Newest review: Here We Are by Aarti Namdev Shahani

By Ekta R. Garg

October 30, 2019

Release date: October 1, 2019

Genre: Memoir

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A journalist shares the story of her immigrant family’s journey from their birth country to the United States. She speaks with frankness about the double standards in the justice system and reveals telling details about the immigration process. As she works through the normal and unique challenges of growing up, she forms a stronger bond with her father. Author Aarti Namdev Shahani shines a light on many of the problems immigrants face in the fairly solid but overly long memoir Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares.

As the child of Indian immigrants, Aarti Shahani lives a life of contradictions. Aside from skin color, her home looks nothing like that of the other kids. When she gets admitted to one of the most elite high schools in Manhattan, her life becomes further divided into two factions. The conversations that challenge her on an intellectual level during the day don’t seem to have any place in her family at night.

Her fractious relationship with her father, too, bothers Aarti, despite her efforts to brush off her emotions. He fought for her with his own mother, walking out on Aarti’s grandmother when the “burden” of Aarti’s gender became too much to bear. Yet when he and Aarti’s mother migrate to the United States, it is Aarti’s mother who becomes Aarti’s greatest champion. Her father finds the cracks in Aarti’s veneer; her mother and sister fill them.

The irony is not lost on Aarti, then, when she takes up the battle cry after her father’s incarceration in prison on Rikers Island in New York. In a terrible, made-for-movie turn of events, Aarti’s father and her uncle are found guilty of selling electronic items to a prominent drug cartel. After all he does to achieve his American dream, including sweeping streets, Aarti’s father finds himself inside one of the worst nightmares this country has to offer.

As if going to prison isn’t enough of an ordeal, Aarti and her family members discover another complication: for immigrants, going to prison often means deportation. After her uncle is sent back to India, Aarti becomes determined not to let the same happen to her father. She begins educating herself on immigration policies, becoming an activist in the process, and finding her way back to her father and her roots.

Author Aarti Namdev Shahani tells her story in straightforward prose; she doesn’t mince words in sharing her father’s experiences or her own. Non-South Asian readers may shake their heads in shock or horror at some of the stories Shahani shares. For many South Asian readers, Shahani’s litany of woes will sound familiar.

Shahani brings to light revelatory information on the deportation of legitimate green card holders after their release from jail. Like many children born and raised in this country, she’s ignorant, initially, of this loophole in immigration policies. When her father’s future comes into question, however, she plunges into the reality of those policies and fights back as hard as she can. At one point, she begins writing letters to the judge presiding over her father’s case. Anything to find a way to keep her father in the U.S.

At some point, though, the book becomes less about her father’s struggle as an immigrant and more about Shahani’s own successes and failures. Her outrage at the treatment her father and so many other immigrants receive is palpable, but that outrage begins to fade into the background as Shahani navigates the struggles of her own life. Readers follow her through her activist days, her exploration of various careers, and her romances. While interesting, these mini stories feel a little like they’re padding the main narrative.

The book feels a little too long. It would have worked well at a much shorter length and with some of the less prominent stories summarized or even taken out altogether, particularly when they start with fanfare and then lose some of their principal characters (such as her brother’s wife, who seems to figure largely in the family for a while but then disappears late in the book.) While compelling, Shahani’s story might have packed an even greater dramatic punch at novella length.

Readers unfamiliar with the immigration process or its shortcomings will find this book fascinating. I recommend they Borrow Here We Are.


Latest review: The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller

By Ekta R. Garg

Genre: Teens/YA memoir

Release date: August 27, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

In 1934 the world witnesses a medical miracle: the birth of a set of identical quintuplets who survive. The Dionne family welcome their daughters but soon learn the girls will be claimed by many people far from the small Canadian town they call home. Author Sarah Miller offers extensive research and sources for her chronicle of this fascinating, yet heartbreaking story in The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets.

Having birthed several children before May of 1934, Elzire Dionne is no stranger to the aches and pains associated with having a baby. She thinks her most recent pregnancy will proceed like the others, yet it doesn’t. When she goes into labor two months early, no one can predict that the early onset of symptoms means the coming of an incident unlike anything she has seen: she gives birth to quintuplets.

From the start, the Quints, as they come to be known, fight defy all expectations by living beyond the first hours and days of birth. No one, least of all their doctor, Dr. Dafoe, expects them to survive. Still, he and the nurses assigned to the care of Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie fulfill their obligation to do what they can to keep the babies alive—and to the astonishment of everyone involved in their care, the girls live.

Word spreads fast about the birth of the Quints, and newspaper readers across Canada and into the United States become fixated on the wellbeing of the girls. During the Depression years, most people struggle to find hope in their own lives. The survival of the quintuplets represents to them a wondrous occurrence: even in the bleakness of the world, an underdog has a chance.

Woefully unprepared for the immediate doubling of their household, the Dionne family do their best to help the new babies. Dr. Dafoe enlists the help of the media, and resources, including breast milk, diapers, and incubators, arrive in droves. So do the people who travel for hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to see the Quints.

Dr. Dafoe worries that someone will try to profit from the unusual birth and eventually convinces Elzire and her husband, Oliva, to allow the Canadian government to take custody of the babies. Despite deep misgivings, the parents agree. For the next nine years, the Quints live in a special hospital built just for them across the street from their birth home. There they receive the exclusive attention of Dr. Dafoe and the nurses who care for them, play with them, and discipline them. They also receive the attention of the thousands of tourists who come to see the girls riding their tricycles in their playground.

Oliva and Elzire object many times to the arrangement, but their voices are ignored for almost a decade. Through the years, the tussle between the Dionne family and the government continues as people near and far profit from Quint newspaper ads, product endorsements, and media opportunities. While Oliva and Elzire eventually win the right to bring the girls home, the discomfort continues. The quintuplets have only known life with the doctor, their nurses, and in the hospital. The relationships they attempt with their parents and other siblings in the following years are strained at best, but one thing that doesn’t change is their bond with one another.

Author Sarah Miller lays out the story of the quintuplets in a chronological format that is easy to follow. Young adult readers as well as adult readers will find themselves fascinated and horrified by turns at everything the Quints endured, including exploitation, abuse, and theft from the significant trust fund set up in their name when they were babies. Miller’s recounting of the experiences of Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie circle around one main theme: the tight bond the girls formed and their deep-seated desire to live as individuals in a world that saw them as one person.

Miller takes care to document her sources. If the book can be faulted anywhere, it’s in quoting the sisters as one. Ironically, the one thing the quintuplets wished for more than anything else—individuality—gets subverted by this collective quoting. Putting that aside, however, the book offers an intriguing look into a time and decade when a medical marvel captivated people and nations.

I recommend readers Bookmark The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets.