by Patrick Haas
Published by Sarabande Books, 2010 | 256 pages
Neela Vaswani’s second book, You Have Given Me A Country, is a collage of memoir, history, and fiction which investigates the already complex and problematic nature of defining nationality. Thematically linked to other authors such as James McBride and Mira Kamdar, Vaswani’s Country weaves readers in and out of several different cultures, seeking an understanding of what it means to be a citizen of anywhere.
One of her opening sentences, “I pledge allegiance to the in-between” serves as a declaration for the 191 pages that follow. She opens with biographical timelines of her parents and their unlikely courtship. Unlikely because her father is Sindhi and from Bombay, and her mother is Irish-Catholic and from Hicksville, Long Island. Vaswani’s multiracial lineage serves as a springboard for Vaswani to delve deeper into the liberating nature of difference.
In You Have Given Me A Country the blur of existing in the “in-between” becomes a startling, lyric mediation that transcends the insufficient categories of genre and identity. As she says on page 64, “We had no here. Only there. And there. And there.”Like Vaswani’s struggle to articulate her “place” in society, her memoir is built on a collage of personal and historical anecdotes. These include the first recorded interracial marriage in North America (Pocahontas and John Rolfe), the first documented Indian immigrant who arrived in the United States, and Vaswani’s own childhood vacation to the Grand Canyon, where she was first told mules are a cross between donkeys and horses, and later overheard a ranger calling her a “mulatto.” “Suddenly, I understood the root of the word. Suddenly, I loved mules,” she writes. So her book continues, not seeking answers, but questioning instead at an increasing pitch how human beings can belong anywhere at all.
Identity, for Vaswani, is a constant metaphor, in which gender, race, religion, sexuality – in short, all of diversity – never arrive but instead remains in motion, and it is only in this motion that identities come into focus. Identity is tied to how we think, and thinking is intricately tied to language. In the most intriguing sections of Country, Vaswani makes brief attempts at discussing the insufficiency of language to capture its referent. On page 125, Vaswani writes, “Girl, tooth, run, small, American. There is more than one way to do and be everything. But just one word for each. To change our ways of thinking about category we would have to fundamentally change language and how it functions…When I try to think of a way around it, the only thing that comes to mind is a blur of screaming.”
Vaswani’s narrative is constantly and pleasantly interrupted with such reflections. Along with pictures of her family and biographies of her parents, she includes short sections about her grandparents, aunts, uncles, her childhood and eventual marriage in India. She poetically intertwines the nature of biracial identity with place, as if the borders that separate individuals are also the place where individuals are united. Ultimately, Vaswani turns to beauty and love as the powers that transcend category. “Beauty comes from juxtaposition,” she writes. “There is no such thing as too different. There is only an unwillingness to love enough.” It’s this idea of juxtapositions sewn together with histories and experiences that challenge the limitations of language and identity to which we’re all intrinsically tied. Its this that holds this beautiful account of personal identity together, too.
Udall teaches in the MFA program at Boise State.The Lonely Polygamist is his second novel. His first book, a collection of stories titled Letting Loose the Hounds, was published in 1998. In 2001 he published his bestseller The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint.