Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, July 1, 2019

Monday, July 1, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Here We Are

Celadon Books: Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aarti Namdev Shahani

Celadon Books: Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aarti Namdev Shahani

Celadon Books: Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aarti Namdev Shahani

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Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares

by Aarti Namdev Shahani

On the surface, Aarti Shahani's parents had a classic immigrant narrative: hungry for more job opportunities and education for their children, for a better life, they came to the U.S. in the 1980s. Aarti's insightful first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, paints a layered and engaging picture of her family and their joys and struggles. The Shahanis lived in a vibrant, diverse community in Queens, where Aarti's mother became a community activist. Her father and uncle ran a small electronics shop in midtown Manhattan. But the reality--from start to finish--is much more complicated. The Shahanis came to the U.S. from their native India (via Morocco) to escape a dysfunctional family dynamic. Their apartment building in Flushing was crowded and cockroach-infested. And when Aarti's father and uncle were accused of selling electronics to a notorious Colombian drug cartel, their whole family spent years tangled in the U.S. legal system. Both men served time at the notorious Rikers Island prison; Aarti's uncle Ratan was eventually deported, never to be allowed to return. But Aarti--now a tech correspondent covering Silicon Valley for NPR--was determined to fight for her father's freedom. In Here We Are, she tells her family's story and asks compelling questions about what it means to belong in this country.

Shahani begins her account with a flash forward: a latter-day meeting with the judge who was in charge of her father's case. As a bright, impassioned high school student who attended the elite Brearley all-girls school on Manhattan's Upper East side, Aarti was ashamed. But over time, as she saw the system take advantage of her family's lack of power, she got involved. She wrote multiple letters to the judge, prompting him to call her his "pen pal."

She recounts her meeting with him as a 30-something woman, before taking readers back in time several decades to share the story of how her parents met (in Casablanca), their growing young family (including her big brother, Deepak, and her sister, Angelly), and their eventual migration to New York City. Her family emerges in vivid, textured detail: her mother, the extroverted community activist who started a tenants' association in their building; her quiet dad, who spent his days working hard to provide for his family and preserve his "good name"; and her siblings, with whom she squabbled at times and banded together with when necessary. After their father and uncle were detained, Aarti began researching every legal loophole she could think of, calling lawyers and trying to find a way out for both of them.

Shahani pulls no punches in detailing the government's treatment of immigrants accused or convicted of even minor crimes, particularly those with a green card as well as those with non-permanent immigration status. She details the hopelessness of legal battles, the violence endemic to Rikers and other prisons, and the mixture of emotions when her father was finally released.

As a young adult, Shahani went on to start a nonprofit, Families for Freedom, that sought to help other immigrants mired in the legal system find their way to freedom. She notes the racism often present in the justice system, and how lawyers and other professionals often prey on frightened immigrants who may struggle with English or the legal technicalities. She also talks honestly about the deep fatigue that sets in after years of this work, the difficulty in not becoming jaded, and admits to the impatience she felt with her father at times. "Being a daughter was always central to my character," she says, and that relationship, in all its messy, glorious complexity, is on full display.

Namdev Shahani's case struggled through the legal system soon after the events of September 11, 2001--long before the current political administration and the present-day immigration debates. But the system, and many of its challenges, remain exactly the same, and the questions Aarti Shahani asks in her book are still entirely relevant: Who belongs in America? Who gets to become an American, and who gets to decide? Does intent matter when a crime is committed, and how can a "justice" system incarcerate and abuse those who cannot speak for themselves? The Shahanis' story, like that of so many immigrants, is a mixture of tragedy and hope, and Aarti highlights both, along with her deep love for her father.

Here We Are is a searing exposé of the U.S. criminal justice system and its glaring flaws, and a love letter from an impetuous, outspoken daughter to her soft-spoken, hardworking father. It goes beyond the scripted immigrant narrative to highlight the Shahanis in their complicated humanity, and it makes an insistent case for readers to do the same. It is at once a statement from Aarti to her dad--we will keep fighting for you until the end--and a declaration by millions of immigrants: we are part of this country, and we are not going anywhere. Clear-eyed and compulsively readable, shot through with compassion, humor and heart, Here We Are is a quintessential immigrant story and an urgent call for change. --Katie Noah Gibson

Celadon, $26.99, hardcover, 256p., 9781250204752, October 1, 2019

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This Is My Country: Aarti Shahani and the Immigrant Voice

photo: Nickolai Hammar

Aarti Shahani is an award-winning correspondent for NPR based in Silicon Valley. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Harvard Kennedy School. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (coming from Celadon in October), chronicles her family's experience as immigrants to the U.S., and the court case that consumed years of their lives.

The narrative of Here We Are has been central to your life and your family's life. How did you decide to put it into a book?

This book has been inside me for more than half my life. For many years, I chose not to write about it at all. I wanted to see: What does my life look like when I'm not being my parents' daughter?

I also needed some space from the story to have perspective. And the more the most profound facts about my family's life got buried, the more I wanted to dig them up. This happens to all of us: you run as fast as you can away from something, and the faster you run, the clearer the signs are that it's always with you. I decided I didn't want to run away from this story any more.

There are many parallels between your family's story (which is set in the early 2000s) and the Trump administration's treatment of immigrants. Can you talk about that?

There's a shift in this country, which is my country, where according to some, people like us are not supposed to exist. We don't have a place here. The shift toward closing borders and attacking the foreigner has been steady and incremental over the years. The things you see now are shocking and terrible, but I can't say they're surprising. The continuity--the things I see on the news today--remind me of what my family went through.

The last couple of years in the U.S. remind me a lot of post-9/11 America: the willingness to pounce on "the foreigner." We forget that there was real political alignment on this issue after 9/11. The sense that we were responding to a national security threat made a lot of people blind. But this country has a long history of being open to outsiders. That needs to be resuscitated immediately, and I think immigrants have to take the lead on it.

You talk frankly about the challenges of navigating the immigration system--both in the courtroom and at home.

Yes. That's part of wanting to document my family's story: there are some very uncomfortable facts in it. I think it's important for people to know the corners that were cut, the things that had to happen, for us to make it in this country. We need to think about that as we continue to debate immigration issues. If your bar to entry for this country is perfection, no one gets in. I think I'm quite honest about who we are. I hope that makes it okay for immigrants to not have to be perfect, and still get to be here.

This is such a deeply personal story. Were your family members involved in the telling of it?

I was basically in total isolation for four months while I was writing. I did show the manuscript to my siblings and my mom. None of them had veto power, but I listened to their feedback. My mom ended up being inordinately helpful with research: connecting me to other friends or family members or photographs that would show something. For her, it was really hard: she cried a lot. We all cried a lot.

There were little moments, little details, that I didn't know about, which really brought the story to life. For example: my dad took his wedding ring off his finger at Rikers Island and gave it to my brother. I had no idea that Dad also called Mom that night and said, "Why didn't you tell me to keep the ring?" He was profoundly isolated throughout his life, and I didn't realize that these issues of abandonment were coming up in that moment. 

My siblings read the manuscript twice. For my brother, it was cathartic to see our story laid out like that, to see his story being told. My sister and I have a different dynamic, which is captured in the book. We're rapid-fire, unsentimental with each other. She'll hold me to the highest standard. She's a huge supporter, but she's also my toughest critic. She read it and called me--hours later--to say: "I liked it. A lot." She also said--and this was so meaningful--"We sound like us. You made us sound like we really sound."

There are moments of real warmth and humor amid the struggle.

Tragedy can be hilarious. Very funny things can happen when you're living really painful moments. It's important to me that readers know: this is not a screed about America. This is a family story you're going to relate to. We're funny and weird, and we get on each other's nerves, just like your family. I really wanted to give people an immigrant family that's not role-playing for America. I'm showing you those scripted moments. But you also get to see behind the scenes.

I wrote this book to let people into my family. Some people would say that we're not an American family. I would contend that we are, and this is the story of fighting to be that. I think you cannot understand America today without understanding what happened post-9/11. We lived through a recent chapter of history that's very relevant to now. I'm excited that now there seems to be an openness among many people that didn't exist after 9/11. It feels like a fruitful time to share my family's story: I think more people are willing to listen. I'm laying out a story that's rich enough for people to take away whatever they will. --Katie Noah Gibson

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