Bharati Mukherjee, an award-winning novelist and writer, calls America “a stage for transformation” — not only for herself, but also for her fellow immigrants.
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BHARATI MUKHERJEE: We have come not to passively accommodate ourselves to someone else’s dream of what we should be. We’ve come to America in a way to take over, to help build a new culture. So we’re pioneers with the same guts and energy and feistiness that the original American pilgrims had.
BILL MOYERS: Bharati Mukherjee talks about the new conquest of America on A World of Ideas. I’m Bill Moyers.
Bharati Mukherjee writes vivid, sensual and troubling stories about America’s newest immigrants, Asians like herself. She is from India, a child of wealthy parents who gave up her privilege when she married a struggling American writer and became a novelist herself. Her first two novels, The Tiger’s Daughter and Wife, speak from her old world. With her ear for American popular culture, her tales of the immigrant experience shape a new world in her books of short stories, Darkness, published in 1985, and The Middleman, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988. With her husband Clark Blaise, Mukherjee has written two books of nonfiction, including The Sorrow and the Terror. They explore Canadian immigration policies by looking at the tragedy of an Air India flight blown to bits in the sky. Her most recent novel, Jasmine, tells of a young Punjabi woman’s heroic journey through America. Like Mukherjee, she is claiming the country for her own.
BILL MOYERS: You once said that your life has been a long process of searching for a home, and I’m wondering, have you found it yet?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Oh yes, absolutely. I knew the moment that I landed as a student in 1961 at the Writers Workshop in the University of Iowa that this is where I belonged. It was an instant kind of love and feeling of at-one-meant. But for me America’s an idea. You know, I’m not talking about an economic or military industrial complex and I’m not talking about foreign policy. America is a stage for transformation, and I felt when I came to Iowa City, Iowa from Calcutta that suddenly I could be a new person. I didn’t have to be the daughter of a very upper class patriarch, a daughter who was guarded every moment of her life by bodyguards and so on. Now, thinking back on it, I realize that I was looking for more out of life, that I never really intended to go back to that very circumscribed, safe life that my parents had promised. They did find, while I was a student living in a dorm in Iowa City, Iowa, my parents did find for me the perfect Bengali groom.
BILL MOYERS: An arranged marriage?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: An arranged marriage. And I didn’t know the first name of this man, and he had seen my photograph and he had said, “Terrific, I’ll take her.” And I was expected certainly to do what girls of my class normally did, be happy in an arranged…be content, anyway, in an arranged marriage. But deep down I must have rejected that safe circumscribed life. So fate sometimes is full of happy accidents and I fell in love with a fellow student, Clark Blaise, and after a two-week whirlwind courtship, we got married during our lunchtime and I made my life therefore in this country.
BILL MOYERS: And he was a struggling writer like yourself.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Neither one of you had independent resources.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: No, it’s only in the last year that we haven’t had to worry every 3:00 in the morning about money.
BILL MOYERS: You really did, you really did get that dire?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. Yes, absolutely. I mean worrying about will I have enough money to put both orange juice and milk on the table for my children. I wish I hadn’t had to spend so much time worrying about how to pay the bills and that I could have devoted some of that energy to writing all the novels that are in my head. I’ve done seven books to date. I might have been able to do fourteen instead if I had been free of that.
BILL MOYERS: That too is part of the American romance, the American story, that you come up from the bottom against all the odds, poverty, race, whatever, and make it in this country. That’s part of the myth, isn’t it?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I think what America offers me is romanticism and hope. And I’m coming out of a continent of cynicism and irony and despair in many ways, a traditional society where you are what you are according to the family that you were born into, the caste, the class, the gender, and suddenly I find myself in a country where merit counts…theoretically anyway, merit counts, where I can choose to discard that part of my history that I want and invent a whole new history for myself. In doing that, we of course very painfully, sometimes very violently, murder our old selves and that’s an unfortunate, perhaps, but inevitable process. I want to think that it’s a freeing process. In spite of the pain, in spite of the violence, in spite of the bruising of the old self, to have that freedom to make mistakes, to choose a whole new history for oneself is exciting.
BILL MOYERS: That’s what Americans have been doing for 200 years, isn’t it, inventing, often romantically an identity, a sense of themselves.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Well, you see, America as romanticism is what appeals to me.
BILL MOYERS: And by romanticism you mean?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: That ability to dream, capacity to dream and then try to pull it off if you can. I think that the traditional societies in which people like me were born really do not allow the individual that dream. Dream big.
BILL MOYERS: Dream big?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And that’s part of America to you?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes, yes.
BILL MOYERS: I know it is to Jasmine, the character in your new novel. She has big dreams. She leaves Florida and comes to New York, leaves New York, goes to Iowa, and then leaves for California dreaming big dreams. Greedy with dreams, I think the phrase is.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: And reckless with hope.
BILL MOYERS: Reckless with hope, that’s right.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Well, what’s also exciting for me about America is that my soul is always at risk here. The immigrant soul is always at risk.
BILL MOYERS: In what sense?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: There are no comforting stereotypes to fit into. I have to make up the rules as I go along because no one really has experienced what the non-white, non-European immigrants are going through in the States. So we can’t count on wisdom and experience of the past in the old country and we can’t quite fit in to the traditional Eurocentric experiences of Americans. So it’s a matter of really negotiating between rules or improvising rules.
BILL MOYERS: The dominant culture tends to set the rules but they’re often set aside by the culture that makes the rules and so that leaves you with no guideline.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: What I like to think, Bill, is that you and I are both now without rules because of the large influx of non-Europeans in the 1970s and 1980s and more to come in the 1990s, that it’s not a melting pot situation anymore. And I don’t like to use the phrase melting pot if I can help it because of the nineteenth century associations with mimicry, that one was expected to scrub down one’s cultural eccentricities and remake oneself in the Anglo Saxon image. If I can replace a melting pot with a phrase like fusion vat…
BILL MOYERS: A fusion vat?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Or fusion chamber, in which you and I are both changed radically by the presence of new immigrants, I would be much happier. So that you are having to change your rules, I like to think and I’m certainly having to change my old world rules. And so we are going through lives that are larger than real in many ways, we new immigrants, and we’re coming with such a hunger to find new meanings. We’re coming with so much energy and curiosity in order to make new lives for ourselves that to me those are big stories to tell, very dense lives to chronicle. In a way, I used to be disappointed with the kind of fiction that was popular, let’s say, with magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic, where the suburban lives, miniaturized lives, neat lives, small crises were constantly being recorded as opposed to the raw, raucous, messy lives that we non-whites were leading during the same decade. So there is no formal language that American fiction makes available to me to write of the—or no formal structure that American novelists make available to me to write of the people and the speedy lives that I and my characters go through.
BILL MOYERS: What do you hear Americans saying now?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Compress. I want to squeeze into a short novel the story of America, of one kind of America.
BILL MOYERS: And one of the most fascinating chapters in that story is coming now in the 1990s, as literally the face of America’s being changed by people who bring new ideas and are changed by the ideas that are here. That story is changing even as we sit here, isn’t it?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes, I think that we are creating American culture daily, that it is not something that’s static, but through our art and through the dangerous lives, improvised lives that we have to lead, we are creating a new American culture.
BILL MOYERS: Dangerous lives?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Well, there are no comforts, no old mythologies to cling to. We have to invent new American mythologies. Letting go of the old notions of what America was shouldn’t be seen as a loss. I hope that as we all mongrelize, or as we all fuse, that we will build a better and more hopeful nation.
BILL MOYERS: One reviewer said that clearly Bharati Mukherjee is saying that the American is the one who goes for it.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: What I’ve tried to show in Jasmine, two-thirds of which is set in the heart of the heartland in Iowa, is that for one group, the Lutheran heirs, let us say, the traditional heirs to the American dream, the farmers and bankers, the American dream is turning into a nightmare. Children no longer expect to lead a life better than the parents, and some in the heartland are going crazy. And for another group, like the Jasmines or the Vietnamese adopted teenage boy, Du, in the novel, America is full of possibilities. We are reinventing the idea of America in ways that perhaps the mainstream no longer does.
BILL MOYERS: And both of them, Jasmine and her adopted son, confess to one another that each has been involved in a murder, in murdering somebody, and it seems so matter-of-factly to them as part of that…
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Dislocation.
BILL MOYERS: Yes. The toll you pay to get somewhere else.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Exactly, that to be an American has required, for those of us who have come in the last two decades, quite often enormous psychological-social dislocations, and some of us are happy to pay that price.
BILL MOYERS: Have you experienced any racism here?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Not in the United States, not personally, no.
BILL MOYERS: Where have you experienced it?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: In Canada. And I think that…
BILL MOYERS: You moved to Canada after you came here in 1961, didn’t you? You stayed a few years and then went to Canada?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: My husband and I, when Clark and I were looking for our first jobs after our degrees from the University of Iowa, we looked only in Montreal and went there in 1966, and in the beginning Montreal was a perfect city for a biracial, bicultural, multilingual couple like us. And then by the early 1970s, 1973 especially, I’m afraid racism reared its ferocious head, and by 1980 I felt that not only was racism institutional there but had gotten by 1977-78 particularly physically virulent and…
BILL MOYERS: Did you experience it physically? Was there violence against…
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes, absolutely. I mean I don’t want to go through a litany of harassments, but being spat on or being thrown to the back of the bus or being ejected from the lobby of a fancy hotel, being called a whore. These were not just my personal experiences but they were every South Asian Canadian’s experience during the 1970s. And I blame some of that on the mosaic theory of absorbing immigrants.
BILL MOYERS: That culture is of a variety of pieces that are placed together side by side; they don’t blend or fuse into each other.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: A mosaic, exactly, where the government and the national mythology encourages the newcomer to hang on to old world cultures, old world psyches. And I know that the intention is good, or was good, but the consequence on the non-Anglo immigrants is to marginalize them.
BILL MOYERS: Even though you have not yourself experienced racism in the United States, I’m sure you know that many Asians have, that they do all the time. I can give you chapter and verse in south Texas of the Vietnamese who have experienced that. Here in New York, in Florida…
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: And in New Jersey. I mean we had three incidents of South Asian Americans being assaulted, one fatally. Of course there’s going to be an increasing…there’s going to be an increase in inter-minority violence in the 1990s, I’m afraid.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I think because there’s a kind of disinvestment in America in the 1980s and might continue to be in the 1990s.
BILL MOYERS: A disinvestment?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes, that people have not invested in the country. There’s been a what part of the pie is for me kind of an attitude, privatization, instead of saying what kind of an America do we want, what kind of America can we build? As a result, I think that we are seeing large numbers of disenchanted minority groups who watch new Asians, let us say new immigrants from Asia come in, work hard, and in their perception, do rather well, hold down jobs, move into good homes, buy big cars, and there’s a real resentment against the Asians. There’s that kind of climate of scapegoating and we must do whatever is necessary as a nation, as a whole country to try and prevent that scapegoating.
BILL MOYERS: Your characters certainly experience some racism. I mean and it’s Jasmine I believe who recognizes in America an infinite possibility for evil. Small wonder, since no sooner has she arrived that she’s treated to a rape and is involved in a murder. But yet she never comes across as a victim in her own mind.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Right. I think that all American writers, even those who are offering messages of hope and possibility, must be very clear eyed about the evil or possibilities, potential for evil that exists. And I hope that the stories in The Middleman and Other Stories or Jasmine present a full picture, a complicated picture of America, but you learn…I like to think that I as well as my characters constantly fight evil. We don’t retreat from battle and we don’t like to be flattened altogether.
BILL MOYERS: Jasmine certainly doesn’t. I mean she fights back…in ways I won’t disclose, but are quite intriguing…sometimes dealing an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I don’t sense that you’ve done that except through your stories.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Have I murdered someone, have I blackmailed, did I come as an illegal alien? No, I didn’t.
BILL MOYERS: Vicariously.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: But I think that we must…we, the new pioneers, who are thinking of America as still a frontier country do have a kind of ambiguous morality, that we are improvising morality as we go along. And so Jasmine, who does murder, who does blackmail, is however true to herself and has integrity in the course of her adventures. So I want to think that my work has a moral center, you know, that there is a very deep sense of right and wrong located inside the novel, but it does not have to be conventional or Judeo-Christian morality necessarily. I think that the original American pioneers had to have been in many ways hustlers and capable of a great deal of violence in order to wrest the country from the original inhabitants and to make a new life, new country for themselves. So that vigor of possessing the land I like to think my characters have.
BILL MOYERS: Well certainly one of them…there’s one of my favorites, Danny, who’s this sort of hustler who lives in Queens who arranges marriages for Indian men and Indian women who are living in this country and then goes on beyond that. He certainly has that conniving wit that you read about in a lot of the frontier stories of Americans.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Right. And I feel that many of these characters are also Conradian in the ambiguous morality and their need for risky adventures.
BILL MOYERS: Need for it?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes, that they have some psychological…some call from the unconscious that forces them to undertake these journeys outside their prescribed little petty worlds, villages, and it gets them often in trouble…it certainly gets Jasmine in trouble…but that there’s a morality and a purification involved in that.
BILL MOYERS: You say there’s a Conradian element in this, but Conrad was exploring the heart of darkness.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I am exploring the heart of light instead, and where a Conradian character might say, “The horror, the horror,” I am saying, “The wonder, the wonder.” And light is full trickiness too. Light can daze, light can blind, but it’s coming in from the outside into the lighted interior and having to open one’s eyes wide.
BILL MOYERS: To the interior of oneself?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Interior of oneself, plus coming into the first world from somewhere else.
BILL MOYERS: The first world?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: From the Conradian out there.
BILL MOYERS: Yes. Are we creating a new first world here?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Or perhaps in cities like New York we might say we are creating a neo-third world. These terminologies, first world and third world, are politically incorrect I realize, and we’re using them only as a shorthand.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. Yes, it is not first world in the sense of the 1950s let us say, when America had the confidence that it was the greatest power in every field. As a result of the Vietnam War, the country has been Vietnamized, and in the last two books I’m writing about the Vietnamization of America very, very much. We are having to reevaluate who we are as a nation. What do we want out of ourselves and out of the country? And that’s where I think that we have to start reinvesting in the country as a whole rather than just in ourselves.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve said that there are some people, like Jasmine and like yourself, who, although they are born oceans away, are born American at heart. What do you mean, American at heart?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: It’s that capacity for dreaming, the desire for change, for seizing the good life. Meaning not bigger house and bigger car but freedom from fate.
BILL MOYERS: From fate?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes, with our truths.
BILL MOYERS: From fate. Jasmine wants to reposition the stars. Is that what you wanted to do?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I didn’t know it when I actually left India, but, yeah, I want to reposition the stars. I want to conquer. I mean I want to love and possess this country. I don’t want to be simply an expatriate who always has her bags packed and is looking for greener pastures elsewhere. I want to be the kind who sees clearly the problems, such as I think, you know, violent times coming in the 1990s, and who wants to stay and fight the battles and correct the problems.
BILL MOYERS: From New York City, this has been a conversation with Bharati Mukherjee. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 3, 2015.