An Immigrant’s Bittersweet Slice of Life in Edison

The thinly-veiled memoir tells the tale of an immigrant family who must cope with grief, doubt and life in America.

Akhil Sharma, author of "Family Life."
Photo by Bill Miller

Family Life, a funny yet deeply felt second novel due in April from author Akhil Sharma, will likely spread ripples in literary circles. In and around Edison, it’s certain to make a really big splash.

The book—a thinly veiled memoir—is “a way to tell an overlooked story about the Indian community there,” says Sharma, whose first novel, An Obedient Father (Harvest Books, 2001), won a PEN/Hemingway Award.

Sharma, 42, grew up in Edison, where he attended J.P. Stevens High School. At Princeton University, he studied with Toni Morrison—before decamping to Harvard Law School, because “like all immigrants, I have this sense I should be doing something, trying to achieve.” Sharma moved to Manhattan about 10 years ago to be an investment banker. Since 2011, he has taught creative writing in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark.

His roots in New Jersey are deep and intractable, he says. Like the Mishras—the fictional family in his new work—Sharma’s family moved here from India in the late 1970s. Family Life (W.W. Norton) follows the Mishras (including Sharma’s alter-ego, Ajay) to Edison, where their new American life spools out triumphantly at first. But before long they find themselves entangled in abiding grief and doubt.

In the book, as in Sharma’s own life, tragedy strikes when an accident leaves Ajay’s older brother brain damaged. The book “is a way to redeem my life, redeem my suffering,” says Sharma, whose psyche, like Ajay’s, was ruffled at an early age by feelings of displacement both in America and within his own family.
For Sharma, at least, the suffering has ended. “Very good things are occurring,” he says. “I feel incredibly grateful the writing is working out.”

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