Son of immigrants reflects on suburbs, grief, new novel
Hirsh Sawhney admits “South Haven,” the title of his new book, is a made-up name for a town but he adds, “It might feel familiar.”
That’s because Sawhney, now 37, grew up in Orange, the son of emigrants from India. His book is laced with places recognizable to New Haven area readers, including “Paulie’s,” clearly based on Louis’ Lunch.
Sawhney, who teaches English and creative writing at Wesleyan University, seemed a tad nervous as he stepped up to the podium on a recent night at New Haven’s Institute Library to read from his book during its official “launch.”
Perhaps he was somewhat awed by the introduction moments earlier from acclaimed novelist Amy Bloom, a colleague of his at Wesleyan. She promised, “This is a novelist you will be reading for years to come.”
“My best friends from junior high school are here!” Sawhney told us. “My mother (Rama Sawhney) is here. My aunties are here.”
After he revealed, “I’m a big Grateful Dead fan” and also loves Bob Dylan, Sawhney acknowledged “South Haven” is based on a suburban town close to New Haven.
“I have a strong connection to New Haven. My father (Shiv Sawhney) migrated here in the 1960s. He’s no longer with us. He was such a wonderful reader.”
His dad died on New Year’s Day of 2009. Two years later, Sawhney began writing “South Haven.”
“I was grieving his loss when I wrote it,” he said. “It’s a meditation on what grief means and what it does to people.”
Sawhney did not elaborate but later I asked him to do so. He replied, “Grief, when not properly dealt with, when repressed and not articulated properly, leads people to be angry, frustrated and potentially leads them to be violent.”
The main character in his book, Siddharth, is only 10 when his mother is killed after a truck hits her car. Sawhney began his reading by choosing a section near the start of the book, wherein Siddharth’s older brother, Arjun, tells him their mother has died. The book traces how Siddharth and his father, Mohan Lal, try to deal with this loss (Arjun is not on the scene much because he goes off to college in Michigan). Siddharth, craving acceptance by the “cool” kids at his school, gravitates toward bullies. Mohan Lal embraces Hindu extremism, which causes problems at Elm City College (clearly not based on Yale), where he teaches. (Sawhney said those two characters are fictitious, not modeled after himself and his dad.)
During his library talk, Sawhney said, “This novel traces how people learn to hate.”
And he noted, “We see this happening” in America today. “We live in an age of fascism taking over our political structure.”
In my follow-up conversation with him, I asked Sawhney if he had been referring to comments by the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump. He said yes, when he listens to Trump, “the rhetoric is fascistic.”
Sawhney believes Trump’s success has encouraged some people to talk in the same way. “They feel it’s OK giving voice to racial anger. Trump’s popularity validates a racism that had been latent. Maybe it’s good to get it out in the open.”
Sawhney added, “This wasn’t the case when I grew up. Maybe I’m being nostalgic, but I think when I was a kid there was a feeling of mutual respect in interactions in Greater New Haven.
“In many ways Orange was hospitable and we did well there. We were friends with our neighbors. In many ways it was harmonious.”
But Sawhney added, “As the child of immigrants, there was a feeling of marginalization. Sometimes, there was an unspoken unease we experienced. We weren’t part of the mainstream. I think some people did think our customs were strange or weird. I grew up at times ashamed of where I came from. As an adolescent, I think my heritage was a source of embarrassment and shame.”
Sawhney noticed a definite change after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Because of my appearance, people think I’m an Arab-born Muslim. People can say some hostile, alienating things.” (Sawhney was born at Yale-New Haven Hospital.) After we spoke about this, Sawhney followed up with an email to clarify his thoughts on a very sensitive subject. “Regarding racism in the suburbs: while I was growing up, I definitely think it existed. I heard a lot of racist talk about black people and Hispanic people from my peers and sometimes from their parents.”
He added, “The xenophobia toward Asians and Indians was much more subtle, though dangerous in a different way, as it is in my novel — but I did hear derogatory slurs from time to time. And yes, this xenophobia and racism does make a child feel marginalized or shameful.”
Sawhney now lives in the East Rock section of New Haven with his wife, Anjali, and their 11-month-old daughter. “I think the suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse,” he said. “But I’m attracted to city living because I find a lot of isolation and detachment and apathy in the suburbs. I like interacting with people, knowing the person who sells me my groceries.”
He talked a little more about his father, who taught at the University of New Haven through the early 1980s, then was a teacher at Quinnipiac University until his retirement.
“He cared deeply about books and ideas,” Sawhney recalled. “But he never was able to publish the book he wanted to get published.”
When I remarked it seems the son fulfilled the father’s dream, Sawhney said, “It feels good to finish part of his mission. I think my father would have been proud and happy.”
Contact Randall Beach at email@example.com or 203-680-9345.