Elevate Difference

You Have Given Me a Country

At the beginning of You Have Given Me a Country, author Neela Vaswani writes, “What follows is real, and imagined.” Thus begins Vaswani's memoir, a dreamy collection of reflections on her family's multiracial, multinational history.

Ashok Vaswani, Neela's father, was born in Sindh (now a province of Pakistan) before the cataclysm of Partition. As a toddler, Ashok fled with his family to the new state of India, where his father found a job as a traveling railroad physician. Later, Ashok traveled to the US to practice medicine and to leave behind a tense postwar economy and a family that had fractured under the pressure of exile. “To my father, nationality was fickle, unreliable,” writes Neela. “My father said, 'Homeland is in the body,' and 'Land is in the blood.'”

Neela's mother, Sheila Vaswani (nee Kent), was born an Irish Catholic American to a family that could beat up and then forgive an uncle who had molested another relative, but that could never accept a gay cousin. Sheila remained a lifelong Catholic, sitting stone-faced at church with her mixed-race daughter, forevermore denied the privilege of communion for having married outside her faith. It was Sheila who castigated Neela's father's colleagues for calling him Frank: “It's not hard. Ashok. Rhymes with Coke.”

The book is told in a loosely chronological series of vignettes and family stories. On the whole, You Have Given Me a Country is told through Neela's eyes, but it is not Neela's story. Although we learn the journeys, prides, and sorrows of Ashok and Sheila, we catch only glimpses of Neela: a nosebleed here, a day in preschool there, and then, at the end, the preparations for her wedding, to a man whom we never really meet. What we do learn about Neela, though, is that she has consistently watched and loved each of her parents, seeing the complexity, the isolation, the miracle of their lives together, creating one tiny space where, as Neela writes, “difference was a way of life. A constant negotiation of respect, ignorance, new understanding... What was not accepted by society was real and lived by me and mine. Love, the great border crosser. No passport required.”

By deliberately framing her story as a “mixed-genre memoir” (which is to say a lived history, but one that refuses to claim perfect allegiance to fact), Vaswani makes a contribution to the contemporary debate about trauma, memory, and narrative. By refusing to promise truth, Vaswani protects her story against anyone, be it relative or critic, who would wish to discredit its accuracy. At the same time, she carves out space to tell as much truth as she wants while still protecting her family's privacy; readers are bound to remember that each story she tells could be a fabrication, after all. (It should be noted that Vaswani is not the first author to take this approach: Audre Lorde's “biomythography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name comes to mind.)

Critics sometimes have a point when they complain about the accuracy or objectivity of memoirs. However, sometimes these complaints are merely cleverly—and perhaps unconsciously—disguised ruses to silence marginalized stories that are, at best, uncomfortable, and at worst, incriminating. By sidestepping the demand to portray herself as an objective witness, Vaswani shrewdly protects her own story against such attempts to discredit it. Simultaneously, she subtly makes the point that when it comes to narrative, validity and significance stem from something more complicated than mere literal truth.

Vaswani's prose is spare and vivid and her characters richly human. In this series of carefully chosen, effortlessly linked memories, she tells the histories, the romances, and the tragedies of her own family's dance with diaspora, exile, homeland, immigration, identity, and dignity.

Written by: Ri J. Turner, October 20th 2010