The Untold POC History of California

Rishi Reddi's novel "Passage West" explores the lives of Indian farm laborers in the American West

Photo of farm workers in California by Ansel Adams. Public domain via Library of Congress.

Rishi Reddi takes “epic” to the next level with this untold PoC history of California. Passage West is a novel of California, of the U.S.-Mexico border, and of America, that you probably had no idea you needed in your life. The novel begins with Karak Singh on his deathbed in a Los Angeles hospital in 1974 bequeathing a box of “of things only you and I know about” to his old friend and farming partner, Ram Singh. 

The letters send the Punjab, India-born Ram back to 1913 and to his early days as an immigrant in America. Reddi then introduces us to the early farming landscape of California’s Imperial Valley—and to the Sikhs, Japanese, and Mexicans who work the land as sharecroppers and laborers—and their white overlords. As they raise cotton and cantaloupes out of the desert sand, their lives are challenged by shifting legal realities, anti-immigration fervor, fragile harvests, and lopsided sales deals. World War I intrudes and sends two of the community’s young men, Amarjeet, and his Japanese American friend, Harry to the European trenches. 

The war’s end brings more racism and new laws against land ownership by “aliens”—which leads to severe losses and eventually, to a murder. Passage West edges over 400 pages but Reddi’s prose, measured and with exquisite attention to sonics of accents and multiple languages, makes it a pleasure. The exacting renditions of the immigrants’ newly acquired languages, be it Spanish or English, charm and lay bare the bewilderment of living in another tongue. More than once it cleaved my heart. Take this line, for example, from the Japanese farmer Tomoya Moriyama upon being evicted from his land, shortly after his American-born son dies in World War I: “What country take only son and not let you to stay?” 

I spoke to Reddi about writing a global history, imagining lone women, and to whom any land ever really belongs. 

J.R. Ramakrishnan: While it’s centered in California, your novel has a global scopethe Punjab, Manila, France, and Mexico are some of the places your characters have been. Where did this story begin for you?

Rishi Reddi: I had originally wanted to write about a love triangle between a newlywed Punjabi man who temporarily comes to the US to make money (Ram), and the wife he leaves behind (Padma), and a Mexican woman who has fought in her country’s revolution (Adela). But my research into the 1910s opened many other doors: the revolutionary Ghadar party’s global movement to overthrow the British in India; the adventures of America’s World War I troops in France, and the manner in which that war intersected with the 1918 pandemic. The more I learned about the South Asian experience of those years, the more I felt that the depiction of that historic moment through these characters needed to touch upon all these factors. 

JRR: You’ve woven together multiple histories—–British India, early South Asian immigration to the U.S., California farming, the Mexican Revolution, World War I, Spanish Flu, and much else. The characters who experience these events are on the precarious fringes of life. How long did it take to research the historical settings, and how did you go about it? 

RR: I started with trying to flesh out my protagonists, Ram and Karak, and I read a few studies by sociologists about the communities formed by South Asian immigrants at this time. I also looked at many contemporaneous newspaper articles, magazines, governmental reports, transcripts of court cases and Congressional testimony, and even the lyrics of musical scores. It was fascinating to find how much South Asians and the subcontinent had captured the imaginations of folks living in America. The most important part of my exploration led me to the grown children of the real men who had lived in California in the 1910s and ‘20s. These children shared their family stories with me. My research came in fits and starts and took me a long time, about a decade. I wanted the novel to depict the lives of everyday, ordinary people, as well as the historical figures we still know about today.

JRR: Ram is an outsider in the U.S. but he’s also an outsider in the farm in that he is part Hindu and not Sikh like the rest of the farm family. His father was Sikh but he wasn’t raised in the tradition. Ram seems defined by his fatherlessness. Would you tell us about how you shaped Ram’s identity (of mixed religion and othered to the Sikhs), especially as he himself expresses concerns about miscegenation later on in the novel?

RR: I am not Sikh and was not raised in the faith, so I cannot speak about the religion from an insider’s perspective. But if one reads about the history of the religion, one finds, in earlier years, a fluidity between the Sikh and Hindu communities in India. Among certain strata of Punjabi society, there was intermarriage and, it seems, mutual respect.  The relationship between Sikhism and Hinduism is complex and has been the subject of significant research and scholarly writing. Ram’s identity as half Sikh and half Hindu might symbolize some of this complexity and search for identity within each faith. I am not sure that Ram would have experienced his parents’ interfaith marriage to be akin to his interfaith love affair with Adela…. It’s an interesting question you present! I do think that his initial attraction to Jivan is rooted in his grief over never having known his own father, who was an observant Sikh.

JRR: There are two scenes that seem quite important in the depiction of Sikh identity. The first is when Jivan throws his British army medals into the Salton Sea, and the second is when Karak asks Rosa, his soon-to-be Mexican wife to cut off his hair. I was wondering if you could talk about these scenes and how you chose to describe the realities of maintaining historical identity and culture in America?

RR: During my research, I read that both of these incidents had actually occurred to real men, although in slightly different form. When I learned of them, I thought there was no better way to dramatize the tension between loss of cultural identity and the pressures of assimilation. I had to include them in the book.

JRR: I was so hopeful for Padma, Ram’s wife left behind in India. Can you share a little about how you imagined her?

RR: Padma may be the character that suffers and loses the most in the book, and her life is emblematic of so many South Asian women who were left behind while their husbands went abroad for work. Because of the collective family structure, their desires, hopes, and dreams often went unrecognized and unrealized. When people today think of these women, they don’t allow themselves to imagine the fullness of their internal world: how did Padma cope with her loneliness? Couldn’t she have had a secret sweetheart—which may have been unfathomable in strict society, but nevertheless would occur? Couldn’t she have had a talent, a skill, a sense of humor, or an intelligence for which she would be known? Of course she would. 

I wanted to give Padma a powerful voice in the novel, but that was difficult to do in a tale that focused on men’s experience in western lands. So I chose to represent her point of view directly—through her own letters. I wrote her epilogue in its final form years ago. I knew that was the emotional note on which I wanted to end the book. Padma, fittingly, has the last word.

JRR: Adela was also super intriguing. She is a widow of a man who fought in the Mexican Revolution. I was horrified when Ram cast her aside. Who/what inspired her?

RR: In creating the character of Adela, I was inspired by the stories of the real soldaderas, Mexican women who filled a wide variety of roles during the Revolution, including that of a soldier on the frontlines. Some were camp followers who provided emotional and sexual comfort for the male soldiers, some were spouses who traveled with their children in tow. I thought of Adela as initially following her husband into battle, but then taking up arms herself, in an idealistic bid for freedom. 

JRR: The scene of the Angel Island immigration interview that Padma undergoes is upsetting. Most people might be less aware of the history of Angel Island, perhaps maybe because Ellis Island is the story of old-time immigration that is the preferred, more European one. Could you talk about how this piece of the story came together? It was incredibly interesting that you had one of the immigration officers be a Punjabi American. It recalled for me the Latino border patrol agents who police the US-Mexico border in our contemporary moment. 

The story of the arrival of Spaniards and Chinese and other Asian groups has always occupied an inferior role in the U.S. narrative.

RR: Throughout the writing of Passage West, I was interested in the way that the mythologized history of US immigration follows the European trail, and is founded on the early Dutch and British presence in the Eastern states. The story of immigration in Western parts of the U.S., the arrival of Spaniards and Chinese and other Asian groups, has always occupied an inferior role in the US narrative. The early South Asians— students, traders, revolutionaries, intellectuals, farmers, and laborers were significant (if not numerous) members of this western landscape. The idea for the U.S. immigration employee of Indian origin came to me after I read an account of the ship Komagata Maru in Vancouver, during which at least one Punjabi man was suspected to be working for the Canadian government against Punjabi immigrant interests.

JRR: World War I enters the novel when Amarjeet, Jivan’s nephew, and Harry, the son of the Moriyama family who farm the neighboring plot, enlist. I can’t think of many books which portray PoC in WWI. The situation seems somewhat more representative with WWII (The English Patient, backstory of White Teeth, Miracle at St. Anna, etc) beyond the Tom Hanks versions/The Bridge on River Kwai/Changi Prison narratives. Was it your intent from the start to have WWI be a part of the novel?

RR: We know that President Woodrow Wilson actively encouraged immigrants from all nations, including Japan and China, to become part of the US military, and undertook a propaganda campaign to that end. My research revealed that there were numerous men of South Asian descent that had enlisted in the US Army during WWI. We have some records of those men, and we also have records of South Asian American publications that were encouraging men to enlist because of the skills that they would learn in the military. This fact was too compelling to leave out of my novel. I chose to include it because I think that many Punjabi men, especially those who came from families with a military background, would have considered the army as an employment option. 

JRR: It’s been a while since I cried in the course of any book but I did when Moriyamas got the news of Harry’s death after believing he was coming home, having been honored for his bravery after saving a racist fellow soldier. What a devastating moment! Then, things get worse for the Moriyamas with Alien Land Law and the family lose their farm. The question of belonging and to whom land belong seems to be very much at the heart of the novel. You have Karak’s grandfather who loses land in India and Karak meditates on the different previous owners of the farm from the U.S. government to the King of Spain to its indigenous forebears. Jivan asks: “Who belongs in what place on this earth? The British did not belong in India…Perhaps he did not belong in the Imperial Valley either.” It seems that you’ve lived many places yourself and I wonder what your personal take is on Jivan’s question? 

RR: I lived in many different cities and three different continents during my growing-up years, and have not been able to answer that question. I think that’s why I have Jivan ask it…. I’d love a good answer!

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