Next Stop, ‘America for Beginners’: a novel comes to Corning

This blog post comes to us from guest contributor, Leah Franqui, a Philadelphia-native now living in Mumbai, author of the debut novel ‘America for Beginners’ (2018). The fascinating story of a wealthy widow from India who takes a tour of America in search of her long-lost son, ‘America for Beginners’ weaves its characters into the very fabric of America, and makes not least of all, a stop at our very own Corning Museum of Glass.

Get your summer reading started early while you continue social distancing, and find out what inspired Franqui to set a scene within the Museum’s galleries and the affect it has on her characters.

Leah Franqui

It’s probably not every bachelorette party that includes The Corning Museum of Glass on their itinerary, and frankly, that might be for the best. It is a glass museum, after all. But my bachelorette party knew me well, so they knew that while I would love the wine tastings they’d organized for me in the Finger Lakes, the real star of the show would be in Corning, where I would finally visit the museum in real life that I had been looking at online for months.  

I first learned about the Museum in passing from my friend Rebecca, an art conservator who once stopped by on her way to a conference in Buffalo. Museums are some of my favorite places in the world, but I had never heard of a museum just for glass, and I think I probably giggled a bit at the thought and put it aside, not sure when I would ever be in Corning. However, when I started writing my first novel, I remembered the Museum because I knew it was a popular destination on many tours organized for Asian tourists in the United States.

You see, my novel, ‘America for Beginners’, is about tours, or at least one tour, conducted by a Bangladeshi tour group pretending to be Indian, for a Bengali widow in search of answers, looking for the country that seduced her son. It was inspired by my own Indian in-laws, who also once took a tour of the United States, although their trip didn’t include a stop in Corning. But while, sadly, there are so few museums on most of these popular trips, many of them do include a visit to The Corning Museum of Glass, probably to break up the long journey between Niagara Falls and Harrisburg, PA, a stopover itself on the way to Washington D.C. In fact, almost every tour I looked up in my research discussed the Museum as eagerly as it heralded trips to the Statue of Liberty or Universal Studios in Los Angeles. I had to see it for myself.

Luckily, Rebecca, my art conservator friend, was part of my bridal party, and my other friends Victoria and Emily were more than happy to explore the Museum with us. In fact, Emily was doing research for her own novel set in late Ptolemaic Egypt, and a special exhibit of Roman Glass delighted her. Frankly, the Museum delighted us all. We ogled at a magnificent lynx made of pale blue shards, learned about commercial glass production, discussed naturally occurring glass and the patina of age that turns clear glass into a shiny colorful surface, and argued over the benefits and downsides of buying a bunch of things in the gift shop before our car ride back to New York.

Leah (center) and her friends enjoying Kiki Smith’s Constellation (2013.4.38)

I thought I knew the nature of glass before my time in the Museum. After all, glass is all around us, we use it for windows and cups and to see better every day. But its versatility and artistry astounded me. I wondered afterward how many people on these tours, bleary with jetlag and still adjusting to traveling, reacted to the Museum. It’s unlike anything else on the jam-packed itineraries that cart groups of tourists from one major photo opportunity to the next. The Museum is quiet, contemplative, and it asks visitors to take something they think about in terms of utility and re-imagine it as beautiful; as a material familiar and yet unexplored for most of them. At least, that was my feeling in the Museum, so I had to imagine it was other people’s as well.

My experience in Corning informed the way I revised the scenes my characters share at the Museum. I realized what a unique stop it is on an otherwise frantic trip, the one moment of contemplation and quiet observation, the one place where the “things to see” are small things that inspire the viewer to look closer. Well, small compared to the Grand Canyon, at least. I wanted to give the characters in my novel something like the feeling I had had in the Museum, and I focused that on Satya, the character in my story who has the least experience in museum spaces. For him, the Museum was entirely new, and I placed my own fascination with naturally occurring glass in him.

“When he emerged into the large sunlit lobby, he found himself staring up into a green vortex of delicate spiraling light. There seemed to be a plant of some kind growing. Blinking, he realized that this was actually a structure fixed to the ground. Stepping back to join Mrs. Sengupta and Rebecca as they marveled at the piece, Satya understood that the thing was made of glass.”

Leah Franqui, ‘America for Beginners’ – chapter 23

The Corning Museum of Glass is a very special place, and I’m glad it’s one that tourists have the chance to experience when they come to the United States. It’s an oasis in a whirlwind tour of non-stop going, a point of singular focus in a trip that’s about big scattered things. I’m so privileged that I got a chance to actually visit the Museum in the course of my research, and within the course of my own wedding, with such wonderful friends with which to share it. Having access to a resource like this changed my novel, and it also introduced me to a wonderful space and collection that I can’t wait to return to, regardless of the subject of my next book. 

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