“Reddi’s Steinbeck-ian tale adds a valuable contribution to the stories of immigrants in California.” –Publishers Weekly
“Reddi’s richly imagined, character-driven novel sheds light on a little-known history of Indians in the U.S. and surprisingly echoes current events.” –Booklist
Rishi Reddi’s sweeping debut, Passage West, is very much about the American Dream. It’s set in 1913 California farm country, but the characters are nothing like the sharecroppers you’d find in a Steinbeck novel. Instead this is the story of an Indian immigrant, Ram Singh, who’s come to the U.S. to make his fortune. He finds work on a cantaloupe farm run by a friend and fellow immigrant, Karak, but Ram is anxious to return to his wife and newborn son back in Punjab. In the midst of World War I, anti-immigrant sentiment grows, a love triangle develops, and a violent rift between friends threatens to destroy everything Ram hopes for.
Passage West takes us on a journey that explores what it means to be American, revealing a little-known aspect of California’s and America’s past. I loved it, and I’m thrilled to share my interview with the incredibly talented Rishi Reddi.
Where did the initial idea for this story come from? Did you set out to write a historical novel about immigrants from India trying to make it as cantaloupe farmers in California?
The seed for Passage West was planted during a Constitutional Law class I attended in 1989. While studying Supreme Court cases about U.S. citizenship and naturalization, I learned that, during the 1920s, certain applicants’ racial classification as “white” was a pre-requisite for a path to citizenship. I became particularly interested in a case called United States v. Thind, in which a WWI US Army veteran, born in Punjab, was stripped of his American citizenship; the court reasoned that although he was Caucasian, he was not considered “white” under popular belief.
This case astounded me for two reasons. The first was that my family, and many other Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. soon after laws were loosened in 1965, arrogantly believed that we were among “the first” South Asians to have a “mattered” in the United States. Little was known about the South Asians that had come two generations earlier, who had suffered under the cultural and legal restrictions of the 1910s and 1920s. The second reason the Thind case impressed me was that I had not understood how much those early South Asians had contributed to American society.
I had not set out to write a huge novel. I was hoping for a smaller book dominated my Ram Singh and his love triangle. But after I researched the topic more deeply, and interviewed the descendants of early South Asian immigrants to California, I realized I had a larger story to tell. I got lost in the research; should I focus on the citizenship issue and the Punjabi men who joined the American army, who were not recognized in military and mainstream culture? Should I highlight the cross-cultural, inter-religious love stories? Should I follow the members of the Ghadr movement, their commitment to American democracy and their desire to transport those values to a colonized India? It was hard to decide where my story was…. so basically–I included all of it.
There’s so much I love about this book, but one thing I really enjoyed was learning about those cross-cultural relationships. Who knew that people from so many different countries–Indians, Japanese, Mexicans, and others–lived together, worked together, and even married each other in the Imperial Valley in the early 1900s? Why don’t we know this fascinating history?
The real people depicted by these characters were not powerful men and women. They were not the ones who recorded events or made the laws or influenced political decisions in mainstream American society. Many of them were illiterate, and some did not speak English. Their communities and experiences were written out of American history as time progressed. But if you go back and check the primary sources – newspaper articles, government reports, contemporaneous song lyrics, photographs – their presence and contribution is readily apparent.
Throughout the book, you use letters mailed back and forth between characters to advance the story. Ram corresponds with his friend Karak and with his wife back in Punjab. Amarjeet Singh Gill writes home from the war. Can you talk about the choice to use correspondence?
When I was a child in the 1970s, I remember the importance of letter-writing in the communication between family members located in India, Britain and the United States. In those days, telephone calls between continents were expensive and unreliable; phone connections were crackly and conversations were often shouted into the handset. But letters were solid, substantial, and had been touched by the hand of the beloved author, they could be read and re-read, carried in a breast pocket or handbag, and kept forever. In many ways, a long-distance relationship was carried on through the letters themselves…a physical manifestation of the affection between family members and lovers. S,o I thought: if that was what letters meant during the 1970s, imagine their power and import in the 1910s! And significantly, the use of letters allowed Padma, Ram’s wife, to speak for herself in the book. It was a way to have her voice be heard in a novel dominated by men’s stories.
How immigrants are labeled and classified is a theme you keep coming back to. As anti-immigrant sentiment grows in the Valley, local laws and labels shift to benefit white residents. Anglos constantly grapple with how to classify (and regulate) immigrants. Are the Indians Hindu, British, oriental, or “black Caucasian,” whatever that is? This theme seems relevant in today’s highly charged political landscape. Do you see parallels?
I definitely see parallels, and it was the results of the 2016 election that made me take all the research I had done and mold the novel into its present form. I suddenly had something crucial and urgent that needed to be conveyed. The myriad ways in which the immigrants were classified in 1914 shows how meaningless the racial or ethnic classification was. What did it mean to say that someone was “British,” when British subjects comprised a quarter of the planet’s population? What meaning did the word “oriental” have to an inhabitant of South Asia? What did it mean to be “white,” when one could be “black Caucasian?” The conundrum of “white” vs “Caucasian” is what the U.S. Supreme Court was dealing with in the Thind case. So, what does it mean to state that the United States is a “white man’s country” as many Americans now boldly claim post-2016?
The real stories of those early Punjabis, their Mexican relatives, and their Japanese neighbors seem a direct response to this claim. Regardless of the propaganda of some of our current political leaders, the truth was apparent in my research, in first-person contemporaneous accounts, in the newspaper articles: America was formed, and is being formed, by many different cultures and stories, some of which are considered “white” and some of which are “non-white” at any point in time. A country is not a static thing, and the tension between cultures is an ongoing, integral, foundational, and definitional part of the United States.
The amount of research you did for this novel must have been enormous. There is so much underlying history: the growth and development of California’s Imperial Valley, India’s battle for independence, World War I, and more. Then there are all the different ethnic groups, cultures, and languages you must have had to learn about. Where did you start and how did you know when to stop? Where did you find all the great details?
The research ran away with me. It was so interesting; it took years, and often it allowed me to procrastinate on the really hard work: i.e. the writing. It showed me what a geek I really am. I now own several publications about very arcane subjects — like how the old canal colonies were built in the western part of Punjab or how brothels were taxed in Mexicali or the transcript of a 1925 California murder case–they all provided crucial bits of information.
As for learning about the different ethnic groups and cultures, I read a lot and interviewed many descendants of the Imperial Valley population about which I was writing. I had friends and cultural reviewers and translators tell me what I got right and wrong.
At some point, I had to tell myself that the story took precedence and that the factual research had to be rolled into the tale. I grew very conscious about relaying only information that was important to the story–no more and no less–but I’m still not sure that I got that right in the end.
Was there anything about your family’s immigration story that influenced or informed your writing of this particular narrative?
My family’s immigration story is what motivated and propelled my writing throughout the process. Learning about how South Asians contributed to early 20th century American farming, the U.S. war effort, culture and politics, gave me, as a first-generation Indian immigrant, permission to feel more American. The sense of permission came from the knowledge that Indians had helped build the America we know today, even if mainstream American culture does not recognize their early contribution. The knowledge of this past meant something to me in terms of belonging and of home. I hope that first- and second-generation immigrants will read this book and perhaps feel some of what I felt in writing it.
This novel was a labor of love—about 12 years passed between the publication of your first book, Karma and Other Stories, and this novel. Can you talk about that journey? And how does it feel to finally release Passage West out into the world today?
There were a lot of significant life events that passed during those 12-13 years of writing, all while I still had to work a day job, raise children, call the plumber to fix the sink, etc. And some of those life events were quite painful. But the story felt too important to abandon, and I suspect that the novel, and the commitment it required, actually helped me get through some of the hard times. In the end, I feel the book would have taken a long time even with no other obligations – just because it was a big subject. Like a living thing, it took what it needed in terms of time and effort and resources to grow up and leave home.
Are you and your publisher doing anything special or different instead of a book tour to promote your novel during this time of quarantine?
I’ve always considered myself a Luddite in terms of tech know-how, but I’m enthusiastically trying to embrace all sorts of communication platforms to get the word out! I’ve been lucky enough to team up with a great group of writers whose books are being released this spring, also publicizing their work through many types of social media.
I’m planning a live virtual launch on Thursday, April 30 at 7:00pm. People can go to www.rishireddi.com for specific video link info and updates. I look forward to talking to readers there!
Finally, where can we buy your book?
Porter Square Books (signed copies, shipped after May 4th)
About Rishi Reddi: Rishi is the author of Karma and Other Stories, the winner of the 2008 PEN New England / L.L. Winship prize for fiction. Her short stories have been aired on National Public Radio, performed at New York City’s Symphony Space, published in Best American Short Stories, and chosen for the Boston Book Festival’s all-city read: One City, One Story. She was born in Hyderabad, India, and lived in Great Britain and several regions of the United States before attending Swarthmore College and Northeastern University School of Law. She has practiced environmental law for the state and federal government for twenty-five years and served on the boards of Grub Street and SAALT, a national nonpartisan organization that represents the South Asian-American community.