“What to Do with Henry”
“What to Do with Henry” is from Tania James’s debut collection, Aerogrammes (Knopf). Her work has been published in One Story magazine, Guernica, Elle India, and The Louisville Courier Journal. Her debut novel Atlas of Unknowns (Knopf, 2009) was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
James has this to say about the origin of her story: I was listening to a radio story about a chimpanzee who had been raised in a human family and then, years later, was sent to live at a local zoo. (And for good reason: a grown chimp is five times stronger than a grown man.) The story of that chimp was captivating, particularly in the way he showed such utter disinterest, even contempt, for his own species. It appeared that his cross-cultural upbringing had made him a stranger in his own skin, two creatures at once.
At the time I had no idea how socially complex the chimpanzee is, and my research took me in all sorts of directions. I’m sure there are older drafts that could be titled “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Chimp Mating Habits.” But over the course of many drafts, I narrowed my focus and found the story yielding to another character, a young woman navigating a similar divide between one self and another. Hers is only one of several perspectives; the story rotates among people who continually try to understand this shipwrecked creature but remain ever distant from him.
Emily Cooke, writing in the New York Times said this of the collection: “Tania James is a warmhearted writer. In “Aerogrammes,” her first story collection, she treats her eclectic band of characters — several children, a chimpanzee, an obsessive analyzer of handwriting, two Indian wrestlers in Edwardian London, a former grocer, an aging dance teacher, a widower, a writer and a ghost — gently, almost parentally, pitying them while recognizing the humor in their predicaments.”