‘These Americans’: a promising book by Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Book jacket of ‘These Americans’ by Jyotsna Sreenivasan. Photo: Twitter @Jyotsna_Sree

Bringing an inner perspective of being a second generation immigrant, Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s book ‘These Americans’, a collection of eight short stories and a novella, has won the Rosemary Daniell Fiction Prize from the publisher Minerva Rising Press. The stories all describing the pain of not fitting in and the assimilation into a new culture, are mainly written in a light tone, an almost satirically humorous one. Although about immigrant experiences, the stories are about ‘These Americans’, who include not only people from the new culture, but also children born here of Indian immigrant parents, children who are more American than Indian.

Sreenivasan has drawn on life around her, on experiences of herself and her family as Indian immigrants and fictionalized them to form the subject matter of the stories, she said to News India Times in an exclusive interview. “The writer gene was built into me,” Sreenivasan said. “I wrote my first story at the age of seven. Even as a small child, even before I learned how to read, I used to look at my father’s handwriting and try to understand what it said,” she explained. “I loved him telling me stories,” she added. “Literature has always been important in our family. Even my grandfather wrote skits which my parents were fond of reading,” Sreenivasan said, explaining her desire to be a writer.

The stories in the collection are so arranged that one goes through the process of birth, of growing up, of becoming a teenager and alienating from parents, of rebelling against expectations of parents all the while trying inside to come up to their expectations, of forming bonds of friendships, of inter-cultural marriages, of divorce, of looking for freedom, of the pressures of facing unemployment, of trying to follow one’s desired profession, of communicating and not communicating, of not understanding and understanding, of choices and medical choices, and of finality and dying. And Sreenivasan tells all in her distinct style.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan. Photo: Twitter @jyotsna_Sree

Sreenivasan said, “I don’t know if I have been influenced by any particular style. But I like R.K. Narayan’s simplicity of style, and would love if I could achieve something like that in my writing,” she said. Most of the stories in the collection are simply told. Sreenivasan said she likes writers who focus on character and her favorite writers include Charles Dickens, Jumpa Lahiri, Vikram Seth, Maxine Hong Kingston who is a Chinese American and writes about it. Reading Hong-Kingston’s ‘The Woman Warrior’, inspired her to write about being an Indian American, she said. “Before reading the book, I never wrote about being an Indian American,” Sreenivasan said.

Written in first person, ‘Mirror’, is a humorous tale of a child birth and the cultural reluctance to have a man, and not a woman, deliver the baby. It speaks of the cultural shyness of Indian women.  ‘Home’, written from the perspective of a young girl, Amiya, goes through the angst of resettling and reimmigrating as expressed by mutterings of Amiya’s mother.

‘Revolution’ deals with inter-marriage and divorce and how it impacts children. The third person narrative of the story focuses on the younger child Neel, and his reactions and reflexes on the divorce and his father’s desire to remarry. It offers humor with linking a whole country’s political history to Neel’s Indian heritage, perhaps experienced by many immigrants who have faced strange questions about differences in India’s cultures and languages and food. ‘Revolution’ makes a light read although dealing with a serious matter of a divorce.

‘Dreams’, can perhaps provide a cautionary note to parents against the lack of understanding, the lack of attention, and acceptance of problems of fitting in experienced by some immigrant children, just like Pramod does. The mild panic of the mother and the father’s conviction that nothing is the matter with his son are typical of some immigrant parents.

Sreenivasan’s own experience of being an immigrant parents’ child are reflected in many of the short stories, including ‘Home’ and ‘The Sweater’, and also the novella ‘Hawk’. Like most Indian parents, Sreenivasan’s parents also wanted her to be a doctor, she said. Her father is a doctor and the expectations of the parents were for their daughter to have a professional degree, she went on. “They did not understand me and I ended up being a rebel,” just like the characters in my stories,” said Sreenivasan, who went on to get a degree in English Literature. She said her parents worried about her career, even after she started writing children’s stories. “They relaxed after I published ‘Aruna’s Journeys’, a chapter-book for smaller children,” added Sreenivasan.

However short the stories and however familiar the issues of immigrant life they are built around, the stories are, at the end, human stories about relationships, between father and son, between mother and daughter, between husband and wife, between friends, between teacher and student.  Characters are very important to Sreenivasan in her writing, she told News India Times.  Her characters hold the imprint of being almost fully rounded, and leave a lingering effect of having met someone in reality. True to life, the stories arouse an almost unwilling suspension of disbelief.

A number of stories in ‘These Americans’ deal with the gap in communication between immigrant Indian parents and their children, particularly between a mother and a daughter, their growing pains, their expectations of each other, their stubbornness and rebelliousness, their distancing and aloofness, and the dawning of understanding. ‘The sweater’ makes a point about the lack of communication between a mother and daughter. The overly used symbolism tries to convey that after all holes can be repaired, be it holes in sweaters or holes in communication. ‘Mrs Raghavendra’s Daughter’, is the story of any mother discovering a daughter’s sexual preferences and accepting it. It could have been the story of any mother and daughter.

Although the second generation born here have not faced the same trials, relations have been difficult for them too, even when they are close as those of husbands and wife or of best friends. ‘Crystal Vase: Snapshots’, is a story of two little girls who bond in a friendship, and then separate. Their relation just fizzles out. The whole story is a series of snapshots of the childhood friendship and efforts to reconnect it.   ‘Perfect Sunday’ is the story of a couple of intercultural marriage, having the looming problem of being unemployed, and their different attitudes to life. Told in the first person the story involves a one-day outing to a nature spot and the feelings it arouses in the husband, the Indian wife, the children, and their friend.

A revised version of Sreenivasan’s novel ‘On the Brink of Bloom’ was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, ‘Hawk’, the novella, is the story of one year in the lives of a mother and daughter. The story deals with several themes – of neglect, of prejudice, of estrangement, of trying hard to cover the distances, of getting old, of being laid off, and of getting an incurable disease, and dying. The novella thus covers a lot of ground of human life, and it does it very well. Here one gets to see the promise of style and content, although clouded in parts by the eternal symbolism. Hawk – is a bird of prey, a wild bird which can be forced into being tamed, but which loves its freedom.

The two simultaneous life stories of a mother and a daughter, Bhagya and Manisha, are actually one story – of a daughter going through the process of learning to understand her mother and of waking up with realization that the mother was also a woman and not just a mother, perhaps a process most women go through no matter where they live or where they were born. Bhagya’s life story unfolds through her journal in which she records her life. Manisha doesn’t reach the stage of understanding her mother even after she herself faces prejudice at work. Understanding dawns only after the mother’s death when she reads the journal.

Intricately woven into this simple story are the truths about the medical system in the US. The story discusses the extent of control exercised by the doctors under pressure to keep the patient alive in case of certain illnesses. Having worked in the system, knowing it, being part of it, Bhagya understands and flies free of it all. Almost like a medical information booklet in parts, Hawk is still a promising and well written novella.

A distinct mark of Sreenivasan’s style is descriptive details of all things in her stories. If Manisha’s school days are full of details, so are Bhagya’s journals about her life as an immigrant doctor. “I drew on life experiences again,” said Sreenivasan whose one family member has Alzheimer’s disease. “I read a lot of articles, and interviewed three immigrant doctors. I also read a lot on assisted suicide,” Sreenivasan said.

Writing and teaching are both important to Sreenivasan, who is a Middle school teacher. “I love my job and am not looking to leave it,” Sreenivasan said. “I am going to continue to be a school teacher and continue to write. I am currently working on a historical novel,” she added.

Archana Adalja is a freelance writer based in New York City



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