Monday, June 8, 2009

Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents by Minal Hajratwala

In Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents writer Minal Hajratwala tells the story of several generations of her far-flung family, and in doing so also traces the roots and reasons for diasporic movement. She uses the particulars of her clan's many uprootings and reroutings - from India to Fiji, to South Africa, to Australia, to New Zealand, to the U.K, and to the U.S.A. -- to explore the historical and societal forces that shape migrations. In her writing she manages to convey the results of her meticulous research as well as the more personal stories of her kin, and then, in the penultimate chapter, of her own life story and the metamorphoses she has undergone as an immigrant child of immigrants three times over.

When I first picked up this book, it was with a sense of curiosity, excitement and trepidation. Excitement and curiosity because I was looking forward to learning how a contemporary of mine -- also an immigrant, and, like me, one who has lived most of her years in this country -- would write about the Indian diaspora. Trepidation because when picking up a book that focuses on one's own cultural background, one never knows what to expect. Will it be like looking into a mirror? Like looking into a microscope? Or like looking into the wrong end of a telescope?

What I am most impressed by in
Leaving India is the way that the author picks out the story of not only her immediate family but also of various strands of her clan in a way that provides historical context - rounding out the whys and wherefores of the personal with attention paid to the larger forces that were at work in shaping their lives. The reader is educated as well as entertained -- we learn about overarching immigration/emigration policies and regulations that affected not just one nuclear family but entire communities and generations. One thing that intrigued me when I began to read the book is that Hajratwala chooses to write this strictly as a factual account. In fact, in her introduction she says:

"... the reader should know that this is a work of nonfiction. I have been asked frequently whether I am fictionalizing and the answer is no... The journalist in me is scrupulous about such matters, and no "poetic license" has been taken..."
While I rejoice in the fascinating history lesson that Hajratwala provides about diasporic moves, what I really revel in is the personal detail, that which she is naturally better able to provide for some stories than for others, in her pursuit of pure nonfiction. While I admire and appreciate her decision to just "stick with the facts, m'am," I find myself most drawn to the chapters about her parents and about herself, as these are the most fleshed out with story, which is my true impetus, always, to read. Of course this is a personal preference on my part; I respond more keenly to stories than to facts.

Blog readers, what are your thoughts on the continuum that is the realm of "creative nonfiction"? Is it ever acceptable to fictionalize a memoir in order to tell a more complete story, or must one always obey the dictates of fact and truth? Is there a grey area? I welcome your thoughts on this topic and also on any other thoughts that you have as you read
Leaving India.


Anonymous said...

What could be a more relevant book for Brooklyn (or for that matter Americans) to read than the life story of an immigrant. The choice is apt and thoughtful. As Franklin Roosevelt said: "Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

Although America is a land and dream of immigrants, and an unprecedented experiment in changing human nature and human condition for the better, still the battle is engaged every day by every person on every front.

Bill Clinton was not merely using rhetoric when he said: “The divide of race has been America's constant curse. Each new wave of immigrants gives new targets to old prejudices. Prejudice and contempt, cloaked in the pretense of religious or political conviction, are no different. They have nearly destroyed us in the past. They plague us still. They fuel the fanaticism of terror. They torment the lives of millions in fractured nations around the world. These obsessions cripple both those who are hated and, of course, those who hate, robbing both of what they might become.”

Indeed, the story of immigrants and immigration is as complex and ambivalent as the design of the human mind and contradictions in the human condition. May be Amborse Bierce is right when he defines an Immigrant: n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.

No matter what the whole truth about immigrants is, I heartily agree Jean Rhy: “Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.”

Abeer said...

i don't think facts and story are mutually exclusive. the way i think of creative nonfiction includes using fictive techniques to tell a true story. so there's drama, tension, plot, background, character development, crisis, resolution. all part and parcel of a novel or short story.

there are probably lines in the sand as per what is strictly the truth or not, and different authors approach that in different ways.

i'm currently reading "what is the what" which is billed as a novel b/c so many of the conversations were from 20 years back and had to be made up, but the facts of the story are true. IMHO, this could have been billed as an autobiography (as written by dave eggers), but they chose not to, i suppose abiding by stricter rules than i do.

in my memoir (which i'd love for you to read when i'm done), i am sometimes making up dialogue, based on the facts of what happened, and the way i remember people speak. and the timing and order of things isn't absolutely chronological. but i'm still calling it creative nonfiction/memoir/true story/etc.

but back to the book - it sounds like leaving india has some good history in it, but perhaps not woven into the story as much as it could be. i'll take a look.

Joy said...

To me, the most important thing about fact versus fiction is that the line be fairly clear. I love it when the author tells me up front. Hajratwala did that, saying she took a journalistic approach. I'm also happy for an author, like Abeer the previous commenter, to re-create conversations but I would appreciate something in the forward indicating that. Either way, I can happily read the book.

Here's something related. In a book where the author says up front that dialogue and other details have been created to advance the story, do you ever find yourself stopping to wonder if what you just read was on the fiction or fact side? I sometimes do. I'm not sure that it effects my enjoyment of the book, but it certainly effects the flow of my reading!

Martha said...

It's a great question...memoirist and journalist David Carr went to fierce lengths to document his past before he wrote about it, in part because he had been in a drug haze when it happened, and in part because it was clear that he had remembered some things just plain wrong. I like this approach--on the other hand, he also had a hell of a story to tell.

What I like up front is an acknowledgement of *point of view*--which your author does. We all see the world from our own eyes, and part of what reading does is force us to see something with somebody else's.

Minal Hajratwala said...

Thanks for the thoughtful discussion. Of course there's much more to be said about the topic. I honestly don't understand why writers are reluctant to use the "fiction" label when they are making things up — there's no shame in the art of imagination. It seems to me that many books that were once considered autobiographical or semi-autobiographical novels are now being called "memoirs"; wonder if it's a marketing thing and the public's appetite for "true" stories (a la "reality" tv)?

I completely agree with Abeer that story and fact are not mutually exclusive. Part of why I chose the approach I did is that I couldn't have made up the amazing stories I found, and I wanted to be true to them, particularly as many of the "characters" in the book are alive (and reading it as we speak!).

It did take some work, though, to commit to the real stories and not just decide to invent details when I didn't have sufficient information. I wrote a fairly academic piece about the approach I used in LEAVING INDIA, laying out the literary tools available to the nonfiction writer who doesn't want to blur the lines. It's here:

Keep on writin' and readin' ...