‘Selling shiny stones wasn’t going to do it for me’
- In his new book, Suketu Mehta takes a sharp look at the story of migration the world over
- In an interview in New York City, Mehta says people are moving like never before because the rich countries stole the future of the poor countries through colonialism, war, inequality and climate change
As a teen at an all-boys Catholic school in Queens, New York, author Suketu Mehta, whose family emigrated from Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1977, was barraged with racist taunts that spanned the spectrum from “pagan" to “ayatollah"—incessant reminders of his supposedly outsider status. It was in the cafeteria that he found his tribe. “It was a lunch table of the excluded," recalls the 56-year-old writer, listing a motley cohort that included a fellow Indian, Cuban, Indonesian, and the school’s only openly gay student. “I used to write these little skits in class to amuse my lunchtime crew—parodies of Shakespeare—who I called the Bored of Avon. Everyone wanted to beat us up, but at the lunch table, we could gather," he adds. “And I could make them laugh."
Though light on the comedy, Mehta’s new book, This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, partially inspired by the searing exclusion he faced as an adolescent, makes a stirring case for global migration, which tripled between 1960 and 2017. Pinpointing triggers like war, climate change and income inequality, which he argues are the by-products of colonialism and corporate neocolonialism—“settle the account, and the creditors will have no reason to come to your house," he writes—Mehta’s tome is a daisy chain of compelling characters. They escape brutal gang violence in Guatemala and extravagantly corrupt governments in Ghana and their stories serve as authentic antidotes to the xenophobic narratives spewed on populist megaphones
Toggling between the anecdotal and the theoretical, Mehta weaves meticulously detailed migrant accounts with statistics and studies which confirm that barriers to fluid human movement only hinder global prosperity. “Diversity isn’t just a nice thing to have; it is actively essential to attract the kind of people who create wealth," he asserts.
For Mehta, who is now an associate professor of journalism at New York University, the immigration issue is deeply and undeniably personal. “Each person’s life is determined by a central event, a fulcrum of time, the before and after—for me, that was when I was 14 and moved to Jackson Heights," he says, recalling his family’s early days in a gritty sliver of New York City, which was just emerging from near bankruptcy itself. “I missed Bombay like an organ of my body," he admits, revealing that preoccupation and nostalgia fuelled his first book, Maximum City, a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for its kaleidoscopic view of Mehta’s beloved metropolis. But his second act, “an angry book with a happy ending", as he’s dubbed it, looks firmly forward. Poised for an India release next week, the book is a harbinger for the year 2044, when America will officially become a majority-minority nation, and proof that when people, ideas and traditions move, everyone is uplifted.
In his high-rise apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, just steps from the leafy urban oasis that is Washington Square Park, Mehta discusses his latest book’s impassioned origins, populism’s problematic appeal, and a renewed reverence for fact-checking.
Edited excerpts from an interview.
Your father came to the US to set up an outpost of your family’s diamond business. What led you to become a writer?
I became a writer partly so I could explain this awful, very racist and very violent high school experience to myself. One needs narrative and selling shiny stones wasn’t going to do it for me. But a Gujarati writer—it’s almost an oxymoron. Though I grew up listening to my father, my uncle and my grandfather tell each other stories about trading, about who was coming to the office, about who to trust and not to trust. These were their case studies. So there is a storytelling streak in my family, too.
When you began writing ‘This Land Is Our Land’, could you have predicted the immigration debate would reach such a fever pitch in the US and abroad?
No. Because each year after I came (to the US), I felt my position in the country becoming more and more secure. And when Barack Obama got elected, we thought, okay, here’s the happy ending, America’s over race and we’re all one big happy family. Look, we elected a black man as president! Then, the pendulum swung the other way. Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart News who briefly served as White House chief strategist in President Donald Trump’s administration, says the origins of the current wave of populism around the world are rooted in the 2008 financial crisis. I don’t agree with Bannon about much, but about this I do: across Western countries, working-class whites saw their futures stolen. They were being sold houses they couldn’t afford, deeply in debt, while their children were growing up in a world where they had to compete with industrious Nigerians, Chinese and Indians. In my book, I try to analyse how this current wave of populism, including the election of Trump, occurred all over the world and why it caught everyone by surprise. But it all didn’t bubble up organically from the bottom—it was created.
How was this populism manufactured?
The 20th century was the American century, the 21st, not so much. There was this feeling among people in rural pockets of the US that their futures had been stolen by people in the towers in the country’s financial centres. But the people in the towers, being no fools, knew that the peasants would come for them with pitchforks and the rage had to be diverted on to the weakest: the Muslims, the Mexicans, the immigrants.
Why did you choose to frame your latest work as a manifesto?
It’s a proclamation, a very opinionated thing. It is an argument for global migration and it’s exactly the opposite of racist white manifestos that often surface after a mass shooting—the Christchurch shooter and the El Paso shooter both had manifestos, for example. I did this because I didn’t want to just have a dispassionate analysis of migration. I certainly respect novelists but I didn’t want to write a nice immigrant story about my family coming here and the travails we faced. I want to make an argument. Which is that people are moving like never before. They are moving because the rich countries stole the future of the poor countries through colonialism, war, inequality and climate change.
Much of your research occurred at national borders, from witnessing choreographed ceremonies at Wagah to emotional family reunions at Friendship Park, a half-acre expanse along the US-Mexico region. Why?
I’m fascinated with borders. Having grown up with an Indian passport, it was so damn difficult to cross any kind of border. Now that I have an American passport, all these gates open magically at my advent, and I realize the absurdity of these borders. Populists like Donald Trump and (UK prime minister) Boris Johnson broadcast the message that migrants are evil and coming in to take what’s yours. But I’m a writer, and I’ll always take the view of the human being at the bottom of history, the individual migrant against the tyrant state. The power of a populist is that they can tell a false story well. The only way to fight those false stories is to tell a true story better. This is why the populists are so afraid of journalists and writers, because at our best we are truth tellers. We collect these small stories and present them to a global audience. When I went to Friendship Park and saw Latinos—newly-weds, best friends, siblings—trying to make connections by reaching their pinky fingers into the holes of a fence that separated America and Mexico, it both broke my heart and renewed my faith in humanity.
Your book is a wake-up call for elite members of the global north who struggle to see how the US and the West will benefit from accepting more immigrants. But what takeaways can an Indian policymaker or business executive extract from your central message?
Eight-five per cent of migrants don’t go from a poor country to a rich country, but from a poor country to a slightly less poor country. So they don’t go from Bangladesh to America but they go from Bangladesh to India. As climate change really kicks in, this is only going to accelerate. What happens when Bangladesh gets flooded and millions of Bangladeshis have to find dry land? Where are they going to go? To India. We should have taken in far more of the Rohingya than we did. Earlier this year, Bharatiya Janata Party national president (who is now also the Union home minister) Amit Shah openly said that this country will welcome Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs, he pointedly did not mention Muslims. Mass migration is going to be the defining human phenomenon of the 21st century and India, like all these other countries, is going to have to grapple with migrant flow.
In the book’s opening chapters, you recall a bleak morning after the 2016 US elections when you were rendered speechless by the results, unable to offer words of comfort to your journalism students at New York University. What would you tell them today?
I would tell them to vote—and write. The great Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert said, “If the writer keeps the truth to himself, he is lying". To stay silent for a writer at a time like this means he is not doing his dharma. Many of my journalism students are doing tremendous work; they are in rural American states, fighting false narratives with fact-checking, one of the gifts of American journalism—Indian journalism could use a hell of a lot more of it. I’ve got 50 pages of footnotes in my book. I hired a professional fact-checker to vet every line. It helps my writing and gives the reader confidence that I’m not just talking out of my hat and making up facts like the president is.
In an increasingly interconnected world, is there room for the concept of nationality?
I live in New York City sometimes, Bombay sometimes, and am going to London next week, where I also spend a lot of time. When I go to these places, I’m not necessarily British or American or Indian. I’m a resident of Greenwich Village or Wembley or Bandra. I see the same friends I might’ve seen last week in Bombay when I am in London. And this movement isn’t just limited to the rich. Take a Keralan migrant in Abu Dhabi, for instance. He knows his village in Kerala and his neighbourhood in Abu Dhabi. But the idea of an Indian nation is too big, too abstract—and he’s certainly not an Emirati. Connecting two or more localities is a good thing for the world. Our community isn’t restricted to a single country or state or city. We are “interlocals". We know the localities in which we live and we have much the same kind of life across these borders. Movement is crucial to our understanding of each other and also crucial to the dilution of borders and this whole concept of nationality.
Aarti Virani is a culture writer and contributing editor at Vogue India, based in New Jersey.