I wasn’t prepared to enjoy your novel Jasmine because it’s an immigrant saga and I’d tired of them even before I learned to read. My paternal grandparents were part of that “wretched refuse” washed up on America’s shores to sweat and slave so that my dad and his siblings could either become lawyers and optometrists or marry them. Even though those long-suffering Old World ancestors worked themselves to death years before I was born, my parents fed me their stories of sacrifice and struggle along with my Pabulum and formula. Every time I heard the words, “When she was your age, your grandma . . .” I longed to stick my fingers in my ears and my nose in the pages of a book about those all-American March sisters or that lucky little girl who lived with her normal parents in their cozy sod cottage out west.
But Jasmine is an imaginary immigrant, a fairy tale survivor with looks and chutzpah. Her equally imaginary grandchildren will hear how a gutsy teenager from an impoverished Punjabi village made the proverbial “better life” for herself in an America that was ripping the welcome mat right out from under the latest generations of huddled masses. Jasmine’s children will brag to their kids about how their mother, destined to be widowed and exiled, defied that grim forecast to become an American woman who determines her own fate. The instant I finished the novel, I added it to the syllabus of a course called Cultures and Values I was teaching at a community college in Jersey City, New Jersey.
As an English prof, you surely know the risks inherent in rereading a much-loved book with students. For me it was like having a non-Jewish friend at our Seder table. I hope her enjoyment of the familiar chicken soup will inspire her to try the gefilte fish or at least to refrain from gagging audibly when I serve it. To my immigrant students in the Nineties, the quick-witted and lovely Jasmine was chicken soup, a superwoman sister. Her struggles were epic versions of their own and her conquests nourished their souls. But they had trouble understanding why the young widow fled the familiar but constraining comforts of the Punjabi community in Queens to seek out the real America.
For my students the America that Jasmine explores was foreign, as much puzzle as Promised Land, more gefilte fish than chicken soup. It’s a place where many people, even women, routinely take fate into their own hands. One teenager in my class, promised to a man she’d never met still in Pakistan, asked, “Why would Jasmine’s employer, a successful career woman, divorce her husband, the father of her child, just because she fell in love with someone else?” A young male classmate from Kenya was astounded when Jasmine encounters a childless woman undergoing treatments to remedy her infertility. “The doctor can heal this woman so she can have a son? For sure?” I kept your moving and evocative book in the syllabus, and every time I reread it, I was struck by the appeal a well-crafted immigrant narrative has for all of us.
Meanwhile, I was conflicted about my own Jewish roots, and I resolved that someday I would write a novel about a Jewish immigrant girl who, like Jasmine, and unlike my grandparents, breaks with the constrictions and comforts of her culture to shape her own life. But it wasn’t until years later when I found myself out of my own comfort zone─ hundreds of miles from a good Jewish deli and often the only Jew in the room─ that I actually did. And your fictional Jasmine helped me dream up Feigele Lindner, one of the protagonists of The Bones and the Book. So thank you for creating Jasmine and for your gifted telling of her story.