Last Thursday night, the village literati turned out to discuss "You Have Given Me a Country" by author Neela Vaswani at the Scarsdale Public Library. "You Have Given Me a Country," a memoir following the author’s journey as she discovers her identity and what it means to be bicultural, explores her mother's Irish-Catholic background and her father's Sindhi-Indian heritage.
Neela Vaswani approached the podium after the SPL Assistant Director Leni Glauber introduced the author’s impressive accomplishments and lively cultural experiences.
Clad in green in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and her Irish heritage, Vaswani explained that her memoir started as her dissertation for her PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. It took roughly six re-writes before she was able to “give a face” to the themes inspired from her dissertation and changed its structure and genre.
Vaswani added that the memoir was part fictional and part non-fictional. The book's facts were all true, but creatively retold in a fictionalized fashion. In other words, because Vaswani was not yet born during her mother and father’s childhood, she had to imagine the details. When her mother read the finished book, said Vaswani, she told her daughter how strange she felt to know what events were coming next because the book was so accurate.
Vaswani continued the discussion by reading a few excerpts from her memoir focusing on her mother growing up as an Irish-Catholic in New York and Vaswani’s travels to her father's native India.
From the passages, we learned that Vaswani's mother was sent to the library every Sunday with a list of seven books to check out, one for every day of the week. Vaswani’s grandmother credited the library as “church without the collection plate.” To name a few, Vaswani’s mother read John Steinbeck’s "East of Eden," Paul Gallico’s "Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris" and D. H. Lawrence’s "Lady Chatterley's Lover."
Another excerpt transported the audience to India. At 19 years old, Vaswani traveled to India as a student and worked in the peanut fields for three weeks. She was often criticized by the Indian women in the field due to their cultural differences. One woman associated Vaswani’s slender build to being poor, causing Vaswani to explain that people in America often eat less to be skinny.
The woman also assumed Vaswani did not work because her hands and feet were too soft to have done hard labor. In fact, they teased Vaswani, calling her “baby hands” and “baby feet.”
Vaswani defended herself to the women, whose hands were "tough like a tortoise shell," explaining she worked at a movie theater once and at a one-hour photo booth. According to Vaswani, she was motivated to work harder in the peanut fields to prove to these women that she was not lazy.
Additionally, the same woman told Vaswani she was an old maid because she was 19 and unmarried. The women believed something must be wrong with Vaswani for no man to want to marry her.
Vaswani opened the floor to questions after reading excerpts from her memoir. Curious about Vaswani’s childhood experiences as a bicultural child and the difficulties she had to face, the audience wanted to know more about how the author faced numerous adversities.
Vaswani noted her parents did face prejudice people when trying to buy homes, and that as a product of a biracial couple, she was at times looked at with disgust and hatred. However, Vaswani explained she saw no difference in her parents. Her parents shared an “immigrant way” in their morals and outlook on life, and Vaswani noted that their shared qualities outweighed their disparate backgrounds.
Vaswani ended the discussion remarking that “everyone struggles to find out who they are," but that she felt most comfortable moving in between her parents’ culture. “In betweeness is a country in and of itself. Moving in between Indian American and Irish American is the space where my book inhabits," concluded Vaswani.