Nani Power does not have an estranged daughter. She was never an alcoholic. She has never had sex on the floor of a sushi bar amid fish guts and stray pieces of rice. But that doesn’t stop people from asking her if she has.
When Power, a 40-something mother of two who lives in the Plains, Va., was on tour a few years ago for her first novel, Crawling at Night, it seemed as if the only thing audiences wanted to know was whether she had written the character of Mariane, a hopeless, self-destructive alcoholic, from her own personal experiences.
One reader, an inspirational speaker who runs rehabilitation centers for alcoholics, even wrote Power a letter, saying that the book was the most accurate depiction of alcoholism he had ever read. “Those of us who really know how it was,” he wrote, “need to stick together.” He was shocked when Power told him that she had imagined it all.
“Everywhere I go, I’m always asked if my books are autobiographical,” says Power. “But I don’t have any interest in writing anything about my life, personally. I write about different worlds that I don’t know about in order to learn more about them.”
Sure enough, an examination of Power’s novels yields few details of her own life, which involves writing for five hours after dropping her kids off at school, then spending the rest of the afternoon doing “normal stuff” such as shopping and cooking. Crawling at Night centered on the relationship between a Japanese sushi chef and Mariane, a middle-aged waitress whose drinking led her to abandon her daughter. Power’s second novel, 2002’s The Good Remains, was about a bachelor neonatologist who might have been responsible for the death of one of his young patients. Her latest, The Sea of Tears, chronicles the lives and loves of several Middle Eastern men working or staying at a luxury hotel in Washington. One, maintenance man Jedra, happens to be in love with a desk clerk who believes she can remember heaven.
As darkly fanciful as Power’s fiction can get, she insists that it’s all drawn from real life. “I’m always observing,” she says. “I can’t help it. I’m just totally fascinated by what people do and why they do it. I’ll be at a restaurant and just not be able to stop looking at how someone’s doing something, or standing, or saying something. I’m just gathering information, I guess—all those details I’ve saved up come pouring out when I write.”
As for heaven—described in The Sea of Tears as being “more shimmer, more shell…the smell of burning myrrh and the taste of figs and the shudder of an orgasm and smell of the skin of your beloved”—most of the details came from reading stacks of books written by people who claim to have visited the place. “It’s not like I remember heaven,” Power laughs. “But that whole idea of imagined fantasy worlds is definitely a part of me.”
Power first began to imagine distant worlds while growing up on a farm in Middleburg, Va., the child of hippie parents. “I had a superboring childhood,” she recalls. “I didn’t get to go out and participate in all the extracurricular things that kids do. The only television we had was an old black-and-white set that my parents watched once a week when Masterpiece Theater was on.”
She aspired to become a painter. After high school, she left Virginia to attend Bennington College in Vermont, where, as a studio-art major, she took her first creative-writing workshop. One day, she was speaking to a classmate about a story she was working on, one that she was very excited about turning in—at least until her fellow student expressed his true opinion of her work. “‘Oh, Nani,’” she remembers him saying offhandedly. “‘You can’t write.’”
After graduating from Bennington in 1982, Power headed to Adams Morgan, where she worked in the kitchen of a sushi bar, and then moved to New York in 1990, where she ran a catering business. It was through all her time in the food industry that she developed her fascination with people from other cultures trying to make their way in the United States. “I guess I identify with them,” she says. “As a waitress, I knew what it was like to be ignored, for people to not think of you as a human being, like you were just there to serve them and didn’t have a life of your own.”
Aside from keeping a journal, Power wrote hardly a whit until 1999, after she had moved back to the Washington area and signed up for a continuing-education creative-writing class at Georgetown University. She hadn’t loved painting enough to keep doing it, and she was almost convinced that her Bennington classmate had been right about her talent for writing.
“I kept thinking I had to write about my life,” she says, “because they always say, ‘Write what you know.’ So I kept starting to write a story about a mom and two kids, and, oh, I hated it so much. It was so boring.”
But her writing instructor, Liam Callanan (“Up and Away,” 1/30/04), encouraged his students to tackle subjects they didn’t know. It was a revelation for Power, and it was in Callanan’s class that she turned in about 30 pages of a story about a Japanese sushi chef living in Manhattan who falls in love with an American waitress. Callanan admiringly commented that it contained the most disgusting sex scene he had ever read.
“At the sushi bar where I worked, there was one chef who barely spoke any English,” says Power of her inspiration for the piece. “But he was so talented and well-trained at what he did, and I would watch him and feel like he wasn’t getting the respect he deserved. Here was this master craftsman and just because he spoke so poorly, people talked to him like he was a baby….After I left, he just kept floating around in my head.”
The biggest success to come out of any of Callanan’s workshops had been a student who published a piece in the Washington Post’s Outlook section. Though Callanan is optimistic about all of his students’ prospects, he naturally harbored some doubts.
“I thought it was great that Nani wanted to write a novel,” he says. “If we all waited to first perfect our craft, we’d be dead before we started. But in the back of my mind, I was wondering if she was going to be the one who finished the job.”
Power completed her story in December 1999, after months of writing three pages every night after her children went to sleep. The next thing she knew, she was in New York, whisked from one meeting with a publisher to another. Companies were fighting to release her sushi-chef story, now grown to more than 200 pages. In the end, the Atlantic Monthly Press prevailed, and Crawling at Night was published in the spring of 2001. It was subsequently named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a finalist for the British Orange Prize for Fiction, and a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
“When I saw Nani’s manuscript, I knew instantly that she was an incredible talent,” says Wendy Sherman, Power’s New York– based agent. “She has the ability to imagine and write about people we see but don’t necessarily talk to or think about. She writes characters better than almost everyone I’ve ever read.”
Power credits that to her long-standing self-disinterest. “Maybe I’m insane,” she says, “but I almost believe that these characters are alive on some other plane and they come to you and want you to write their story. It feels like channeling, in a way. I haven’t seen a ghost, but I definitely believe in the concept.”
All of Power’s protagonists are similarly haunted—if not always by ghosts, then at least by the past. “Nobody has an upbringing that is completely innocuous,” Power suggests. “I mean, I didn’t experience great drama or tragedy, but I think I have lived some aspect of all my characters’ lives on an emotional level.”
“It’s important to keep your own mortality in mind,” she elaborates. “You must embrace loss, sadness, and death in order to enjoy the life, the goodness.” Whether it’s broken, regretful sushi chef Ito, crisis-rattled baby doctor C.R., or desperate Iraqi handyman Jedra, Power roots for all of her characters to pull themselves out of the abyss.
“When someone can keep making a leap for love, despite all the hurt and pain in their lives, that’s true bravery,” she says. “Love is the only really important thing in life, and the only thing that can save us.”
Love, in fact, was the impetus for The Sea of Tears. Power, who teaches creative-writing classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, noticed the way her students, afraid to have their work dismissed as sentimental, tended to take cold, intellectual views of romance. “In addition to wanting to undemonize the Middle East,” she says, “I wanted to write a book about love that was not cynical. Writing about love is like our last taboo, really. Everyone writes about sex, but writing about true feelings from the heart and being real—that’s the real challenge.”
Accordingly, the new book begins with an unapologetic declaration: “This is all about Love.”
Just published by Counterpoint Press, The Sea of Tears has yet to receive any major reviews—though a lone Amazon.com user declares, “I always [enjoy] stories set in hotels, and this is [no] exception.” For her part, Power seems to believe that the book’s male-dominated milieu is a good one for her: She’s now at work on a collection of short stories all written from a masculine perspective. She will begin her next novel in the summer. “I’m just collecting snippets of ideas right now,” she says. “But I’m thinking maybe a historical novel. Something really long ago.”
No matter how far Power’s next journey into foreign lives, cultures, or times might take her, however, she admits that it will probably end up closer to home than she might have intended. “Every story we explore is a thinly veiled doorway to understanding our own psyche,” she says. “Even though these characters are not like me on the surface, I think they have something in them that is me, and that is why I was attracted to write about them—to understand that similarity.”CP
Power reads from The Sea of Tears at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW. For more information, call (202) 364-1919.