While my family is from the Fiji Islands and has been there for generations, we are of South Asian decent. This means that there are still cultures and norms that I can relate to on a certain level. One of those to an extend is the pressure placed on South Asian American daughters to behave a certain way.
Piyali Bhattacharya’s compilation has a theme of the burden of expectations placed on daughters with stories from South Asian American women on their experiences growing up. What I appreciate is that each story reflects the multiple facets of daughterhood. As the book’s description says, “Her gratitude for her immigrant parents’ sacrifices creates intense pressure to perform and embody the role of the “perfect daughter.” Yet, the demand for such perfection can stifle desire, curb curiosity, and make it fraught for a Good Girl to construct her own identity in the face of stern parental opinion.”
The stories are simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking. I immediately handed it off to my cousin to read, as this is one of those books that I think every South Asian American can appreciate, and really, immigrant woman of color in general. I hope to see more immigrant woman of color not just telling their stories but those stories being published and shared widely.
The sweet humid air surrounded my body with the first step I took on the soil of my parent’s birthplace. It was an odd sensation being in a country new to me yet feeling so at home. I was 12 and had taken my first plane ride (a 13 hour one) with my parents to the place where they, their parents and grandparents were born, the Fiji Islands. I had cried before boarding the Air Pacific plane at SFO, not wanting to leave my cousin/best friend for an entire month for an island which shaped so much of my childhood, yet had never been. I had never traveled this far out of my world and was scared and naive of what was waiting on the other side of the world.
I was born in the Bay Area, California, but 90% of my family is from the Fiji Islands. I grew up with dual cultures, like any first generation American or immigrant child will tell you. It was a battle straddling the line between being American in front of your friends while remaining traditional, cultured and tied to your roots with your family. In this country I was born in I was constantly made to feel other. “Where do you come from?” “What are you?” While for my friends born from immigrant parents from India, I was never entirely Indian enough. Where did I fit?
It was that first breath of humid air, the hugs of my aunt and cousins at the Nadi airport, and the ride to her home through the sugarcane fields along the Sleeping Giant mountain that made me realize where I belonged. All of the stories I grew up hearing from my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents had told me melted into realization. This is where I came from. It’s the place that shaped my parents, who in turn shaped me. I didn’t feel other. Sure, I was the kid from America, but I spoke the same language, ate the same food growing up and had the same values passed on to me. I learned more about myself than I ever could have imagined. I felt a point of pride in my heritage that until then had never fully understood.
Those four weeks were a catalyst for my future. It gave birth to my commitment not just to human rights and equality but gave me a piece of my identity that wasn’t fully actualized. This was my heritage. This was me. I was no longer the other in Fiji. The islands had wrapped me in its arms in a way that America never fully had.
I cried again as I left the airport in Fiji. Shedding tears leaving behind my cousins and aunt that I had grown so attached to. The aunt who lovingly called me Radha Rani, fed me and told me stories about my dad when he was a child that I had never heard before. She made my ties to Fiji palpable. The hurt I felt leaving her and Fiji behind as a 12 year old much more immense than I would have thought. The pain of leaving this home that I became so attached to. This place that I had such a deep connection to. That connection which still lives in me in California.
I do most of my reading during my commute on public transportation. Often times no one says a thing, but I noticed quite a few more looks when I was reading We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant Communities after 9/11 by Tram Nguyen. One man asked my opinion and I found the first thing I said when he said he would read it was, “warning: it will make you mad.”
The actual information in the stories is nothing new if you have followed immigration after 9/11, however, it does put names and personal stories to the injustices we’ve all heard about. It’s an exasperating read, in that these injustices and really, crimes against humanity, are happened and in many cases still happening in the so-called, “land of the free.”
If you are a social justice crusader, this is nothing new, but a good read in terms of personal stories. However, I really recommend this for people who don’t have a clue what thousands of immigrants went through in the days, months, and years following 9/11. For those people it can go one of two ways – shocked by the horrors, or agree with everything the government did. It really depends on your politics. However, if you believe all humans should be treated equally, and no one is “illegal,” then this is a very informative read. The forward by Edwidge Danticat is also great. Highly recommended.
Edwidge Danticat is quite the celebrated author, however, I had heard of her work through a quote about immigrants and art that has been floating around Tumblr for some time.
Haitian-born Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work is a collection of deeply personal essays that all tie back to the theme of being an immigrant artist as the title tells you.
I’m always a bit weary of a book like this that features writing that was previously published elsewhere, but this book is a fresh take. She is an amazing writer and the stories she tells (my favorites are one about visiting her Aunt in Haiti where she is called a journalist, one about the murder of a popular Haitian radio host and another of a woman who was nearly beat to death but survived to tell her story) are touching and beautiful in their tragedy. As a child of immigrants, it also very relate able to me. It is also eye-opening for those who may not know as much about Haiti and it’s past.
I feel I can’t do this book justice in “reviewing” it or writing about it. So I will leave you with my favorite quote:
This is the America that continues to startle, the America of the cabins and not castles, the America of the needy and never have enoughs, the America of the undocumented, the unemployed, the elderly, and the infirm. An America that remains invisible until a rebellion breaks out, gunshots ring out, or a flood rages through. Perhaps this America does have more in common with the developing world than the one it inhabits. For the poor everywhere dwell within their own country, where more often than not they must fend for themselves. That’s why one can so easily become a refugee within one’s own borders because one’s perceived usefulness and precarious citizenship is always in question in that other America, the one where people have flood insurance.
Often, in an immigrant family, it’s a very big departure for a child to say: I want to be an artist, not a doctor, not a lawyer, or an engineer. The father, here, tells his daughter what so many immigrant parents tell their children: Art is not the safest route in life. We didn’t sacrifice all this for you to take up a precarious profession.
He tries to comfort her, at the same time, by insisting that being an immigrant makes her an artist already. And this is a fascinating notion: that re-creating yourself this way, re-creating your entire life is a form of reinvention on par with the greatest works of literature. This brings art into the realm of what ordinary people do to in order to survive. It takes away the notion that art is too lofty for the masses, and puts it in the day-to-day. I’ve never seen anyone connect being an artist and an immigrant so explicitly, and for me it was a revelation.