FEBRUARY 16, 2018
I MET Sara Saedi and Aditi Khorana in the summer of 2016 when Penguin grouped us together for a reading of our young adult novels in downtown Los Angeles. It’s hard to believe that was only a year and a half ago, because the United States is a different country today than it was that July. In one year, the Trump administration has made devastating changes to the country’s immigration policy. Between the Muslim ban, dismantling DACA, and ending the protected status for Salvadorans, it’s been heartbreaking to watch Trump’s racist, xenophobic ideas be put into practice. Which is why Sara’s and Aditi’s work, which deals both directly and indirectly with the immigrant experience, is more important now than ever.
Sara’s new book, Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card, is a memoir of growing up as undocumented immigrant in the Bay Area. Aditi’s first novel, Mirror in the Sky, approaches immigration and racism from a more dreamlike science-fiction perspective. The authors draw from their own experiences and recreate the compromises, impossibility, and fluidity of being an immigrant teen. Both books explore the contradictions embedded in every immigrant experience. There is the ever-present dream of what is lost when you leave your home country and the reality of what is gained by living in another. Reading these books, I kept thinking about how relatable the stories are partly because everyone feels like an outsider in high school. The longing for belonging is never more pronounced than it is during adolescence. Life is a series of choices and compromises, accidents and good fortune. And also of infatuations, popular kids, acne, celebrity worship, distorted self-image, and prom.
It takes a tremendous amount of strength to tune out the cruel rhetoric of President Trump, which is why if there is one message both of these authors want to impart to immigrant teens today, it is this: You Belong Here.
JULIANA ROMANO: First, can you tell us quickly where and when you were born, as well as when and why your family came to the United States?
SARA SAEDI: I was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1980. My family came to America in 1982. Like many Iranians, we left the country because of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War.
ADITI KHORANA: Yes! I was born in New Delhi, India, and came to the United States when I was three years old. I left the US for a few years and lived in Europe — my father worked for the UN and we were temporarily transferred there, and then I returned to the US toward the end of middle school.
Both Americanized and Mirror in the Sky take on the immigrant experience, racism, and xenophobia, but also stay totally grounded in the universal realities of being a teen, such as concerns about popularity, sex, drugs, and body image. Did you do that on purpose or was that just how the story evolved?
SS: That was intentional on my part. I drew a lot on my high school diaries for Americanized, and from my entries I was reminded that most of my insecurities as a teen revolved around my physical appearance and feeling less than the “cool kids.” It was important to me to show readers that immigrant kids struggle with all the same issues as the average American teenager. And yet, a lot of my hang-ups were experienced through the filter of being Iranian. As a culture, we are very concerned with keeping up appearances and whether or not I realized it at the time, those pressures magnified the parts I didn’t like about myself.
AK: I love writing about the immigrant experience, and much of my work addresses racism and xenophobia, but I’m always trying to find new ways to explore these topics. In Mirror in the Sky, the emphasis on the discovery of an alternate earth provided a construct with which I could discuss otherness and the idea that we narrativize our lives to cater to the gaze of others. I liked toggling between the larger cosmic story to the smaller story about being a teen until the two felt integrated. Most of my writing is just that — trying to bridge what feels like an impossible paradox when I start a novel.
Sara’s book is nonfiction, while Aditi’s novels include elements of the supernatural and mythical. Even though your approaches are different, you both write about very complicated and real experiences. Aditi, what do you like about using fiction to address emotional truths and political realities? And Sara, how did you find the experience of writing nonfiction?
SS: I really enjoyed the experience of writing nonfiction. Not only was it a trip down memory lane, but it also gave me the opportunity to fill in some of the gaps about my family history. I think it also allowed my writing to be more conversational, which was a nice change of pace from writing fiction. The challenge was to be authentic and honest, while not wanting to misrepresent anyone in my family or show them in an unflattering light. And also, there was always the voice in the back of my head that wondered if anyone cared about my story. You can’t embellish to make things more interesting!
AK: I worked for years as a journalist and a researcher and so I’m used to finding the story in data sets, interviews, other people’s stories and voices, but fiction is something else altogether. We don’t need fiction in the same way as we need news or research. It could be said that we don’t really need art (this is no doubt a popular sentiment of the Trump administration). But I would argue that fiction is an offering, a gift. It’s our subconscious fears, our drives and desires, our dreams, our poetry. It’s a mishmash, a collage of what we’ve experienced and heard and said and stolen and mulled over. That’s what I love about it.
When you were a teen, do you think you were more aware of being an immigrant than your peers were aware of you being one, or the opposite? What about today?
SS: I was lucky that I went to high school in the Silicon Valley, which had a large immigrant population. In fact, 60 percent of my high school was Asian, so technically Caucasians were the minority at my high school. My friends were very open-minded, but I was still aware of our differences. It wasn’t just the obvious things, like speaking another language or eating different foods. A lot of my non-immigrant friends had a carefree attitude that the rest of us were lacking. They weren’t as consumed by grades or their future or making their parents’ proud. Yes, I realize that I’m generalizing, but here’s an example: in college, I was a bit OCD about reading everything that was assigned in my courses. My friends used to make fun of me for being so anal, but I knew my parents were struggling financially to put me through school, and I was going to milk my education for all it was worth. My non-immigrant friends seemed less concerned with that fact. To be fair, that may have had something to do with the fact that they were on financial aid. I couldn’t apply for loans as an undocumented immigrant!
I probably notice the differences less today than I did as a teenager. That may be because I have a diverse group of friends that include first- and second-generation immigrants and native-born Americans. I will give one quick aside — I was hanging out with my book club and we were discussing some of our favorite TV shows (as you do when you’re in a book club). Those of us who are immigrants or raised by immigrants loved Master of None — the rest of the group was very “eh” on it. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. So there are still moments where you can see that a cultural divide does exist.
AK: There are parts of the world where I’m less conscious about being an immigrant or a person of color, but in the United States, I’m always somewhat aware of it. My high school years were fraught; I went to a predominantly white high school in suburban Connecticut and I hated everything about it. I hated the school. I hated most of my teachers. I hated a lot of the other students. I faced a lot of racism and didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. People pointed out my differences to me all the time. Till high school I had attended international schools where difference is celebrated, but this wasn’t the case (at least for me) in Greenwich, Connecticut. To this day, I look at the town I went to high school in with a great deal of disdain — it’s a wealthy, white, very educated town populated by an embarrassingly large number of Trump supporters. There is and was a deeply parochial vibe to the place, and I couldn’t wait to get the hell out. As an adult, I feel the need to speak out about the fact that I’m an immigrant. I want to share my experiences and I want other people of color and immigrants to feel that they are safe to do the same.
What is one thing about being an immigrant that you feel lucky to get to experience?
SS: On a more general level, I think being a minority from a different country has made me more empathetic and open-minded to other cultures. If I was going to be specific about being Iranian, I feel really grateful for the emphasis of family in our culture. The importance of having close connections with family members was ingrained in us since we were children. To this day, my cousins and siblings are some of my closest friends.
AK: There’s definitely a richness to the experience of being from somewhere else. I love so many aspects of Indian culture — the traditions and rituals, the sense of community. I love sharing these aspects of my culture with my friends and community in the United States. And, as Sara mentioned, being an immigrant does make you more empathetic and open-minded. But exposing oneself to different cultures does the same. I remember when George W. Bush came into office, there was a story about how he had limited foreign travel experience before he became president, and I thought, “Well, yeah, that explains a lot.”
What is one thing about being an immigrant that is harder than people realize?
SS: The constant balancing act can be difficult. Assimilating to one country, but not wanting to betray your roots in the process. And the guilt that goes along with it. Every time I speak Farsi and have to switch to English midway, I get angry with myself for not knowing how to speak my native language better. You sometimes feel like you’re living a double life.
AK: While I’ve lived with anti-immigrant rhetoric my whole life, the amplification of it in the past year has reminded me that as an immigrant, you’ve always got something to prove. This can ultimately be a valuable thing — I don’t doubt that I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever in large part because I’m an immigrant, but we live in a society where a large subsection of the population wants immigrants to fail, would rather we go away, and believe that this country would be better if we simply didn’t exist. So you find yourself in this absurd position of having to prove that you belong here, prove that what you have to contribute is of value. The irony is that we’re also sharing a country with white, male Republicans whose salaries we pay with our tax dollars and although their supposed mandate is to represent the people of this country, they contribute nothing of value, and are instead actively destroying the country with their greed and selfishness. The bar is very different when you’re an immigrant, and for that matter, a person of color. It’s like that Ta-Nehisi Coates quote, “To be President, [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds. Donald Trump had to be rich and white.”
What would you say to undocumented teens living in the United States today?
SS: You belong here. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It’s on the rest of us to get the right people in power to make sure undocumented teens (and their parents) get a path to citizenship.
AK: You belong here. You belong here. You belong here. You have not done anything wrong and neither have your parents. But we are living in a country that has not contended with its deeply racist and anti-immigrant legacy and you’ve been caught in the crosshairs of that ignorance and hatred. The president, his regime, and the Republican Party vilify you because they know you represent the best of what this country has to offer. They are aware that they represent nothing but greed, malice, stupidity, ignorance, white supremacy, and a deep-seated anxiety over the shifting demographics of this country. This is their very ugly last gasp for life.
Okay, this might be too hard. Or maybe it’s too easy, I don’t know. What makes someone an American? Other than the legal documents.
SS: That is a hard question! I’d like to think that being an American means embracing each other’s differences, showing genuine curiosity in other cultures, and supporting and marching alongside the disenfranchised. It’s frustrating that people who reject these notions are often the first to label themselves as “patriotic.” I think we need to redefine what it means to be patriotic. Right now, times feel bleak, but it’s been encouraging to see how some of us have united under the current political climate.
AK: There’s an interesting tension between the “idea” of what America is and the legacy that it’s actually built on. The very notion of a country of immigrants, coming together to create something new is beautiful and idealistic. And certainly, immigrants haven’t forgotten it. It’s what, in the past, brought so many brilliant minds to America’s shores. But we have to contend with the reality that this nation is built on genocide, slavery, and oppression of some of the weakest and most marginalized groups.
And lastly … the ’90s! If you could choose one cultural phenomenon from the ’90s that you think would enrich a teen’s life today and that they should immediately Google, be it movie, music, clothing style, or boy band, what would it be?
SS: My So-Called Life.
AK: My So-Called Life.