Jade Sharma’s Problems starts out like many alt lit publications: protag lives in city, protag has crazy neighbors, protag does drugs and fucks a lot, but still has depression somehow, and so the soul-searching begins. Protag reminds us this is a cautionary tale of addiction, mental illness and general debauchery, etc. Enter Sharma’s Maya. Maya works in a bookstore and does too much dope; she has an unfulfilling marriage and equally unfulfilling extramarital affair. Problems is the story of Maya’s battles with her eating disorder, body image, heroin addiction, and trainwreck of a personal life.
Sharma’s characterization of Maya is ambitious: she’s undeniably informed by the experiences of a woman of color. So many of Maya’s negative sex and dating experiences are entirely too familiar. Sharma puts words to a particular dissatisfaction I’ve never felt free to express: “Sometimes I wondered if there was a correlation between Peter always buying himself the crappy stuff and him choosing me: a thrifty, generic brown one, instead of name-brand white one with blonde hair.” Assumed/inherent undesirability as a woman of color is the omnipresent threat that never truly received attention in body-positive movements. Love the skin you’re in—but what if that skin is brown? While the descriptions of Maya’s body image issues were hard to read, I was thankful for their inclusion; it is comforting to be reminded that you are not alone.
Hard-to-love female protagonists like Maya are rare and refreshing. Too many female characters are carbon copies of the same toothless tropes: a perfect being (beyond reproach in all aspects) or “my crazy ex.” Maya is a deeply flawed but painfully real human being. All of her sins are wails of pain; Maya is being crushed under the weight of her own life. And while this sounds bleak, Problems never has a dull moment. Sharma’s prose is silky smooth, with the familiar tone of a close friend recalling something awful over coffee. She switches between crushing emptiness and bawdy one-liners with ease. Problems is available from Coffee House Press, $16.95.