Bharati Mukherjee is dark-skinned, her eyes and wavy hair black. Her accent is hard to place--cultured, cultivated, of no specific region. She looks and sounds vaguely foreign. But she is an American, as American as apple pie. And her works describe a new kind of pie being put together here.
"The new America is pervasive," she is often quoted as saying of people like herself. "We aren't just your doctors and pathologists, your nurses, newspaper vendors and green grocers. We're also your lovers, your husbands and your wives. We may even pop out as your children."
And a central message of her writing is that the new Americans are having their effect on the mainstream; they are changing America.
Last January, she won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for a collection of short stories, "The Middleman and Other Stories" (Grove Press). She was the first naturalized American to receive the honor. Born in India 49 years ago, she now lives on Manhattan's Upper Westside and teaches at Queens College and Columbia University. She has a new novel out, "Jasmine," also published by Grove, and was in Los Angeles briefly to talk about it.
Both books involve the people that populate the "New America," the land of non-European immigrants, the thousands of newcomers from South Asia, Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East.
"We're infiltrators!" she said over breakfast at her hotel.
The word delights her.
Take, for example, Jasmine, once Jyoti Vijh of Hasnapur, a village in Punjab; then Jasmine, the recent immigrant to New York; then Jane Ripplemeyer of Baden, Iowa, on the lam from her past.
"Through my fiction," Mukherjee said, "I make mainstream readers see the new Americans as complex human beings, not as just 'The Other.' "
Unarguably, Jasmine is complex--"a tornado," her creator calls her, driven at a high force through much of life, having an impact on those she meets, unsure what, if any, damage she has left behind. The superficials of her life rival a soap opera plot. Jasmine is married as a child to a "modern" man she loves, who gives her a new name as a break with the feudal past. She is widowed as a teen-ager when her husband is blown up by a Sikh nationalist, and, at age 19, as an illegal immigrant--she comes to America.
She tells herself she is in the United States to observe an ancient tradition
and burn herself on the campus of the Florida school her husband wanted to attend.
Instead, she says "yes" to life.
"Being open to things, always saying 'yes,' Jasmine is a lot like me in that," Mukherjee said. "I try to build into the stories in 'Middleman' and in 'Jasmine' varying degrees of letting go of the old culture."
Jasmine lives with an Indian family in Flushing, Queens, where Punjabi culture has been imposed on life to such a degree the neighborhood is like a museum. She becomes an au pair to an academic couple, Taylor and Wylie, on the Upper Westside near Columbia, taking care of their child, being treated "just like one of the family" and trying, unsuccessfully, to deny her feelings for Taylor.
At 23, Jasmine finds herself in Iowa, where, in no time at all and with little planning on her part, she has prompted a 50-year-old banker, Bud Ripplemeyer, to leave his wife. Until then, he had thought of Asia "only as a soybean market."
They set up house together; they do not marry, but they adopt "Du," a Vietnamese adolescent. Bud is shot and paralyzed by a distressed farmer who could not get a loan at the bank, and Jasmine, whom Bud tried to make into Jane Ripplemeyer, becomes pregnant. She takes care of Bud but will not marry him, and remains, in her heart, Jasmine.
It is Jasmine who must decide whether to stay with Bud out of affection and duty, or go off to California with Taylor and his child once Wylie has left him.
"She wants to be American," Mukherjee said of Jasmine. "Not like a 19th-Century Anglo-Saxon, but living in the New World, with roots here. Jasmine always knows who she is and what she wants in the world. She does not malinger in the past."
The past, likewise, is no dwelling place for Mukherjee. Some of it may come along with her to the present, but she does not go back to it.
"The 'letting go' of the old culture is not lost to me," she said, and, in that, she thinks she differs from many white sociologists but not young first-generation immigrants. "For me and for some of my characters, the New World is a net gain. The change is exhilarating. We're able to discard the traditional world of passivity, too much faith in destiny, the hierarchy of caste, class, traditional feudalism," she said.
At the same time, she said of Americanization, she is not talking about people losing their identity and mimicking the mainstream. Anything but.