let’s just drop it,” Hill said. “I do not believe there is an indication that he is an individual who should have had his license revoked on an emergency basis, that is he posed an immediate threat to life, limb or property.”

Critics say this response to Hagen’s case illustrates that the board protects dentists, rather than consumers, and that those who rely on the board to check a dentist might not get the full picture.

Consider what the dental board’s online database shows about Charles Dyer, a pediatric dentist with a private practice in Beaumont: He received his dental license June 7, 1975. The board has never disciplined him. And he received his permit to sedate patients using nitrous oxide in July 1996.

Nothing in that sketch indicates, however, that Dyer performed the potentially dangerous procedure at least 291 times before becoming certified, according to federal and state records. In fact, he received — and later refunded — $20,425 from Medicaid for nitrous oxide sedations from 1990 to 1996.

Nor does his record contain any clues about what happened to Medicaid patient Quincy Guidry, 2 years old in December 1997, when he was admitted to the Columbia Beaumont Medical Center to have seven of his teeth capped by Dyer.

Just two weeks before, the asthmatic toddler had been put on antibiotics for wheezing, coughing and temperatures of up to 104 degrees — all documented red flags that made it risky to put him under general anesthesia, especially for elective surgery, court records say. But the hospital’s staff did so, and Quincy went into cardiac arrest. He emerged from the seizure with permanent brain damage.

“There’s no other child that should go through what mine did,” said Quincy’s father, Andrew Wariya.

He and the child’s mother, Charlotte Guidry, sued Dyer, the hospital, the anesthesiologist and the attending nurses for negligence and malpractice. A trial in Harris County Probate Court resulted in a financial settlement to help take care of Quincy, but Wariya said that’s not enough.

“It’s a tragedy that other people should know about,” he said.

The dental board knew about it, as it knew about Dyer’s nitrous oxide lapse. Dyer declined to comment, but Hill said the dentist reported the incident to the board, which conducted an investigation that led to a dismissal. But because the board doesn’t tell the public about complaints or investigations unless they lead to formal disciplining of a dentist, potential patients do not know.

Out of sunshine laws’ reach

That policy fails the public, said Lisa McGiffert, a health policy analyst in Austin with the national watchdog group Consumers Union . “You should be able to call up and find out that Dr. X had a number of complaints filed against him. That literally is the only record we have of how certain professions are doing out there,” she said.

Only a few health regulatory boards — such as the Board of Chiropractic Examiners, the Board of Occupational Therapy Examiners and the Optometry Board — make complaint histories available to the public.

But current and former employees of the dental board say the information eclipse cloaks more wrongdoing at the agency than it does at other agencies, because a greater share of valid complaints never make it to where the state’s sunshine laws reach — disciplinary action against a dentist.

The employees say the board lacks either the legal and financial muscle or the will to punish dentists who violate the standard of care, break the law or cause harm.

“Now, they’re letting dentists get away with everything,” said Jay Fackrell, 51, a retired police officer and the agency’s sole Dallas investigator for the past five years.

Agency in its second life

Lawmakers allowed the agency to die for six months in 1993, in part because of complaints of overzealousness by the agency at that time. One member of the board at that time, Austin dentist Glenda Smith, attributes the demise partly to concerns about more stringent standard-of-care measures that her board enacted.

Fackrell said the resurrected agency has been less aggressive in investigating and disciplining dentists than its predecessor.

But state Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, a member of the Legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission who sponsored the bill to restart the agency, said the opposite is true.

“There was a time when the dental board was less than aggressive,” he said. “I don’t find it to be the case now. I would be very disappointed if information was being withheld that allowed patients to be abused. I don’t feel that’s the case.”

The law that re-established the agency gave the board the authority to suspend a license temporarily and changed the board’s structure to allow more non-dentists to serve.

Texas revokes or negotiates the surrender of fewer dental licenses than states with like demographics that conduct a similar number of investigations. Last year in the Lone Star State, only 0.4 percent of investigations led to the loss of a license, compared with about 4 percent in both California and Florida. The Texas boards that regulate nurses, physicians and physician assistants also revoke or secure the surrender of licenses in a higher percentage of cases than the dental board does.

Last year, the board revoked only one license — that of a Georgia dentist found guilty of insurance fraud who then committed identity theft to become licensed in Texas. Of 27 dentists disciplined by the board, the majority received probation. They included a few who prescribed drugs to themselves, one who practiced with an expired or nonrenewable license, another convicted of insurance fraud and a crack cocaine addict.

In the past five years, the board has revoked five licenses. One dentist is appealing the revocation. The board has negotiated the surrender of six licenses.

Hill — who has been at the agency since 1995, as general counsel for most of that time — defends it against criticisms of lax enforcement and said it is as aggressive as it can be, with a $1.26 million annual budget, non competitive state employee salaries and merit pay raises capped at 1.7 percent by the Legislature.

“When it’s appropriate, this board revokes the licenses of dentists,” he said, adding that he does not think it is valid to compare the board with counterparts in other states. “It could be that we’ve just got better dentists in Texas.”

Also, there are fewer resources available to the Texas dental board.

The board in California has twice as many employees as the Texas board, one-third of whom are in the enforcement division. Its budget — $6.4 million, with about 75 percent for enforcement — is five times as much as the Texas dental board’s budget. Florida divides its enforcement among several agencies, making it difficult to pin down how much it spends on investigations.

Hill acknowledged that a staff turnover rate of 30.77 percent last year, twice the average for state agencies, created delays in investigating complaints, but he said that this, too, might stem from the budget crunch.

The agency operated for a year without a full staff of investigators. Until a month ago, three of the five positions were vacant. After the enforcement director resigned in May, the investigators had no boss.

Other than salary constraints, Hill said he doesn’t know why so many employees, eight in 1999 alone, have left.

Employees’ efforts thwarted?

Fackrell, the Dallas investigator, paints a picture of a workplace that has driven key people away by not allowing them to do their job: cracking down on errant dentists as aggressively as possible.

After the state auditor’s office criticized the dental board in a report last November for not heeding the recommendations of the board’s investigators, investigators were told to stop making recommendations, employees said.

They don’t attend bimonthly hearings in Austin, partly because of a limited $70,000 travel budget used mainly by appointed members of the board. And they’re never told the outcome of hearings or notified if cases are closed.

Hill acknowledged an “us-and-them feeling” and “a sense of separateness” between investigators and the agency’s upper management, but he said he hopes the hiring last month of a new enforcement director will banish that alienation.

Still, he said investigators should not recommend disciplinary actions and that the state auditor’s office should not have used that as a criterion for judging the agency’s enforcement efforts.

“Our investigators are not dentists,” Hill said. “When we are dealing with issues that have to do with the standard of care provided by a dentist . . . our investigators, who are not experts, may miss something. They may not ask the right question.”

But according to employees who have left the agency, the board disregards investigators’ findings for reasons that go beyond the investigators’ lack of dental knowledge.

A former employee, one of three sources who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said, “When you do investigation after investigation after investigation and you see a high level of proof of serious violations, and time after time nothing happens, it’s frustrating. You don’t want to do it (anymore).”

A public safety matter

The last time Helen Dearman of Tomball took the painkiller that her dentist prescribed after a root canal in 1997, she stopped breathing, she said. That’s why she thinks the punishment meted out to the dentist, Mahnaz Messkoub, was not harsh enough.

“She was sent a warning letter, and that was that,” Dearman said.

Messkoub’s assistants had been told that Dearman was allergic to the drug, but that information somehow did not filter down to the right person at the right time, Dearman sa id. She sa id she thinks the investigation by the dental board, which took more than a year, should have resulted in a 120-day license suspension.

“That seems stiff,” she said. “But on the other hand, what if I had died?”

The fact that other patients would not know about her complaint also bothered her. It piqued other patients as well — constituents who pushed Moncrief to sponsor a bill that, last September, made warning letters formal disciplinary actions and, therefore, available to the public.

The confidentiality in the past, Hill said, was appropriate because warning letters amounted to complaint dismissals that delivered this message: “Doctor, there’s been a complaint about you. We don’t find there’s been a violation of the Dental Practice Act, but some of the information that becomes available causes the board to have some concerns about the way you do your business. You need to clean up your act.”

Despite this, the agency classified the letters as disciplinary actions in calculating its enforcement rates for the Legislature. The result: inflated rates that, in fiscal year 1999, amounted to more than twice the agency’s actual record of complaint enforcement.

The agency reported a 13.3 percent rate of disciplining dentists who received complaints to the Legislative Budget Board that year. But a review by the Austin American-Statesman shows a rate of 5.69 percent, discounting the 36 warning letters issued from October 1998 through September 1999.

Now that issuing a warning letter does legally count as disciplining a dentist — and now that such letters are public information — the board has not issued a single one.

When asked about this shift, Hill said: “Does it appear that the board is trying to hide the reasons it dismisses cases? I don’t think so. Does it appear that the board is trying to hide the reasons it has concerns about a case? No.”

Moncrief said he is not alarmed that the agency has stopped issuing warning letters since his bill became law, and he sa id he thinks the revived agency is stronger than it was in the past.

Others who have worked for the agency disagree.

Santos Serna, whose tenure at the dental board spanned years before and after the sunset commission, said that when the agency was revived, it came back with changes that weakened consumer protection.

For example, staff members’ reports to the board secretary recommending further investigation never disclosed the names of the dentists involved, he said. Now they do, and Serna said that has led to a greater number of complaints being dismissed and opens the board to accusations of playing favorites.

The policy, as well as the confidentiality of complaints, “should be looked at and rescinded,” he said. “The question to ask is: ‘Does this protect the public, or does this protect the dentist?’ The way you look at it now, it protects the dentist.”

Hill said the policy does not shield dentists, but he add ed, “Does it put a fair amount of faith in the board secretary? Yes, it does . . . just like the governor does.”

© Austin American-Statesman (Texas). All rights reserved.


Midnight’s Grandchildren

The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra and The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman

Critics have coupled Pankaj Mishra and Raj Kamal Jha in their encomiums. And why not? After all, both are men of letters in their 30s who made their novelistic debuts this year, at a time when there is more buzz about Indians writing in English than a Calcutta ceiling fan generates in the summertime.

Both publish in a market created in the West in 1981 by Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” — an epic evocation of India that won the Booker Prize, England’s Pulitzer, and spawned many imitators. But Mishra and Jha are not among them. Even if Rushdie’s success made theirs possible, they subvert his trademark style.

Theirs is not your father’s Great Indian Novel. Meet Midnight’s Grandchildren, as critics have dubbed a crop of young writers including Jha, the executive editor of India’s largest daily newspaper, and Mishra, a star editor at Harper Collins/India. They write with an elegant economy rooted in realism — a departure from Rushdie’s ballooning, fantastical, crowded narratives.

But that is perhaps where the symmetries end.

Reading Mishra’s “The Romantics,” a novel obsessed with the idea of religious retreat, is itself like a stay at an ashram — a sanctuary for ascetics, Hinduism’s version of a monastery for lay people.

Mishra’s book, set in the holy city of Benares along the Ganges, chronicles the inner life of an upper-caste intellectual named Samar, who wants to do nothing but read. His one flirtation with the messy realities of a life beyond text or spectatorship, a love affair with a Frenchwoman named Catherine, ends badly. Hurt, he runs away to teach at a school in the Himalayas for seven years. His rhythms there are orderly and alone, and he is the secular paraphrase of a holy man.

It could be a mark of Mishra’s subtlety, but “The Romantics” has the same disquietingly palpable sense of detachment as its narrator does. Its disinterest runs so deep, in fact, that it’s difficult to feel for any of the characters or their losses.

Jha’s “The Blue Bedspread,” in contrast, whispers like a father standing tenderly above a cradle in the middle of the night. It is intimate.

A narrator who withholds his name (“why waste time, it doesn’t matter in this city of twelve million names,” he says) sits down to write a family history for his dead sister’s baby, who sleeps in the next room, waiting to be claimed in the morning by adoptive parents.

So the story uncoils over one Calcutta night, as the clock ticks. It contains terrible secrets: incest, rape, domestic violence. But it also holds beauty, partly because of the way it is told. Jha weaves together a series of remembered snapshots through sections titled “Mother,” “Father,” “Sister” and “Brother.” Although the narrator is anonymous, and the characters also bear no names beyond their generic family roles, the book is rich in details foreshortened by memory: An albino cockroach hanging from a window. Baby footprints on red bathroom tiles. Streetlamps that gleam like Sister’s hair. Mother in a mothy Kashmiri shawl, watching from a balcony as snow falls like cotton sliding down the face of a mirror. Brother lying on a carpet with words growing and growing inside him until they fill his lungs.

These images recur throughout like visual refrains in a poem. Each carries emotion compactly in every cinematic flash, leading to the overpowering conclusion and lingering long after the last word of this haunting little book.


For Both Parties, Race in East Texas is Vital

Outcome Could Shape Congressional Politics
By Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

Polk County in rural East Texas is a place where hosannas electrify the airwaves, churches anchor the main town at a rate of six per square mile and the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt once reigned almost as supreme as God.

It is also a key battleground in a race that gives the Democrats a chance to reclaim a 17-county state Senate district — lost in 1994 to Drew Nixon, the GOP incumbent tainted by his arrest in an Austin prostitution sting.

The outcome of the race could alter the shape of Texas and even U.S. congressional politics for the next decade. The party that controls the state Senate, where Republicans now have a one-seat edge, will also control the drawing of electoral boundaries early next year, based on the Census Bureau’s account of the state’s growth.

Not convinced of the near cosmic scale of the race for partisan maneuvering? Just look at the campaign finance reports of the two contenders — Silsbee lawyer David Fisher, the Democrat, and state Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, a rancher and businessman. It reads like a who’s who list of Texas politics, past and present: Contributors to the two campaigns include Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, former Gov. Ann Richards and a slew of state legislators.

Each candidate reports raising more than $1 million since last fall, a record amount for a state Senate race. In the first half of this year, Staples collected $484,248.70, and Fisher raised $648,111.30.

Campaign coffers aside, the contest promises to be a hard-fought one. Changes in the past decade have made this meandering stretch of Bible Belt near the Louisiana border less of a stronghold for the Yellow Dog Democrat — a party loyalist who would vote for any Democrat, even a yellow dog, over a Republican.

Polk County, a bellwether for the district where both candidates stumped last week, once might have been an easy victory for the Democrats, but today the picture is more complicated.

Outsiders — mainly Yankee retirees, drawn by a forested landscape fringed by lakes, and mainly Republicans — have moved in, causing the county to grow 41 percent since 1990. And the inheritors of the land, the descendants of Depression-era farmers saved from ruin by Roosevelt’s New Deal, are also less and less inheritors of their forefathers’ politics.

Muddling matters even more, the race pits two people who consider every voter game, to the point of blurring party lines. Staples, who in 1995 was the first Republican elected from his House district , reaches for the mantle of the working man’s candidate. And while Fisher probably would not match his rival’s 100 percent imprimatur from the Christian Coalition, he is socially conservative.

Hopes to be first

No Republican has held a local office in Polk County since Reconstruction, but Bob Willis, a former Democratic tax collector who joined the GOP in January to run for county commissioner, hopes to be the first.

“I didn’t feel like I was leaving the Democratic Party,” he said, using words long associated with Ronald Reagan. “I felt like it had already left me.”

The defection would have been unimaginable in the time of his great-grandfather, the county’s first district clerk who also ran the post office and dry goods store in Livingston, the government seat. Or in the era of his grandad, when Roosevelt brought electricity to outlying farms, subsidized the price of cotton and timber and built roads so those crops could be taken to market.

Until the mid-1980s, the Democratic Party “was the only bus ride there was,” as Willis puts it. “We had no organized Republican Party, period. No precinct elections. No precinct conventions.”

How did this corner of rural Texas — 12 percent African American and 5 percent Hispanic, mainly blue collar, with a median rent of $218 a month — begin to move from Roosevelt to Reagan, or in some cases from Roosevelt to Goldwater?

“The Republican Party now seems to represent the working class better from the East Texas perspective than the Democratic Party does,” Willis said. “The party’s values closer fit mine.”

He echoes a feeling of alienation voiced by some East Texans, based on their passion for small government, their devout Christianity and their distrust of policies they say favor minorities.

Lloyd Stephens, the son of working-class Democrats, a gospel musician and a barber in Livingston, associates the party of his parents with special interest groups, such as advocates of multiculturalism. That — and the Democrats’ stance on school prayer — has driven him away.

“My ancestors came to this country and became Americans,” he said. “We ought not to have all these ethnic clans. That’s what’s happening in Europe.”

He and his colleague Becky Miller, the daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico who comes from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers, don’t talk politics in the barbershop for fear of losing customers. Polk County is still, in their eyes, Yellow Dog Democrat country as much as it is God’s country.

“It’s been ordained, sanctified and anointed that way, and that’s the way it is,” Miller said.

But she added that high taxes for social welfare programs could push Democratic loyalists over the edge.

“If it keeps going the way it’s going, if they keep giving everything away. . . . The working people are sick and tired of paying for the lazies. We’ve become beasts of burden.”

Julie Bergman, a 40-year-old businesswoman who runs nine communication towers in Polk County, has also strayed from her family’s Democratic roots, primarily because she is against abortion rights. But like many other Texas voters, Bergman splits her vote between parties, depending on the candidate. “I’m not going to vote straight down the ticket,” she said. “I want to know the person.”

That independence springs from a war within the soul of the Yellow Dog Democrat that is decades old, says Charles Elliott, a former East Texas State University political scientist who is running for state representative as a Democrat in a nearby district.

“Since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, some Democrats in the South have migrated en masse to the Republican Party,” through a populism based on race and religion, he said. “That same pattern has penetrated pretty deeply in East Texas.”

Club of retirees

But the decline of the Yellow Dog Democrat might have less of an impact locally than the rise of another group: the Escapees Inc., a national club of retirees who travel the country by trailer.

An RV camp that now serves as home base for about 9,000 of them sprouted near Lake Livingston in 1984. It accounts for more than 90 percent of the growth in Polk County, where the population ballooned from 30,687 in 1990 to 43,295 in 1999, according to the Texas State Data Center. And it is local Republican Chairman Benny Fogelman’s Shangri-La.

“All around the lake, there are lots of retired folks, and they vote conservatively,” he said.

Fogelman estimates that 70 percent of the escapees are Republicans.

They have become such an electoral force that last year local officials, arguing that most of the retirees call the county home for a scant few months of the year, petitioned the secretary of state’s office to disqualify their votes. Not only did it fail, but it might even have organized the retirees politically.

John Bracken, 73, a retired trucking company vice president from Ohio, became an accidental activist to fight the attempt. He compiled an e-mail list of sympathetic Republicans, a list that still exists. He became connected to the local Republican Party. The ties remain, so much so that he hand-delivered the red-and-white “Bob Willis for Commissioner” signs that have cropped up on lawns throughout the RV park.

“The local boys tried to take our voting power away from us,” he said. “They had the ballgame all to themselves. Up until the escapees, they had no opposition.”

Another outcrop of Republican support sprawls out from Houston, amid the cul-de-sacs of Montgomery County — the only county in the district with a growth rate, 52 percent, that outstrips the Livingston area’s. Many of its 87,000 newcomers are upper-income fiscal conservatives. Many live in the north, the half of the county that belongs to the district. And many helped elect Drew Nixon in 1996, although he lost in 15 counties.

But Democrats have not written off the retirees, the suburbanites or anyone else in the district.

“Losses in the past really woke (us) up,” said Livingston chiropractor Dennis Teal, a state party committeeman. “It was a message the people of East Texas sent to the Democratic Party, and it was heard by the Democratic Party. They wanted us to get back to addressing core issues in their lives, pocketbook issues” such as Social Security and pay raises for teachers and corrections officers.

Among retirees, the Democrats plan to highlight a Republican proposal to privatize Social Security and the need to protect the natural environment that first lured them to the area. “It’s amazing how fast they become environmentalists once they move here,” he said.

The numbers, party officials say, also show that Democrats still have a slight edge in East Texas, at least below Gov. George W. Bush’s coattails. In March, 8,000 more people in the district — 1,200 of them in Polk County — voted in the Democratic rather than in the GOP primary for state Senate.

Also — in the words of Gary Hanlon, who writes the “Sideline Observer” political column for The Tyler County Booster — “There’s a thin line between a conservative Democrat and a Republican, and (Fisher) straddles that thin line.”

A church deacon, Fisher opposes abortion, belongs to the National Rifle Association and favors school prayer, stances at odds with the image of a “Hillary Clinton-like carpetbagger” that the Staples campaign paints of him. “He wants to reflects the values found in the district, rather than the values that might be established by the party platform,” said Shaun Davis, the campaign’s political director.

© Austin American-Statesman (Texas). All rights reserved.


Black Girl in Paris

Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur

“Black Girl in Paris” is the story of a young woman’s pilgrimage to the city that nurtured her literary gods, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Eden Daniel, the 26-year-old narrator, sets out from the American South to the French capital in search of love and language. She wants to be a writer and expects the metropolis that was muse to her creative forefathers to launch her in much the same way. In the first pages of the novel, she informs us that upon arriving in the Paris of 1924 in his early 20s, Langston Hughes had $7 in his pocket; that an equally youthful James Baldwin followed two decades later with $40 to his name; and that when she landed in Paris in 1986, there was $140 hidden between her sock and the sole of her shoe. “They dared to make a way when there was none and I want to be just like them,” she writes. “This is the place where it happened. Where it will happen again.”

The novel is at its best when it accentuates the contradictions Eden faces in Paris, the difference between the city’s romantic image as a promised land where “being black won’t hold me back” and “even the prisons … are beautiful” and its reality in 1986. That was a year of terrorist bombings, student demonstrations and the mass deportation of African immigrants.

At one point in Eden’s story, perhaps its most astute, she is strolling the square in front of the Church of the Sacre Coeur with her lover, Ving, a white musician from America, and Olu-Christophe, a Haitian exile who is seeking political asylum after fleeing the dictatorship of the Duvaliers. The setting, 100 steps above the city with a commanding view, captures all that is bewitching about Paris. Couples are huddled in the dark, candles burning from wine glasses and cigarette tips glowing. Artists are selling their paintings. Performers are singing, dancing, eating fire. And all this to the soundtrack of a Bob Dylan song.

Enter two policemen with their pistols poised at their hips. They demand to see passports. When Olu-Christophe has none to offer, they carry him off brusquely, shouting over their shoulders that they are taking him “a L’Afrique avec les autres singes” — to Africa with the other monkeys. “This was a bad night to be a black man without papers,” Ving observes.

The chapters of “Black Girl in Paris” each bear the name of one of the roles Eden assumes in Paris: Lover, Thief, English Teacher, Poet’s Helper. And most contain, quite literally, a how-to list on performing the part well. The narrative of Eden’s experience as an au pair, for instance, is broken by such admonitions as “Try not to lose the children” and “Don’t kill the dog.” The device draws attention away from the content of the story to its form, and for the most part it’s distracting rather than clever.

Shay Youngblood is a lyricist, the winner of a Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, but there are pitfalls when writers decide to tell us the tale of their artistic awakening. We might not be as interested in the process of their finding a voice as we are in hearing it speak, especially if the way is as littered with clichéd bohemian characters as Eden Daniel’s is. What’s more, Eden’s blunt desire to emulate, to follow in the footsteps of greatness, gives her story an eager, somewhat breathless quality that makes her journey of discovery seem contrived.

Race is as much the backdrop for this book as Paris, and I couldn’t help thinking that Youngblood, whose prose has the rhythms and sensual detail of poetry, might have put her talents to better use by tackling this theme head-on. She might have skipped the account of Eden’s writerly, self-obsessed quest for a subject and gone straight to her subject instead.

© All rights reserved.


Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

20 Questions with Jhumpa Lahiri
Interview by Gaiutra Bahadur
Philadelphia City Paper
September 16-23, 1999

In her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (Mariner Books), Jhumpa Lahiri chronicles the attempts of married couples, adulterous lovers and immigrants to cross borders and, as E.M. Forster wrote, “only connect.” In “This Blessed House,” a recently married couple finds Christian bric-a-brac – a 30-pound bronze bust of Christ and a 3-D postcard of St. Francis of Assisi – in their Connecticut house and also discovers the jagged outlines of each other’s personalities. In “The Third and Final Continent,” set in 1969, an Indian immigrant takes up temporary lodging with a 103-year-old woman who clings to Victorian culture. Months later, when the immigrant’s wife arrives from Calcutta, it’s the woman who bridges the gaps of an arranged marriage. Lahiri’s work has received plenty of accolades. Three of the stories were published in The New Yorker last year, and the title story was selected for the O. Henry and Best American Short Stories collections. Lahiri, 32, spoke from her home on the fringes of the East Village and Gramercy Park in Manhattan.

Q: You were born in London and raised in Rhode Island, and your parents are from Calcutta. Yet your stories are not preoccupied with issues of identity. Does identity interest you as a writer, or is it a cumbersome expectation to be “multicultural”?

A: It’s always a bad thing to try to answer people’s expectations. There hasn’t been a lot of writing from the perspective of Indian-American writers and some people will look to my writing to answer some of those questions. But I never think of self-consciously trying to answer issues of identity. I work from a character and a conflict in a character’s life.

Q: Two of your stories that are set in India, “A Real Durwan” and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” are not portraits of upper-middle-class life, but of servants and marginal figures. Why did you make that choice?

A: Both of those characters came out of observation, my own observations of people when I was there. What drew me to writing about them was partly a projection of my own feelings of being marginal when there. Of not being a part of the culture. Of feeling foreign even though this was a place my parents call home and refer to in their minds as home, even though they’ve been away for 30 years.

The reason I portrayed these characters out of the fray was because I felt that. I could imagine it more easily than assuming the role of a more “ordinary,” adjusted Indian character. I didn’t have very much mobility when I was there. As a young adult and an adult, I wasn’t really able to leave on my own. I felt not only sort of alienated, but trapped.

Q: Which story was the most difficult to write and why?

A: “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” was hard. It was the first time I began to write closer to my own experience, though it’s not an autobiographical story. It took several years to come to that point of view and to feel secure working from that point of view. “The Third and Final Continent” was difficult, because it was written from the point of view of a man and in the first person, which seemed like an extra step. There was the added challenge of writing something based in real life. It was based on my father’s past. There was the challenge of working with real facts and preserving truth, yet having to disguise them to make it fiction.

Q: Did being a second-generation American play a role in your aspiring to be a writer?

A: It didn’t make me want to be a writer so much as it made me want to write. To seek solace through observation and recording my impressions in a space that was very much my own, on the page. That’s the place where I answered only to myself, from a very young age.

One of the things I was always aware of growing up was conflicting expectations. I was expected to be Indian by Indians and American by Americans. I didn’t feel equipped even as a child to fully participate in things. In the act of writing, it was more justified to withdraw into myself and have that be a vital experience, rather than just feeling neglected or left out.

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