Indian American author tackles racism in her first novel

For many Indians, America is the ‘land of milk and honey.’ Many middle-class Indians, especially those born and brought up in the semi-American culture of India’s urban middle class in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, see it as the land of opportunities.

The US is seen (deservedly) as one of the most tolerant and diverse cultures in World.

So it comes as a surprise when a Indian-origin girl, born and brought up in the country, chooses to base her first novel on her brush-ups against racism and alienation, growing up in a town in the US Midwest (central USA, a region that has a reputation for being less sophisticated than the coasts.)

The writer is Leena Ceraveeni, a journalism graduate from the Indiana University whose parents, ethnic Malayalees, emigrated to the US in ’70s and finally ended up in US state of Indiana, south of the Great Lakes.

Her debut novel, “The Hometown,” documents the racial experiences of an Indian girl born and raised in Indiana.

Each chapter of “The Hometown” focuses on a different racial experience when 23-year-old Mala Thomas packs up her Acura Vigor and makes an impulsive move to Houston. The death of the sister she can’t remember, her love for ’80s rock, and her past racial experiences follow her everywhere she goes.

“Indian Americans have to deal with people who tell them they smell like rice and curry. Indian Americans have been asked if they know the Indian people who work at the gas station down the street. If Indian people would eat the cow they wouldn’t starve.”

RTN caught up with Leena to find out why she chose a rather sensitive topic for her first book.

1. Isn’t it a little odd that someone who has grown up in the US should write about racism? It is rare to hear charges of racism from Indian Americans, especially those who think, act, speak and eat like the Americans do. Are not Americans non-racist when compared to most of the World’s population, including that of India?

It’s not odd at all. I am more American than I am Indian but still looked different from the people around me. They weren’t always so understanding or friendly because of this. Of course, I have many examples of this in The Hometown.

A character in the book makes a comment about Mala when she walks by. He’s disgusted by Indians. She gets upset and the girls in the locker room barely give her any attention. They don’t understand. They can’t relate to her. One of the girls is confused and thinks Mala is Native American. She suggests that Mala needs to stand up for herself and claim that Native Americans were here first.

2. Why did you decide to write this novel? Is it primarily a by-product of your creative urges or it a novel with a purpose (born out of the need to share what you feel are unhealthy attitudes and experiences)?

I had always wanted to write a book and it is very fulfilling to have accomplished that goal. So yes, it is a result of my creative urges and it does serve many purposes.

The experiences were a big part of life so I decided to create a journal of racial experiences.

I wanted to be open about the experiences and decided to turn them into a book.

I also wanted to show people that they can make changes in their lives and take risks. It’s never too late. I live in the South now and the culture is so different from the Midwest. I liked being able to explain those differences in my book. The people, the food, the whole attitude is different.

3. Did you face an identity crisis as you were growing up? Were you, for example, in denial of your ‘Indianness’?

I would say yes. I wanted to blend in and I was self-conscious about being Indian. I was in denial at times.

I gradually became more comfortable with my Indian heritage. It started later on in high school when I grew into a more confident person. I started to appreciate my culture more. I stopped caring about what other people would think.

In college I started meeting more Indian people and attending more cultural events. I eventually moved to Texas and spent time in Houston and Austin and that’s when I became really comfortable. I wasn’t anything special there. (Laughs)

Mala dates an Indian guy named Vince in The Hometown. He didn’t have the identity crisis that she had. Here is an excerpt:

Vince had attended a multicultural high school with a large Indian population.
“I couldn’t imagine that. I was the only Indian in my grade school and high school. I wanted to be white when I was little.”
He looked at me in disappointment. “Not me. I was really proud of it. I felt bad for the white kids because they never had anything to wear on Culture Day.”
“You had a culture day? I wouldn’t have anything to wear either. I didn’t own any Indian clothes in high school. If we had something like that at my school, it would turn into a day full of racist comments.”

4. What is your advice to second generation kids caught between two Worlds? How do you resolve the often conflicting ideas of how to live, between the culture of the parents and that of the peers?

Respect your elders while also finding your own way. Don’t let your parents decide what kind of career you should have and what kind of life you should live. Trust your instincts, learn from your mistakes, and choose to be happy.