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September 17, 1999
Her Homework's A Hit
Suneeta Peres da Costa was fresh from university when her book, initially written as a personal project, caught the attention of literary agent Tiffany Richards of Janklow & Nesbit, and by early this year, the manuscript began to generate great buzz in international publishing circles.
This month the 22-year-old author has her Homework published in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. The Weekend Australian called the simultaneous sale of the book to publishers in three countries 'an international coup.'
'I just feel very, very lucky,' Peres da Costa told an Australian reporter, 'I wrote the book for myself and that all of this has happened is just incredible.'
She will speak to members of the South Asian Journalists Association in New York on October 7.
da Costa, whose stage and radio plays have been produced in her native Australia, travels to America this fall to begin the MFA program in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
She was the runner-up in the 1998 HQ/Flamingo short story contest and the winner of the 1997 Ulitara short story competition.
Her novel, while telling the tale of an Australian family of Indian-Portuguese descent, touches upon universally resonant themes of family and self-discovery.
Six-year-old Mina Pereira, her protagonist, has to fight on many fronts; the eccentric parents are just a small part of her problems.
The boys at school refuse to square dance with Mina and tease that "You're a mutant... That's what you are!"
They're not just talking about her nerdiness, da Costa notes. They're talking about her antennae, two curious fleshy feelers -- "protuberances no bigger than fingertips" -- which are rooted to her brain and emerge from the top of her head like two barometers of emotional pressure. When Mina is happy, her nodes stand up straight. When she feels down, they sag right along with her heart.
Her physical deformity creates awkwardness for Mina but it also turns her into a remarkably honest child, especially compared to the people with twisted emotions and subconscious interpersonal battles that she has to deal with.
Her best friend Quentin, the little boy next door, has a glass eye that he compulsively pops in and out. He also has a mother, who is an exceedingly cheerful concentration camp survivor, and a father who is an alcoholic. When the children get hysterical laughing, Quentin's mother warns them, "You laugh like that and you'll end up crying."
There is enough distraction and eccentricities at home for Mina. Her own mother is a physician, with physical and mental health problems of her own. After an operation, she develops a compulsion to commune with birds, eventually following them into the trees, where she roosts for hours on end.
Older sister Deepa is a prodigy of staggering capability and a painful lack of empathy. Her reading has her polishing off all of Dostoevsky's works by the age of eight. But she is unable to give the time of day to Mina, their parents, or their younger sister Shanti. Shanti, who reads nothing substantial, lives on a continual diet of Roadrunner and Quick Draw McGraw cartoons.
For many years Mina feels closest to her father, who tries to protect his daughters as his wife's eccentricities degenerate into madness. But he too begins to suffer and becomes obsessively fixated on India, where he spent his childhood.
The story explores whether Mina can survive, discover some magic within herself.
SAJA is presenting science writer and film-maker Simon Singh (The Code Book and Fermat's Engima on September 22, Dr Abraham Verghese (The Tennis Partner and My Own Country) on September 27, and Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things ) on November 2 in Manhattan.
For schedules, location and directions, check www.saja.org.
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