America for Beginners by Leah Franqui went on sale this week, and has already received heaps of praise from booksellers, librarians, readers, and the critics. A contemporary novel set in the United Stated and India, it tells the tale of an Indian widow and her two traveling companions as they make their way across the United States on a two-week roadtrip.
“Compassionate and funny, America For Beginners delves into the complications of family as three unlikely companions venture across a country that challenges their understanding of themselves. A charming debut by a fresh new voice.”
— Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers
“A tender, funny, wrenching, beautifully executed tale of three lost souls who traverse the chasms of cultural, generational, and geographical divides to forge some bonds strong and true enough to withstand life’s gut punches.”
— Library Journal (Starred Review)
“Compelling… a strong contemporary story about cross-cultural alliances, the bonds of family and what it means to ‘learn America.’” – USA Today
Debut novelist Leah Franqui joins us today on the blog to share with us the genesis of her book, America for Beginners.
When I was in graduate school for Dramatic Writing at NYU I met my husband, a tall Punjabi man from Kolkata, a city in West Bengal. My parents are a cultural mixed marriage; my father’s parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico just before he was born and my mother’s family are of Russian Jewish descent. So, I was somewhat acquainted with cultural diversity within a couple, although there has proved to be a difference in terms of cultural background versus cultural present.
I met my husband’s family for the first time when we had been dating for almost a year. My in-laws haven’t had many opportunities to travel outside of India, and most of their travel within the country has been visiting family or for the purpose of religious pilgrimages to Hindu holy sites. Nevertheless, they elected to visit him in New York for our graduate school graduation.
As part of the trip to the United States, they took a tour of the country. Indians who make a trip to America often do cross-country tours seeing as many places as possible in as few days for as little money, and my in-laws were insistent that this was the thing to do and therefore they must do it. The idea of it, the way it was organized, the guarantee of 10 Indian dinners for every night of the vacation, the way it was organized by Indians for Indians, a packaging of America bought and sold, fascinated me. Explaining someone else’s country to a tour group just struck me as the most interesting thing, and I knew that was worth thinking about.
It also came at this time when I was reconciling myself to my new in-laws, the way they felt delicate and brittle, more like my grandparents than my parents. The way they had expectations and prejudices that came from a different culture and world. The way they were sometimes people I wasn’t sure I liked, no matter how much they seemed to like me. The way my mother-in-law was disgusted by homosexuality, the way they knew very little about America (and why should they, really), and the way they accepted me but didn’t really have much interest in my cultural or religious identity.
This novel became a way to learn about India, about Bangladesh, about sexuality and identity and women. It shaped itself in layers, first a Bengali widow, with a gay son she’d allowed to be shunned from her home, then a Bangladeshi tour company that pretends to be Indian to lure unsuspecting tourists, then finally the larger world, what it means to be with someone closeted, how it feels to tour America, everything else I could understand and find about immigration, displacement, culture clash. Because although my family are the descendants of immigrants, they are very much part of the American cultural landscape, and immigration the way my husband and his family know and have experienced is wildly different.
Most of all, personally, there was the way India loomed in front of my life, with a thousand languages and divisions. We were planning on moving to India and have done so since, and the idea of the country, which I had never visited, terrified and excited me. So, it started with their trip, in a way, and ended with my own move to Mumbai.