Winner of the 2012 Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction, selected by Victor LaValle
It is difficult for me to talk about Sarla Shah. These days everyone has a label for her. Some labels I find too distressing to repeat. Others are ludicrous. Some are true, but in my field truth is at best a construct defined by context; at worst it is brutally meaningless. For instance, if you stop referring to a person, if you never bring up her name or her deeds in places where she was a tectonic presence, does she then fail to exist?
Sarla, who unstuck herself from others’ labels, invented one for herself. “I am a microbial geosculpturist,” she would say to the men she met at pubs. I would snort into my beer; she would sip from her fluorescent cocktail of the evening, her eyebrows raised at the sodden, half-drunk boy who had ambled over to chat her up. She had that quality, when she was younger, before the fame and inevitable infamy, of drawing men and women to her who knew nothing about her at all. It was perhaps her hair, cut short and fluffed up like a cockatoo, or perhaps the arc of her jaw, the line of it echoed by her clavicles, and again by her wrists, her gazelle-legs.
But there is no elegant way to chat up a woman at a pub who has just told you she is a microbial geosculpturist, so the boy would raise his beer glass at her, say “Whooo!” and disappear into the thump of music.
And that was Sarla’s intent. She was a genius, and couldn’t pretend to have normal conversations with anybody. She did other things. She fiddled in her laboratory long after school hours and work hours, and I grew used to her returning home as late as four in the morning, muttering to herself in the kitchen as she rifled papers and boiled milk before bed.
She talked her way into the MFA program at the School of Art at Rutherford, while simultaneously enrolled at their College of Science and Engineering, on the strength of several dozen microscope slides of preserved sea urchin larvae. They looked like tiny, crystalline crowns suspended in a blue-black landscape studded with other random occlusions—grime from a fingerprint, dust motes, a tortuous strand of fiber invisible to the naked eye. “The Isolation Series,” she called it, holding up the slides to the light. Her “canvases” then were just that—Band-Aid-sized rectangles of glass, a drop of solution swirling with minute organisms, a wafer-thin square of glass pasted over the droplet. Then she’d microscope through the skin of liquid caught between the two glass layers, freeze frame, pose the eye of her camera to the eye of the microscope—shutter-snap. Exhibit. Applause.
I will be the first to admit I didn’t always understand Sarla’s art. This is not just because I was a linguistic anthropology student. I have an eye for aesthetics; when I was an undergraduate I took a cross-listed art class on resource deprivation, survival, and the human imagination. For my final project I went on a self-imposed fast for two weeks and then speed-sketched the cafeteria line in my dormitory. Some people dropped loose change on my food tray while I drew, and one girl even gave me a hamburger.
When I moved into graduate housing two years later and put in an application for a roommate, Sarla came knocking. She strolled through the apartment, rubbing her chin, looked at the cafeteria sketches tacked to the living room wall. I rushed to explain that I had just put those up as placeholders. Sarla gave me a half smile and said, “I, too, have something of an eye. I think we’ll get along just fine.”
Sarla settled in and I soon realized that while I thought myself ambitious, inquisitive, and driven, my abilities paled in comparison with Sarla’s. She studied microbiology. She taught it. She read papers about genetics, virology, cell culturation. In what she referred to as her “spare time,” she photographed the results of her lab experimentation, working early into the morning. In what she referred to as “cocktail time,” she’d take me with her to her favorite pubs and we’d exchange sketches on napkins of the senselessly dressed people we saw there.
In the mornings over breakfast she’d say things like, “selective breeding is gods-play, but it’s not as bad as people make it out to be.”
I’d blearily nod into my cornflakes, begin to say that actually eugenics really was a bad thing, but she’d be striding out the door already, her body unbent by the weight of her laptop, her camera, the many books she was reading, her pace unindicative of four hours of sleep.
I understood Sarla’s science much less than her art, but I can tell you that her real breakthrough, the thing that first pushed her creative envelope, was with the nematodes.
She’d shown me her worms before. One night after seven beers and four cocktails between us we clomped through the snow, arms wound round each other for support, from downtown through campus back to our place, and as we passed by the Cell and Molecular Biology Building she tugged me toward the glass doors saying, “I have a burning need to know whether the nematodes dance double when I see drunkly.”