#5onFri: Five Books by South Asian Writers on Family and Belonging

by Madhushree Ghosh
published in Reading

While writing Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family, the basic question was how to braid the stories of childhood, memory, and what came after for an immigrant family and in turn, what it meant to the reader. Is it a voyeuristic look at a country that’s foreign to the reader? Is it that the author would like to show a few aspects of their native country through food and nostalgia? And why would it be that important anyway? 

What I questioned was what did the family unit really signify, and how did we connect that to social justice issues, as it relates to my people.

I braided stories of food and traveling with indentured people, immigrants, and migrants with my own stories of my journey to America as an immigrant which was in turn, influenced by my parents’ own journey as refugees out of what’s now Bangladesh during the 1947 Partition of India. 

The reason I did that is because all our stories are intertwined and informed by the traumatic event of the largest man-made human migration in the world in the 20th century. It influenced what we remembered, what we ate, and how we kept a record—whether it was oral, lore, or passed down the generations as stories so fantastic it could be a myth or real and there was no way of finding out.

But my work has been informed over the years by writing from South Asian authors, be it fiction or nonfiction, primarily because of the way we tell stories. Brought up in the storytelling style of folk katha, or story, there is drama, there is fiction, there is even speculative nonfiction that gives each essay and incident the masala it needs. I used food as the vehicle to showcase what it means to lose everything and how we regain what we think is precious to us.

For years, my writing has been heavily influenced by these books, which highlight family, lyric writing style but also a nod to India lore, myth, and storytelling, be it through activism, social justice rally cries, science, food, or adventure, to create a fleshed-out exploration of what makes for a delicious insight.

Here are five books by South Asian writers that talk about family and belonging:

1. Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose

The title of this precise book of essays by Chew-Bose in 2017 is from an entry in A Writer’s Diary where Virginia Woolf wondered whether what she wrote or said was anything of value that anyone would want to listen to. 

Chew-Bose explores culture and identity in this group, but what she also does is ask us what it means to be part of a family and what is inherent in this structure. She writes, “A family is more than it shows. That the future’s unspecified terms provide a few recognizable basics, and that I might find, somewhere in me, a tension—the good kind—for tapping into what springs me forward, I reason, the hope.” 

This essay collection explores ways by which we immigrants assert our identity and what remains when one moves to another land in terms of culture. What happens to the family and how we hold together as a unit.

2. Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance and Social Change by Anjali Enjeti

Ambitious in scope, thoughtful, fierce and refreshingly direct, Enjeti’s book and her activism and passion for social justice has influenced my own writing for decades. In particular, the first section on identity informs us of what it means to be of mixed-race growing up in the American south, but also highlights her relationship with her doctor father and how he conducted himself while working under racially charged situations in the southern states. 

A reflection of what we think we understand as children of immigrant parents, and what we eventually do once we grow up, Enjeti’s work shows not only her mastery of the form, but helps us, the reader, understand how complex intergenerational South Asian relationships are. This in turn is an exploration of those relationships as they wax and wane in intensity over the years. 

But it is Enjeti’s activism and how she uses language that shake us into paying attention—a superb manner of waking us up, and asking us to react. In the title essay, she writes, “Like places, we too must take responsibility for our relaxed complacency and intentional obliviousness. We can be targets of racism while also upholding and benefitting from white supremacy.” We South Asians can be racists while we may also be victims of racial attacks.

3. Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. by Arundhati Roy

I consider Azadi, or freedom, a battle cry for the India we love. This call, a protest slogan used by Kashmiri activists to protest against what they consider Indian Occupation of their lands, is now a call used in all activist rallies throughout India to protest against Modi’s fascist and inherently Hindu nationalist government. 

This book isn’t a reflection of South Asian family dynamics but more a reflection of what has changed in my country of birth and why it’s imperative for us to keep asking the questions that have made it into an us-versus-them nation filled with zealous nationalists, pro-Hindu violent mobs. 

I still consider this writing about South Asian families, because it is about what’s happening in the country as we speak. In “There is Fire in the Ducts, The System is Failing,” Roy writes, “What we need are people who are prepared to be unpopular. Who are prepared to put themselves in danger. Who are prepared to tell the truth. Brave journalists can do that, and they have…And artists—beautiful, brilliant, brave writers, poets, musicians, painters, and filmmakers can do that. That beauty is on our side. All of it. We have work to do. And a world to win.”

4. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

While Lahiri’s fiction is what draws most western readers to her lyrical style and masterful storytelling, I’ve always found her deep intense love for Italian and her navigation of that language fascinating. 

An American born of Indian immigrant parents, who moves to Italy to master Italian, writes in that language while challenging herself in asking what changes when one starts to write and then ultimately think in a different language. 

This is a reflection of “otherness” and what it means to be foreign in so many different ways. She writes, “I write in order to break down the wall, to express myself in a pure way. When I write, my appearance, my name have nothing to do with it. I am heard without being seen, without prejudices, without a filter I am invisible. I become my words, and the words become me.”

This isn’t a social justice cause, but truly a reflection of what it means to be othered in America. What happens when you’re brought up knowing English and Bengali and yet, you’re foreign in America and when you go back to India, they speak to you in English because the assumption is why would you know Bengali? The othering happens in multiple ways and regions. 

How Lahiri challenges the expectation of understanding and knowing languages and why, as an immigrant, breaks many walls of preconceived biases, and notions.

5. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

There really aren’t words to explain what it is one feels reading Kalanithi’s memoir on his lung cancer diagnosis, as a surgeon and physician and his eventual demise. There is loss, and tragedy even before one reads this memoir, but his scientific objectivity even when he’s looking at his own MRI scans, biopsies, and liver enzyme reports tells you we are watching a brilliant scientist who cannot give up on his patient. And that patient is him. 

When Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy gives birth to their daughter, Cady, he writes, “The cancer cells in my body would still be dying or they’d start growing again. Looking out over the expanse ahead, I saw not an empty wasteland but something simpler: a blank page on which I could go on.” 

The idea of death and dying in a family that welcomes a child at the same time highlights exactly what it is that makes us human, and how can we be objective about death at that time.

Madhushree Ghosh is the daughter of refugees, an immigrant, a woman of color in oncology diagnostics, and an activist. Her nonfiction has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Longreads, Bomb Magazine, Catapult, Guernica, The Kitchn, Serious Eats, The Rumpus, and others. Her work has been awarded a Notable Mention (Best American Essays in Food Writing), Pushcart-nominated, an Oakley Hall scholarship, and a Sirenland Positano residency (2020-21). Editorial roles have been in gastronomy (Panorama Journal) and international fiction (Del Sol Review). She actively mentors women leaders in science and hosts food and discourse events at her home in San Diego. Madhushree has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University. She is also certified in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion from Cornell University as well as in Conflict Management and Global Negotiations from Thunderbird University, AZ. You can find her on her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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