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.


Brand new review: The Border by Steve Schafer

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

December 20, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: September 5, 2017

Rated: Binge it!

Four teens in Northern Mexico run for their lives when a drug cartel targets them. The teens decide to cross the border into the United States and learn firsthand of the excruciating hardships undertaken by those who follow the same path. Author Steve Schafer does a brilliant job of making the excoriating desert heat a reality in his realistic, heartbreaking novel The Border.

Cousins and best friends Pato and Arbo can’t wait for the start of Arbo’s sister’s quinceañera. A quince, as it’s known for short, always means great food and a family celebration. Life may be hard in their small town in Northern Mexico there on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, but Pato and Arbo have no complaints. Their fathers, brothers, share a construction business and always talk about bringing the boys into it one day. Now that they’re both 16, Pato can practically see himself and Arbo working side by side in the family business.

For now, though, the boys get ready to enjoy Carmen’s quince. Invited to the party, among others, is Marcos, a year older than Pato and Arbo and soccer superstar. Marcos oozes confidence, on the field as well as with girls. His little sister, Gladys, also tags along to the party, and Pato has always noticed her. She stands out from all the other girls because of a quiet dignity that she possesses and that Pato appreciates.

At Carmen’s quinceañera, the four teens sneak behind the house to smoke a cigarette. As they talk, they hear gunshots, which have come from Arbo’s home. The targets? Everyone at the party, particularly Pato and Arbo’s fathers. In a burst of bravery, Marcos runs into the home and manages to shoot one of the killers before the four teens run.

The small act of revenge brings on life-changing consequences. After seeking help from an unlikely friend, the teens find out that the people who attacked their families weren’t just run-of-the-mill mercenaries. They were members of the drug cartel La Frontera, Spanish for The Border, and they had serious problems with Pato and Arbo’s fathers. Since Marcos killed one of the gang members, La Frontera now wants to find Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys and execute them as well.

They’ve lost their entire families, and now they must face the reality of giving up the only home they’ve ever known. But what other choice do they have? If they stay in Mexico, no matter where they go, La Frontera will find them. Leaving means crossing the other border, the one that leads them north to the U.S. and a life full of uncertainty. Eventually, they opt for the latter. A life of uncertainty at least means they’re alive. But they’ll have to conquer the desert before they can think of living again.

Author Steve Schafer explains in an author’s note about the extensive research he did for the story, and the novel is all the better for it. He builds well rounded characters in the four teens, and while Pato leads the way as the point-of-view character readers will feel like they know all four of the travelers by the end.

In addition to the people, however, Schafer allows the desert to become a fifth protagonist in the book, and, really, the desert turns into the story’s linchpin. It becomes just as crucial for Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys to get along with desert conditions as it is for them to accommodate one another. At some point, in fact, the drug cartel turns into a distant second to their worries about how to survive crossing the Sonoran.

Schafer doesn’t hold back on all the other story points, which results in a richly layered novel. From the initial attack at the quinceañera to the grief the teens experience at losing their families and the entire experience of securing a coyote to take them across the desert, Schafer draws readers into the story and will keep them turning pages with the most intimate details. The book’s authenticity, thanks to the sound research, makes it feel almost like a memoir.

While Schafer may have intended the book for the YA audience, adult readers will certainly enjoy and benefit from reading this story. It could offer a necessary component to the larger conversation today on immigration, its necessity, and its challenges. I recommend all readers Binge The Border by Steve Schafer.