JANUARY 7, 2017
His dial was usually tuned to talk radio, one of the paranoid right wing jocks who in those days had already begun to screech nightly through the air like banshees on speed. The country was threatened from all sides. There were commies in Soviet Russia and commies in Red China and commies still in Old Europe. There were homosexuals stalking the nation’s budding manhood and women who wanted to fight alongside marines and blacks on welfare driving Cadillacs and Mexicans sneaking across the border and behind every bush there was an Iranian agent waiting to pounce. And if you walked onto a college campus, you got the whole lot, usually masquerading as a social science prof: a Mexican commie lesbian with an Iranian lover teaching your kids how to waste their lives on welfare.
I POSTED THAT QUOTE from Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s novel — Deep Singh Blue — on my Facebook page this past March. Sidhu’s novel is about a teen coming of age in a racist suburb of San Francisco during the 1980s. After sharing the quote, I commented that Sidhu — who is a Facebook friend of mine — had hit his target audience (i.e., me) with his tale of the anomie of a non-white kid of immigrants growing up in a bastion of white flight. Deep, the novel’s first-person narrator, is the child of Sikhs who left India for the United States for more opportunities, for a better life. As much as Deep provides a window into this particular set of ethnocultural circumstances, his story is an American story — an all-American story, in fact. As the ghastly rise of Donald Trump has demonstrated yet again, being an “American” — in vast swaths of these United States — is far less a matter of who you are than who you are not. An “American” is not black. Not of Mexican descent. Not lesbian. Not “a commie.” An “American” is negatively defined, a vacuum into which some vanilla fantasy of whiteness rushes to fill. If that is the case, who better to illustrate an all-American story, to portray this fundamental facet of what America is, than a character who is supposed to embody what America is not.
“Half of the kids in class claimed to have fathers in the local Klan, and for those who cared, the only question was whether I was a sand nigger or an uppity wetback,” says Deep, describing the high school he dropped out of so he could enroll in community college. “It wasn’t what I’d call the catch-all definition of a positive environment.” Deep must have inherited his penchant for understatement from his parents, as his father drags him and his brother Jag from one San Francisco suburb to another with nary a complaint about the unerring hostility in each of their new digs. As for Deep’s mother, she regards Jag’s obvious slide into a schizophrenia-like stupor with revisionist cheer. Jag hardly leaves his room and has barely uttered a word for more than a year because, she says, he is “busy at work on an important project.” It is no big deal that one of the few words Jag manages to whisper, after crouching up close to Deep’s face, is “Die.” (“I thought you’re going to college,” Deep’s mother tells him, “isn’t that what they teach, all the dead people and what they said?”) When Deep’s parents aren’t willfully oblivious to their agonistic surroundings or Jag’s mental illness, they either fantasize about their sons’ arranged marriages or erupt into theatrical rows, smashing dishes and all.
Among the few spaces that allow respite from his poisonous suburb and dysfunctional family is a local used bookstore. Although it stocks “mostly romances and Bibles,” Deep comes across a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics. He flips the book open to find the words “DIE JEW” scrawled across the title page. Nearby is a Nazi-inspired swastika, but drawn backward, thus depicting the auspicious ancient Hindu sign. Deep pulls out a pen and starts scratching out the obscenity. When another patron catches him in the act, Deep figures that he has to buy the book or risk censure from the store clerk. To his surprise, he finds himself absorbed in the text — a dense philosophical treatise, which proceeds from axioms to propositions in order to uncover the true nature of reality. His name, after all, is Deep. He is intrigued by Spinoza’s reasoning that the world as we know it operates in divine perfection, and that in order to realize this we must cease being reactive and reflect on our thoughts and emotions; we must continually reevaluate and thereby refine our consciousness. Spinoza, in other words, offers Deep a path, a way out of his frustration and into freedom.
Love offers Deep yet another pathway. And its object is Lily — a brash yet vulnerable woman he meets at the community college. They hang out after class, sometimes driving to nearby strip malls where they park and smoke and talk. (“‘I’m married,’ she said casually, proudly flashing her wedding ring.”) Over the course of these sojourns, Deep’s infatuation with Lily transforms into a feverish, passionate attachment. He comes to establish within himself “a nation of the heart. With Lily as its Queen.”
There is, however, a major obstacle in the path to freedom offered by love and/or philosophy — a stumbling block symbolized by the very slur that defaces Deep’s copy of Ethics. On the one hand, Deep’s immediate urge is to cross it out, obliterate the hateful message. On the other, he admits an affiliation with the swastika: “I found not just the evidence of a bigot’s mind,” Deep says, “but also something of myself staring back at me. It wasn’t the vandal’s rage, it certainly wasn’t against Jews or anyone specific, but at the world itself — a teenager’s unbidden anger erupting deep inside me.” Deep, then, is torn between the impulse to transcend the apparent limitations of his environment and to inhabit and act out the visceral rage it triggers.
Deep’s anger, moreover, does not discriminate. He readily answers to “Paki,” Lily’s pet name for him. Deep in turn calls Lily “Chink” — Lily had told him she was “half Chink, half cracker.” Adopting these monikers is not exactly a self-loving bid to appropriate and thereby redefine them. This is made clear when, with wicked glee, Lily intimidates a Chinese family driving in a car ahead of hers, tailgating and flashing the high beams, swerving to stay close behind the frightened travelers whenever they switch lanes. Throughout this escapade, Deep admits to feeling a thrill, agreeing that they should do the same to a “Paki” family next time. Paki and Chink, Deep thought, were “the cages we both lived in […] she was shining a light on the bars.”
It was Deep’s brother Jag who was listening to the right-wing talk radio referenced in my Facebook post. The ranting was always on, a permanent background noise in Jag’s bedroom. Deep watches Jag’s transformation from a curious, dreamy kid who would lie outside at night and stare up into the stars, into a prisoner of his own body, a detainee of a mind retreating into mania. “See the world, the world behind the world, the real one no one sees, or no one says they see,” Jag tells Deep before he stops talking. “Strip the mask away, the mask from the mask from the mask from the mask, a million times over, until there are no masks left.” There, Jag sounds like a little Spinoza, intuiting that consciousness is a series of Russian nesting dolls, with near infinite false exteriors that must be stripped away through self-reflexive deliberation. Deep’s brother, though, seems to have abandoned this instinct, and succumbed to the dread of perceiving himself as only being at the effect of external forces.
In this way, Jag’s predicament is analogous to that of many of Trump’s white supporters. Faced with, among other things, a rapidly changing economy that is increasingly automated and globalized, they have taken a reactive, fearful stance. Some of Trump’s supporters, striving to “Make America Great Again” through exclusion, harp on “foreign” enemies who must be rooted out in order to increase their own serving of the imperialist pie. As Toni Morrison said in a 1998 interview: “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” A utopia, of course is not reality, but an imagined place of perfection — a place that could actually be, and often is in fiction, a dystopian nightmare. The divine perfection interrogated by Spinoza, by contrast, is not realized by eliminating who or what one perceives as a threat to his or her particular paradise. It is, in a sense, already there — even if it must be uncovered through the ongoing reevaluation of one’s own thoughts and fears, and by gradually acting from a place of clearer reason rather than merely reacting from base (in Trump’s case, hateful) sentiments. Whiteness, then, is a mask, a false face that keeps those that cling to it from understanding the shifting sands in which they are willing to allow themselves — and now everyone else — to be buried.
Whiteness, moreover, is a raft to which folks of all “colors” try to cling. As Deep and Lily illustrate, the external, structural forces of racism are internalized, and often work inside the very people it viciously targets, or corroborate default defenses. Members of the Sikh community in the United States, for example, feel compelled to defend themselves against hate crimes by affirming that they are not Muslim. Mindlessly adhering to such defenses is like hiding behind a shooting target bearing another man’s image.
Still, acting on baser instincts is widely mistaken for confidence and principled conviction, celebrated for conveying bold decisiveness regardless of the decision. Indeed, Deep himself — who recalls being senselessly thrown against the hood of a police car and jumped by white thugs who called him a “dumbass wetback” — furiously resists Spinoza’s prescription for becoming free from his torment. “Was that how a young man was supposed to find a path through this world’s disorder? Through simple resignation?” Deep asks himself. “Calmly moderate his passions? Give me a fucking break.” Although these thoughts arose out of Deep’s love for a married woman, they exhibit the same kind of hair-trigger temperaments of xenophobic vigilantes, who will do what they want without giving a second thought to the casualties that mount in the wake of their tantrums.
Deep Singh Blue examines the question of whether Deep or Lily or Deep’s parents or Jag can free themselves from their cages of denial, anger, and despair. Writing with humor and beauty, Sidhu illustrates how Deep’s perception of his racist suburb adjusts to his imperfect yet progressive embrace of philosophy and love — and how he is gradually able to glimpse perfection amid his drab surroundings. Deep shifts from merely regarding “[a] sort of gray gray with flecks of brown and a sort of gray brown with flecks of gray” to noticing “[i]nside the spectrum of universal gray” that there are “whole dramas of colors jostling one another and knocking shoulders.” Perhaps that backward Nazi symbol is, for Deep, a lucky signpost, pointing to the way out of his so-called cage, if only he can adjust his vision to see it. There are no promises of happy endings here, only an acknowledgment of the introspective work an enormous number of people in this country have to do in order to see themselves as more than being “threatened from all sides.” Sidhu’s novel is required reading during this Trump-era nightmare from which we apparently cannot awake.