ALTA ASKS

Talking with Rishi Reddi

The central characters of Rishi Reddi’s Passage West are people who leave “what is near and familiar and travel—either psychologically, geographically, or socioeconomically—far from where they started.”
PETER TANNENBAUM
The central characters of Rishi Reddi’s Passage West are people who leave “what is near and familiar and travel—either psychologically, geographically, or socioeconomically—far from where they started.”
The first-time novelist explores ideas of identity and citizenship among South Asian immigrants in California’s Imperial Valley of the early 20th century.

Rishi Reddi wants her work to “raise questions about what it means for a person to be ‘from’ somewhere, or to ‘belong.’” Her debut novel, Passage West, explores these ideas through the lifelong partnership and rivalry of Ram and Karak, two South Asian immigrant farmers in California’s Imperial Valley. The author’s grand narrative of agricultural life in the years just before World War I through the mid-1920s demonstrates the complexity and contradictions of U.S. agricultural history: immigrant and Native families so integral to Southern California’s agribusiness were also subjected to terrible social and legal discrimination.

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Ram immigrates to America from Punjab, India, to pay a family debt, but he seeks adventure in a land of opportunity, too. He plans to bring his wife and son to live with him as soon as he earns enough money. He joins up with Karak, and they profit from cantaloupe farming in the irrigated desert, then diversify into cotton. But even as Ram reaches his financial goal and sends for his family, U.S. immigration policy and California’s alien land laws impede his happiness. Reddi’s work represents historical narratives that remain largely untold because they were silenced by racism and racist policy.

Alta caught up with Rishi Reddi recently to discuss Passage West.

EXCERPT:

His heart beat loudly inside his ears but he stayed quiet. If he said more, they would have to reveal what they both already knew: that some part of Ram wanted the adventure, desired to see that distant place. He would earn his uncle’s praise. His mother would no longer be reviled as a widow who had raised her son off a brother’s charity. Ram would pay off that childhood debt and return as a man, equal to his cousins. For Padma and himself, there would always be later. He would be back.

What central question does your work ask?
It asks: How do we determine where a person belongs, and how does that belonging help them define their home? Do we only belong in the place of our birth? Or do we also belong in the place where we choose to make our life? As time passes, many first-generation immigrants feel equally alienated from both lands. This is a crucial question for them, but it is also a crucial question for any person who leaves what is near and familiar and travels—either psychologically, geographically, or socioeconomically—far from where they started. In the novel, Karak tells the justice of the peace, “I belong to Punjab.” This sentence construction is common in Indian English, and it gets at something deeper than the American English answer “I am from Punjab.”

Of course, in Ram’s tale, the answer to this question is enveloped in the larger history of the United States. So the question becomes: Who belongs to the United States?

Do you listen to anything as you write?
It depends on what stage of the writing I’m in. For an early draft, which is so hard for me, I can’t listen to anything, because the music makes my mind wander too much. Later I can turn on Western classical, because that’s so separate from the rest of my life, which is usually blaring with rock, pop, jazz, Broadway musicals, old Hindi film songs, and Christmas carols. The classical music helps me feel that the practice of writing is somehow set apart from my regular life. Whole chapters of Passage West were written under the spell of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, because a dear friend gave me one of his CDs years ago.

What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into this book?
I conducted research for this book for over a decade, and I grew more and more fascinated with how much Asia and Asians had entered into the American consciousness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contemporaneous newspaper stories, magazine articles, and song lyrics all show that there was a significant Asian population in the United States that played a role in the economy, culture, and politics of the time. Members of mainstream America may have had varied reactions to these immigrants, but Indians were here, trying to earn livelihoods and even raising families. This was an illuminating discovery for me; because of my own personal history, I felt a great connection to these early adventurers.

What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
Certainly I’m inspired by listening to music, because of the way that intense, visceral emotion can be expressed so effectively in a small amount of time. But also following politics and reading history, which leave me with something I want to say to the world that can be conveyed through story. Fiction can take the large canvas of politics and history, inject it with emotion, and make it comprehensible on a human, personal scale.

How does your background in environmental law inform your writing?
On a very simplistic level, my legal background helped me understand the mechanisms that were used to exclude Asian farmers from resources necessary for their livelihood: California’s alien land laws and how those laws worked in conjunction with federal immigration legislation and the Supreme Court’s definition of race and eligibility for naturalization. On a more complex level, it was interesting to see how the legal underpinnings of citizenship and naturalization developed from long before World War I to the present. So much of our society today was shaped by the political decisions made in that World War I decade.

As for the environmental aspect, it was impossible to write about real farmers (as distinct from agribusiness) and not feel their special attachment to the land and the earth, their commitment to a difficult way to make a living. I did a significant portion of my growing up in Kansas, so the perspective was familiar to me. Imperial Valley has appeared in works of fiction before, most notably in Harold Bell Wright’s The Winning of Barbara Worth, which depicted a very European-American view of the “conquest” of the desert. But of course there are other narratives out there: the Native Americans’, the African Americans’, the Asians’, [those] who thought about nature in different ways and who were very successful farming and ranching on that land.

Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
Set in California’s Imperial Valley at the onset of World War I, Passage West tells the tale of Ram Singh—a Punjabi sharecropper—and his Mexican lover, Japanese neighbors, and Anglo friends at a time of growing xenophobia. The stakes are high and times are desperate, and as anti-immigrant sentiment rises among white residents, the tensions of life in the West finally boil over.

Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Edan Lepucki for Alta Asks.

PASSAGE WEST
  • By Rishi Reddi
  • Ecco, 448 pages, $28.99

 

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