Thrity Umrigar Wins Cleveland Arts Prize


June 22, 2009

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Books | Individuals

The employees of McLean & Eakin Booksellers are so taken with Thrity Umrigar‘s stories that they pooled frequent-flier miles to bring her to a July 9 reading at their Petoskey, Mich., store.

medium_thrity-umrigar "She’s been a staff favorite for a very long time," says Leighanne Law. "A few of us have had a chance to meet her, and for the big scope of her books, and their emotional intensity, it’s a shock that she’s such a humble and charming woman."

Umrigar, who has just sold her sixth book to HarperCollins, wears her acclaim lightly. She made tenure two years ago at Case Western Reserve University, has won a midcareer award from the Cleveland Arts Prize and will lecture at the Chautauqua Institution next month.

Her best-known book, "The Space Between Us," has found an international readership; it still sells strongly in Brazil. The 2006 novel pivots between the lives of Sera, [mbo: cq: ]an upper-class Parsi woman in Mumbai, and Bhima, [mbo: cq: ]her servant. Umrigar, 47, dedicated the book to the "Bhima" of her own girlhood in India.

The Cleveland Heights author has been touring for "The Weight of Heaven," which published in April, and is rushing to complete a draft of her next book before she resumes teaching in the fall.

"The balancing act is getting very hard," she says. "I’m in perpetual fear that I’m going to drop one ball. But when I’m in the classroom, I still get a high from it. I have really grown to love and understand the student body at Case.

"Many of these kids are wicked smart, and I see [teaching literature] as an opportunity to give engineers and nurses and doctors an essential life tool. If you have an understanding of the humanities, you will have an understanding of human nature."

The next novel, tentatively called "The Clarifying Principle," will center on four Indian women, all former student activists, including one who married a Muslim, and who and converted to Islam herself.

"What is important is I’m not talking about Muslims from a Western, 9/11 point of view," Umrigar says. "I am telling the story from within an Indian context — and India has a shameful history of mistreating its Muslim population."

Umrigar’s mix of the intimate and the international continues to percolate through her art.