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Posts Tagged ‘immigrants’

Hi friends. April is nearly over, and I’m back from a stint of dog-sitting in Cambridge (down the street from my beloved Darwin’s, so of course I treated myself – see above).

Here’s what I have been reading:

The 24-Hour Cafe, Libby Page
I adore Page’s debut novel, Mornings with Rosemary, and finally ordered this one from my beloved Blackwell’s in Oxford because it’s not out in the U.S. It follows Hannah and Mona, flatmates and friends who work at the titular cafe and are each facing career crossroads (Hannah is a singer, Mona a dancer). It’s lovely and bittersweet – Page really digs into the complexities of female friendship – and I loved glimpsing the lives of their colleagues and customers, too.

God Spare the Girls, Kelsey McKinney
Pastor’s daughter Caroline Nolan has always lived in the shadow of her adored big sister, Abigail. But she’s starting to question both her faith and the rules of the community she grew up in. When the sisters find out their father has had an affair–weeks before Abigail’s wedding–they retreat to their grandmother’s ranch. McKinney is a fellow transplanted Texan and she writes so well about summer heat and tangled church politics. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 22).

A Woman of Intelligence, Karin Tanabe
Katharina “Rina” Edgeworth speaks four languages, has a graduate degree from Columbia – and is bored stiff with her life as a Manhattan society wife. When she’s recruited by the FBI to work as an informant, she says yes so she can find a purpose again. An interesting, complicated novel in McCarthy-era New York; Rina’s inner journey is stronger than the external plot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 20).

How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope, ed. James Crews
I found this lovely anthology at the beginning of April and have savored its entries about delights, gratitude, family, the natural world and other loveliness. Poignant and lovely. (I wanted more poems from poets of color, but know I need to seek them out on my own.)

Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, Anna Qu
As a teenager, Qu was forced to work in her family’s Manhattan sweatshop, and treated as a maid at home. She eventually calls child services on her mother, and as an adult, tries to piece together the fragments of her growing-up years. This was powerful at times but felt really disjointed; parts of the narrative seemed to be missing. I received an ARC from the publisher; it’s out Aug. 11.

All Things Bright and Beautiful, James Herriot
This second volume of Herriot’s memoirs picks up when he’s a newlywed and hitting his stride in veterinary practice. I love the familiar characters – Siegfried, Tristan, Helen – and the local folk they encounter. Charming and gentle.

You Have a Match, Emma Lord
Abby sent away for a DNA test in solidarity with her best friend, Leo, who’s searching for info about his birth family. But Abby’s the one who ends up with a surprise sister – Instagram sensation Savannah. They all head to summer camp and shenanigans ensue: tree-climbing, kitchen duty, family secrets and first love. This was my post-vaccine impulse buy at Target and I regret nothing. So much fun.

A Killer in King’s Cove, Iona Whishaw
After World War II, former intelligence agent Lane Winslow has moved to rural British Columbia for some peace and quiet. She’s just getting to know her neighbors when a stranger comes to town and ends up dead – and she’s a suspect. I loved this smart first entry in a series and will definitely read more.

Blue Horses, Mary Oliver
This was one of the only Oliver collections I hadn’t read. I loved spending a few mornings with late-life Mary and her keen, unsentimental eye. She writes so well about nature: its beauty, its darkness, its details.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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sept 11 memorial reflection

Periodically, I get to interview authors for Shelf Awareness (best freelance gig in the world, no question). Earlier this spring, I spoke to NPR correspondent Aarti Shahani about her memoir, Here We Are. It comes out next week, so I wanted to share part of our conversation with you. Here are some excerpts from my review:

On the surface, Aarti Shahani’s parents had a classic immigrant narrative: hungry for more job opportunities and education for their children, they came to the U.S. in the 1980s. They lived in a vibrant, diverse community in Queens, where Aarti’s mother became a community activist. Her father and uncle ran a small electronics shop in midtown Manhattan. But the reality–from start to finish–is much more complicated.

The Shahanis came to the U.S. from their native India (via Morocco) to escape a dysfunctional family dynamic. Their apartment building in Flushing was crowded and cockroach-infested. And when Aarti’s father and uncle were accused of selling electronics to a notorious Colombian drug cartel, their whole family spent years tangled in the U.S. legal system. Both men served time at the notorious Rikers Island prison; Aarti’s uncle Ratan was eventually deported, never to be allowed to return.

Shahani pulls no punches in detailing the government’s treatment of immigrants accused or convicted of even minor crimes, particularly those with a green card as well as those with non-permanent immigration status. She details the hopelessness of legal battles, the violence endemic to Rikers and other prisons, and the mixture of emotions when her father, Namdev, was finally released.

Here We Are is a searing exposé of the U.S. criminal justice system and its glaring flaws, and a love letter from an impetuous, outspoken daughter to her soft-spoken, hardworking father. It goes beyond the scripted immigrant narrative to highlight the Shahanis in their complicated humanity, and it makes an insistent case for readers to do the same. It is at once a statement from Aarti to her dad–we will keep fighting for you until the end–and a declaration by millions of immigrants: we are part of this country, and we are not going anywhere.

Clear-eyed and compulsively readable, shot through with compassion, humor and heart, Here We Are is a quintessential immigrant story and an urgent call for change.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which was rambling, thought-provoking and delightful:

KNG: The narrative of Here We Are has been central to your life and your family’s life. How did you decide to put it into a book?

AS: This book has been inside me for more than half my life. For many years, I chose not to write about it at all. I wanted to see: What does my life look like when I’m not being my parents’ daughter?

I also needed some space from the story to have perspective. And the more the most profound facts about my family’s life got buried, the more I wanted to dig them up. This happens to all of us: you run as fast as you can away from something, and the faster you run, the clearer the signs are that it’s always with you. I decided I didn’t want to run away from this story any more.

There are many parallels between your family’s story (set in the early 2000s) and the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants. Can you talk about that?

There’s a shift in this country, which is my country, where according to some, people like us are not supposed to exist. We don’t have a place here. The shift toward closing borders and attacking the foreigner has been steady and incremental over the years. The things you see now are shocking and terrible, but I can’t say they’re surprising. The continuity–the things I see on the news today–remind me of what my family went through.

The last couple of years in the U.S. remind me a lot of post-9/11 America: the willingness to pounce on “the foreigner.” We forget that there was real political alignment on this issue after 9/11. The sense that we were responding to a national security threat made a lot of people blind. But this country has a long history of being open to outsiders. That needs to be resuscitated immediately, and I think immigrants have to take the lead on it.

You talk frankly about the challenges of navigating the immigration system, both in the courtroom and at home.

Yes. That’s part of wanting to document my family’s story: there are some very uncomfortable facts in it. I think it’s important for people to know the corners that were cut, the things that had to happen, for us to make it in this country. We need to think about that as we continue to debate immigration issues. If your bar to entry for this country is perfection, no one gets in. I think I’m quite honest about who we are. I hope that makes it okay for immigrants to not have to be perfect, and still get to be here.

There are moments of real warmth and humor amid the struggle.

Tragedy can be hilarious. Very funny things can happen when you’re living really painful moments. This is not a screed about America. This is a family story you’re going to relate to. We’re funny and weird, and we get on each other’s nerves, just like your family. I really wanted to give people an immigrant family that’s not role-playing for America. I’m showing you those scripted moments. But you also get to see behind the scenes.

I wrote this book to let people into my family. Some people would say that we’re not an American family. I would contend that we are, and this is the story of fighting to be that. It feels like a fruitful time to share my family’s story: I think more people are willing to listen.

You can check out the full review and interview at Shelf Awareness

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It’s my pleasure to host Pamela Schoenewaldt on the blog today.

Pamela is the author of two historical novels, both set in Cleveland and detailing the lives of immigrants in that city. I enjoyed When We Were Strangers, her debut, and recently reviewed her latest, Swimming in the Moon (which I loved) for Shelf Awareness.

Here’s the beginning of my review, which details the novel’s plot:

As the 20th century begins, 14-year-old Lucia and her mother, Teresa, enjoy a charmed life as servants in a Neapolitan villa, where Teresa soothes their mistress’ headaches with her songs. But when Teresa’s volatile temper puts them both in danger, they flee to America, settling in Cleveland. Teresa finds factory work alongside other immigrant women, but her beautiful voice soon earns her a place on the vaudeville stage.

Lucia, clever and ambitious, studies hard and graduates from high school, dreaming of college. But labor unrest ripples through Cleveland’s immigrant community, and Teresa is fighting her own inner demons. Lucia must find a way to care for her mother, pursue justice for her fellow workers and follow her own dreams.

As I said in the rest of my review, Swimming in the Moon is an evocative, compelling portrait of immigrant life in the early 1900s. The narrative touches on many issues of the day, including women’s suffrage, harassment of female factory workers, mutual distrust among immigrant groups and the often brutal treatment of mental patients.

I loved the wide variety of women’s experiences represented by Lucia, Teresa and their circle of female friends, from independent small-business owners to women who gladly give up their factory jobs for marriage and children. Lucia’s struggle to balance her bold dreams with social realities, economic limits and her ever-increasing responsibility to her mother sound achingly familiar.

Pamela has agreed to answer a few questions about her inspiration for the novel and some of the issues that affect her characters’ lives. My questions are in bold below, followed by her answers:

What was your inspiration for the story of Teresa and Lucia in Swimming in the Moon? Were there historical events/places that drew you to write about them?  

When I was presenting my first novel, When We Were Strangers, at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society, I already had the idea of another immigrant journey, this one set around 1910, the crest of European immigration. In the Society’s archives, I found reference to the Garment Workers Strike of 1911 and thought: Perfect! Novel gold!  Also, I saw references to vaudeville and have always been fascinated by this uniquely American theatrical form.

Brooding over these ideas were vivid memories from the ten years I lived along the Bay of Naples. One was the shadow of Vesuvius at night when the full moon made a white path in the bay. The other was Palazzo Donn’Anna, a magnificent 16th-century villa with a lurid past, where my Italian teacher lived (see photo). The third was the San Carlo Opera House. I imagined a gifted, emotionally fragile servant woman trying to be “discovered” by a great maestro in a way that horrifies her daughter. From these images, I created my plot lines and began to work.

You’ve now written two novels about the immigrant experience in Cleveland. What drew you to write about that city particularly?

I lived near Cleveland when it was a scruffy, post-industrial city, so it was appealing to cycle back to when its industrial strength was being built of immigrant labor. I also was drawn to the differences between the Bay of Naples and Lake Erie and how Italian immigrants might have felt, in the winter perhaps, when they stood on the grimy lake shore and thought back to the warm, blue waters they left behind. Yet Cleveland had bustle, promise, raw energy and opportunity they never could have had in the Old Country. Those contrasts are ripe fields for fiction.

What do you find most fascinating about the times in which Lucia and Teresa lived?

I’m intrigued by the links between their times and ours. Societies were undergoing swirling change from immigrants pouring in, cultures mixed, new technologies, and new art forms like cinema coming in. In Lucia’s time, only eight in a hundred young people would graduate from high school. She sets herself to be one of those eight.

Women were realizing their power in the suffragette movement, in labor and the arts. In the cities, ethnicities were thrown together as they hadn’t been before, like Lucia’s Italian and Henryk’s Jewish family. Can their love, in Lucia’s words, “negotiate” that gulf?

How did you decide to weave the various issues of the day (labor unrest, mental illness, women’s suffrage, etc.) into the novel – or did it happen organically?

One of the opportunities for historical fiction, for any fiction, is to have our characters face out the great issues of their time and ours. Lucia must deal with her mother’s serious mental illness. Yes, psychology was in its infancy and many “treatments” were absurd by our standards, often thinly veiled sadism, driven by racist or sexist thinking.

Yet today, one family in four in America deals with serious mental illness. Despite new treatments and deeper understanding, we’re much better at fixing broken bones than broken minds. Many of my friends are as deeply challenged as my Lucia in balancing their own needs against those of a suffering family member.

I’m active in worker justice issues today and have spent many hours registering voters, so in this novel I was fascinated by the challenge of weaving issues I care about into the journey of two complex and gifted women.

Learn more about Pamela and her books at her website.

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