Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Immigrant Stories Guest Post: Author Jyotsna Sreenivasan

On Monday, I reviewed And Laughter Fell From the Sky (review here) by author Jyotsna Sreenivasan and wrote about how the main character's struggle to fit into a new country and meet her parent's expectations is very typical of many immigrants and first generation children (although we don't all go to the lengths that she goes to!).  Jyotsna Sreenivasan has graciously written about her own immigrant experience in the guest post below as part of the Immigrant Stories Challenge.  She even makes some immigrant story recommendations so read on!

In my new novel, And Laughter Fell from the Sky, Rasika, one of the main characters, reveals that as a child she cheated, imitated, and pretended in an attempt to fit into American culture.

    When I was a child I don’t remember cheating in order to fit in, but I did try to pretend that I wasn’t “different,” that I didn’t have brown skin and black hair and parents who spoke with an Indian accent. At the age of seven or eight, I was mortified if India was ever mentioned in class, because all the kids would turn around and stare at me.  I was embarrassed when my mother brought potato curry or rice pilaf to a Girl Scout potluck. Whereas my parents were proud and happy when others asked them about India, I hated it when people assumed I was an expert on India, or that I should serve as a cultural ambassador for the country.

    Rasika arrived in the U.S. at the age of eight. I was born in the U.S., but we moved to India when I was five, and came back to the U.S. when I was seven. In India I was “the girl from America,” and in kindergarten I had entertained my class by singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” By the time we came back to the U.S. I had acquired an Indian accent, yet I didn’t realize that I spoke differently from the American kids. How had I suddenly turned into “the girl from India”? In any case, I very soon began talking like all the other kids. 

    By sixth grade I had become comfortable enough with my identity to read a book that took place in India--The Road to Agra by Aimee Sommerfelt—and do an oral report on it. I felt triumphant, but my teacher just said, “Of course you would be interested in that book.” By seventh grade I sometimes wore embroidered Indian blouses to school. My senior year of high school, I did a long research report on Indian classical music.

    Yet despite my growing comfort with my ethnicity, in college when I began writing poetry and fiction, I did not draw inspiration from my cultural background. In my senior year of college I wrote a short story in which the main character dealt with a boyfriend and conflicts with her mother--problems I faced--yet I didn’t give the character any particular ethnicity. I guess I assumed she was white and Protestant. It didn’t occur to me then to give her a cultural background. She was just supposed to be “normal,” whatever that meant.

    When I read The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston in graduate school, the light suddenly went on for me. I identified with Kingston’s feeling of not being Chinese enough for her parents, nor American enough for her classmates—the feeling of not really fitting in anywhere. I finally realized that many of my cultural insecurities were not just my own problem, but a problem shared with others of the second generation—children of immigrants, and those who immigrated as children.

These insecurities often cut across cultures. While first-generation immigrants retain their foreign accent when speaking English, and have strong ties to the home country, their children often have weak ties to the home country, and acquire the accent of the region in which they live. Julia Alvarez, a second-generation author from the Dominican Republic, titled her first book of fiction How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

    My first published short story, “The Peacock’s Mirrored Eyes,” appeared in India Currents magazine in 1992.  It dealt with an Indian-American teen who was conflicted about her cultural background. Since then, all my fiction has been about Indians and Indian-Americans.

    Many of my favorite books are written by authors of the second generation. A few months ago I finally started a web site that I’ve been wanting to put together for years. Second Generation Stories: Literature by Children of Immigrants ( features books by dozens of second-generation authors, including well-known figures such as Mario Puzo (author of The Godfather), Maxine Hong Kingston, and Julia Alvarez.

Monday, June 25, 2012

And Laughter Fell From the Sky by Jyotsna Sreenivasan

In And Laughter Fell From the Sky, author Jyotsna Sreenivasan introduces us to two people, Rasika and Abhay, who are in early adulthood and struggling with the weight of family expectations. Both Rasika and Abhay are the children of Indian immigrants living in Ohio and each are weighed down by the expectations their parents have of them. Their parents have struggled to give their children a good life with the many opportunities life in the US offers but have also instilled, at times imposed, the traditions and values of their homeland.  The result is two children caught between two worlds - the one their parents brought them to and the one from which they came.

Rasika maintains a perfect exterior - she drives a luxury car, dresses impeccably and her beautiful face is always made up.  At twenty six, she lives at home with her parents and works for a bank.  Her parents are anxious to get Rasika married and much time is spent evaluating potential matches and ensuring they find someone worthy of their daughter and also matched in terms of caste, career and good looks. Rasika seems to agree with these external measures of the perfect match and professes to need a man that is taller than she and well employed.  

Despite wanting and needing to be the perfect Indian daughter, Rasika has also spent much of her life trying to fit in with her peers in the US.  She describes watching and following what classmates did:

We never had worksheets in India, so when I got a worksheet, I looked at what the other kids wrote. We never had show-and-tell. I watched what the other kids brought in, and I did the same. I never brought in anything Indian. I imitated to learn to be American.

This imitation has left Rasika unsure of who she really is and what she really wants.  When she does get a sense of what she wants, she denies it if it is in conflict to what is expected of her.

Abhay has also grown up with the high expectations of his parents.  Like Rasika, he has delivered on those expectations in many ways.  He excelled in school and everyone had high hopes for a bright future. Following college, however, Abhay has been drifting.  He spends some time on a commune but leaves when he is disappointed by the utopian community. He doesn’t want to follow the traditional path into a successful, well-paying career despite his parents’ disappointment in his aimlessness. Unlike Rasika, Abhay has dealt with the expectations of his parents by flaunting them openly but he is just as affected  - in an effort to eschew what they want for him, he has lost sight of what he might want for himself.

They are an unlikely couple considering Rasika’s focus on good looks and career success but Abhay and Rasika are drawn to each other.  A struggle ensues as Rasika grapples with her parents’ expectations about whom she should be matched with and her own desires.  Rasika has spent so much time modeling herself into what is expected of her that she is completely out of touch with what she wants so that she doesn’t even at first recognize her feelings for Abhay.  It is hard to imagine a modern American couple facing love forbidden by their parents but that is exactly the predicament faced by Rasika and Abhay.

And Laughter Fell From the Sky deftly examines the damage done when someone lives up to others’ expectations or to the exclusion of their own wants and needs.  This is a problem often faced by immigrants and their children as they strive to fit into their new country.  In Rasika’s case, it is compounded by the high expectations her parents have for her and her own desperate desire to please them.  Abhay faces similar challenges but to a lesser degree because he does not slavishly follow the lead of others - he is actually determined to strike out and encounters different challenges in that effort.

My Thoughts

I felt I could relate to Rasika even though there were times I didn’t understand her choices.  Like Rasika, I have struggled with feeling obligated to my parents for all they sacrificed in order to give my brother and me our life in the US.  Somehow, I translated that into a need to live up to all their expectations, stated or not, and lost touch with what I wanted.  Fortunately I never went to the extremes that Rasika went to and I have become comfortable doing what makes me happy and worrying less about the expectations of others. I pitied Rasika at times as I watched her trapped by obligations and out of touch with what she wants.

And Laughter Fell From the Sky is very readable and alternates between Rasika and Abhay’s point of view.  The characters (although incomprehensible at times) are fascinating and it is interesting to see Abhay and Rasika’s relationship evolve throughout the book.  I love this as an immigrant story but there is something there for most (including a parallel to Wharton’s House of Mirth which Bookchick Di writes about in her review) readers.  Whether you like an immigrant story, a story about forbidden love or a multicultural story, And Laughter Fell From the Sky has something to offer!

Check back tomorrow when the author will be here for a guest post as part of the Immigrant Stories Challenge. 

Thank you to Mary at William Morrow for providing a copy of the book for review

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Little Princes by Conor Grennan

In Little Princes: One Man’s Promise To Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, author Conor Grennan recounts how a between jobs trip to Nepal turned into a calling to help the orphaned children of Nepal.  As much as the book is about his quest to help the young orphans, it is as much about what Nepal offers Grennan - both in terms of self discovery and love.

 A Three Month Stint
Twenty-nine year old Conor Grennan decides to leave his day job and travel around the world for a year.  He had planned this trip well and saved for the opportunity to be job free for a year.  He started his trip with a three month stay volunteering at a Nepalese orphanage - his opportunity to give back before he started his around the world trip of leisure. Upon arrival at the Little Princes Children’s Home, he is charged at and tackled by a group of wide-eyed Nepalese children excited to have a new playmate join them.  Immediately, Conor is overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and worries that he has taken on more than he can handle.  There is a vulnerability in these children’s willingness to embrace him that, although endearing, unsettles Conor.

As the weeks go on, however, Conor just accepts the enthusiastic love these children have to offer.  Along with his fellow volunteers, Farid and Sandra, Conor fills the children’s days with games of cards, soccer scrimmages and school lessons. The three months fly by and Conor has to leave the orphanage for his around the world trip but he vows to come back to Little Princes.  He makes good on the promise and the children are as happy to have him back as Conor is to be back at the orphanage. Conor grows attached to the children.

As he becomes more attached to the children, Conor also wants to protect his young charges.  Nepal is in the throes of a civil war and the young children are key targets for the Maoists who would like to recruit them into their army. When Conor learns these children have been pawns in the civil war for the entirety of their young lives, he is even more determined to protect them. Conor discovers the children are not really orphans - many of them have parents but were taken from their villages by traffickers who promised their parents that they would protect them during the Civil War by taking them to the safety of the Kathmandu valley.  They would collect large sums of money from the parents for this “service” but then just abandon the children.  Orphanages like Little Princes would take the children in but they were raised far away from their families without any knowledge that their parents were still alive.

Something Must Be Done
Conor learns the scope of the problem in Nepal is huge and that orphanages like Little Princes are only able to help a small percentage of the vulnerable children. A mission is born - Grennan knows he must do whatever possible to expand the services to children in Nepal.  He starts a foundation to help the trafficked children of Nepal. Next Generation Nepal  supports a three-pronged approach to helping the children of Nepal.  First it rescues these children from the street and places them in transitional homes; second it supports reconnection and reunification by finding parents in remote villages of Nepal to ultimately reunite them with their children in these transitional homes.  Lastly, the foundation works on prevention by targeting trafficking at its root causes.  All this (and a budding romance!) from a three month stint volunteering before traveling around the world - amazing!

My Thoughts
I devoured this book - I found Conor’s story and especially the stories of the orphans compelling.  I enjoyed reading about their daily lives at Little Princes and the many funny moments as they sought to understand each other. There were many heartbreaking moments in the book as the vulnerability and suffering of these children are revealed. But, the book is also one of hope.  There is hope in the work of Next Generation Nepal but especially in the humanity of people like those working in these orphanages and their dedication to doing right by these children.  This is a book I won’t soon forget!              

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Audiobook Review: Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy: Audio - 12 hours and 53 minutes

 I am a big Maeve Binchy fan and turn to her books when I need some easy, pleasant reading. Her stories, though containing some drama, tend to end well and leave me with a satisfied feeling. Until now, I have read all her books in paper but heard her books were good on audio. Well, perhaps I chose the wrong one because Whitethorn Woods was not enjoyable by audio at all.

 Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy, like the author’s book Heart And Soul, is set in the town of Rossmore in Ireland. The town is best known for St. Ann’s well where believers go, much to the local priest’s consternation, to pray for small miracles in their lives. The book tells the stories of various townspeople - there is a loose connection between many of the people in the different stories but what anchors it all together is the town of Rossmore and St. Ann’s well.

The anchor, however, was not enough to keep me oriented during this audiobook. Because the book is really a collection of loosely connected short stories, there are a lot of characters most of whom you don’t hear enough about to really know them or their voice. The audio format has about 3 narrators - two women and a man - so they each play multiple characters throughout the book. I found them all very hard to follow and spent the first five to ten minutes of each new story trying to orient myself to who they were and how they were or were not related to the other characters I had met in earlier stories. Just when I would begin to follow the story and want to learn more about the characters in it, we were on to another story and I was back at square one again.

 I do think this book would have been more enjoyable on paper - without the voices to follow, the move from story to story probably wouldn’t have been so jarring. In much the same way, I think some of Binchy’s more linear books would fit audio narration better. I am not giving up on this author or even this author on audio but cannot recommend Whitethorn Woods.

Have you read or listened to the author’s books? Which are your favorites?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Queen: A Life in Brief by Robert Lacey

In The Queen: A Life In Brief, Robert Lacey distills the volumes which have been written about the Queen (much of it by him in his bios Monarch and Her Majesty) into a 175 page book which captures the high points of the British Monarch’s life while offering interesting insights which may not be widely known.

The book starts, as one might imagine, with the early years of the Queen’s life including her uncle’s abdication of the throne and the subsequent ascension to the throne of her father, King George. Lacey describes then Princess Elizabeth as a relatively unassuming young girl who loved and admired her father fiercely. As her father had when he unexpectedly took the throne, Elizabeth - a girl who was never born to be Queen - began to come to terms with the fact that she would one day succeed her father to the throne. With all the apparent privilege of being King or Queen, the role also comes with a tremendous responsibility and duty to the British people.

The realization of that responsibility humanizes Elizabeth and the author offers examples of the many ways in which she has served her country and where it has required sacrifice on her part. Her schedule is grueling - with more than 365 events a year at which she must make an appearance. Many of these events span the British Commonwealth which extends across Canada, Africa and Australia, among others. At times, she has served the British people at the expense of her family’s needs - she often left her young children home for months at a time while she traveled abroad for these events.

How the obligations of the role of Queen have impacted Elizabeth and her family can most obviously be seen in the family’s choices in marriage. It seems many were denied their true love only to have the marriage they did choose end in ruins. When Prince Philip asked King George for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, he was denied. Elizabeth’s parents felt she was too young for marriage but they also had concerns about Philip because he was not a British subject - he held both Danish and Greek royal titles. But Philip overcame the King’s objections, became a naturalised British citizen and was eventually given permission to marry Elizabeth. I found it interesting that Elizabeth faced obstacles in marrying who she wanted to marry when she seemed to place similar obstacles in front of her own sister and children. Princess Margaret was forbidden to marry a divorced man while Prince Charles, famously, denied his love for Camilla to marry a more suitable (young, virginal) Diana only to have that marriage end tragically. Elizabeth’s other children’s marriages also seemed to tremble under the pressure of royal life.

Overall, Lacey paints a very favorable picture of the Queen as a woman who has steadfastly served her people and done her duty with little fanfare. It is a fitting tribute at the Queen’s celebration of the Diamond Jubilee after 60 years on the throne. The more salacious events in the Queen’s life are glossed over in the book but not ignored. The length of this book was perfect, in my opinion. I was not interested in reading a 400+ page biography of the Queen but I did enjoy reviewing the high points in her life especially with the insights offered by the author which made the book much more than just a regurgitation of facts already well known. If you are at all interested in the Queen or the British Monarchy, this book is a great primer!

Thank you to Harper Perennial for providing a copy of this book for review