Title: Shiva's Arms
Author: Cheryl Snell
Publisher: The Writer's Lair Books
Pub Date: 2010
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for my honest review.
When Alice marries Ramesh, she is plunged into a battle of wills with her mother-in-law. And when a family secret is revealed that costs the old woman everything, it is up to Alice to heal the rift between them, as Shiva’s Arms evolves into an exploration of cultural identity, the power of reconciliation, and the meaning of home.
About the Author:
Cheryl Snell has published over four hundred poems and stories online and in print. Her books include both fiction and poetry, and Prisoner’s Dilemma, her recent volume of poetry and art, won the Lopside Press Competition. Snell has been nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net four times, and her poem "Fire on the Cuyahoga" was chosen by Dorianne Laux for inclusion in the Sundress' Best of the Net Anthology last year. Follow her author's blog about all things Indian at
Shiva's Arms is a book about the struggle between husband and wife, son and mother, and daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. The plot not only follows these conflicts but adds cultural differences in the mix to make it more complicated. Alice is American and she married the Indian born Ramesh, only to face a life she didn't know was coming. The book explores the cultural difference and the difficulties that these marriages often face. I liked that the author took on a new take in having the character of Ramesh being torn between his wife and mother to show the cultural differences and difficulties. I think it gave the story more substance, rather than just allowing for a story of conflict between husband and wife only. There were a few areas that I thought could have flowed better as I was reading about the couple being in India and suddenly they were in America without any transitions and it left me confused in spots. I think that perhaps it was also because I am not familiar with Indian customs and they weren't explained in the detail I would have liked to have seen. The book does contain a short glossary of terms for the reader and also some recipes for food items that are mentioned in the book. I think that someone who is familiar with Indian customs will really enjoy this book and I think if I had known more about the customs, I would have enjoyed this book more. However, it really opened my eyes to a different culture that I knew nothing about and the differences that occur between families of different cultures when they become intertwined.
I have one copy of this book for giveaway. Please leave a comment below with your email. The winner will be chosen on July 29.
The author was so gracious to grant an interview and answer the questions I had for her about the book and her life.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
The idea for the book took hold as I witnessed conflicts between immigrants and the family members they leave behind. What is lost and what is gained? Stories my husband told me about his childhood in India and my own position as an “unsuitable bride” provided both setting and emotional center.
It’s the threshold, not the center, that holds the most fascination for me, as it does for the characters in my novel who have divided loyalties. My desire to create this particular story focusing on cultural identity came about because I wanted to understand the protocols of another culture, and convey the complexity that is at the heart of the momentous act of immigration. These are my themes, and I keep returning to them.
Have you always been interested in the Indian culture and how did that start?
My interest began with my marriage, and the fact that an Indian family moved in next door to us. Suddenly I was immersed in the culture, from both sides. I had a bird's eye view of the neighbors' lives as immigrants, and the walls between our townhouses were thin enough so I could even hear what they argued about. Remember when Wonderland’s Alice said, “What if I should fall right through the center of the earth…oh, and come out the other side, where people walk upside down?” I thought they must feel like that, even more than I did in my new situation.
Before I knew it, I had been pulled into samsara, the important householder stage.Armed with the basics of acceptable behavior—don’t touch the men, no shoes in the house, have a fry pan uncontaminated by meat handy-- there were still an overwhelming number of ambiguities to sift through, from the comic head-shaking that looked like No but meant Yes, to the serious conflict between freedom and family. I began to imagine a novel built on the swirl of relationships around me.
Always drawn to the stories with characters belonging to two cultures—think of the work of Narayan, Desai, Mukerjee— I wanted to know which part of a divided self goes and which part stays.
People ask me how I can write about a culture not truly mine. The answer is I can write about it because I do not completely belong. I'm neither behind a closed door nor in the thick of things, but rather in the archway, a good place from which to observe and to have a conversation with my own divided heart.
What got you started writing?
Like most writers, my love of reading lead to it. I wrote for my own pleasure while I developed my career as a classical pianist, and I only began to take writing seriously when I retired from concertizing and married. I began to write both short stories and poetry.
Writing poetry transcends the personal, for me, whereas fiction relies on empathy. For both forms, I start with an image, a phrase, or an idea. Both forms distill language and meaning–in a poem every word counts, sound and syllable. In fiction, the sentences must advance plot, reveal character, and build up resonance in readers' minds through symbolism, motif, and theme. With a novel, revisions are more rigorous, more of a juggle.
With so much to take into consideration—characters, scenes, and points of view—it seems counter-intuitive that a novel is more forgiving. But I find that its sprawl makes it more tolerant . “In the novel or short story you get the journey. In a poem you get the arrival,” May Sarton once wrote.
That’s not to say that it’s an orderly progression. When characters run amok, and suddenly have their own plans, it’s hard to force them back into the author’s. Mary Lee Settle advised that empathy without identity is one way to keep control of a character, but it’s difficult to maintain that distance.
Transformation, the way the characters change, what conclusion the narrator comes to, are born out of writing one’s way into the piece again and again, trying on different plots, tone, voice. I feel my way.
What genre do you normally read? Favorite books? Favorite authors?
I read and review literary fiction and contemporary poetry, which is what I write. On my nightstand right now are Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, Roth’s Dying Animal, and Making Good Use of August, by Sherry O'Keefe. Flaubert is always where I can grab him, in case of emergency. Sentimental Education is a favorite of mine.
Tell about your background. Education, family, etc.
My father was a doctor and my mother and artist. My husband is a mathematical engineer and a professor. I have brothers who are scientists and a sister whose expressionist art is well known in certain circles, and with whom I often collaborate. We have several books of poetry and art, and we keep a blog called Scattered Light at http://snellsisters.blogspot.com
Describe yourself in three words.
Worth the wait (courtesy of my husband)
What item can you not live without?
Any interesting fact about yourself you would like to share.
I've been making videopoems lately at http://www.youtube.com/cherylsnell3
Further book plans? What are you working on now? Anything to be
published in the near future?
After ten books, I sometimes think I've used up all the words there are. But I'm always working on several things at the same time - it's my hedge against writer's block. I have another collaboration of poems and art with my sister, another short story collection, and a third volume about another member of the fictional Sambashivan family taking shape now.
Thanks for asking!