College student's road to recovery inspires award-winning prose
By Jennifer Vanasco
"Three years ago, graduating from college was a pipe dream," says College senior Srinivas "Cheeni" Rao. "I was just trying to get through each day."
After graduating from high school, Rao entered Williams College in 1992. Three years later, burned out on drugs and alcohol, he dropped out and entered a rehabilitation program. Now he is graduating from Chicago and will attend the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop in the fall to earn his M.F.A.
"When I applied to the University of Chicago and was accepted, I couldn't believe it," he said. "And the best part about it was that I found people who weren't afraid to tell me if my writing is terrible. I worked with Richard Stern [the Helen A. Regenstein Professor in English], my B.A. advisor, Bill Veeder [Professor in English] and my B.A. reader, Laura Demonski [graduate student in the English Department], and they're honest with me. I've gotten some good help. "
Rao, 24, who said that "writing is just what I've always loved doing," plans to make a career as a writer. His short story "Memories of the Ghost" recently won the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Nick Adams Short Story Contest, which comes with a $1,000 prize.
"It was kind of surprising, because I was still rewriting the story," Rao said, laughing. "I've been working with it for a few years now, and I've rewritten it about 40 or 45 times. But then Bill Veeder e-mailed me and said, 'Good things are coming,' and the e-mail from ACM congratulating me came a few days later." Rao's story was chosen from 37 entries by novelist Larry Heinemann, a winner of the National Book Award. Commenting on Rao's story, Heinemann wrote, "Here is a fine mind at work, and a deceptively off-handed quality to a very complex subject . . . it's about a city kid, a city life, a working man's life. It is a story about the pleasures and problems of love and loyalty, and making one's way in the world to and through difficult crossroads and milestones . . . 'Memories of the Ghost' is a fine piece of work."
The narrator of Rao's story is a working-class young man who lives in suburban Cicero, Ill., meets a girl, Debbie, falls in love and gets married. It is a story, too, of the unnamed narrator's alcoholism and how it affects his marriage and his relationship with his alcoholic father.
"People like that -- people like me -- don't take personal responsibility when things go wrong. It's always someone else," Rao said, "when of course the responsibility is really ours. I think this is an important story for other people to hear."
Rao says that "Memories of the Ghost," like much of his work, is an attempt to tell the tales of people who can't tell their own stories. "When I write, I use bits and pieces of personal experience, some of my emotions and feelings. The people I write about are accumulations of different people I've met in recovery," Rao said. "They've made an impact on my life.
"The people I met in half-way houses I stayed in had a different way of looking at things," he added. "They live in a universe in which you go to work, physical work, and it's a good thing. You relax after work, you do this or that, you drink. When people write about alcoholism, it's usually glitzy, it's Leaving Las Vegas. But that's not the real deal. There's a lot of pain. I want to tell their stories with all the dignity and humanity that they have."
Rao hopes to be finished with final revisions of "Memories of the Ghost" by later this summer, when he will submit it to literary journals. He is currently working on several other short stories, two plays and a novella. "I have a couple of file cabinets filled with all different stories in different stages," he said.
He has written every day during his time at Chicago, unswayed by the demands of tests or papers. "But I'm going to get two years in Iowa just to concentrate on my writing, which is good," he said.
Rao is currently experimenting with a female perspective ("very, very hard") and is working on a novella centered around growing up in Madras in southern India, where his family is from, although he grew up in LaGrange, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago.
"I still have so far to go," Rao said, "but I'm happy to be waking up each morning and going to class. I'm lucky. The guys in the half-way house, many of them were so bright -- but there were no expectations for them. This one guy was brilliant, he was a punch-press operator and he was reading Dostoyevsky. But he didn't think he had options.
"Three years ago, I didn't have dreams. But by being accepted at Chicago, I was given an escape."