Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Q&A with Rishi Reddi

Rishi Reddi, photo by Sharona Jacobs
Rishi Reddi is the author of the new novel Passage West. She also has written Karma and Other Stories, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and the Asian American Literary Review. An environmental attorney, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Passage West, and for your characters Ram and Karak?

A: I had the idea long ago in 1989—I was in law school and we were reading constitutional law cases from the era when we were deciding who was going to be a citizen, in the 1910s and 1920s. The court decided it on the basis of whether somebody was a Caucasian.

One case was U.S. vs. Thind, in which Indians were considered Caucasian but not white. There were a number of cases involving Japanese, Armenians, Syrians.

My parents came [to the U.S.] in the late 1960s and so did I—I was born in India. To have found a whole wave of Indians who came in the 1910s was a real revelation for me. It took a long time—I needed to learn how to write!

For the characters, I wanted to describe two types of immigrants. One was gung-ho about being a new American; the other was a little more hesitant and sentimental about where they came from. I saw this play out among family members in real ways. [The characters] were composites.

Q: Given the focus today on immigration, what do you hope readers take away from this novel set 100 years earlier?

A: We often by default take the demographics of the United States for granted and don’t recognize it as a conscious and consistent application of some laws that created the America we know today. It was calculated and not race-neutral. I wanted to heighten awareness of that. America as we know it [was created by] those lawmakers 100 years ago and before, and the people they catered to.

I grew up thinking the country doesn’t belong as much to me, but it matters that there was a South Asian contribution. Despite the fact that I’ve worked for the government and been a lawyer, I had a feeling I don’t belong here as much. Writing the novel [contributed to] that journey for me.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you change things along the way?

A: Ram and Karak are composite characters based on real-life events. The last thing in the book was a composite. I had a vague notion that I’d be putting those characters together…[the ending] symbolized so many things. How I got there was something I grappled with.

And I knew early on that I wanted that epilogue—I wrote it early on, and it was very little changed. Emotionally, I knew I was heading to that end.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: This took so much out of me—12 years of hard-core work. I’m turning my attention to shorter work—I would like to put out a short story or two. I’ve worked in the environmental field since the mid-‘90s, and maybe I’ll turn my attention to that.

I did so much research on the 1910s—I would get waylaid by anything on the women’s movement at that time. I feel like there’s something there I might need to turn back to.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I want the novel to run a little counter to the good guy/bad guy narrative, and muddle that a little. We are all complicit in the goodness and badness of what we’ve constructed as a society.

I hope it inspires conversations of more depth than “that person’s a racist” or “that person’s not a racist.” It doesn’t do justice to the depth of the problem. I wanted the book to spark more profound discussions of the problem.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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