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Posts Tagged ‘public policy’

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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jfk jr forum balloons hks

LEWIS ROTHSCHILD: Mr. President. You’ve raised a daughter – almost entirely on your own – and she’s terrific. So what does it say to you that, in the past seven weeks, 59 percent of this country has begun to question your family values?

A.J. MACINERNEY: The President doesn’t answer to you, Lewis.

LEWIS: Oh, yes, he does, A.J. I’m a citizen. This is my President. And in this country, it is not only permissible to question our leaders – it’s our responsibility.

The American President (1995)

I watched The American President again this fall, the way I do every election year, when I need a break from the TV ads and the ugly mudslinging and the constant ranting from both sides of the aisle. It’s billed as a love story, and the romantic plotline is charming. But I love it most for its thoughtful, incisive words about leadership and character, and the bond between the tightly knit group of staffers who work with the President, played by Michael Douglas.

Every time I watch it, I’m amazed at how it holds up. The casting is fantastic and there are so many great lines (this is Aaron Sorkin, writing pre-West Wing), but the last one above, delivered by a young, fiery Michael J. Fox, has been ringing in my head for weeks.

I’ve done a lot of questioning since the election. I am asking why we elected a man whose lack of experience in governing I find troubling and whose actions in his personal and professional life I find repugnant. I am asking, along with my colleagues, what role the news media played in this election and what our responsibilities are in reporting on the work of the Trump administration. (I am not a newspaper reporter, but I work in communications for a school of public policy, so my work is absolutely affected by who sits in the Oval Office and what they do there.)

Most of all, I am asking how I can participate actively in making this country a safer place for people who are threatened by the rhetoric of our president-elect. And I am absolutely questioning what Trump is saying and doing these days.

Before you stop reading, let me say: this is not (entirely) about partisan politics.

As citizens of a democracy, it is our responsibility to question our leaders at every level of government, no matter their policy positions or party affiliations. All our leaders, from the President on down, answer to every one of us. “America,” as Michael Douglas says near the end of The American President, “is advanced citizenship.” It is hard and complicated work. It’s why I have (for a start) been adding my name to petitions calling for an audit of the vote, supporting my Massachusetts senators who have spoken out against some of Trump’s hiring choices, and calling the House Oversight Committee to demand a bipartisan review of Trump’s finances and potential conflicts of interest.

Full disclosure: I am brand-new to any kind of political activism, even these small steps. I have always voted, but I’ve never before gotten involved in government beyond casting my ballot. I’m fumbling around here, trying to figure out what I can do to make a difference, to let my voice be heard. I am listening to people who have way more at stake (and way more experience) than I do, and trying to follow their lead.

If you usually come here for the books, the tea and the posts about what is saving my life now, don’t worry: I’ll keep writing about those things, especially as we head into the holidays. This blog will probably never be all politics, all the time. But in the wake of an election season that has rocked this country to its core, I had to say this: please join me in asking the questions.

Your questions, and the people and issues you are questioning, might be different from mine. We may not – in fact, we probably won’t – like a lot of the answers we get. But the asking, and the listening to both questions and answers, is vitally important. It is part of what democracy looks like. And when we ask, we can also decide what to do about the answers, the problems and the issues. That, too, is our responsibility.

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