Thursday, August 12, 2010

You Have Given Me a Country, Neela Vaswani, memoir

Neela Vaswani’s memoir begins and ends in airport terminals. From New York to New Delhi, two journeys at two different times in life, 28 years apart. This book describes those 28 years, and her life as a unique mixture of two different races and cultural backgrounds.

She writes chronologically, and reveals not just her parents separate lives, but even further up the family tree. She explores the history of her mother’s Irish Catholic family, with an assortment of memorable characters, all devoted to their city and their “tribe”. She mentions her Irish aunts dancing on a roof over their Italian neighbor’s apartment, just to annoy them. They lived big, loud, and frequently rough lives. They and their extended neighborhood formed their world, one they seldom ventured from. Then she delves into her father’s past in India, and how his family had lived. The lifestyle was more quiet, devoted, and respectful. Eventually her father, a physician, immigrates to the US, bringing his heritage with him.

All of this collides, naturally, when her parents marry and she is born. A mixed race child doesn’t have it easy in any culture, whether in the US or India, and she details her youth with anecdotes that are sometimes funny but often painful. Discrimination and prejudice are everywhere, which I found amazing considering this was relatively recent history (she was born in 1974). Her parents experienced a different sort of discrimination that Vaswani did, and she shows both types of experience. Sometimes people were being ignorant, but often it was intentional, in a time when a ‘hate crime’ was not investigated or taken seriously. The author shows how, even after they married, her parents still had a place that they fit into, in their respective homelands. But as a child of both, she had no real place of her own.

Vaswani’s writing is filled with details: a little girl babysat by her Indian grandmother, neither able to share a language but still able to laugh together and bond. A Bombay hospital that blacks out its windows in wartime with cut up x-ray films. The details dramatize the book and make it feel personal. Additionally, there were some bits of history thrown in that were new to me. I never knew that the Cinncinnati Reds changed their name to “Redlegs” during the Red Scare of the 1950’s to avoid being linked with communism. And I had no idea that India and Pakistan experienced a Partition similar to that of Ireland, one that created a wider religious division between the two nations after its placement than before it.

The first half of the book was especially enjoyable, as the author stayed tightly on the path of her family. I got a bit bogged down in the second part of the book, as she (at times) seemed to get on a soapbox and broadened her commentary a bit too wide to feel like a memoir. It felt preachy and political and lost steam at some of these points. While her story is authentic, I felt like she hadn’t achieved the authority to speak on all issues she attempts to address. All said, it’s a wonderful example of the complications still found in our multicultural society. In fact, I think this title would be an excellent text for a class to study, just to illuminate the world outside the neighborhood and comfort zone. 

Special thanks to Caroline Casey of Sarabande Books for the Advance Review Copy.

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