I’m so excited to introduce my new book of short stories and a novella, These Americans. These women-centered stories are based on my life growing up Indian-American in the Midwest.

These Americans explores what it means to live between Indian culture and American expectations.  An Indian-born immigrant mother gives birth to her daughter in a small Ohio town.  A girl recently returned from India strives to become “American” again.  A naïve immigrant mother is in denial about her lawyer daughter’s lesbianism. An elderly doctor keeps a shocking secret from her daughter.

This collection won the Rosemary Daniell Fiction Prize from the publisher (Minerva Rising Press). The novella, “Hawk,” is a revised version of the novel “On the Brink of Bloom,” which was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize in 2014.

The title, These Americans, comes from a phrase that my immigrant parents often said to refer to non-immigrant Americans. Often, the phrase was used as a way to contrast their Indian culture with the mainstream American culture, as in “I have gotten used to these Americans smiling all the time.” (This is a quote from the first story in the collection.) But the phrase “these Americans” can also refer to immigrants and their children because, after all, we are Americans too.

You can buy These Americans from Amazon.com, Bookshop.org (to support independent bookstores) or directly from the woman-owned publisher, Minerva Rising Press.

If you wish, you may read some excerpts (1st page of each story).

Here are some nice things people have said about the book:

“Readers looking for accessible short stories capturing immigrant experiences and women’s lives will find These Americans a study in contrasting cultures. . . . Thought-provoking, diverse, yet interconnected by Indian heritage, American experience, and women’s lives and concerns, These Americans offers a rich set of insights.”

  • Midwest Book Review
“The crafted stories of Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s collection These Americans offer the perspectives of immigrant and native-born Indian Americans as they balance Indian culture with the expectations with American life. . . . Though there are subtle variations in tone and setting, the stories of These Americans form a cohesive, captivating collection.”
  • Foreword Reviews

“Sreenivasan brings her characters to life, and in reading these stories that move from birth to death we learn the breadth of what it means to be an Indian-American, to try to blend your own culture with the culture of the people now surrounding you. These Americans will help you to be more empathetic to others, a goal of reading great fiction. I highly recommend it.”

• Diane LaRue, BookChickDi Blog

“The stories in These Americans explore with lightness and eloquence the complexity of living between cultures.  Sreenivasan writes beautifully about childhood and about the very particular complications that women face as wives and mothers.  A wonderful novella, “Hawk”, completes the collection with a heartrending account of a mother and daughter navigating prejudice at home and at work.  A dazzling and lovely collection.”
  • Margot Livesey, award-winning author of Mercury and The Hidden Machinery

“Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s short stories are clearly, and aptly entitled: These Americans. These are stories about everyday Indian American people in the United States. We learn more details of lives that are lived parallel to the mainstream, Hollywood vision of America. The stories are a valuable addition to the more complex panorama of American life that readers are, at last, eager to read.”

  • Breena Clarke, author of River, Cross My Heart (Oprah book club selection) and Stand the Storm (named one of the 100 best books of 2008 by the Washington Post)

“A quietly tender–and occasionally hilarious–meditation on life, family, and immigration.”

  • Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of The Evening Hero and Finding My Voice and a founder of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop

I don’t know if Barack Obama would consider himself a “second generation” American. His Kenyan father was not technically an immigrant, although he studied in the United States for many years, earning a graduate degree at Harvard University. Barack’s mother was a white woman named Ann Dunham. The marriage deteriorated soon after Ann gave birth to their son, and the elder Obama eventually returned to Kenya. He died in 1982, when his son was in college.

But although Barack Obama did not grow up with his father, and in fact spent only one month with him when his father came to visit his 10-year-old son in Hawaii, his Kenyan name and his brown skin were a constant reminder that he straddled two worlds, just as many second-generation Americans do.

Obama wrote Dreams from My Father when he was just out of law school, before he got into politics. He was invited to write the book after becoming the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. The front cover shows a photo of him as an adult, positioned between a photo of his dark father as a young child on the lap of his mother, and a photo of his pale mother as a young child with her father.

Obama struggled to make sense of his identity. One example: he cringes when, on the first day of fifth grade, his teacher, in front of the entire class, mentions that she used to live in Kenya and asks what tribe his father is from. Obama’s white grandparents (who raised him while his mother lived in Indonesia with her second husband) do not understand the young Barack’s embarrassment. “ ‘Isn’t it terrific that Miss Hefty used to live in Kenya?’ “ his grandfather asks. “ ‘Makes the first day a little easier, I’ll bet.’ “ Barack doesn’t even try to explain. “I went to my room and closed the door” (p. 60).

As a teen, Obama is drawn to some of his grandfather’s African-American friends. He develops a passion for basketball. After college, he takes a job as a community organizer in an African-American neighborhood in Chicago. Yet he cannot seamlessly fit in with African-Americans either. He does not come from their legacy of slavery and segregation. His heritage is elsewhere, across the ocean. In Chicago, he hesitated to share his background with the poor African-Americans he was helping to organize. “I was afraid . . . that my prior life would be too foreign for South Side sensibilities, that I might somehow disturb people’s expectations of me” (p. 190).

Obama always knew about his family in Kenya, but it wasn’t until he visited Kenya, just before entering law school, that he began to fill the “great emptiness” he found inside himself (p. 302). In Kenya, he dances and feasts with his half-siblings. He learns about family conflicts. He hears, from his grandmother (as translated by his sister), the story of his ancestors and especially his father. And he experiences a catharsis as he weeps at his father’s grave.

“I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin” (p. 430).

I would argue that Barack Obama’s divided cultural heritage prompted him to explore more deeply what it means to be an American, and led him to become the President of the United States. He says as much in his new book, A Promised Land: “Ultimately wasn’t this what I was after—a politics that bridged America’s racial, ethnic, and religious divides, as well as the many strands of my own life? . . . . As I gave the future more thought, one thing became clear. The kind of bridge-building politics I imagined wasn’t suited to a congressional race. . . . To really shake things up, I realized, I needed to speak to and for the widest possible audience” (pp. 41-42).

Home Fire does not fit exactly into the premise of this site, because the novel is about second-generation Pakistani-British people, rather than second-generation Americans (which is my focus on this site). But I decided to review it because it speaks to important issues that are similar to both cultures. I can imagine Muslim-Americans going through similar difficulties as the characters in this novel.

Home Fire, which won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction, is told from the points of view of five different Pakistani-British characters. The jacket flap copy is misleading, because it gives the impression that this book is mainly about Isma, a Londoner who is starting graduate school in the U.S.  While Isma is indeed one of the main characters, her section (a somewhat boring section, in my opinion) serves to introduce the other characters and the main conflict, which involves her brother, Parvaiz, a misguided young man who has been fooled into traveling to Syria and joining a terrorist group, and Parvaiz’s twin sister Aneeka’s quest to allow him to return to Britain once he manages to escape from this group. The novel is based on the Greek tragedy Antigone. Even the names are similiar: Isma is the counterpart to Ismene; Aneeka is Antigone; Parvaiz is Polyneices; Eamonn is Haemon; and Karamat is King Creon. You don’t need to have read Antigone to appreciate this novel, but the parallels are interesting.

Like Antigone, Aneeka flouts the law of the land (laid down by British Home Secretary Karamat) that those who join terrorist groups abroad can never return to British soil. Isma, like Ismene, is inclined to want to obey the law, but also supports her sister. Antigone the play is very short, and we know almost nothing about the brother. In Home Fire, we get a whole section about Parvaiz, giving insight into his decision to travel to Syria, and detailing his disillusionment and efforts to return to Britain. In the play, we know almost nothing about the love between Antigone and Creon’s son Haemon, but in the novel Home Fire, the love affair of Aneeka and Eamonn (Karamat’s son) is well developed.

Home Fire asks the questions: what is home? Who is allowed to become a citizen and remain a citizen, and under what reason? An interesting twist is that Karamat, the Pakistani-British Home Secretary, bends over backwards to disavow fellow Muslims who look and act in ways that show their differences from mainstream British people.

Once you get past Isma’s tepid first section, this is a gripping, thought-provoking, and important work.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Jasmine Warga at a conference, and I was eager to check out her young adult novels. My Heart and Other Black Holes, her first novel, tackles the topic of teen suicide with two well-developed main characters and a gripping story.

The main character, Aysel (pronounced Uh-zell), is of Turkish origin, but she knows very little about that culture. Her parents split up when she was a baby, and her mother has tried hard to assimilate into mainstream American culture. Her father has a mental illness which caused him to commit a horrible crime against an all-American boy.

The novel begins some years after the crime. Because of her unusual last name and her Turkish ethnicity, 16-year-old Aysel believes that everyone in their small Kentucky town associates her with her father’s crime, and that they always will. She also fears that her father’s mental illness and criminal past may resurface in herself. Therefore, she has decided to kill herself. She finds a “suicide partner” on a web site, and they plan to act in less than a month, on April 7. The novel is structured as a count-down to this day, which effectively ratchets up the tension.

As she and Roman (her suicide partner) discuss the reasons for their decision, they become closer. But will their friendship be enough to save them? Read this compelling, poignant book to find out. (Hint: the ending is hopeful.)

The story is told in first person present tense, which makes sense since Aysel doesn’t want to think about the past, and believes she has no future. The title of the novel (which I love) refers not only to Aysel’s depression, but also her interest in physics. The book includes resources for young people who are depressed and who might be contemplating suicide.

Roxane Gay’s parents are immigrants from Haiti, and the title of her engaging short story collection Ayiti is the Creole word for Haiti. Gay grew up in Nebraska.

Some of the stories in this collection deal with the immigrant experience in the U.S. “About My Father’s Accent” is a very short piece about American-raised kids reacting to an accent that “sounds like Port-au-Prince, the crowded streets, the blaring horns, the smell of grilled meat and roasting corn, the heat, thick and still” (9). “Voodoo Child” is a funny story about a college student who pretends to know voodoo to freak out her roommate. “Cheap, Fast, and Filling” concerns a recent immigrant trying to survive on very little money.

But most of the collection is devoted to stories set in Haiti, although there is usually an American connection. The longest story, “Sweet on the Tongue,” alternates between a U.S. setting and an extended flashback in Haiti where the main character had a devastating, life-changing experience. The American-born narrator of “In the Manner of Water or Light” tells the story of her mother’s conception in Haiti at a time of terrible violence. The Haitian couple in “A Cool, Dry Place” is planning to flee to Florida.

Gay’s writing style is simple and straightforward, allowing her characters’ voices and personalities to shine through. This entertaining, absorbing, and thought-provoking collection, first published in 2011 by Artistically Declined Press, was reissued this year by Grove Press.

rwb butterflyI’ve created a 5-week unit plan for middle school and high school, featuring second generation fiction, memoir, and poetry. This includes daily lesson plans, handouts, and suggested reading. Please access it here: Becoming American: Second Generation American Literature Lesson Plan. This unit can be used in a language arts or English class that is studying American literature.

“Second generation” refers to children of immigrants: people who were born in the United States to immigrant parents, or who were brought as young children to the United States by their immigrant parents.

I am a second generation American myself. My parents are from India. I was born and raised in Ohio. I have written three books inspired by my personal experiences trying to integrate my parents’ Indian culture with my American upbringing: These Americans (short stories and a novella); And Laughter Fell from the Sky (a novel); and Aruna’s Journeys (chapter book for elementary students).

Studying literature by second-generation Americans can highlight the transition from immigrant to American. As Marina Budhos notes in her book Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers: “Immigrant teenagers often don’t have any in-between space where they can work out the pressures of their in-between lives” (p. 10). For the second generation, their lives seem in-between –- they don’t identify completely with the culture of their parents or with American culture.

Julia Alvarez, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic as a child, titled her first book of fiction How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. The second generation typically loses their “foreign” accent, if they ever had one, and speaks like the Americans around them, but the first generation, those who came here as adults, typically don’t lose their accent. They retain their identification with the culture of origin even in the way they speak.

Because they are often straddling two worlds, because they can see American culture both from the outside looking in and from the inside looking out, second generation Americans often have a lot to say about what it means to be an American.

Feel free to share this plan with your colleagues. If you end up using it, please let me know how this plan works in your classroom, as well as any suggestions for improvement.

Back in 1991, when I was a young, struggling fiction writer living in Washington, DC, who hadn’t published much of anything, I read a wonderful story in a literary magazine by a woman named Julia Alvarez. In preparation for this blog post I looked at Alvarez’s list of publications to refresh my memory, and I believe the story I read was “Floor Show”, published in Story magazine.

I thought “Floor Show” was warm, interesting, insightful, funny, and authentic—so different from many of the cold, clinical, self-consciously serious stories I often read in literary magazines. I was therefore thrilled to find out that this author was going to give a reading from her new book in a DC bookstore! I was there. I bought her book—How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents—and she signed it for me. I still have that signed copy. I’ve read it several times, and now that she’s a famous author, I feel pride every time I see her name or work—because I knew, back then, how special she was!

Garcia Girls signed by author

I’m going to call How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents a classic. Can a book only 25 years old be a classic? I think so. The farther back you go in literature, the fewer women or writers of color you’ll find, so I’m going to claim the word “classic” for this book. And not just a Latino classic, or a second generation American classic, although it is those things too—but a regular classic with no adjective attached.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a novel-in-stories. Each story can be read and enjoyed on its own, but each story is also linked to the others through the characters and events. All the stories are about a family with four daughters who fled the Dominican Republic and settled in New York. The stories are arranged in reverse chronological order, from 1989 (when the third daughter, Yolanda, is 29) to 1956 (when Yolanda is a small child). The stories are autobiographical, and Yolanda, who becomes a writer, is the alter-ego of Julia Alvarez. Some of the stories are told in first person singular, one in first person plural (“A Regular Revolution” is told by the four girls together, “we”), and some in third person.

I was going to present a list of my favorite stories, until I realized that almost all the titles would be on it, so my recommendation is: read them all in the order they appear in the book. Since you’ll be reading into the past, it’s fascinating to understand the precursors to the adult challenges the daughters face, and the stories behind the memories alluded to as the girls get older. Every character, major or minor, is clearly and vividly portrayed, and each character is unique. I so enjoyed getting to know the sisters as well as their parents and many relatives.

When I think about the language of these stories, the word “folk art” comes to mind. Although the book jacket tells me that Julia Alvarez has graduate degrees in writing and literature, yet the language seems as open, alive, and unpretentious as a masterpiece from an unschooled artist such as Grandma Moses. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, instead of calling attention to itself and saying “be impressed!” Alvarez’s language takes us by the hand and leads us to fall in love with the characters and their stories.

I might as well end with the beginning of “Floor Show,” that first story that led me to fall in love with this book 25 years ago:

“No elbows, no Cokes, only milk or— ” Mami paused. Which of her four girls could fill in the blank of how they were to behave at the restaurant with the Fannings?

“No elbows on the table,” Sandi guessed.

“She already said that,” Carla accused.

“No fighting, girls!” Mami scolded them all and continued The Epistle. “Only milk or ice water. And I make your orders. Is that clear?”

The four braided and beribboned heads nodded. At moments like this when they all seemed one organism—the four girls—Sandi would get that yearning to wander off into the United States of America by herself and never come back as the second of four girls so close in age.

I can’t believe I haven’t written about this amazing graphic novel yet! I’ve read it numerous times, and it was a favorite in my middle-school classroom. Students enjoy it first because it is funny. Then I encourage them to read it again, for the cultural insights, and because it’s full of humor and adventure, even reluctant readers will read it again.

American Born Chinese is actually three intertwined stories. The first involves a re-telling of the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, a Kung-Fu superhero. The second is the story of the Chinese-American boy Jin Wang, who is desperate to fit into a new school where he is the only Chinese-American. The third is the story of a “typical” American boy, Danny, who inexplicably has a Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. When Chin-Kee comes to visit Danny, the cousin exhibits every racist stereotype associated with Chinese-Americans. Even more annoying, Chin-Kee goes everywhere with Danny and drives away his “normal” American friends.

These stories come together in a poignant, effective way in the end. Even as my students laughed at the racist stereotypes in this book, they recognized them as racist, and understood why Yang used them and what he was trying to convey.

In addition to the messages of tolerance and empathy, this graphic novel can also be used to discuss literary devices such as symbolism and foreshadowing. For example, early in the book, when Jin Wang still lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he confesses that when he grows up he want to be a transformer, like the toys he plays with. The Chinese herbalist to whom he is speaking tells him that “it’s easy to become anything you wish, as long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”

This book can be read on many levels. According to Gene Luen Yang’s web site, American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award.

Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian-American author, has become known for her fiction exploring the Indian immigrant experience in America. In Other Words is a departure in many ways: it is mostly a book of essays (and two short stories); and Lahiri wrote it in Italian.

This is a short book. The English text (translated by Ann Goldstein) is printed on the right-hand pages, while the original Italian is on the left, which makes the actual text only about 100 pages long. The essays explore Lahiri’s quest to learn Italian, her love of the language and the country, and her decision to write in Italian.

The book reveals Lahiri as an intensely private person who is uncomfortable with the fame that has been thrust upon her. She writes about receiving the Pulitzer Prize for her first published book in English: “I became a writer in English. And then, rather precipitously, I became a famous writer. I received a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake. Although it was an honor, I remained suspicious of it. . . . But a year after my first book was published I lost my anonymity” (p. 167).

She turns to Italian, in part, in order to regain the freedom of anonymity. After studying the language for 20 years, she and her family move to Rome. She begins to keep a diary in Italian, and then to write the short essays that make up this book. Here is a passage from the essay “The Imperfect”:

As a girl in America, I tried to speak Bengali perfectly, without a foreign accent, to satisfy my parents, and above all to feel that I was completely their daughter. But that was impossible. On the other hand, I wanted to be considered an American, yet, despite the fact that I speak English perfectly, that was impossible, too. I was suspended rather than rooted. . . . Here it Italy, where I’m very comfortable, I feel more imperfect than ever. . . . Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new relationship with imperfection? What does it offer to me? I would say a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness. Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive. (pp. 111-113).

The two short stories included are unlike any stories I remember reading by her. First of all, they are not specifically about Indian-Americans or India. The characters’ ethnicity is not defined. Second, the stories have a dream-like quality (and one of them is actually about a dream). They have a magical realist flavor although I can’t point to any prominent magical or fantasy elements in them.

The writing in this book is simple and spare, but at the same time deeply felt. It is a raw exploration of the struggle to express oneself honestly and the freedom to create, unconstrained by expectations.

I first “met” David Good about two decades ago through his father’s book, Into The Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomami. David is the son of anthropologist Kenneth Good, who married Yarima, from a Yanomami tribe, and brought her to live with him in New Jersey. They had three children (David is the oldest) before Yarima decided she could no longer live cut off from her own people, and decided to return to her tribe in the rainforest of Venezuela. David was only five years old when his mother left.

I read Into The Heart multiple times, and pored over the pictures: Yarima in the rainforest, almost naked, face painted and decorated with sticks; Yarima in New Jersey, wearing Western clothes, her hair permed; Kenneth Good in the jungle, a huge, hairy white man in his underwear, among the compact, tan Yanomami; Kenneth Good, college professor in New Jersey, hanging out with his cross-cultural family. I was fascinated by the story of two people from very different backgrounds learning about and reacting to each other’s worlds, and trying to create a life together. I also wondered how the children would fare. Now, with David Good’s book (The Way Around: Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami) I finally have an answer.

Once Yarima decided to stay in the rainforest, her American family had no contact with her. David was devastated, but tried to hide his pain as he was growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He even began telling people that his mother was dead. He longed to be a “typical” American boy, and was terrified of people finding out the truth: that his mother lived in a jungle and ate tarantulas. To numb his feelings, he drank heavily in high school. Finally, in college, he began to come to terms with his heritage and, once he graduated, decided to make a trip to the Amazon jungle to find his mother.

David finds not only his mother, but also his half-brother and many uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. During his months in the jungle, he learns to fish, clear land, and shoot with a bow and arrow. He begins to re-learn the language. Despite the difficulties of living in the jungle (lots of bugs, flash storms, and unexpected injuries), he finds a feeling of deep peace and belonging.

Parts of this book are funny. When David arrived in his mother’s village, almost the first thing she did (after crying for joy) was to present him with two “wives”. These young women were already married to other men, but that was no barrier. The women tried to persuade him to perform his husbandly duty so he could give his mother a Yanomami grandchild. He tried just as hard to persuade them that, while he enjoyed their company, he wasn’t interested in being their husband.

This unique memoir sheds light in a compelling, poignant way on the underlying humanity we all share. David Good has set up an organization, The Good Project, dedicated to the cultural preservation of the Yanomami people.