The Juvenile Immigrant: A new book captures the diaspora experience and identity politics that accompanies it

Namrata Verghese, the author of The Juvenile Immigrant, discusses why all writing is inherently political, and what constitutes the American Dream for people of Indian origin in 2019

Mallik Thatipalli September 25, 2019 08:00:04 IST
The Juvenile Immigrant: A new book captures the diaspora experience and identity politics that accompanies it

The Indian diaspora, especially in the US, has long been a subject of interest and intrigue. The newest writer to explore this subject is debutante author Namrata Verghese, who unravels the many layers that constitute the Indian experience in America in her sparkling collection of short stories, The Juvenile Immigrant. With her precise narration and razor-sharp observations in stories of infidelity, mental illnesses and racial identities, she explores the themes of dislocation and disruption.

In an interview with Firstpost, the young author discusses her characters, their trajectories and what the American Dream signifies for people of Indian origin in 2019.

Why did you opt for short stories as a form in The Juvenile Immigrant? Is it because the form allows you to tell more stories?

I actually started writing these stories in high school and, over the following years, would write more snippets whenever the mood struck me. So I never really made the conscious decision to write a short story collection; it was only further down the line that I saw how connected the pieces were — a realisation that motivated this publication. I do think short fiction was the right choice for my first book, though, because the form allowed me to experiment and play with voice, perspective, and length (some of the flash pieces, for instance, are no more than a few paragraphs long) in a way that is more difficult in a longer form, like a novel.

The Juvenile Immigrant A new book captures the diaspora experience and identity politics that accompanies it

Namrata Verghese. Photograph courtesy Kay Hinton

Many stories contain strong connections to India. Can Indians abroad shake off their roots? For that matter, can any immigrant do so?

In the US, immigrants are often referred to with a prefix before the word “American” — Chinese-American, Indian-American, etc. No matter how many generations they’ve lived in America, they’re never able to shake off that prefix. I imagine the hyphen between the two halves of immigrant identities as a see-saw; you can lean closer to “Indian” or “American,” but you’ll always be both. This brings up a lot of angst for some of the characters in my book: Neal, for instance, is frustrated that “his insides don’t match his outsides". I don’t necessarily agree with him.

In fact, far from being mutually exclusive, I think the two halves of the Indian-American identity serve to inform and enrich each other.

You speak of racism and the death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, and the titular story 'Juvenile Immigrant' also centers on this subject. Would you say racism has become more ubiquitous in present times?

I don’t think racism has become ubiquitous so much as it has always been ubiquitous — the only difference is that we’re now more vocal about calling it out. The world has always been structured hierarchically; there has always been a privileged class that advances at the expense of an oppressed class. Racism is just one example of this (others, of course, include casteism, sexism, and so on), but, in contemporary America, it’s a particularly charged example. America is founded on the backs of slaves, and the current landscape cannot be untangled from the country’s history of racial struggle. Manifestations of this longstanding crisis can be as subtle as extra security screenings at an airport, or as blatant as a mass shooting by a white supremacist. It’s critical, then, in this fraught moment in history, that Indian-Americans and other minorities in the US stand together in solidarity and against every form of tyranny.

In 'Monsoon', where a character is not able to take her grandfather's favourite mango tree to the US, I felt as though what was perhaps your own wistfulness was translated into the character. How personal would you say this book is?

It’s funny that you ask this question, because quite a few other readers have also felt 'Monsoon' must be autobiographical. In reality, my grandfather is alive and well — gifting him my book, with its dedication to him, was one of the proudest moments of my life. I want to clarify that the book is a work of fiction; however, at the risk of contradicting that statement, I also believe that good fiction is always born from a kernel of truth. That kernel doesn’t have to be in the plot; rather, it can be in the emotion I’m trying to evoke, or the themes I’m trying to explore. The truth that I built 'Monsoon' around, for example, is that, like the story’s protagonist, I have always had a complicated relationship with the idea of “home”.

The story #sareenotsorry sees a young girl using her grandmother’s sari for a social media hashtag. How do you think the younger generation in the US views their parents’ motherland?

While I, of course, can’t claim to speak for the entire younger generation, what I see commonly is an odd clash of nostalgia and estrangement.

We tend to fetishise certain symbols and customs — henna, Bollywood, the example of the sari from the story — as stand-ins for a connection to our heritage, because barriers such as language and distance hinder our active participation in our culture.

That said, I do believe we’re all deeply proud of our roots. I think “Subtle Curry Traits” — a Facebook meme page, which is, incidentally, hilarious — is one of the best examples of diasporic attachment to the motherland. It includes Indians from far-flung corners of the world, from Australia to the UK, but we all laugh at the same jokes about the similarities in our upbringings; we all bond over our peculiar and particular relationship to our home country.

The Juvenile Immigrant A new book captures the diaspora experience and identity politics that accompanies it

As a writer, how much are you influenced by events taking place around you? For example, you write of the beef ban. What prompts you to include such incidents in your fiction?

I think all writing is political, even writing that isn’t overtly marked as such. Ultimately, when you publish a book, you’re putting ideas out there into the world, ideas that either maintain or subvert the status quo. I feel that comes with a huge amount of responsibility: as writers, we’re lucky to have platforms where we can actually spread ideas that need to be talked about, actually reach people who might care. When I write about the beef ban, or Trump’s election, or Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s murder, I’m trying to tie these watershed moments into broader commentary that my stories incorporate. I include these moments when they feel necessary to the story — when they become urgent.

At a time when the world is split evenly on the issue of immigrants, how do people in the US view Indian-Americans?

Indian immigrants occupy a strange position in America's racial landscape. Historically, we’ve been propped up as the “model minority”— the well-educated, well-off immigrants who keep their heads down and don’t cause problems. This stereotype isn’t just inaccurate, but also harmful. It’s used as a tool to pit Indians against other minorities in America, especially Black people, and it’s damaging for Indians themselves, as we aren’t a monolith. Within the demographic of Indian-Americans, there are Indians who are American citizens and Indians who are undocumented, Indians who have doctorates and Indians who don’t have a high-school education. Unfortunately, I think Indians in the US are still overwhelmingly perceived as the “model minority,” but hopefully — especially with public figures like Kamala Harris and Atul Gawande shedding light on the many and varied ways to be Indian-American — that is changing.

What is the American Dream for Indians in 2019? How has it changed from the 90s and early 2000s, which saw Indians settling down in the US in large numbers?

I may not be the best person to address this, since my family settled in the US after the "tech boom". From what I understand, though, it sounds like the early American Dream for Indians was simply making it to America, the land of (ostensibly) unlimited opportunities. These days, the American Dream has shifted from the periphery to the center: as Hasan Minhaj says, we now have the "audacity of equality". We now claim this country, rather than waiting for this country to claim us. We assert our humanity on our own terms. You see this in the stunning rise of Indian-American representation, from media (Mindy Kaling, Hari Kondabolu) to politics (Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna) to business (Indra Nooyi, Sundar Pichai). These influential figures are not simply passive consumers of the American Dream, but active shapers of it. They demonstrate that Indians are now integral to, not tangential to, modern America.

Finally, what is the story behind the title? How did you arrive at it? You’ve changed it twice...

Yes, I did! The book was originally called Hyphenated, which is the title of one of the last (and one of my favorite) stories. However, the publishers really pushed for The Juvenile Immigrant, which was always the title of Arjun’s story. They liked the irony in it, as a play on the common phrase “juvenile delinquent”. The implication there, of course, is that the mere act of existing in a brown body in the contemporary US is a political act, one that can be incriminating in and of itself. It took me a while, but I eventually came around. After all, like my bio says, I’m a “juvenile immigrant” myself!

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