A³ (Asian American Authors) Spotlight is a writer interview series created by TMD’s Michigan in Color and Arts sections to spotlight and celebrate Asian American authors. The goal of this series is to feature artists whose content diversifies the landscape of Asian diasporic literature.
At the beginning of our phone call, Jyotsna Sreenivasan and I agree that had we met in person, we would be drinking herbal tea together. Sreenivasan — an author, English teacher and University of Michigan alum — is easygoing and lights up when we talk about books — perhaps a symptom of her passion for teaching. The author’s voice is soft but strong; it’s hard to feel nervous in her friendly presence. In her collection of short stories released this past May, “These Americans,” Sreenivasan explores the gap between immigrant parents and their second-generation children in her latest book. (Second-generation Americans in the book are defined as native-born with at least one immigrant parent.) The author sat down with The Daily to speak about “These Americans,” teaching English and being second-generation.
Sreenivasan’s book “These Americans” is a collection of seven short stories and a novella , all of which feature second-gen Indian Americans grappling with what it means to live within, between and beyond two cultures. Favorites of mine include “The Sweater,” in which college-aged Nandini learns how to knit sweaters while dealing with the all-encompassing pressure from her parents to succeed academically and attend business school; “Mrs. Raghavendra’s Daughter,” in which Mrs. Raghavendra simultaneously grapples with her grown daughter’s sexuality and her husband’s death; and “Hawk,” the novella, in which recently-divorced Manisha tries her hand at teaching at a private school in the face of what initially appears to be innocent cultural misunderstandings.
The book — which often focuses on parent-child relationships — explores what it means to be a parent when cultural expectations of love (familial, romantic, friendly) don’t fully translate between generations. Sreenivasan paints ephemeral scenes filled with the weight of miscommunication; yet, despite occasional frustration at the characters, this book makes my eyes water and evokes memories of the worries my mother tried her hardest to hide from me. The love with which she writes about Indian parents makes me want to call my mom and read to her about Revati’s heartbreaking friendships lost with age in “Crystal Vase: Snapshots,” or the overwhelmed narrator in “Perfect Sunday,” searching in Idaho for jobs that make ends meet while taking care of her kids.
I’m curious about Sreenivasan about her attitude towards portraying Indian American families. She laughs, “Well, first you have to live through it, right?” She ponders for a second, “I think as a younger person, you’re only thinking of your point of view, right?” For Sreenivasan, understanding the perspective of an immigrant parent took time. A few years ago, Sreenivasan wrote a story about an immigrant father frustrated with his teenage daughter. After immersing herself in a different perspective within her work, she began to realize “how much love there was behind all of those strict rules.”
As she became a mother, her perspective changed even more. “Once I had a baby,” she says, “I realized how hard it was to be a parent … My parents were trying to do the best they could, and they didn’t have a lot of Indian role models for raising a kid in a different country.” Parenthood prompted Sreenivasan to ask herself, “What’s it like from (my parents’) point of view?”
“(The answer) seems to strike people in their hearts,” Sreenivasan says, which is a bit of an understatement. Every time I read the author’s perspective of a parent frustrated with their child, whether it’s Mrs. Raghavendra fighting with herself to accept her daughter, or Prema determined that her daughter will have a better life, I feel punched in the gut by the overwhelming intensity of the “parental” perspective I normally butt heads with. The author is intentional with her endings — Sreenivasan’s short stories are distinct; instead of telling an entire story, she creates vivid snapshots of families left without any sense of firm resolution that readers might be used to. At first, I found the endings puzzling, but as I continued reading the increasingly elaborate stories, I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
Each of Sreenivasan’s short stories arose independently of each other. Sreenivasan had published many stories over the past two decades, but she only considered putting them in a collection within the last few years. The author played around with the order of her stories, taking inspiration from a collection by another second-generation author: Julia Alvarez’s “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent.” Ultimately, she decided to arrange her stories in ascending order of the age of the second-generation subject, indicating a sense of cultural growth with age — fitting, considering how central the theme of being second-generation is to her works and, most importantly, her life.
For as long as she can remember, Sreenivasan has felt “pulled in different directions” as a child of Indian immigrants. “I thought that was just me,” she confesses, as someone who grew up in the ’70s in Kent, a city in northeastern Ohio. “I didn’t realize that this was a very common second-generation experience.” On growing up in Kent, the “sweetest town,” the author recalls, “I was basically the diversity of the school.” When she was five, she moved with her family to India, and back to the U.S. at the age of seven (just like the protagonist of her story “At Home”).
Coming back to a predominantly white space in Kent, where she was often singled out for her identity, she became uncomfortable in her skin. Sreenivasan recalls that during social studies classes, kids would often turn around and stare at her when the topic was India. In middle and high school, Sreenivasan slowly gained confidence in embracing her heritage, deciding to wear batik blouses and gold hoop earrings to school. Still, she felt like she was on shaky ground with her heritage, until she read “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts” by Maxine Hong Kingston — a fictional memoir about growing up Chinese American in California — when she attended the University of Michigan. Upon reading Kingston’s book in grad school, Sreenivasan felt enlightened: “I was like, oh my God, I have experienced these same experiences. I had no idea what my parents were talking about, or what they expected of me.”
Sreenivasan was fascinated by her personal connection to Kingston, and began reading more literature by second-gen authors, like “Farewell to Manzanar” by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and My Antonia by Willa Cather. Now, she regularly updates her website, “Second Generation Stories,” featuring book lists and reviews by children of American immigrants. She tells The Daily, “You know, America is a country of immigrants. When does the ‘becoming American’ part happen?” She doesn’t want to speak for everybody, but believes that the first generation, with regards to their culture, largely considers themselves to be Indian while the identification with American identity happens in the second generation.
Sreenivasan’s journey is stirring to learn about, as someone who has gone through parallel experiences, albeit separated by a couple of generations. Being a South-Indian American from the Midwest who moved to India when I was eight and moved back a few years later, I feel an almost eerie sense of understanding. Her love for literature and time spent at the University of Michigan make our similarities stronger. It’s funny to think that Sreenivasan once rushed through the Diag in between classes, the same way I do most mornings.
Sreenivasan makes sure to stress that it’s been a couple of decades since she was a grad student at the University, but she still holds fond memories of the place (apart from the weather). Sharing memories of Zingerman’s and the People’s Food Co-op, Sreenivasan and I laugh about one of her old Michigan Daily front-page articles. In the ’80s, Sreenivasan was a graduate student in the English department with a fellowship to get her doctorate, but left after receiving her master’s degree. Of her Michigan education, the author mentions that, at the time, “it was very much the white male dead authors,” which left Sreenivasan wondering: “Why am I studying these people that a zillion other people have written about?” Although she was offered a merit fellowship for minorities, Sreenivasan felt alienated within her graduate program, mentioning she didn’t feel like she had a place there.
When the author finished her master’s degree, she moved to D.C. but was unsatisfied with the repetitive nature of her office jobs at nonprofits writing similar articles and newsletters. After having kids, Sreenivasan tried her hand at teaching community and after-school classes — and she loved it. Now, Sreenivasan has been a teacher for nine years and is never bored, telling me it’s a “different adventure every year.” While she mentions that it can be challenging, she loves being a middle and high school teacher at a smaller school where kids on the autism spectrum and their neurotypical peers learn side-by-side.
She tries her best to keep her writing and teaching lives separate: “The other day, one of my students googled me. ‘Ms. Jo, you’ve written a lot of books!’ … It’s just awkward.” Sreenivasan is torn when I ask her what her favorite book to teach is. The answer is that it changes, according to the student — some include the graphic novel “El Deafo,” as well as Shakespeare (for her high schoolers). Ultimately, Sreenivasan loves seeing them excited about literature.
“Hawk,” the earnest novella from Sreenivasan’s collection, is about a teacher at a private school, Manisha, who juggles teaching, parenting, divorce and keeping on good terms with her own mother, Bhagya. Sreenivasan manages to create a snapshot that feels so real it hurts: the most compelling dynamic featured in “Hawk” is between Manisha and Bhagya, who is trying to write a book. Over lunch, Bhagya struggles to communicate her feelings of love and regret over Manisha’s difficult upbringing to her daughter. Then, she goes home, and writes, “Dear Manisha, You asked if I am writing this for you, and I realized the answer is yes. I am writing this for you.”
Ultimately, Sreenivasan has closed the gap between herself and her ancestry in her own life; she feels closer to her heritage than ever. As a South Indian, Kannadiga woman, the author loves to read translations of Indian women writers who write in their vernacular, naming “Women Writing in India,” published by the Feminist Press in the ’90s, as an example. She finds authenticity in their offering a window into Indian cultures in a way that writing in English can’t seem to capture. She says, “I want to write in a way that Indian Americans can say, yeah, I recognize myself in that story,” especially since she feels alienated when reading literature written “for what a western audience expects Indians to be like.”
Her sentiments ring similar to another A3 Spotlight interviewee, Sanjena Sathian, who has written a well-known article on Lahirism (the literary phenomenon in which Jhumpa Lahiri is held up as the unreachable standard of diasporic fiction, catering to the white gaze). Upon mentioning Sathian’s article, Sreenivasan lights up. She describes feeling vindicated when reading the article (“Someone else is seeing this too!”). But Sreenivasan, a fan of Lahiri’s “In Other Words,” has a slightly more forgiving approach: “I understand what Sathian was saying, but I also admire Lahiri for trying to find her own voice in this glare of publicity that she didn’t ask for.”
Speaking of unwanted publicity, I ask Sreenivasan what her experience has been like as an artist within the Indian American community. She begins, “I think I’ve always been fascinated by the written word. I loved books, I loved for my parents to read to me or tell me stories.” For her undergraduate years, Sreenivasan studied English at Kent State University, and she refers to her major choice as a partly “passive-aggressive” response to her father trying to force her into medical school. At the time, her “aunties and uncles” were worried. She laughs, saying she “kind of enjoyed being the person who wasn’t doing what she was supposed to do.” She still encounters surprise from Indian Americans when talking about her career path, but the surprise is often followed by comments of how happy Sreenivasan appears to be with her chosen vocation.
Finally, I ask Sreenivasan what advice she has for Asian American writers, after writing stories herself for the past 15 years. Sreenivasan ponders for a bit. “Give yourself time to develop as an artist,” she decides.
Sreenivasan adds she’s never been through an MFA program. The MFA writing programs she saw in the ’80s after leaving graduate school “weren’t speaking” to her, and she was unsure whether the programs would help her find her voice. “It takes time — when you’re in the MFA program, you’re usually young, and you’re expected to churn out a bunch of stories and have a book in two or three years.” Sreenivasan urges people to immerse themselves in environments where they feel free to express themselves creatively. For some people, that might include an MFA program; for others, though, academia is an environment that might be too stifling for creative practice. Either way, Sreenivasan advises: “Give yourself the time and space to figure out who you are as an artist, what your voice is.”
Daily Arts Writer Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.