Saturday, September 24, 2011

"A Passage from India" in More Magazine

The women in my family
This article appeared in the September issue of MORE Magazine:

"FIFTY YEARS AGO, when I arrived from India at the age of 21 as a graduate student in the University of -Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, I was, quite possibly, the most innocent, most ill-equipped and least savvy young woman American higher education had ever greeted. Heading into the Iowa winter, I still wore saris and sandals. Except for household servants, I had never spoken to a male unrelated to me. I had never handled money—we kept a servant for that—and my convent school in Calcutta (now Kolkata) had dismissed the notion of an “American” literature. Naturally, I expressed no opinion (nor did I have any that might run counter to the revealed knowledge from religion, politics, history and my father).  Read Full Article

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Immigrant Writing: Changing the Contours of a National Literature

The following article was recently published on the Oxford Journal's American Literary History site. Read the full article here.
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I will take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God.

-Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America

The naturalization oath administered in a court of law makes the acts of immigration and naturalization seem simple enough: swear absolute renunciation of your former national allegiance, promise readiness to defend the US Constitution and to assume military posture when required, and you, foreign-born petitioner, too can be a legal American. But how exactly does the immigrant absolutely renounce her earlier self, her fidelity to family history and language “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion?”

Once upon a time, when the majority of immigrants were Europeans fleeing poverty or religious and political oppression, deliberate erasure may have been possible, and even desirable. Philip Roth spoke with Terry Gross in 2009 of not knowing where exactly his grandparents had come from because they had wanted to forget it and they could never return anyway. Roth explained that his grandparents never felt they belonged in that pocket of Galicia, that they were never welcomed or even tolerated in their homeland, so they had lost nothing in leaving it. They embraced America as they understood it, totally, without reservation or evasion. European immigrants who arrived in the early decades of the twentieth century—as economic, political, religious refugees—were grateful to the US for asylum and opportunities for self-betterment. There was no going back to the homeland that had failed them. And though the majority of these immigrants lived in ethnic ghettoes, assimilation into America was the goal they desired for their US-born offspring. The oath of citizenship could have been written explicitly for them.

But what of those immigrants who were profoundly rooted in their countries of origin, whose bond to the land was sealed in blood through generations? How do such immigrants, especially those destined to be writers, erase memory of the land from which they had emigrated without mental reservation or purpose of evasion? After all, writers are creatures of mental reservation and evasion.

And what of the body of contemporary immigrant American literature written by recent arrivals like Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz, Aleksandar Hemon and Gary Shteyngart, for whom English is not the mother tongue, and who have no intention of willfully erasing their premigration linguistic and historical inheritance? Some erosion of homeland legacy is inevitable. Edwidge Danticat, inCreate Dangerously: The Immigrant Writer at Work (2010), a compilation of brilliant lectures on the inspirational sources for her writing (delivered as the 2008 Toni Morrison Lecture Series at Princeton), offers this insight: “One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forcedto merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there”

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Miss New India

The following are excerpts from my interview with The Library Thing, by Jeremy Dibbell. For the full interview, click here

Q: “Miss New India bears a resemblance to a long line of other works where a young person from a rural area goes into the big city in search of things new and different: how do you see this work fitting in with similarly themed works set in different times and places, and how is Anjali’s experience different?

BM: The story of Anjali’s belief in her inalienable right to personal happiness and her pursuit of that right, which propels her from her hometown to a far-off, thriving, expanding metropolis is my story as well as that of Anjali, of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. We’re currently witnessing contemporary American versions of that drama as hundreds of thousands of documented and undocumented migrants, yearning a better life, cross our porous borders.

That yearning is universal. But Anjali’s specific response is shaped by her psychological make-up, her cultural upbringing, and the where and the when of her journey of self-discovery. In Miss New India I braided Anjali’s coming-of-age story with the drama of India’s immense self-transformation over the last fifty years. 

 Where: If Anjali had been raised in a cosmopolitan mega-city, such as Mumbai, she would not have had to migrate in search of jobs. If she had been born in a remote village, she would probably not have had the untested sense of self-worth necessary for breaking with age-old tradition; certainly she would not have had the English-language fluency required of “call-center” employees. At the start of the novel, Anjali is an urban teenager with urban ambitions, stuck—she fears--in Gauripur, a provincial town with a stagnant economy and limited opportunity (other than “arranged marriage”) for a young woman with middling education born into a patriarchal family of modest means.  Her impatience with the shabby future that Gauripur can offer her, propels her to seek better quality of life elsewhere.

When: Anjali’s personal quest for self-fulfillment coincides with economic boom-time in today’s India. The global corporate practice of “outsourcing” has transformed Bangalore, which was a “cantonment town” during the British Raj, into an ever-expanding, overcrowded IT-“hub city” with a population of 8.4 million. “Call-centers” attract young women and men, often from provincial towns with sluggish economy, to work the phones as “customer service agents.” The pay is good, and most of the young employees are out of the censorious reach of their traditional families for the first time in their lives. They feel empowered by their financial independence, and are not at all afraid to improvise rules to live happily by.  Globalized economy has brought seismic changes to Indian society. Anjali’s quest would not have been feasible if she had been born a generation earlier.

Personality: Though Anjali and her older sister, Sonali, were brought up in the same strictly traditional family, they respond very differently to their desires for a better, happier life.  Sonali stifles her dreams, and after a brief protest, submits to an “arranged marriage” to the bridegroom her father has selected. Though this marriage ends in heartbeak, divorce and single motherhood, she values tradition. Anjali gives her father a chance to find her a “suitable” bridegroom, but when her father fails again, she has the guts to take control of her own future, undeterred by the pain and disgrace she knows her middle-of-the-night flight from home will cause her parents. 

A significant feature of my mapping the arc of Anjali’s narrative is that I’m writing of a “new India” that is still evolving by the minute. I’m not writing about a fixed moment in history. The joint-story of India and Anjali isn’t over. That’s what’s excites me as a novelist.

Q:  The Indian call centers as described seem like fascinating places. Did you visit many in doing the research fir this book, and how did you feel about what you saw there? (Or, if you didn’t visit, can you describe the research process?)

BM:  Yes, I made many trips to Bangalore. The trips started out as family visits to a favorite first cousin who has settled in Bangalore’s Dollar Colony after retiring from a life-long career with a Europe-based international agency. We lived together in a joint-family household in Kolkata when we were children.Over the last seven years or so, I was astounded—mesmerized--by the rapid sprawl of Bangalore, the sprouting of futuristic corporate “campuses,” the surge in the numbers of confident, sharply dressed workers in IT industries, the erection of luxury hi-rises, gated communities, shiny shopping malls, Five-Star hotels, clubs, and restaurants.  My family visits turned into research “field trips” for Miss New India.  I had many “resource persons” associated with different aspects of the IT-industry in Bangalore.  They arranged visits to campuses and training centers for “accent-neutralization” and “accent-enhancement”, to team-building wilderness-camps.  I interviewed scores of “customer service agents,” and hung out with them in popular bars and clubs.  Their Bangalore radiates energy, swagger, money, and consumerist glee.  Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” I wasn’t in the India of my girlhood.