By Adam Vitcavage
Leah Franqui’s debut America for Beginners is a thoughtful novel that explores family, immigration, and prejudice in the modern world. She crafted memorable characters led by Pival, a widow from India who leaves for America to search for the truth about her son. Throughout the book, we see America through the eyes of an outsider and how shocking our culture really is.
The author moved to India three years ago and experienced her own culture shock, which helped inspire the plot of the book. I corresponded with Franqui through email about all of the aspects of her book. She wrote back thought-provoking answers, which I now present unedited.
Adam Vitcavage: Starting with a few questions directly related to this book, the novel follows a woman named Pival dealing with grief. Was there a particular event that inspired this plot?
Leah Franqui: There absolutely is an event that inspired this novel, but the plot about Pival’s grief was an act of imagination. When my now-husband and I graduated from graduate school, his parents and older sister came to our commencement from India. They had never been to the United States, nor outside of India much if at all before they came, and they had decided that after the graduation events they would take a tour of the United States, despite my husband’s loud and vocal protests. All their friends had done it, this is what people do, and for a lot of people there is this mentality in travel that if you are going to do it you have to cover as much ground as possible, it’s like Pokémon Go, you gotta catch ‘em all! Americans do this in Europe, you know, cover five countries in seven days or something like that. So even though it went against his foundational principles, my husband decided if his parents were going to take this trip covering seven cities in 11 days, he would have to go with them.
It was that trip, which, by the way, expressly guaranteed 11 Indian dinners, and really meeting my now-in-laws for the first time, that inspired this novel. Getting to know them also really informed this story. But it was also my mother-in-law’s negative reaction to homosexuality, which was hard for me to deal with, intellectually. She mentioned offhand how she was just happy my husband “had never gotten caught up in any of that stuff,” like being gay is some kind of gang, and it stuck with me.
AV: There have been lots of queer American characters, but Rahi has the added wrinkle to his coming out story by coming out to a traditional Indian family. How are these characters represented in Indian media? If at all?
LF: Really, when it comes to Indian media I’m no expert, unlike my husband, who is a Bollywood screenwriter and media lover. Technically homosexual acts are illegal in India, under section 377 of the penal code, and what’s weird is that that this was sort of overturned by the high court in 2009 and then the Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 2013 so it flipped back and forth, which also sort of tells you something about India, right there.
I would say that there is a growing interest in talking about sexuality and gender in Indian film, although these are pretty niche in their audience, they play in the cities, they play well online, but for the mainstream film and television productions, representation is minimal, negative, or played for laughs. However, this is where the boon of the internet really helps because people can connect digitally and make communities, and in a culture that’s so communally focused, for many people the idea of coming out means total abdication of, or excommunication from, their community, so being able to find a new one that accepts you is huge.
It’s also fascinating that one of the biggest director/producers in Bollywood, Karan Johar, is gay, although he is never out there in the media in a relationship of any kind. I wish it was more visible in media, is what I would say. I think people learn a lot about the world through media. Someone I know said that watching “Friends” as a kid was a revelation to him, because he saw all these men and women socializing together and it wasn’t taboo or anything, and that helped him form female friendship. I think that the growth of Netflix and Amazon Prime in India, as well as other local digital platforms gives a greater opportunity for representation through new media, so I hope that’s what happens.
A website I enjoy called Homegrown, which is a kind of Indian cultural news site, kind of in the vein of Gawker but more culturally focused, compiled people’s coming out stories and it was a wonderful mix, some harrowing, some hopeful, some hilarious, but I think I found that because I was looking. It’s like sexuality is way in the margins, and in a city like Mumbai, where I live, it’s more visible. It’s more visible than ever before in literature and movies and television, but for many people living outside of urban spaces, it’s an unknown entity.
AV: Your characters go through periods of self-discovery. Why was it important to have these discoveries occur on the road across America instead of setting this story in one general area?
LF: I was pretty fascinated by these tours people go on. I just think the idea of going on a tour that is organized by someone from your country, rather than the country you are visiting, is bizarre and wonderful and potentially a disaster. I personally wouldn’t trust an American to show me Japan, or maybe I would find that pretty interesting, because it would be like, the country through their eyes through my eyes, there would be all these layers of translation. And there is also this idea of catering to what people think you might want, as in 11 Indian dinners. For some people I think this is ideal because they really do want exactly what they want all the time, like, they don’t want any other food, or anything new, they want to travel and yet have everything feel exactly the same. I saw this group of American girls in Cinque Terre, Italy talking about getting margaritas later that night—the drink, not the pizza, to be clear—and I thought, wow, that is fascinating that that is what you want here.
I also think that we learn a lot about ourselves from travel because travel is uncomfortable. It means that you are just going to be wrong a lot. We have a sense of the world around us, we get it, we know its customs and mores. But when we travel, we have to face up to the fact that we are not universally correct about how the world works because it works differently place to place. Sometimes we find this charming, when we are in good moods and don’t need anything, like, oh, look at this quant Spanish custom of everything shutting down for four hours in the middle of the day, wow! But sometimes we find this horrible, challenging, painful, like when you are starving for four hours in the middle of the day in Spain because you didn’t know that there just wouldn’t be food for you. But more fundamentally, these things we think we know, being rude, being polite, the way the world should work, they dissolve as we travel. And then we have to deal with the discomfort of being wrong and how we construct our identities around that, what that challenges in us.
It’s an old trope, but it’s old for a reason. Travel teaches us the world, which teaches us ourselves. And certainly that has been my experience of travel—from studying abroad to traveling for a year after college to living in India now. I know myself better every time I go somewhere knew. I figured these characters could, too.
AV: Moving to larger themes of your work. I feel like, even in 2018, the majority of America doesn’t truly understand the immigrant experience. What should we as a society know that we seem to misunderstand?
LF: Well, I think few people who are not immigrants understand the logistics of immigration the way people dealing with the process do, but in terms of “the immigrant experience,” I guess I would say that what people misunderstand, in my opinion, is how many immigrant experiences there are, how different they are, how many kinds of immigrants come to the United States and where they land and where they make community and the fact that this has changed over the last century. For those of us whose families came before or around the second World War, that’s a narrative that is pretty big and explored, but more recent immigration is, I think, something that I personally want to hear more stories about.
There is this amazing play by Qui Nguyen called Vietgone that is, in my view, everything people should strive for when making plays about identity and culture, but that’s just me. It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s complicated and multifaceted, and it’s exploring how simplistic things look from the outside and how messy they are on the inside and I think it’s that duality we understand least about immigration, that immigrants, like people, are all different, their experience, what they want, what they understand about the world, is specific. Each country, each culture, has a different idea of America, of what they want. What they bring with them, what they’ve come for, it’s not all the same. We want to paint immigration as one thing, and many want to vilify immigrants, which to me feels deeply un-American, because our whole country, the whole point of this country, was a safe harbor.
We misunderstand the nuance, I suppose. But when do we not?
AV: So many novels like yours were written before our political landscape shifted dramatically in recent years. How have you viewed your novel differently, if at all, since writing it considering what has transpired recently?
LF: I don’t view my novel particularly differently in these, shall we call them, interesting times? I honestly think that people aren’t particularly different now than ever before. Maybe being Jewish, like so many other historically marginalized peoples, gives you this thing, where people have always historically hated you and wanted you to leave, so you have a sense of human nature as fearing the other, that’s your understanding of the world. It’s certainly mine. People fear what they don’t know, they fear other, and when in a position of power or security they fear losing both to the other, and so they focus on what divides them, and make monsters from that. I don’t think that’s new. Our country has had open policies, and closed policies, we’ve had immigration quotas and internment camps.
That being said, we are so much more aware now than ever before of what is happening around us, we have so much information, and that gives me a sense of wonder and hope, because we can active ourselves, and others, if we use our communicative information tools well. It’s that use, that activation, that I want, that I wanted for my characters, that I want for my country, because passivity, acceptance, that’s really death. My novel is hardly a battle cry, but I guess the one thing that is different is that I hope people read it and walk away a little less scared of the other, a little kinder, and little more open to the world.
AV: You are both Puerto Rican and Jewish. I’m sure you’ve seen characters of either group, but never that unique combination. I mean, I grew as a white male. I was all over books and films and such. What was it like growing up without a strong representation that reflected you?
LF: Well, I’m pretty lucky in that my father was a Latin American studies major in college, so we had a ton of very intense books about Latin America in our home growing up, and that coupled with my school, which had a diverse reading list yearly for us, gave me literary Latinx figures. My mother is a Russian Jew, and had studied Russian in college, so we also had a lot of Russian stories and equally intense books about Soviet life in our home, so between those two I was well acquainted with the ideology of revolution from an early age! But in media, yeah, not a lot of Latinx stars, not a lot of Jews outside of comedy.
I mean, I absolutely envy kids today who have Gina Rodriguez, Stephanie Beatriz, Melissa Fumero, and Michael Pena to look up to, as well as so many more. Also kids who have Alison Brie, Lizzy Caplan, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Max Greenfield, and just the diversity of faces we are seeing, of which I would only want more and more and more because we still don’t have media and literature that reflects everyone, features everyone, represents everyone.
When I was younger, it really made it hard for me to understand all the parts of my identity, or to feel comfortable owning my identity, because it seemed like there was only one way to be Latina, or one way to be Jewish, and I deviated from that. And honestly, being mixed, that’s a whole other thing because that pressure to “choose” one, like your identity is a buffet, is painful. But writing helped. Creating characters who were more like me helped. You have to create the world you want, I think, write the things you would want to read. Jose Rivera in his 36 Assumptions About Writing Plays says “good playwriting is a collaboration between your many selves. The more multiple your personalities, the further, wider, deeper you will be able to go,” and I would extend that to all writing. So I think in the end it helped, but this, with more people to look up to and see, with more kinds of stories to know? This is far better.
AV: Do you have plans to explore your background in future works?
LF: I do! I’m always exploring some part of myself in my work. Before I wrote fiction, I wrote and then studied dramatic writing, and I actually wrote a lot of plays about Puerto Rico, which was something that helped me work through my own feelings about my identity. Right now, a lot of what I’m thinking about and writing about is my immediate life, that is, living in Mumbai as an American.
In India I’m simply understood as a white person, which is fair, because comparatively I am, and the nuance of “well but I’m Jewish and Latina so it’s more complicated” is not something I care to go into with people I meet in passing, I’m too busy trying to figure out India. So yes, I do plan to explore my background more through writing, but also my foreground, I guess? As in, that which is around me, that which is in front of me. Now I have this third part of my life, which is being with an Indian, being part of an Indian family, and that’s another act of exploration and investigation, but in some ways it only helps me see myself and my identity more clearly in contrast.