“When I say, ‘Oh, we didn’t expect this,’ we truly didn’t,” Nezhukumatathil said. “I tell my kids to reach for the stars, but this was like, into another galaxy. I sound a little ridiculous, you know, I’m not trying to sell myself short, it’s just, that’s the reality.”
Working on “World of Wonders” over the past 10 years, Nezhukumatathil said she had two days of being sad in March when it became clear the book’s tour wouldn’t be happening as planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is when you’d see on the news, people being carted-out and having like makeshift morgues … I was like, ‘Who am I to be sad about my book (tour)?’ And that really put things in perspective.”
In a year where literature on racial disparities and books about the history of racism climbed best-seller lists, Nezhukumatathil fully expected a book of that genre to win the accolades her book received.
Humbled by its reception, Nezhukumatathil explained how even though she’d authored successful books before “World of Wonders,” there was a certain doubt she still carried about writing a nature-themed, non-fiction book.
“I’ve been reading about the outside world since I could read,” Nezhukumatathil said. “I didn’t know who Dr. Seuss was. I just assumed that was one of my mom’s doctor friends, you know, I was thinking, ‘Who is this guy a lot of people seem to know?’ Because I was on the other side of the library, when all my other friends were reading ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ and I was reading like, ‘History of Volcanoes,’ or ‘The Search for the Giant Squid.’”
With an insatiable curiosity for nature, Nezhukumatathil grew up reading everything green and wild that she could get her hands on, though something important was lacking.
Nezhukumatathil said when she would read a book about nature that she particularly loved, there was a happy anticipation to find out who was the writer behind the beautiful descriptions, to “see who was her best friend.” To her disappointment, the books were routinely authored by older, white writers — never representative of Asian American women like Nezhukumatathil.
Pop culture of the 1980s and ’90s showed Nezhukumatathil that Asian American characters in music, books or television often played the main part in some spy operation, or more often, were the butts of poorly done jokes.
The expectation, Nezhukumatathil said, was to stay in her lane, digest those stereotypes, study pre-medicine or something else in the field, and leave writing about the outdoors to somebody else.
“The truth of it is, in about 2015 (or) 2016, even though my degree is in nonfiction and poetry, the stuff I wanted to write about was the outdoors. I didn’t want to be contained in a verse or in a line break,” Nezhukumatathil said. “I needed my sentences to go margin to margin. I realized, ‘Oh, these are essays.’ They’re still short essays, but I just couldn’t stay silent anymore about not joining the conversation about the outdoors, and writing about what I love, which are different weird animals and plants.”
Now a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, Nezhukumatathil called Beavercreek home only for her junior and senior years of high school, as her mother’s career as a psychiatrist kept the family on the move.
Although her time here in the Dayton area was brief, Nezhukumatathil said one Beavercreek High School teacher in particular was instrumental in what would be her future career as an author and professor: Becky (Rebecca) Harding, who was an influential speech and debate teacher at BHS through the ’80s and ’90s.
“I think there’s a whole legion of people all across the country who studied with her,” Nezhukumatathil said. “I was so super shy when I moved (to Beavercreek) … I get choked up thinking about it. She just made every person feel so special, and I would never have been able to thrive at Beavercreek, literally, without her. … I still credit her to this day for being able to talk. I would never be able to be a professor without her.”
“World of Wonders” is available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and many other places books are sold.