Upending Expectations

Early in her recent memoir You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Maggie Smith writes about confronting her husband about his affair. We see her wake him up, and then, scene over. “Maybe you want a scene here… But while we’re on the subject: Why would you want to be in that room with us? Maybe I’m sparing you something.”

Is that scene really what we, as readers, want? Or is it just what we expect?

It’s a familiar dynamic in workshop: A writer turns in a story with a recognizable narrative—the bad diagnosis, the addiction recovery, the divorce, the roommate who admires your style a little too fervently. Should a familiar piece be missing, classmates ask why. Where’s the hitting-bottom scene? Where’s the scene where the husband lies to his wife?

But those scenes aren’t mandatory. They’re not always necessary. They can even steer the writer away from the real story.

Recently, the author Madhushree Ghosh visited my class to discuss her mouth-watering memoir Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family. In it, Madhushree rejects parts of the familiar narrative in many ways, but two stand out to me.

One, she named the character of her ex-husband “my now ex,” and uses it from the first reference on, even in the early chapters when they are dating, meeting each other’s parents, falling in love. The reader knows, from the jump, their relationship is doomed. Second, she doesn’t mention her now ex’s mental health diagnosis until near the end of the book.

Madhushree said she did consider sticking to the familiar arc of the love-found, love-lost story, but she quickly figured out, doing so would have fundamentally altered her portrayal of the book’s most important character: herself.

“You have to decide where you want to put your power,” she said. “My now ex, and to a certain extent his parents, they are part of the story, but they’re not the story. Not naming my now ex, or my now ex-in-laws, that means the power continues to reside with me.”

Because of those decisions, the reader immediately knows the protagonist as the woman who emigrated, who emerged from that marriage, who loves cooking. Even when they’re reading about her as a girl eating the last guava, or the teenager locked in a bathroom with a ghost.

“I wanted to make sure folks understood this memoir uses food as a social justice tool,” Madhushree said. “And I also wanted to make sure they understood that if there are two South Asian women in a room, one of them has a story they haven’t been able to share with you yet.”

Once she identified those goals, her choices about her now ex were not only easy, they were obvious. I’d love to tell you to ignore the expectations people have about stories, the expectations we hold without even realizing it. But who are we kidding? Those expectations are everywhere. Better to do as Madhushree did, and notice when you’re writing to those expectations, then make a deliberate choice to write what’s important to you, as the author of your own story.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

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