Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aaarti Namdev Shahani (2019)

 

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This memoir is the story of the Shanahi family’s immigration to America and of Aarti’s ultimate understanding of her father. Their story begins at the 1947 British Partitian of India and Pakistan, an ugly, messy racial divide that displaced people and cultures. Aarti’s parents ended up in Casablanca, where they met, and then eventually, moved to Queens, New York in the 1980s. The primary focus is the hardship they face as immigrants, regardless of their work ethic, and the irony is that when Mr Shahani finally “made it” with his own electronics business, he was arrested for selling to a Mexican drug cartel (yes, he knew he was accepting cash from customers, but it’s not clear if he knew who those customers represented). The rest of his adult life is one of fighting charges, hiring bad attorneys, not understanding the legal system, falling into the cracks of broken immigration policy, and so on. Aarti, for her part, takes time off from college to try to get a better understanding of her father’s case and what his legal rights are. She’s an ace student who gets an ace education through scholarships to NYC’s most elite private school and to U Chicago for college, while he struggles with depression, poor health, and lack of money. So together they illustrate the success and failure of an immigration story–and much of that success and failure has more to do with luck or bad luck than anything else. And that’s an important take-away: so little of an immigrant’s future lies within their control.

Before moving to the suburbs, their family lived in Flushing, Queens, which Shanani describes fondly as a place where “so many poor people from so many countries can converge, live alongside neighbors who speak different language and pray to different gods, and yet tribal warfare does not break out.”  In this neighborhood, people help each other because the goal is to survive, and if possible, thrive in this new country. And ultimately, that becomes her role with her father, a man who felt distant for much of her life, but as he needs her help, she comes to understand him and to love him in a new way.

There is much to learn from this memoir, and I appreciate her story and its brutal take-aways. What I did not like is her writing. It felt clunky with awkward transitions between time and place, almost like stream-of-conscientiousness. I felt like she splattered whatever parts of the story came to mind and then shifted to another aspect, which might have been directly connected or not. I didn’t expect such disjointedness from a journalist.

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