It's one thing to hide behind a computer screen and write about the lives of famous people. It's a different pursuit altogether to turn that spotlight on yourself. But in 2007, Alison Singh Gee, a former People magazine entertainment correspondent increasingly demoralized by the state of journalism, accepted a buyout from Time Inc. to write her memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince and the Search for Home.
“The first time I realized this whole nutty saga of my life should be a book was when I would tell friends that my husband, Ajay, had grown up in an Indian palace,” Gee says. “They'd blink their eyes and say, 'Is this a true story? Is this real? Oh my God, you've just got to write about this.' ”
Having been born and raised in Los Angeles in a family of six children, with a father who struggled with mental illness, the Chinese-American Gee moved to Hong Kong, where she seemingly had it all — a rich boyfriend, fabulous parties and a thriving journalism career. Exchange Manolo Blahniks for Jimmy Choos, and Gee was living her own Asia-based Sex and the City.
But something was missing. Cue Ajay Singh, an unassuming Indian journalist with whom Gee had worked at Asiaweek. The pair fell in love and became engaged shortly thereafter. When Singh revealed to Gee that he had come from what was once a decadent but now dilapidated palace in India, Gee fantasized about revamping the dwelling and living like royalty. Once she and Singh traveled to the grand manor, however, she discovered something far from her imagination's idyllic projections.
The palace was run-down. Singh's family did not initially embrace Gee with open arms. And the slow pace of Indian life, its confusing customs and the lack of modern amenities (leading to lukewarm baths, using a plastic mug and bucket) left Gee anxious. The Type A personality that had driven her success now was working against her.
With its smooth writing, it's easy to devour Gee's nearly 300-page book in just a couple of sittings. Yet she says the memoir nearly wasn't written at all.
“A year had passed and I was supposed to deliver a 300-page story, but I had only written 50 pages,” Gee says. “My editor got on my agent's case, asking, 'Where's the book we paid for?' I had plenty of time to write, but I became so paralyzed with fear, thinking, 'This is going to be awful and I'm going to ruin everyone's lives,' that I began to think that I'd have to give the money back because I can't write this book.”
But when she received blessings from the people she'd feared depicting on paper, Gee's writing began to flow.
Despite the book's casual tone, Gee's observations are astute. With its blend of humor, sincerity and seriousness, Gee's story easily could be Eat, Pray, Love's down-to-earth cousin, offering a unique twist on the typical tale of Westerners traveling to India to find themselves. Gee, after all, ended up finding herself on a spiritual mission she'd never consciously intended to pursue in the first place.
Today, Gee and Singh live with their 10-year-old daughter in Los Angeles. She teaches writing, edits books, writes travel pieces and has begun to work on her second book. In this one, she's traveling around the world to learn about iconic chefs' relationships with food. At the end of the journey, Gee will cook seven nights of feasts for her once-disapproving mother-in-law. They're now on good terms — but fingers crossed Gee doesn't overcook anything.
Alison Singh Gee will read from her book at Traveler's Bookcase, 8375 W. Third St., on March 16 at 7 p.m.