Author Jennifer Acker chronicles a family’s journey from Kenya to the U.S. — and her own journey with illness
When I met Jennifer Acker 10 years ago when we were both graduate students at the Bennington Writing Seminars, she had two big dreams.
She was working on a novel loosely inspired by her husband, an Indian American philosophy professor, and their extended family of Indian immigrants from Kenya. She wanted to start her own literary journal, the Common, which would publish stories about “a modern sense of place.”
Earlier this year, the Common earned a Whiting Literary Magazine prize for its work attracting “a new generation of readers and thinkers.”
Her debut novel, “The Limits of the World,” about four generations of the Chandaria family and their migration from Kenya to the U.S., came out in April.
And in October, Amazon Original Stories published her non-fiction eBook “Fatigue,” which details her journey with an illness that forced her to slow down along the way.
Acker was born in rural Maine, where there weren’t a lot of Jewish families, so she always felt like an outsider.
“Attention to place came very early and was fed in part because my family wasn’t from there,” she says. “My parents were always pointing out to me when things were different than they expected or if something was not the way things were done everywhere.”
She took a gap year between high school and college, spending three months in Kenya and six in Mexico.
“There, I was dramatically an outsider,” she says. “And those were very impressionable experiences, being a foreigner but trying to understand local communities in very different places around the world.”
Years later, in 2007, after meeting and marrying her husband, she tagged along with her in-laws on a trip to Kenya so she could not only visit her Kenyan host family but also meet her new extended family.
“Suddenly I was incorporated into this Indian family in Nairobi,” she says, “in a place that I had visited before but now saw with a completely different angle.”
“The Limits of the World” is narrated by outsiders: the grandfather, who belongs to a generation of Indians who feel wedged between the British colonialists and natives in Kenya; the parents, American immigrants who are seen as perpetual foreigners in Columbus, Ohio; and the son, an American-born Indian who feels like an outsider in his own family — so much so that he resists telling them about his Jewish American bride-to-be until an unexpected accident brings the whole family back to Nairobi.
For the last decade, Acker has immersed herself in the history of Nairobi‘s Indian enclave.
The process of finishing and publishing a book is often a long one, but halfway Acker started feeling the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.
She had been working at the Common, editing stories set in myriad places all around the world, but could suddenly only read for a few minutes without getting exhausted. She didn’t have enough energy to leave her house for days, weeks, even months at a time.
Through her necessary confinement, she became an outsider in a different way.
“It was very frustrating to me, so I’d sit outside, ask to be driven around town or try and find some vantage point that had a beautiful view,” she says. “Listening to birds, watching the sunset and feeling the breeze, just having those sensory experiences made me feel alive. It didn’t make me feel healthy, but it made me feel like I was part of a larger world.”
Writing-wise, she found herself drawn to non-fiction, especially when around the same time, her husband developed his own disabling disorder that took years to resolve, and 11 years into their marriage, they had to learn how to take care of each other in new ways.
What started as an essay, “My husband read to me while I was sick. It changed our marriage,” in the Washington Post, evolved into “Fatigue.”
“We have had to change and adapt and discover in real time what it means to need each other intensely and routinely,” she writes. “To each suffer and struggle to support the other. It’s not how we imagined our marriage. And yet, over the past four years, this interdependence has become the aspect of our relationship we most cherish.”
Now, she is working on her next book, part memoir, part family history, about her side of the family.
Her late grandmother also lived with a chronic illness, and her late grandfather left behind lots of letters and documents that Acker is piecing together.
“It’ll be the tale of two marriages,” says Acker, “and how the illness affected their lives.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Submissions and Book Talk with Jennifer Acker and Ada Tseng”
Where: 1888 Creative + Cultural Center, 115 N. Orange St. Orange
When: Dec. 5, 7 to 8:30 p.m.
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