Travel memoirists often portray themselves as an unusually hardy species, evolved to withstand jet lag and exotic foods. But artist, cook, and seller of novelty wares Tamara Shopsin — who’s also the daughter of Kenny Shopsin, the notoriously short-fused owner of the Manhattan diner Shopsin’s — opens her own memoir, Mumbai New York Scranton, with a trip to India, during which she chronicles her own lethargy and debilitating nausea in as much detail as she gives to her surroundings. It turns out she wasn’t a whiner or a bad traveler; she was unknowingly battling a much more serious ailment: a brain tumor.
”Everybody gets sick in India,” she tells EW. ”I was positive I had food poisoning, but looking back, it was a little bit more. That’s easy to see in hindsight, but when it was actually happening, it seemed very natural.”
Upon returning home to New York, Shopsin began the taxing journey of going to doctors to diagnose the cause of her fatigue and splitting headaches. Along the way, she was repeatedly asked if she was pregnant, and one doctor suggested that she might be suffering from ”exertion headaches,” a side effect of sex more typically found in men. She retreated to her Scranton, Pa., hideaway, where she sought respite from her illness in creative projects. ”I really convinced myself that I was causing the problem, that it was stress,” says Shopsin, 33. ”I had this hovering sense of ‘What is going on? Am I a hypochondriac?’ And it was so painful. Thinking about it, I want to vomit.”
The memoir delves into Shopsin’s brush with mortality and her road to recovery in highly unconventional style. She writes in terse, scattershot prose that sometimes proves frustratingly unfocused, but she achieves moments of real poignancy when she includes photos by her husband, Jason Fulford, or her own drawings in places where words fail her. ”My style of illustrating is to use as few lines as possible,” Shopsin explains, ”and that does seem to be the way I write, too.”
While Mumbai deals with weighty themes of sickness and death, Shopsin’s story is populated with a compelling cast of supporting characters. Her father, Kenny, is renowned as much for berating customers and kicking them out of his restaurant as for his massive menu, which at one point offered more than 900 items. He and the diner were the subject of the 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies, which revealed not just a hotheaded chef but a fascinating, uncompromising artist.
Kenny Shopsin — who can put Gordon Ramsay to shame with his tirades — makes brief but memorable appearances in his daughter’s book, dealing with her diagnosis with surprising tenderness. For Tamara, spending time in the kitchen with her dad became a form of therapy. ”You get in this sort of rhythm and dance when you cook eggs perfectly and they go out hot,” she says. Although Shopsin says her father has mellowed a bit with age, he maintains his signature edge. ”Sometimes he’s in a bad mood and anything can set him off, but sometimes he’s in a good mood and nothing can set him off,” she says. After taking a moment to reflect, she adds with a laugh, ”Actually, that’s not the case…. We have a good time when we get in these little fights. We can be angry and vicious to each other and then two minutes later it’s like, ‘Wow, that was fun.”’
Without spoiling the ”how” of Shopsin’s recovery, there’s a happy ending to this brief, harrowing story. In fact, she’s currently on a cross-country road trip with her husband. ”We have jobs that let us work on the road, so we do it,” she says. ”There’s something that really moves us along.” That miserable trip to India was just one dark pin on the map.