For a long time, no one really saw us, the brown children of Indian immigrants like Geeta Kothari and me. We didn’t fit into America’s fraught racial binary. “Are you black or are you white?” an African-American boy in my elementary school in New Jersey, c. 1970, would ask me. My answer of “Neither—I’m brown!” dismayed him. He insisted I choose a side, probably having watched the racial conflict of the ‘60s play out on TV, America as starkly black and white then as the television sets.
Some of the wry, poignant tales in Kothari’s debut collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, look at what happens to anonymous brown girls growing into adulthood. Though they harbor few expectations, they are like wistful children locked out of a big, brightly lit house, peeking through the windows to try to find a way inside. Other stories follow immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa getting into different kinds of trouble, either in an attack against an America that remains alien to them, or targeted by US authorities suspicious of the foreign-born. For decades immigrants were considered a negligible presence in this country—foreign faces lurking on the sidelines. Now we’ve been thrust center stage as Donald Trump’s villains, brown interlopers accused of snatching white America’s jobs and prosperity. Kothari’s stories, infused with a deadpan humor, shine a light on the hopefulness and sadness of people caught in the existential makeover known as “assimilation.”
Kothari was born in New York City to high-achieving parents who arrived from India in the 1950s, well ahead of the 1965 immigration reforms that opened America’s doors to non-white immigrants, setting in motion the demographic transformation of the country. Kothari attended boarding school in England, returned for college in Massachusetts, and had a brief career in the publishing industry. A longtime creative writing teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, she is also an essayist and editor at Kenyon Review.
She and I and another Indian American writer met four years ago in an online writing workshop, all grappling with books that involved unraveling the mysteries of our families’ pasts halfway around the world. Since then we’ve kept up a weekly email exchange, meeting in person only a few months ago. Kothari and I conducted our conversation by email, of course.
The Rumpus: The underlying wave of racism that swept Trump into office is in part a furious response to the ubiquitous presence of immigrants in the country. In thirty years, all the minorities combined will become the majority. To me, it feels like the dawn of a promising new America where “someone else’s babies”—to quote the bigotry of Steve King, the Republican Congressman from Iowa—will help shape the country’s destiny. “Someone else’s babies” populate your stories. We both fall into the category of “someone else’s babies.” How do you feel about being the daughter of immigrants at this moment in American history?
Geeta Kothari: Grateful that my parents are dead? I’m only half joking. For one, they’d be wanting to return to India, and you can imagine how crazy that would be, trying to set up a ninety-two- and eighty-seven-year-old in a household there. Second, I never bought into the post-racial rhetoric following Obama’s election. This backlash seems inevitable. Let’s hope it’s the last gasp of a dying order. Finally, having seen how other countries turn on their minorities in times of economic strife or change, I’m not surprised by this newly energized wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric. I’d hesitate to ascribe my outlook to “being the daughter of immigrants,” because I know immigrants and their children who supported Trump. My position comes from the being the child of two people who never felt quite at home here, and who were also very politically aware.
Rumpus: I wonder if it was difficult for you to find your footing in America. Your mother worked at the United Nations and you grew up among a transient population of UN families in New York City. I imagine being part of an international community like that diminishes your sense of belonging to the place you live in. Then, when you reached high school age, your parents sent you to boarding school in England to escape the dangers of New York in the 1970s. How did those displacements affect your sense of being an American or not?
Kothari: I’ve never been convinced of my right to be anywhere—India, England, or the US. I didn’t realize that this would show up in my fiction until I put the collection together and saw how uncomfortable many of the characters are, how they struggle to find a footing or sense of belonging—even when they don’t appear to be immigrants or their offspring (as in “Waterville,” for example). For me, the sense of not being American was most acute when I returned from England and went to college in Massachusetts. This was 1980, and I was reminded regularly about how strange I was, how alien I seemed to those around me. I had been very confident and quite happy in England, but returning “home” plunged me into a depression that lasted for several years. All those questions—about my accent, about why I went to England, about my parents and what they did—made me feel left out. As a person of color, I wasn’t supposed to go to boarding school or travel. That privilege was for white people.
In college, I never felt Indian or American enough, and there simply weren’t a lot of people like me (American born, Indian parents). I know that seems incredible, but the wave of Indian immigrants came after 1965, and their children are about ten years younger than me. Perhaps if I’d stayed in New York (and lived with my parents, which I most definitely did not want to do!), I’d have found others like me. But I mostly remember this period of my life as very lonely, a specific kind of loneliness one feels in a crowd.
Rumpus: The stories in your collection can be roughly divided into two narrative streams. There are those that concern a young Indian American woman struggling to find her place in this society and others about immigrants from various places confronting a political or social crisis situation. Can you speak about these divergent directions your imagination travels in?
Kothari: I am part of the generation who grew up with the Vietnam War televised in her living room. The news was unavoidable. My parents always had three or four newspapers lying around the apartment, and they read them critically, i.e. they didn’t believe everything they read, especially in the US papers. My father had an apocalyptic view of the world, and believed we could be ejected from the country at any moment. He called it foresight; I called it anxiety. His naturalization as a US citizen didn’t change this. He had seen the US government could turn on its own citizens at any time—in fact, he often referred to Japanese-American internment camps as his main proof. My mother wasn’t quite as anxious, but her first years in the US and at the UN were marked by McCarthyism, another example of the government turning against its own people.
All of these ideas swirl around in my head—my parents’ fears and my sense of alienation, the US and its history of xenophobia, and I often don’t know which way a story isn’t going to go until it’s on the page and in progress. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve become more drawn to the dangerous and dystopian visions of the world. I’d like to blame Trump, but the roots of these stories clearly have a history for me.
Rumpus: Your brown-girl protagonist comes in many avatars, and each seems to radiate a profound loneliness as she tries to find some connection to American society or American men. In “Home Is Another Country on TV,” the Indian protagonist is looking back at her younger self on a particular night that ends tragically. She goes to a party with her Chinese-American friend, Zed, who is ignored by a white girl he has a crush on. Your protagonist also forgets all about him when a white boy she is attracted to makes moves on her. She confesses, “my loneliness was a deep, hidden ache that came alive and fell to its knees with a certain touch.” Is this “certain touch” the touch of a white man? The touch of the white world? Even after the horrific tragedy involving Zed transpires, her main concern is whether the white boy will call her or not. Is this young brown girl’s greatest desire to be accepted by white culture?
Kothari: I wasn’t thinking of this consciously when I wrote the story, but later I was reminded of The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first book, which I wrote about as an undergraduate and have since reread and taught. I know Morrison considers it flawed, but for me, it was transformative. In it, Pecola longs for blue eyes, having been taught this standard of beauty, she believes blue eyes will fix everything that is wrong in her life by making her beautiful. She will be accepted.
When my mother sent me a news item about two girls in Long Island who had committed suicide, I created a story to find out why they’d done this. I deliberately implicated my narrator. Not only does she abandon her friend on the roof to have sex with a white guy, she waits for him to call when she really should be grieving her friend. Why does a white man’s approval mean more than the loss of her best friend? Why does Zed long for Sarah? The white man’s (or woman’s) touch is seen as a blessing, but really it’s a curse and yearning for it—in whatever form it takes, literal or figurative—will land you on the train tracks or drive you mad. Racial self-hatred is pernicious and very damaging, especially when you’re young and have so little control in your life.
Rumpus: It’s interesting the protagonist in this story mentions the news article about the two Long Island teens, presumably Indian girls, who commit suicide together. She professes to understand the reasons for their tragedy and presents the outline of their alienation. These girls were goaded to excel at school and denied a social life by their parents, she imagines, who feared their American peers would corrupt them with alcohol and sex. Is she right in thinking their parents’ failure to understand America was the root cause of their unhappiness?
Kothari: The narrator thinks these girls believed that if only they could be like the kids they went to school with, they’d be happy. That’s her particular lens, her way of looking at the world, informed by her own unhappiness. But this pressure to succeed and maintain model minority status doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. There are many Asian Americans meeting the expectations of their parents quite happily. They don’t question their desire to become doctors or engineers. If they live in an immigrant enclave, like Edison, NJ or Cherry Hill, they are surrounded by other kids like them. The social rejection these kids may experience is likely different from what I was talking about in my story, which was the most severe case I could imagine—children kept on a very tight leash, an island unto themselves.
The narrator is free from that parental control and tries to find an alternative path, which isn’t much better. When you chart your own course, the risks are high, and there’s often no safe harbor once you’ve struck out.
Rumpus: When we met recently, you told me the late Bharati Mukherjee, whose book, The Middleman and Other Stories, had a profound impact on you, once took you to dinner as a young editorial assistant at Dell in the 1980s. Was there a memorable moment during that dinner?
Kothari: I was very lucky. Shortly before she died, I was able to tell Bharati how much her work meant to me. I’d read all of her novels, and when The Middleman came out, a friend at Grove invited me to the launch party, where I met Bharati. For some reason, she invited me and another editorial assistant out for dinner, so one night we met her at Dawat, Madhur Jaffrey’s restaurant. The other assistant was also Indian, but I’ve so completely forgotten her name and face, I now wonder if I made her up. Bharati was tiny and ate sparingly. In conversation, she called herself a magpie, picking up things people said and did and storing them for later use. I understand now that all writers do this, but it made me feel very self-conscious. I felt like a specimen under her writer’s eye.
I don’t remember much more about the meal except that when I complained about being unable to write about India in my stories, she expressed surprise. Why would I feel obliged to write about India, a country I’d never lived in? She was quite adamant. “You’re American,” she said. “Why should you write about India? Why not write about here?”
As you can imagine, for someone who felt very shaky about her right to be in the US, Bharati’s words were liberating. I think the diversity in Moose reflects that conversation and the influence of The Middleman, which grappled with the immigrant experience from multiple perspectives. But I didn’t realize its influence fully until I put the collection together and noticed that none of the stories were set in India, with the exception of parts of “Her Mother’s Ashes.” While Bharati’s collection was much more deliberate and planned, my thematic concerns emerged only after I wrote the stories and assembled them. I like to think, however, that her lesson lodged itself in my brain and worked its magic over time.
Rumpus: In your wonderful title story, “I Brake for Moose,” there’s a pair of Smith College graduates, one Indian and one American, with “serious degrees” but no occupation apart from following around a small-time rock band. Each girl is involved with a musician and, in a nice twist you, you make the lead singer an Indian guy involved with the white girl. The thrust of the story, though, is about female passivity. Both girls seem to look to their boyfriends to lead them into the future. Do you see a parallel between how race and gender function, in that those with less power, whether brown people or women, aspire to hitch themselves to those with more? Are intimate relationships ultimately about identity and power, too?
Kothari: Identity and power play a role in all intimate relationships, and those shifting dynamics will naturally put pressure on the characters in a story. What I was interested in here was how much freedom the men, particularly Gus, the other Indian character, had. The narrator wants what the men seem to have—the freedom to do whatever they want, without having to explain themselves to their parents. That’s real power. The men in this story go where they want, they take up extra space on the bus when they’re sitting, they kiss who they want, and explain themselves to no one. But that power is non-transferrable. In a relationship with a guy like, a woman will always feel diminished and undermined. So even those these women are very smart, they’ve got themselves into a situation where they feel insecure and unsure of themselves. Hence the passivity.
What’s interesting to me is that the narrator tells her family that “Gus is a good boy,” and they believe it because he’s Indian. She wants to as well, but ultimately, Gus is a jerk. Gender trumps race here. Whatever the narrator and Gus have in common is erased by their unequal status within the band.
Rumpus: Writers can be clairvoyant, and you have your moment with “Missing Men,” which anticipates Trump’s America with uncanny prescience. In this case, overzealous American security forces, hunting for terrorists, summarily arrest the editor of an immigrant newspaper. His assistant struggles to carry out his mission of publishing a book about the Southern border wall, based on leaked documents. You wrote this a while ago as a dystopia, which we seem to have arrived at in 2017. Where did this drama come from long before Donald Trump was ever a threat to our democracy?
Kothari: Let’s blame my father again! Seriously, America has a history of xenophobia, so Trump is just building on that legacy. “Missing Men” comes from a novel I began in the 1990s, when I read a small newspaper clipping about an Italian woman who was about the be deported, after her third shoplifting offense. Shoplifting! She’d been living in New Jersey since she was four, had married an American, and now had children with him. She thought marriage granted her citizenship. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and in the novel, the idea grew. I have no idea where the border wall came from, but it must have been something I read. Like the random arrests of immigrants, the wall seemed preposterous when I was writing the book. It still seems preposterous, a boondoggle that will result in nothing but waste—resources, time, and most importantly, taxpayer money.
Rumpus: You write in multiple genres. In addition to this story collection, you’ve completed your novel. You’re also working on an essay collection and finishing a memoir about your mother. When you draw from your life, how do decide whether to render the material as fiction or nonfiction? Do you ever experiment with writing an idea two ways, as, say, both a story and an essay to see which works better? Does one form come more naturally to you than the others?
Kothari: One of the reasons I enjoy writing fiction is it gives me the opportunity to get into other people’s lives. I rarely begin my stories with events from my life or people I know. Autobiographical elements do enter the stories, of course, and the thematic issues that emerge are all mine, but I have a pretty strong line between fiction and nonfiction.
I came to nonfiction late, after I started writing fiction. Some stories need to be told straight up, with the artifice concealed behind this truth-telling persona. And these are mostly the stories I tell about my family. My aunt wanted me to tell my mother’s story as fiction, but I knew from the beginning I wouldn’t. My brain is not that flexible, though I imagine pieces of her story will eventually filter into the fiction.
I do enjoy writing in multiple forms, but essays feel like the most natural fit for my temperament and interests—they can be as capacious as a novel and as tightly structured as a story. Whether a story emerges as fiction or nonfiction is intuitive and organic. For some reason I know when I start which it’s going to be. I wish I could be more like Stuart Dybek, who calls his early drafts UFOs because he doesn’t know what form a piece is going to take—fiction, poetry, nonfiction—when he first starts writing it. I admire that fluidity between genres, but it’s not something I experience myself.
Rumpus: The immigrant’s life is really a disrupted narrative. American-born children pick up their parents’ stories here, largely unaware of what happened in the home country. You illustrate the snapped connection between generations beautifully in my favorite story of yours, “Her Mothers’ Ashes,” in which Lally, a young Indian American woman, whose parents are both dead, retells her mother’s stories about India. These stories all concern loss, whether the small loss of a pair of shoes, or the momentous loss of her mother’s family’s home when Hindus have to flee the territory that became Pakistan during India’s violent partition. Lally’s mother had packed a traumatic history into a few lines of recollection, stripped of all emotion. “What did they mean?” Lally wonders about her mother’s bare-bones stories, trying to figure out how her maternal family coped as refugees in India. Her mother never said. The stereotype of the immigrant is someone who makes it to America, works hard and achieves a good life—end of story. But is it the beginning that counts more for the immigrant? How well can children understand parents who come from another place?
Kothari: For children of immigrants, understanding is complicated by distance and time, and their parents’ relationship to the home country—how often they return, whether they have family there, etc. Lally doesn’t realize how much she’s lost until she returns to India. As an orphan, she no longer has her personal native informants to guide her. And her parents didn’t prepare her for a relationship with India without them. Their experience always filtered her experience, and now that they’re both gone, she has to make sense of things herself.
But does any child ever fully understand their parents? I doubt it. Immigration just adds another layer to an already complicated relationship. Is your father strict because all Indians are strict, because he’s an immigrant and feels unsure of himself here, or because he was raised by strict parents, and this is the only parenting style he knows? You spend the most time with your parents when you’re too young to know or care about their history, they exist solely as parents, in the present moment. Their history is invisible to the child, even as it informs their parenting. And by the time you’re old enough to see them as separate from you, that time together is no longer available.
Rumpus: From our weekly emails, I’ve picked up bits and pieces about your memoir of your mother. She was an extraordinary woman, coming to the US in 1950 after passing a highly competitive professional exam for a coveted post at the United Nations. What was the impetus for your looking at her life? What did you hope to find out about her by writing her story?
Kothari: I remember the exact moment I decided to write about her. Shortly after she died, one of her oldest friends sent my sister and me a letter in which he referred to her as “one of the original idealists.” I found this intriguing. What did he mean? In a way that statement created a distance between my mother and me, a necessary one so that I could place her in a historical moment and begin to understand where she came from. Who was my mother before me? And how did that woman end up dying in India, the place she’d left over fifty years ago?
The other thing that fueled my project came from a wedding on the East Coast, a few months before she died. We were in a room full of my father’s side of the family, including his brother, whom my father had sponsored to immigrate to the US. My father himself had come as a Fulbright Scholar with no status in America once his scholarship ended. The only reason he was able to stay in the country was marriage to my mother. Once he became a citizen, he sponsored his brother. Without my mother, none of the Kotharis in that room would be here. Some of my younger cousins didn’t realize this and one mistakenly toasted my uncle for sponsoring his family. I was annoyed (and I’m still annoyed!) by the inaccuracy of the family mythology. Men are very good at taking credit for women’s accomplishments, and I’m not going to let that happen to my mother. I’m not trying to sanctify her—she could be incredibly difficult and rigid when dealing with her children. Instead, I’m using her story to both remember her and explore ideas about home and nostalgia, and of course, grief.
Author photograph © Heather Kresge.