Aarti Namdev Shahani’s career trajectory gives no hint that she grew up in a cockroach-infested apartment in Flushing or that her father did time in Rikers. This NPR correspondent graduated from an elite prep school in Manhattan and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Her timely debut, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, recounts her family’s gut-wrenching struggle to immigrate despite a broken system.
Shahani’s story fulfills what most call the American dream. Her parents emigrated from India to America (via Casablanca) over 40 years ago, full of hope that this new country would offer their growing family more than their war-torn home. “To migrate to America—to cross the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans or the Sonoran Desert—is the boldest act of one’s life. You do it to be the hero of your own story,” writes Shahani of her parents’ epic journey.
After a rough start, conditions begin to improve for the family—albeit temporarily. When Shahani’s father, a hardworking entrepreneur, accidentally becomes entangled with the Cali drug cartel, his life becomes mired in legal and immigration woes. Teenage Shahani becomes her father’s greatest advocate, tenaciously following up with inept lawyers. While her high school classmates are having fun and going to movies, Shahani does legal work for her father’s case. She even begins writing letters to her father’s judge, a correspondence that spans years.
The author graciously avoids black-and-white answers to difficult questions. How can two members from the same family have such opposite experiences in America? What does it mean to make it? Who really belongs here? A worthy addition to immigration discourse, this book is a raw and engaging glimpse into the challenges immigrant families face that are either too traumatic or mundane to land on the news.