A novel in varied conversations, this sharp, nuanced debut follows a young Bangalorean woman as she begins life after college in post-9/11 America, seeking to define a place for herself amid the daily, often unwitting attempts of those who would define it for her.
OPTIONAL PRACTICAL TRAINING
by Shubha Sunder
Graywolf Press, Winter 2025
(via The Gernert Company)
It’s 2006 in Cambridge, Mass., and Pavitra wants a room with a view, a place where she will feel free and able to write the novel she began during her last year at a small college in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia. She has taken a job as a physics teacher at a wealthy private school and lives with the elderly mother of a local landlord whose rented apartments are just beyond her reach. The conversations with the people she encounters over the course of the next year, while she is in Optional Practical Training status (a visa category for international students who want to stay an additional twelve months after graduation), stir her awareness of assumptions—about who belongs and who does not—and categories both racial and cultural that barely registered in her earlier life, though now she finds them everywhere, including in herself.
Among the people who shape Pavitra’s days are students who, along with their parents, expect to be spoon-fed and promised success; a college roommate now in law school, as welcoming and unaware as ever; a young Indian cousin who shows up in the middle of winter in slippery shoes; her landlord, bombastic and understanding in equal measure, not at all what he seems. Pavitra rarely speaks about herself, but we readers see and feel, through her interactions with others, the formation of her identity as a young woman, immigrant, teacher, and writer.
Building on Indian traditions of oral storytelling and in dialogue with novels like Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Anna Burns’s Milkman, OPTIONAL PRACTICAL TRAINING expands the discussion of how America frames collective and individual identity, enriching our awareness of the kinds of space we leave for one another as we move through our lives. A trenchant meditation on the dream of “home” – its pull and its distortions – OPTIONAL PRACTICAL TRAINING carries us into internal worlds hitherto unseen, marking a singular voice in American fiction.
Shubha Sunder’s first book, Boomtown Girl, a collection of short stories set in her hometown of Bangalore, India, won the St. Lawrence Book Award and is forthcoming in April 2023 from Black Lawrence Press. Stories from this collection have appeared in The Common, Narrative Magazine, Slice, and other journals, and were shortlisted for The Best American Short Stories. Awards in support of her work include a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, a City of Boston Artist Fellowship, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences as well as the Corporation of Yaddo. She lives in Boston with her family.