Writer Minal Hajratwala takes an in-depth look at the evolution of the global Indian diaspora through the lens of her own family’s migrations in her book Leaving India. In an interview with me for Bookslut , she talks about the Indian diaspora in America, the research that went into her book, and the place she calls “home.”
Here is an excerpt:
In your book, you seem to discard the notion of the ABCD — the American-Born Confused Desi, a person of Indian ethnicity who is constantly forced to choose between America and India and confused as to her cultural identity. Do you think that image is irrelevant/dated now?
I think that image was always a lie, although like most lies it had some truth to it. Our generation was not particularly confused; we were a focal point for the confusion of others, both the white society around us that didn’t know what to make of Indians and the immigrant generation that didn’t know quite what to make of America.
To distill the complexity of a group of 1.7 million people of various socioeconomic levels, religions, languages, and regional backgrounds down to a single “image” is something that various forces both inside and outside the Indo-American community are constantly trying to do, but it’s an impossible and, to me, undesirable project. I’m much more interested in a multiplicity of images of who we are and can be. The diaspora is incredibly complex and diverse, and in the United States some desis have been here five generations, some arrived yesterday, and there are confusions and certainties in each situation. The best image for me would be one of those goddesses with a thousand and one different faces and arms and tools. No confusion, but lots of options.
You’ve placed much emphasis on the accuracy of your writing, stating explicitly that you have not fictionalized anything in the book. What significance does this scrupulousness about telling the truth about your history hold for you?
It’s interesting that, no matter how much I reiterate that Leaving India is nonfiction, people still call it a “novel.” On the one hand I think that’s a compliment, as people often say admiringly of nonfiction books, “It reads like a novel.” No one ever compliments the voice or pacing of a novel by saying “It reads like nonfiction”!
On the other hand I think we’ve just become very used to the dominant experience of South Asian literature in the United States being fiction. It’s lovely for readers to sink into an exotic world of spices, silks, and family dramas, and often those dramas are stripped of historical tensions such as colonialism and racism, or at least history takes a far back seat. To me the project of this book was to understand why and how the Indian diaspora formed, in a very personal way; why do I have 36 first cousins spread out all across the globe? And because I really wanted to understand precisely how political and personal circumstances conspired to affect our lives, it wouldn’t have helped me to just make things up. I have other fiction projects in the work, and fiction is a fine way of making sense of the world; it just wasn’t right for this material, for me.
You’re a poet, and a journalist. Did you have to work to reconcile these two sides while writing the book, or did they flow into each other?
My journalistic and poetic voices battled mightily, but it was a productive struggle in a sort of Hegelian sense. I hope the synthesis is as satisfying to readers as it was torturous for me.
Read the whole interview with Minal here.