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Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

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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plot thickens boston public library steps

The second half of June has flown by – life is a bit scattered but the books are helping keep me sane. (As is my library – pictured above.) Here’s the latest roundup:

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, Ruth Reichl
Reichl, a longtime food critic, became the editor of Gourmet magazine in 1998. This memoir is the inside-baseball story of her years there, Gourmet’s evolution, some of its most famous stories (and personalities), and its eventual end. I like Reichl’s writing, but I want to love her and I don’t quite. I can’t figure out why. Still an entertaining, well-written story for foodies.

The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, Elizabeth L. Cline
I loved Cline’s first book, Overdressed – a hard look at the fast-fashion culture and what it’s costing us. Her second book lays out methods for clearing out our closets and then shopping consciously: buying less, recycling or donating old clothes responsibly, and buying better-quality clothing made by brands that pay fair wages and treat the earth with care. Lots of common sense, but it’s great to have all this info in one place. Several fascinating Q&As with fashion industry pros. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 20).

The Blue Castle, L.M. Montgomery
I’d only read this little-known Montgomery novel once, and then Jenny co-hosted a read-along on Instagram. I was way too late to join, but loved my second read of Valancy’s story. She’s a delight, and I loved watching her step into exactly the life she wanted.

Today We Go Home, Kelli Estes
When Larkin Bennett comes back home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan, she’s grieving the death of her best friend Sarah and struggling with PTSD. Among Sarah’s possessions, Larkin finds a diary written by Emily Wilson, an ancestor of Sarah’s who lived and fought as a man during the Civil War. Estes’ second novel is a solid dual-narrative story of several strong women, a century and a half apart, fighting to be taken seriously on and off the battlefield. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 3).

The Library of Lost and Found, Phaedra Patrick
Martha Storm, volunteer librarian, spends her time offering to do tasks for other people so she can feel useful. But when she reconnects with her grandmother Zelda–after believing Zelda died 30 years ago–Martha starts rethinking some of her life choices and possibilities. A sweet, engaging, bookish story, though I had trouble believing Martha was quite that naive.

The Scent Keeper, Erica Bauermeister
Emmeline spends her childhood on a remote island with her father in the Pacific Northwest. He keeps drawers full of scents in glass bottles, and they forage for food. But as a teenager, Emmeline is forced into the outside world, where she finds friends but also betrayal. I’ve loved Bauermeister’s previous novels, and this one – despite a slow start – is engaging and lovely. I don’t think the plot is quite as strong as her others, but I loved the characters and the musings on scent and memory.

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, Dina Nayeri
Most of us see “the refugee crisis” in the headlines but don’t have a sense of what these individual human experiences are like. Nayeri, a former refugee from Iran, delves into her own experience and that of many others: living in camps, awaiting asylum hearings, living underground (in various countries) after being rejected. She’s blistering in some of her critiques, strikingly human in her storytelling. Compassionate, prickly and compelling. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 3).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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bookstore lenox interior shelves

Since June began, I’ve flown to Texas and back, endured flight delays and up-and-down weather, taken on all the new writing assignments at work, and squeezed in half a dozen books. Here they are:

Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, Aarti Namdev Shahani
Like so many immigrants, the Shahani family came to the U.S. for a better life. When Aarti was a young teenager, her father and uncle were accused of selling electronics to a notorious cartel. The case dragged on for years and had a powerful effect on the whole family. She brings it to vivid life: both her family’s experience and the glaring failures of the U.S. immigration and legal systems. Powerful and timely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 1). I also got to interview Aarti, who is now an NPR correspondent, and she was lovely.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah
France, 1940: the world is at war, the Nazis are suddenly everywhere, and many Frenchmen are conscripted. Sisters Vianne and Isabelle, who have long had a contentious relationship, must figure out how to survive. I finally read this novel at my sister’s (repeated) urging. A super slow start, and Vianne and Isabelle both drove me crazy for a while, but it was a compelling look at women in France during the war. (The ending will break your heart several times over.)

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson
Cussy Mary Carter is the last of her kind: a rare blue-skinned people living in the hills of Kentucky during the Depression. She’s also a Pack Horse librarian, delivering books and magazines (via her mule, Junia) to people in isolated rural communities. I loved learning about the Pack Horse librarians (who were real people), but some of the plot was a bit lacking.

The Last Romantics, Tara Conklin
Fiona Skinner, youngest of four children and renowned poet, is asked about her most famous work and its origin. She goes back to a time they called the Pause: after her father died, her mother remained bedridden for nearly three years. The events of the Pause affect Fiona, her sisters and their brother for years to come. Conklin is a strong writer (I loved her first novel, The House Girl). This one kept me turning pages, but I wasn’t sure I really knew the characters by the end.

Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits, Anna Meriano
Leo Legroño is trying to learn magic, keep her older sisters happy, and be there for her best friend, Caroline. When Leo’s deceased abuela and several other spirits accidentally cross into this world from the other side, Leo and Caroline must figure out how to send them back. A sweet, funny, magical second entry in this middle-grade series.

The Floating Feldmans, Elyssa Friedland
Annette Feldman is turning 70, and she’s determined to have the perfect family vacation to celebrate. But forcing her husband, two bickering grown children, their partners and her daughter’s two teenagers onto a cruise ship has unexpected results. A fast, funny, often bitingly witty novel about family and secrets. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 23).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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