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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the January 8, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
`Fifty-Fifty:’ Cultural Collisions for Part Americans
Almost 30 years ago, Jersey girl Robbie Clipper married
Davinder Sethi, a fellow graduate student at the University of California,
Berkeley, and a son in a sprawling Punjabi Sikh family from New Delhi.
The marriage has given Robbie Clipper Sethi — now chair of the
English department at Lawrenceville’s Rider University — a
teenage son, an extended family settled around the globe, and a unique
point of view. "Marrying into such a different family and culture
helped me expand beyond what I am," Sethi says, in a telephone
interview from her Skillman home. "I’ve learned a great deal more
about the world and the dynamics that play out in families."
Her marriage has also given Sethi rich literary material, which she
mines impressively in her first novel, "Fifty-Fifty: A Novel in
Many Voices" (Silicon Press). Sethi discusses the novel at Barnes
& Noble at MarketFair on Thursday, January 9, at 7 p.m.
The novel follows Sethi’s 1996 success with "The Bride Wore Red,"
a collection of short stories describing the seemingly unbridgeable
gap between Indian and American cultures straddled by marriage. Several
of the stories first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle,
and the New Review, while the title story won special mention in the
1998 Pushcart Prize for Small Presses.
In "Fifty-Fifty," Sethi follows three generations of a fictional
Punjabi Sikh family whose members stretch from India to the California
coast. The matriarch of the clan is Biji, whose family was dispossessed
and scattered in India’s 1947 partition.
With daughters raising families in India, Nairobi, and London, Biji
pins her hopes of settling her family together on her only son, Hari,
a pharmaceutical executive at Raritan’s Ortho-McNeil who has an American
wife and a teenage daughter, Rosa. For Biji and her children, America
is the land of opportunity — and the place where "no one,"
she claims, "gets kicked out."
While "Fifty-Fifty" has more of a central narrative than the
stories in "The Bride Wore Red," each of the novel’s chapters
is narrated by a different family member including, most effectively,
Biji’s six grandchildren, ages 15 through 30.
"The chapters work together as a unit, but from the beginning
I wanted the novel to have a variety of voices," Sethi says. "I
wanted each of the characters to tell his or her own story."
She credits her years as a college professor, as well as being a mother
to a teenager, with helping her craft the dead-on voices of the younger
characters. The result is a intricate tapestry of character, experiences,
grief, hopes, and guilt. Along with constant family contact and support
come almost crushing expectations. Hari, as the family’s heir, is
expected to find his own pot of American gold and has been infected
with what he calls "the immigrant’s disease," the need to
make his first million.
But his mother and sisters also expect him to solve family crises
in any part of the globe and secure for his nieces and nephews American
university slots, plum jobs, and suitable Indian spouses.
Two nieces in the novel, in fact, graduate from Rutgers, but don’t
have the grades to get into American medical schools, another family
dream. Instead they take dead end lab jobs in drug companies, while
Hari — his own pharmaceutical career stalled — tries to escape
his extended family’s clamoring demands by buying a muffler franchise
in San Jose and moving there with his wife and daughter.
"The expectations are not only on the sons," Sethi points
out, "but on the daughters as well." Biji and her daughters
pursue marriages for the family’s granddaughters as assiduously as
Ivy League degrees for the grandsons, showing the oldest granddaughter,
Nitasha, like so much real estate to prospective husbands. The encounters
bring Nitasha only loneliness, and obscure her path to a true relationship
and a calling.
"The expectations are like a weight on her shoulders," Sethi
says. "They stop her from achieving any degree of self-knowledge
Another granddaughter, Sheela, who wants the Ivy League brass ring
for herself, is told to find a good community college: The money the
family can spend on education will put her brother through Harvard
instead. Boys must be educated to support the extended family; girls
will be married off and become part of husbands’ families. Instead,
the resolute Sheela discards her grandmother’s American dream and
reverses the family’s diaspora by going back to India for university.
By the end of the novel, she is well on her way to attending an Indian
medical school, and becoming the family’s first physician.
Other members of her generation also return to India. Even Sheela’s
Harvard-educated brother abandons a fledgling Wall Street career for
one in London.
"My take on the American dream is pretty cynical, and I was consciously
trying to debunk it in this book," Sethi says. "I think the
idea that anyone can make it here, be Horatio Alger and rise up from
the streets, is unrealistic."
She is fascinated, Sethi says, by people’s desire to go elsewhere
to achieve, finding that the potent promise of "somewhere else"
can be an illusion. "If you’re going to be an achiever," she
says, "you’ll do it no matter where you are."
Another debunked myth is that the family’s children can reap America’s
rewards — without interacting with any Americans. "The older
generation wants to settle in the same place," Sethi explains,
"but there is a strong sense that `we have to protect our children
from the foreigners whom we’ve settled among.’"
While one stereotype of America is that it is the land of opportunity,
Sethi continues, "it’s also the place that’s supposed to have
loose morals and too much freedom." Just as with achievement,
however, the novel shows that those who get corrupted — by addiction,
for instance — don’t need to come to America to lose their way.
The novel’s title, "Fifty-Fifty," is the term Rosa uses to
describe herself, born in New Jersey to an immigrant father and an
American mother. She takes pride in the fact that she’s a mongrel,
just like the rest of her fellow Americans — and there is an hilarious
scene where she tries to figure out where to sit for lunch at her
new San Jose high school, since cafeteria seats get parsed out by
students’ Asian or Hispanic countries of origin. Rosa ends up rotating
among them all. For her, a mixed background means she has "the
best of both worlds."
But other members of her extended family reject that mutt quality
in American life. "For Rosa, being a hybrid is a positive thing,"
Sethi says. "But many of the other characters come from backgrounds
where they haven’t embraced that concept yet, so they’re uncomfortable
Sethi admires other South Asian-American writers who have also explored
the collision of cultures. She lists Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novels,
as well as Bharati Mukherjee’s short stories and the writings of Chitra
Banerjee Divakaruni, as influences.
"I’m interested in writers in general who write about culture,"
she adds, citing Junot Diaz — a writer with a dual Dominican Republican-New
Jersey background — and his novel "Drown."
Sethi earned a Berkeley doctorate in comparative literature,
while her bachelor’s is from Indiana University in Bloomington (Class
of 1973) in English and in Slavic languages and literature.
Her husband, whose family fled Pakistan after the partition, has six
sisters and one brother. Several sisters have settled in New Jersey,
while his brother lives in New England. Other family members are in
Kenya, Australia, and Japan.
Sethi grew up in Cherry Hill. She assumed her father’s family (she
keeps Clipper as her middle name) was Dutch, until a family Bible,
discovered when a grandparent died, showed the name spelled with a
"k" and an umlaut. It was the first time she realized her
father’s family was originally German. "I also grew up with a
very ill-defined sense of religion," she says. As a child, she
was sent to a Methodist Church because it was around the corner.
For more traditional families, many Americans’ ethnic and religious
vagueness may be "too diffuse," she points out. "They
think we don’t have any identity, but that’s it — that diffusion
is our identity." Her own son, who is 13, has learned the religious
principles of both parents, taking some from each part of his religious
heritage. "I’ve done that myself as well," Sethi says.
Her husband is now bi-coastal, serving as chief financial officer
for a company in California as well as board member for New Jersey
businesses. Does he feel pressured to take care of his extended family?
"There is always a tension around the expectations on boys in
the family to settle sisters or nieces," Sethi says. "But
there is also a strong push — and this comes from being in America
— toward self-reliance. If my husband tried to get involved in
their lives, I think my nieces would say, ‘What are you doing? I can
find my own job, thank you very much!’ "
Just like in the fictional family she has created, "there is a
generation gap" in her own family, says Sethi, "that is very
— Phyllis Maguire
Voices" (Silicon Press), Barnes & Noble, MarketFair. 609-897-9250.
Free. Thursday, January 9, 7 p.m.
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