In Aarti Shahani's memoir, Here We Are, a searing look at an immigrant family's struggle within the American justice system

Aarti Shahani's Here We Are not only recounts the experiences faced by immigrant families, but also explains how the America of today has come to be. The border separations, mass deportations, and immigrant detention camps are simply a consequence of a system that has been under duress for many years — a system that has punished enough working class people in its way.

Meher Manda April 01, 2021 08:57:16 IST
In Aarti Shahani's memoir, Here We Are, a searing look at an immigrant family's struggle within the American justice system
  • Here We Are, a memoir by NPR correspondent Aarti Shahani, not only recounts the experiences faced by immigrant families, but also explains how the America of today has come to be.

  • The border separations, mass deportations, and immigrant detention camps are simply a consequence of a system that has been under duress for many years...a system that has punished enough working class people in its way.

  • The Shahanis were one such family whose lives were upended by the system.

Staple Indian immigrant literature often captures families at the crossroads of movement, the struggle of defining ‘home’, and the perils of raising your children in a country that fails to accommodate your culture. But Aarti Shahani’s Here We Are (Celadon) is not that book. The memoir chronicles a family caught between the criminal justice and immigration systems in America, a daughter fighting to keep her family together, a household whose children had to grow up way too early in the face of an existential threat, and a country whose treatment of working class immigrants was as indefensible 20 years ago, as it is criminal today.

Here We Are not only recounts the experiences faced by immigrant families, but also explains how the America of today has come to be. The border separations, mass deportations, and immigrant detention camps are simply a consequence of a system that has been under duress for many years — a system that has punished enough working class people in its way. The Shahanis were one such family whose lives were upended by the system. An NPR correspondent, Aarti Shahani handles the subject with deft academic research, and as a daughter, she tells a provocative, heartbreaking story of a family who suffered in their quest for home.

In an interview with Firstpost, Shahani discussed the book and her process of excavating her family’s story.

The narrative of Here We Are has been in the works for over 20 years. Why did this feel like the right time to tell the story?

I think it’s for two reasons: One is very personal. When my family’s problems finally came to a close, I had spent so much of my life fighting to keep us together in this country that I had neglected some very basic things. For example, my credit score. At age 30, even though I had been to some excellent schools, I didn’t have any savings. I didn’t have an identifiable career to speak of. And I was really nervous about my future because it’s not like I have a safety net to fall back on. And so, I made the pivot from the activism I was really involved in, to business journalism with NPR a pretty dramatic career pivot. The years passed, and I was able to build up my credit score, save money, buy a home. Just doing those things that made me feel, frankly, safe. Like, my life is good. If I revisit the past, I’m not going to be trapped in it. I won’t fall back into a miserable place. I can look at it without being stuck in it. That was one thing, the confidence.

The other thing is the election of President Trump. Many of us were thinking, ‘What am I doing to help make my country be the place I believe it should be?’ No matter what moment you’re in, there are different forces pulling at you. There’s always a battle between the good, the bad, and the ugly. I needed to know that I’m going to be on the right side of history. As a journalist, as a storyteller, as a woman with the megaphone, I asked myself, ‘Aarti, what is the most important story you want to tell right now?’ My most important story was about my immigrant family. Specifically because we have a president and political leaders who want to tell my story for me, and their version is completely wrong. So I wanted to tell the truth, and that’s what I did.

In Aarti Shahanis memoir Here We Are a searing look at an immigrant familys struggle within the American justice system

Aarti Shahani. Photo courtesy Nickolai Hammar

The book starts with tracing the early beginnings of your family, from when your father and mother met and married, to their eventual move from the Middle East to America with three young children. You trace a lot of family history, ask your father questions about his life. How difficult or easy was it talking to your parents about their life before you knew them?

I’ve been getting extraordinary feedback on the book from different readers. One of the things that has come up is people saying, ‘I wish I had asked my mom or my dad about their life before they came to this country.’ The last 50 or 60 years have been an extraordinary chapter of human history. There has been an entire reorganisation of the world, post colonialism, which was largely violent. Our parents’ generation witnessed and lived through it. Coming to America was not their first rodeo. They’d seen a lot before then. While I had my father with us, it wasn’t that it was always easy to talk to him. He wasn’t the verbal person I am. Sometimes, it felt awkward and stilted and forced, but I didn’t care. This was before I was a journalist, and I would just make us go into interview mode because I wanted to know who he was. Sometimes, he just didn’t want to think about the past because there was so much pain in it. He told me that when he was six years old, he saw murder all around him (during the 1947 Partition). That’s part of what many of our parents saw toward the end of colonialism. But he also had memories that were much lighter, like when he recounted to me his first date when he was a migrant worker in Beirut, and he went out with an Armenian flight attendant. He laughed so much recounting that to me. He said he couldn’t believe he was talking to me about it because for one, it was a totally different lifetime for him. And also, he was talking to his daughter. He could never have imagined that as a man from the old world, he would be talking to his daughter about dating before marriage.

The book also explores the inner lives of your other family members. We learn about your mother and her experience fostering a community in Queens. We also learn about your siblings and their struggles. What kind of conversation did you need to have with your family about it?

Here is the process. I have a huge extended family but the family members whose opinion really matters to me is my brother, mother, and sister. My father has passed, that’s why I’m not naming him. I told myself, ‘Aarti, you’re going to write whatever you want to write. Push out whatever it is you want. When you have something resembling a manuscript, hand it to Mom, Deepak, and Angelly, and get their feedback.’ Nobody has veto power. I value their opinion. Luckily for me, all three of them loved it. My sister, who is my toughest critic, told me, ‘Aarti, you made us sound like ourselves.’ That’s the highest praise that a memoirist can get from the other characters in her book. They also had very important feedback for memories I wasn’t there for.

For example, I mention in the book an incident when my mother, my brother Deepak and I visit my father for the first time at Rikers Island. He told us that a man had threatened to saw off his finger and take his wedding ring, and so my father gave the ring to my brother to hold for him. My mom read that scene and told me, “But Aarti, you don’t know what happened that night. Papa called from jail, and he was very upset with me. He said ‘Dahling, why did you let me give away my ring?’” I didn’t know that it was so painful for my father to give up his wedding ring, seeing as it was his last connection to my mom while he was at Rikers Island. And mom told me that. I feel like by writing this story, I drafted our lives on the page and each of the people I loved most on earth told me from their perspective what was happening, and I got to integrate that back into to the page. You talk about being objective, right. I don’t believe that we as humans are capable of being objective. We are each biased by our position. It is an inescapable fact of the human condition. But what you can do is broaden your lens, or deepen your lens. I think that by writing this book, by getting my mother, brother, and sister to share their perspectives, that depth shows up on the page.

One of the moments that stood out in the text is when after your fathers passing, you tell the guru at your fathers funeral that you would like to take your fathers ashes and spread them in the Pacific. The guru quickly corrects you that a daughter never takes the ashes, the son does. In so many ways, you subvert the image of a daughter in an Indian family, where you become the protector for your father. How integral was that subversion to this book?

I think the upending of gender norms is as central to this book as immigration is. Who am I on the page? I’m the rebellious, youngest daughter who at an early age, the men were quick to either judge, ridicule or want to control. The men in my family definitely worried that my mouth was so big, it would bring doom upon my entire family. My fiery rebellious character was a liability, not an asset. But once we were under attack and I stepped up, suddenly those same qualities could be seen in a different light. The men in my family could appreciate them. My father began turning to me before any man he was related to, to seek guidance and consultation.

A lot of things change by doing, not by talking. Both for my father and me, he came to see me and respect how strong a woman could be through action. He felt ultimately really grateful, and proud even. I remember distinctly, when graduating from Harvard, I got into places that my father could not. But he really felt it was his accomplishment too. The ideas he had about gender when he’d first come to America had largely — not entirely, but significantly — faded. For all the wrong I believe we faced, my father in particular suffered in this country; I’m in a country… again it’s all relative and it’s not perfect… I’m in a country that lets me be empowered. As much as this is an immigration story, this book has a lot to do with the upending of norms. In questioning what is masculinity, what is femininity. And ultimately, what is love.

In Aarti Shahanis memoir Here We Are a searing look at an immigrant familys struggle within the American justice system

Here We Are. Celadon Books

There isnt enough literature about the effects on mental health of immigrants, the painful and extortionist process they go to. How did you hope to speak to that when you address your fathers depression in the story?

I feel like what I’m doing in this story is trying to lay out a complicated and messy truth. When you have a legal problem, it won’t remain a legal problem, it’s going to become a mental health problem. I would posit that many people in the United States, and perhaps the majority of recent immigrants are grappling with depression, largely from isolation. They’re losing human connection. My father, upon his arrest, was basically cut off from his friends. So I think part of what I’m doing in this book is mapping out how that happens. To acknowledge that it is normal, I hope is the first step in figuring out how to address it.

I was in my 20s when my father fell into a very deep depression. I didn’t have the emotional or spiritual maturity to know how to deal with that, so what I did was focus on a legal goal. I knew how to petition members of Congress, I didn’t know how to help my father with his depression. Now that I’m older, I would say that remembering when you’re fighting hard for something, whether it’s against a deportation or to build a business, whatever your goal is that feels overwhelming, remembering always that we are not islands by ourselves, we as humans are social creatures in need of love, in need of connection. And nurturing that need, first and foremost with each other. If I could go back and tell my 20-year-old self anything, it would be to let herself and her family focus more on the quality of their relationship, and not just the goal at hand.

Right from the struggle of a family of five trying to survive in a foreign country to then a family dealing with the threat of deportation, how essential were the communities of colour in Queens and the immigrant community during your activism years, in writing this book?

I would say that socially and personally, my social life has always been full of immigrants from different backgrounds. That’s the group I most strongly identify with personally. For instance, even moving to Silicon Valley. Who are my friends? My friends are largely first generation immigrants. The immigrant’s identity is supposed to be a thin one. In theory, it’s an identity you come into and out of quickly and forget. That was not the case for me, or many people I know. You really are defined by the transience of life. By the crossing of many worlds in a short period of time. In my journey to keep my father in this country, Americans as well as immigrants of different backgrounds, nationalities came rallying to support the Shahani family. And I want to emphasise, many Americans — white, black, I mean many Americans — were part of our fight. The people who were not really a part of our fight were members of our own small ethnic community. This is what is so beautiful about America: that even when your own ethnic group will not stand beside you, total strangers who have a sense of justice and equality will.

Why do you think that is?

American culture is fundamentally open, absorbent, and accepting. Our laws are not like that, our laws are all messed up, but the culture is an embracing one. So I think that the small mindedness that so many of us learnt back home… that you shouldn’t marry outside of your caste, or ethnic group or social status. We come from places that are incredibly stratified and small minded. And America is not that way.

The thing is that, as I observe it, the Indian community that I grew up with, was too insecure with their own survival and sense of self to stand up for the rights of a neighbour. There were many Indians, many small business owners doing exactly that my father was doing. But they weren’t going to write letters of support. They didn’t want to get in trouble. The other immigrants who lived here, not even from our country, and the Americans who’ve lived here for generations, the way they embraced us, and were there for us, it really tells you something about this country.

There is this staple Indian immigrant literature that exists in America, whether thats work by Akhil Sharma or Jhumpa Lahiri, work that explores these plushy middle class families moving to America and struggling to hold on to their roots. Here We Are is such a stark separation in that its nonfiction, and also because it deals with the threatening aspect of immigration. How do you hope it informs the immigrant literature landscape?

I see my book as a love letter, not only to my father and his past, but to working class migrants around the world, who have been uprooted from where they come from and are seeking home. We get demonised wherever we go. My family had that experience in the US. So I hope that people who relate to that experience, who themselves end up being very successful, feel seen and understood in a way that prior literature hasn’t made them feel. And can also hold themselves to the standard of remembering and having empathy for the next generation who goes through it.

Do you feel like the growing representation of Indian Americans in media and popular culture can direct the conversation to the real struggles of the immigration process?

Not just the immigration process, but what my family struggled with was the criminal justice system. I love the desi celebrities on the rise. I think Mindy Kaling is hilarious, I think Hasan Minhaj is brilliant. I love the writing of Jhumpa Lahiri. I love who I see on the page and on the screen. But they do come from much more privileged backgrounds than I do. I grew up poor. Plenty of South Asians in this country have grown up poor. And when you grow up poor, it’s a different experience. I’m not writing about the alienation in white suburban life, I’m writing about the prison system. I’m not writing about medical school, I’m writing about Rikers Island. But I would guess that many of us from more humble backgrounds would relate. That’s a lot of the feedback I’ve been getting. One thread has been, ‘I wish I had gotten to know my mom and dad more’. And then the other, ‘Thank you for writing about Indians who are not doctors.’ Because it is okay to be a working class immigrant. It was acceptable with the Europeans, it is acceptable when it is us. That’s important. You don’t have to be perfect, being perfect is not the cost of admission.

The book ends on such a heartbreaking note. After the troubles, your father gets to finally visit India, meet family, but as he gets sicker, he wishes to return to America. You say, he finally chose his home. Through the writing of this book, do you know what home means to your family now?

I think it meant a lot to each of us that Dad, the one among us who did not want to stay in America and then who paid the highest cost for our choice to stay in America, decided to hold on to life and let it go here. That was a powerful fact for all of us. I wrote this in the book — “You can live life in many places; you can only die in one.” And when my father made his choice, it gave each of us a sense of peace and belonging.

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