Rishi Reddi’s first novel, Passage West, is an audacious piece of work. On the one hand, the author situates her story in a California most of us won’t recognize: the Imperial Valley early in the previous century, when South Asians worked the irrigated desert, growing cotton and produce. On the other, she is not a Californian but came to this material because of what it says about identity and displacement, issues that have complicated U.S. history from the start.
Still, if California is a tricky territory, Reddi has done her homework, not only about the place but also about the time she re-creates. “I want to say—I cannot say too often—any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready,” Woodrow Wilson declared in 1919. Those lines appear late in Reddi’s book. The implication, that an immigrant will never fully belong in the United States, sits at the center of the novel, which involves a pair of rivals, Ram and Karak, whose lives, for better and for worse, become inextricably entwined.
READ MORE: Three Questions with Rishi Reddi
Such a dynamic—men enmeshed, if not exactly in alliance—is not new to Reddi, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The title story of her 2007 collection, Karma and Other Stories, follows two Indian brothers in Boston whose relationship unravels similarly. With Passage West, however, she takes on bigger stakes. Reddi opens the book in 1974, in a Los Angeles hospital where Karak lies dying. “Keep the box…of things only you and I know about,” he insists to Ram, who has come to sit vigil, bound by the obligations of the past. In the box, Ram finds a letter, written in 1913 from himself to Karak.
“So many men he knew from those days did not know how to write,” the character reflects; “the country—the world—thought they did not have stories to tell.” It’s a deft move on Reddi’s part, reflecting on both Ram’s life and the larger question of story: who gets to tell and how. The reason we don’t know about South Asians in the Imperial Valley, in other words, has to do with access, to written language if nothing else. Reddi makes the point explicit by using this and other letters to collapse her chronology, teasing the past out of the present, out of Ram’s memory as he reckons with his life.
That reckoning has to do with the wife he’s left behind in India, as well as the son he’s never seen. It has to do with what he finds in the Imperial Valley: the comforts, as well as the disruptions, of community. “It was not that he disliked Karak; he had no reason for that,” Reddi observes. “It was that he did not like him enough.” The distinction is subtle but important, for Ram is always on the outside, even (or especially) after he and Karak start to share the lease on a cotton farm.
Reddi invokes a broad range of characters, from the patriarch Jivan to Clive Edgar, who manages the leased land. Racial tension is always just under the surface: in a gambling hall for “whites only,” or at the courthouse where Karak runs afoul of California’s anti-miscegenation laws. All of this comes to a head after World War I with the 1920 revision of the state’s Alien Land Law, which keeps immigrants from owning agricultural land. “What country,” asks a farmer who has lost a child in Europe, “take only son and not let you to stay?”
The question is essential, not just to the era in which Passage West takes place but also to the one in which it is read. In that way, Reddi has produced a social novel in the broadest sense, leading us to make connections beyond the page. Such connections stretch beyond California, requiring us to think about—to reimagine—the history of immigration in the United States. “The sky was large,” Reddi writes, “overpowering. Who belongs in what place on this earth?”
David L. Ulin is Alta’s books editor.
• By Rishi Reddi
• Ecco, 448 pages, $28.99