Your previous book, Where the Long Grass Bends, was a collection of short stories with a strongly mythic cast, and your memoir is told in meticulously rendered vignettes. How did you move from fashioning fiction out of the tales of your childhood, to turning your childhood and young adulthood into a (nonfiction) tale?
When I write in any genre, the raw materials and techniques are the same—it’s just the approach that differs. Early in the book I say, “I pledge allegiance to story,” and that’s what I always aim to do, to honor the simplest and most valuable truth at the heart of any story.
One thing that was different for me in moving from fiction to nonfiction was crossing the wiggly border between “unreal” and “real.” I had to learn to develop a kind of flexibility towards my “real life,” to see it as a story, a narrative, and to cast myself and my parents as characters in that story. Another adjustment was learning to create a kind of nonfiction voice/persona that had the ability to meditate, to think out loud with insight and a retrospective distance, and then to also disappear inside the “character me” in scenes.
I also had to wrangle tone. In writing some experiences from my childhood, I felt there was a sticky tone of defensiveness or self-consciousness that got in the way of the story and my overarching points. In adjusting my written tone, I found that I felt differently about my real-life experiences; I loosened my grip on them and let them be an organic part of who I am rather than something “that happened to me.” I’d experienced that same kind of personal release and cleansing when writing fiction, but with nonfiction it felt even more profound.
Your background is Indian- and Irish-American—two intensively chronicled, often romanticized, identities. When the personal has so much overlap with the familiar, how did you confront the challenge of making your experiences read as yours?
The simplest thing I did was to focus on the particular way I see the world—as me, Neela, rather than as someone who is “half Indian, half Irish.” Still, I had some negotiating to do.
At first, it was difficult for me to explore my Indian-American identity without falling into the same story-patterns and language as other Indian-American writers. I felt that same caution when writing about biracial identity; there has been so much written, especially recently, about our identity and experience. I wanted to try to speak from those traditions and shared experiences while also telling my story in a fresh way.
Through early reader response, I found that most people felt my father’s section was more “interesting” and “exotic,” and my mother’s more mundane. So I went back to my mother’s section and worked on showing what was unique in her childhood. I wasn’t just writing about my mother being Irish-American; I was writing about a girl whose mother was dying of cancer, who negotiated with the religion she’d been born into, whose closest friend was gay in an unwelcoming climate, whose passion was historical inquiry, who was obsessed with cleanliness and the idea of travel to the Far East, etc. At the same time, I wasn’t just writing about an Indian experience; I was writing about a Sindhi experience, a refugee-Amil-Bombay-doctor-Sufi-Sikh-Hindu-Jesuit educated-meticulous-creative-intensely private-Sindhi-Indian.
When we talked about Where the Long Grass Bends you said, “one person’s story cannot be told independent of another’s.” You Have Given Me a Country reads, in part, like a lived argument for that inseparability. Did the telling of your parents’ stories alter, or amend, your sense of your own?
Knowing my parents’ stories and stepping into their skins via the telling of those stories definitely helped me to understand them—and myself—better. The simple act of casting my parents as “characters” opened up their history and humanity in a new way for me. I also found that little things from my childhood that had seemed meaningless at the time (for example, lighting a red candle on Christmas Eve or my father’s love for model trains), suddenly made sense, had context and meaning.
I felt very strongly that I could not tell my story without first telling my parents’ stories. One surprise for me was that in writing about my mother’s culture, I was able to connect with it more strongly than I ever had before. The strange thing about my Irish-American heritage is that it had always felt like something that belonged to my mother but not necessarily to me, perhaps because I am not Catholic and don’t “look Irish” in a traditional sense. No one has passed me on the street, done a double-take, and asked, “Hey, aren’t you a Sullivan from County Kerry?!”
The structure of You Have Given Me a Country seems almost quilt-like—distinct sections stitched together to create a decipherable whole. How did you approach blocking (to borrow again from quilting) the elements of your life to build a memoir that is also a meditation on race, family, and how we decide who we are?
The memoir actually started as my Cultural Studies PhD dissertation. I had the factual and scholarly skeleton to build from and I filled it out with journey, characters, personal reflection, and scene.
The first section sets up my parents, the second is our story as a family, the third and fourth delve into a type of poetic analysis of categorization, love, and nation. The final section returns to a more narrative approach and brings the reader up to a fully informed present. It’s my hope that the more theoretical and historical aspects of the book will resonate because readers are first introduced to these concepts through the lives of the characters—who are real people. I felt it was important to make sure the reader was invested in my family before exploring the equally important “personal as political” aspects of the book. I tried to set the emotional blocks in place first, and then the philosophical.
Photographs are interspersed in the text—were they always a part of the project? What role do they serve?
In the earlier narrative sections of the book, the photos serve as artifacts, as pieces of historical grounding. In the more theoretical sections about love, sexuality, and legislation, I made sure to include photos of my cousin John, his partner Jim, and my mother and father. In those sections which are a more fact-driven, I used the photos to create intimacy and humanity.
Most of the contemporary photos in the book are ones I took. The photos from the past are ones I chose from a larger selection, so even in that way, through my selection, the reader is given another bit of my “view” on the story.
There’s a photo of my mother and uncle standing on their Long Island lawn—newly middle class, my mother in her First Holy Communion dress and veil and my uncle in his Boy Scout’s uniform. What I love about the photo is that it is slightly blurry and on an angle. The photo doesn’t reflect the text, but it captures the spirit of the story. When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by this particular picture because it looked to me like my mother and uncle were wearing uniforms that showed they were a part of something American. Growing up brown, in-between, and minority on the exact same Island, the photo called to me with a sense of belonging that I both longed for and found terrifying.
When writing about my father, I included a page from his passport stamped with the word CANCELLED. I wanted to connect the idea of a “cancelled” citizenship, the strange official-ness of passports and stamps and nationality, as opposed to what resides in the human heart. That’s the power of images I hope I successfully integrated into the memoir.
A blend of history, memory, myth, and cultural studies, this memoir blurs borders of genre and identity, exploring what it means to be biracial in America. Following her heritage, Vaswani reveals the self as culmination of all that went before.