I chanced upon a small item in a publishing industry newsletter, noting that "Rhodes Scholar Chaya Bhuvaneswar's" novel "Jackson Heights" had been picked up by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House that also publishes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nicholas Kristof, Suze Orman and Howard Stern.
"Jackson Heights" won't be out for a while but we asked Chaya, a physician by day (who's expecting any day now), to tell us a little about the book and how it came to be.
What's "Jackson Heights" about?
The story overall is a simple one. One summer, two girls come of
age, sexually and otherwise, as they investigate a story for their
student newspaper that turns out to unveil sex trafficking and various
forms of dishonesty masquerading as piety. On their journey, they also
learn about surviving violence-- from an unexpected event that involves
them directly, rather than just as reporters. [more about the plot below]
Tell us a little about yourself and what inspired your book.
I was born in Queens and the first place my parents lived in the US with me as a small baby (after a hideous walk-up in Staten Island) was an only slightly-less-crummy walk-up in Jackson Heights, which I have happy pictures of that do not obscure the huge water stains on the walls and my uncle holding me before he left for Canada to escape the Vietnam War draft. My dad got deported, having come here through a program that solicited doctors from South Asia which he convinced my mom to participate in after watching too many ‘Three Stooges’ movies and deciding that America was the place to be... but it was pretty hard at first to sort out his immigration status and my mom supported us on the (even then puny) salary of a pediatrics resident.
We made a partially upward move to a quieter street in Flushing a few years after, which made it inside the line for a good elementary school -- though the house itself was across the street from a public housing complex where I went to day-camp. My mom got a job in a public health clinic in Corona which she only retired from a few years ago, and found an Indian babysitter who lived in Jackson Heights. At first I alone, then with my brother, would be dropped off there and spend much of our time peering out of a window and trying to escape the somber dialogue of Doordarshan’s Ramayana, playing 24-7. The next move that my parents had hoped for, and that the rest of the much tonier South Indian immigrant community implied that they were very late in making, would have been to the suburbs -- but that didn’t happen. Instead my dad spent long years not working because of health problems and my brother had multiple disabilities requiring expensive special services, so we stayed put, fluidly moving between Flushing and Jackson Heights. I lived at the library when we couldn’t afford babysitters. Getting away from the rodents in our modest house (which was pretty close to sewage as well, like most public housing) was also a plus.
Going to the Bowne Street temple every few days for one special prayer or another, we were always at the margins of our particular immigrant community, and it is this highly religious, fascinatingly insular community that forms one of the subjects of the book -- devoutly Hindu, aspiring to be suburban, but not quite getting there, its members always watching each other, comparing, gossiping. One of the deep satisfactions of writing fiction became, for me, a way not only to observe, and at times satirize, but to regain a full voice in a place where not having things -- money, fancy clothes, Bharat Natyam dance lessons, cars, cheesy and fancy receptions and arangetrams, etcetera -- could make people not even hear you.
Drawing plot points from life
So the book is about two Indian-American girls from this community -- who, like me, were given an amazing escape route. First to a secondary school like Hunter, by taking a city-wide exam that gives a free private school education (which my parents had to be cajoled into accepting by my very determined elementary school principal). Then to college at Yale, which involved scholarships. Then, in my case, to Oxford--stunning the community, making people who hadn’t spoken to us for years call my parents and express ‘great pride’, but mentioning also, of course, the ‘shame’ of it being the girl in the family who won a Rhodes scholarship, and not the boy, and raising the question of how ‘hard’ it would eventually be to get me married off because of it.
The two girls in my novel, though sharing some of the same experiences, have a completely different journey than I had -- answering a ‘what if’ that occurred to me when I was in medical school at Stanford (also on scholarships and work-study).
In Berkeley, a local landlord was accused of trafficking young girls from his natal village in India after one of the girls died of carbon monoxide poisoning, in 2000, with her younger sister surviving. Two high school students at Berkeley High school investigated the death and raised the question of why two teenage girls hadn’t been enrolled in school. The two students wrote about the case in their student newspaper and received national recognition for their tenacity that led to the police more fully investigating the matter.
The germ of the book began for me in juxtaposing what I knew about where I’d grown up, with the story of these student reporters and the stories they uncovered. The hidden shame of the part of the Indian immigrant community I knew firsthand -- as well as the judgment, the casual cruelty, but also the scabrous humor and colorful insistence on keeping a certain kind of faith intact -- these also, probably, found their way into the book.