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.


  1. Wow, I can't believe that teacher! I'm jotting down some of the titles she mentioned.

  2. Thanks for this post! I loved the book, and enjoyed Jyotsna's insights into what it means to be a second generation American.

  3. Fascinating interview! I always like hearing the story behind the story. My kids have faced similar issues being half British and living in both countries, although the cultural issues are more moderate. Also being half Jewish in a very Christian state, I felt odd being called on by my kids' kindergarten teacher to explain Hanukkah to everyone. A teacher's training should include lessons in cultural sensitivity. Very few kids like being singled out for their differences. It's good that the author eventually came back to embracing her culture and sharing it with others.

  4. I always love reading about what inspired the author to write the book. Sreenivasan's personal story really brings home how lost the second generation of immigrants feels.