How I Discovered America by Sharmila Voorakkara

*Featured Artwork by Phoebe Mol

It was my mother’s fondest wish to be abducted by aliens.

Each time the television or the Weekly World News poured out a story about a light in a field which wiped out time and space, or an abductee told how they were dropped back to earth, their insides rearranged,  my mother took it as a sign and drove out into the night.

Around this time, my father was gone. It was during one of his open-ended absences, in the wake of a spectacular argument, a broken table leg, a thrown chair, a crack in the Formica of the kitchen counter, which piled up with unpaid bills. Late notices with their red mouths spelled out: mortgage and heat and water and electric.  FINAL REMINDER. They all harped on.

My mother came to America a few years before I was born. She disapproved of talk about the past. She never spoke of her native country or the life she led there, her life before her life began.

“Why on earth would you want to know about all that? All those people are dead and gone, “ she said. “What’s the point of missing what you’ve left? “ she said. “Let sleeping dogs be dead dogs.“ English suited her voluntary amnesia. It was bad luck to bring up the dead. My mother reminded me of a migratory bird whose chronic forward movement was not powered by the promise of something better over the horizon, but by the prospect of starving, or of ending up alone. She stuck to the present and the future because behind her, there was nothing left.

But once in a while, the stories leaked out of her, despite her, in rare,  unguarded moments. Fragments, scraps of events flashed, though just as quickly disappeared.  I remained in pursuit of them, the way they flickered in the air behind the woman who was seated every evening over paperwork, over bills, who arranged and rearranged the late notices as though trying out various tarot spreads, hoping to hit on one that would make the future come out better than it was actually going to.


My mother used to wear saris when she first arrived in the small farming town where I would later be born. It was 1963, and the sight of her attracted small, secretive crowds.  They’d never seen anything like it before — a shocked babble gathered at the edges of each grocery store aisle, rose up at her back as she stood at the meat counter. “I could hear the children whispering and laughing at me.  ‘That  lady’s wearing her pajamas!’ “ They thought it was obscene.

So, my mother folded up her saris, flattened them into tight, even squares. She put them in her  suitcase, a powder blue Samsonite, a parting gift, she said, from the nuns at the hospital in  Delhi, where she used to work before America. The Samsonite would hold everything my mother would ever carry from home.

She bought herself matching separates at the Sears Roebuck, she said, and never looked back.

At least, I thought, the aliens would understand us if nobody else did. And perhaps my mother felt that way, too.


I once dragged down my mother’s Samsonite from its top shelf in the closet.  Its pebbled veneer of powder-blue plastic was like the tough hide of a zoo animal. I popped the silver bar clasps.  A shocked exhale from a box worth of mothballs flew up immediately, chemically sweet.  And under that, hundreds of yards of silk — navy blue, green, pink, all folded up tight. The suitcase defied the logic of time and space. End to end, the saris would be as big as a circus tent, I mused.


If history had taught me anything, it was that we needed to cram everything we could into whatever would hold it: large plastic weave, plaid bags, the kind you see trundling along airport conveyor belts, suitcases tied shut with rope. For every panic, there was a container. We were moving/not moving people. We were still,  though the ground waited to shift beneath our feet, and we barely held on.

My mother knew how to pack up her life, she knew how to pack for disaster. She knew how to pack for famine. How to pack when you found yourself broke. If we ever lost the house, she would know how to pack for that too.


Night drives with my mother were the smell of cold green vinyl seatbacks in my mother’s car, a 1969 Chevy Nova. Novacar, she called it, so we called it that too. Her first car in America.  Nova, the explosion of a star. We traveled in the chrome and steel bubble of an exploding star, the dashboard light keeping us company in the darkness — the AM radio broadcast staticky renditions of “Blue Moon”, “Moon River”, “Somewhere My Love” — winters and boxcars and unfathomable distances. Those songs filled me with the smallness you feel against the sky:  Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Maybe the three stars belting up  Orion. Those were my only names for the stars. My mother knew them as something else, trapped up in her old birth language, the one I never learned. My mother’s sky told the fortune of every living person. a good birth, or a bad one. How long you would live, how you would die. How many children. A happy marriage or a destitute one.

My mother believed in UFOs the way she believed in the love they sell you in the movies. Happily ever after and all that baloney. She talked dreamily about aliens the way the sweep of violins might pour down like the polished banister of a grand staircase in the center of a big screen.


My mother was lying on her bed, even though it was three in the afternoon.  She was still in her nightgown, the one she wore to sleep every night. I imagined that once it had been demure, hanging from a rack of “Delicates” at the Sears. But it had been put through so many washings that the material (once a light-bruise lilac) was now boiled down to a slick, featureless blue-grey.  The lace around the v-neck had been toughened, so it was scratchy and hard. I couldn’t imagine what the nightgown once looked like. It was probably pretty once. If there had been flowers printed on it, they were gone.

My mother was very still, and her face was turned away from where I stood.

“Mom?” I said.

My mother didn’t answer.


I made myself quiet.  I held my breath to hear hers.

I shook her shoulder. Nothing.

“Mom mom mom mom mom, “

My voice climbed an invisible staircase until at the top step of my skull it jumped up and down and waved its arms in the air.

“Wake up, mom! Wake up!” I said. My voice ponged off the corner of the ceiling, hijacked by dark thoughts that bubbled under the surface of actual words — my future life, and my brother’s future life opened up to me: orphans, we’re orphans — and then my brain spun so fast that I lost track of what to think, and what to do, and my hands plunged into a pocket of cold: Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.

 I ran around to the other side of the bed while my thoughts collided with one another, fell down, and carried on, running without direction all through a burning house.

But when I saw her face, she was smiling.

“That’s what you’ll feel like when I’m dead, “ she said.


“Look at that!” my mother said. We watched a far-off little dot roam from left to right, as far away as the stars. She pulled over. She killed the engine. We were suspended in the silence that followed. The radio cut out.

“It’s a plane, mom, “ I said.

“It’s not.”

“It’s a plane. “

”No, it’s not!”

“It’s a  plane. Look at it, “ I said. “Why would aliens come here? Mom, there’s nothing here. It’s all cabbages. This is the most boring place on the planet.”

But my mother could see the quiet things of my heart.

“You think I’m crazy. You all think I’m crazy. I’m not crazy. “ she said. “You’ll see!”

“Stop it,  mom, “ I said. And soon I was pleading.  “Stop it, mom. It’s a plane. It’s just a plane is all I’m saying. “

My mother sank into someone I did not know.

“I’m just an ugly woman to you. “ my mother said.

“No mom, “ I said, “you’re not crazy. “ My throat tightened, and my words turned careful. “ And you’re not stupid, and you’re beautiful, “ I said.

“Ha, “ my mother snorted. “Fat chance.  “ she snorted a quick, disgruntled animal sound. through her nose.

“One day,” she said, “ I won’t bother coming home at all. Let the state take care of you, see how you like it. “


When I was a lot smaller, I’d gotten myself lost at a mall.  Of course, I don’t remember how it happened. No one ever does. But I was suddenly surrounded by a crush of strangers whose lives were like water high above me, going on in a language I couldn’t understand. The world was not the world. You couldn’t trust it. Between the world I found myself in and the world I knew, there was just the tiniest, finest skin, as thin as the skin on a bubble.  All you had to do was step through an unseen tear in it, and you might never find your way back again.

From then on,  there was a thread that tied my wrist to hers — only if I ever lost hold of the little loop of it, it would be her that would be lost.

“Mom, “ I said, my voice a command. “Wake up. There’s nothing there.”



Sharmila Voorakkara is the author of Fire Wheel (University of Akron Press, 2003).  A native of New Jersey, Voorakkara earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. She is the recipient of a Hall Poetry Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has also received a Master's in Social Work from San Diego State University. Writing and Social Work are both a big part of her journey to discover what it means to be human in the world.


Phoebe Mol is an illustrator living in the Twin Cities. Find her at


  1. Mary Karr, and Jeanette Walls had crazy moms too. But in telling these stories, the real journey is the daughter’s lifetime search for the narrative that can wrap the relationship in a respectful story. Sharmila Voorakkara, you have certainly done that work!! And shared it through this high impact story with explosive insightful scenes, and vignettes that take me on that long journey from child to now. A short story, like prose poetry, offers magnificent bursts of unimaginably complex emotional moments – if I could unpack them into a book length, they would give me hours of insight and wisdom,

    Jerry Waxler (author of Memoir Revolution)

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