'Here We Are' describes immigrant fear behind pursuing the American Dream

Aarti Shahani, author of "Here We Are"
Aarti Shahani covers Silicon Valley for NPR, but her book “Here We Are” tells a very different story. It’s a memoir which she describes as a coming-of-age story and a eulogy to her late father. She tells the story of her family’s struggle after her father was convicted of money laundering and threatened with deportation.
Photo by Nickolai Hammar | Courtesy of Celadon Books

Aarti Shahani, who reports on Silicon Valley for NPR, will come to Minnesota this weekend to tell a different story, one that’s far more personal.

"Here we are: American Dreams, American nightmares" is her memoir of growing up in the U.S. in a family threatened with deportation.

The book opens with a chance encounter with the man who ran the notorious Rikers Island jail in New York City.

"How'd a girl like you start visiting Rikers anyway?" he asked me.

"My dad was an inmate here," I said. Not the answer he was expecting.

As a reporter, Shahani is usually the one asking the questions. But to her surprise, this time she found herself being interviewed. The man asked who presided in the case. Maybe he knew him. It turned out he did.

"Is that right!" The jailer’s eyes lit up. "He's one of my best friends. We go way back, to the Vietnam War days. Really nice guy."

Really nice guy. Quite a tone deaf way to describe the man who presided over the case that ruined my family, incrementally over the course of fourteen years.

In the pages that follow Shahani lays out her family's long journey to a new life in the United States. It began decades before she was born in the chaos and carnage following the partition of India in 1947.

Her parents were both children at the time. Like millions of other people they were forced to flee the violence when British politicians sparked religious conflict by splitting the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

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The cover image of Aarti Shahani’s memoir “Here We Are”
The cover image of Aarti Shahani’s memoir “Here We Are” includes a picture of the author with her late father.
Courtesy of Celadon Books

Her parents, Shahani was told, met years later in Morocco, during a poker game in Casablanca. They married and it was there Aarti came into the world a few years later. The youngest of three children, she was the second daughter.

Soon after, the family emigrated to the U.S., to a new home in Queens. Life was hard as she grew up as her parents had to start from scratch. In time her father and his brother developed a successful electronics business. Aarti Shahani prospered academically, winning a scholarship to an elite prep school. Then things changed.

"My father, after he got his green card, was arrested for selling watches and calculators to a drug cartel," she said.

Shahani said her father was very smart, but occasionally naive. He didn't understand that buying and reselling large quantities of his goods allowed the Colombian company to launder its drug money.

Compounding his problems, she said, he got bad legal advice. A lawyer told him to accept a plea deal which would be cheaper than going to trial.

"He was supposed to get an eight month sentence and the matter would be over with," said Shahani. "But because of laws passed under the Clinton administration in 1996, he was hit by a second surprise punishment — deportation — and my life was turned upside down."

Shahani began advocating for her father, who faced the possibility of being sent back to a country where he had not lived since childhood. Soon others asked for help, too.

She spent her 20s in prisons as an activist working on deportation cases. She eventually resolved her dad's legal problems, and got him home. But she was burned out and needed a new job. So as she puts it, she pivoted, out of activism and into journalism.

"I specifically chose something where my objectivity would never be called into question," she said. "It was perhaps the first really strategic choice I made in my life."

She chose to cover technology, which back in 2011 was all about cool gadgets, and the brilliant geeks creating them. She said now it's about the largest companies in the world, issues of privacy and information control, which she still finds fascinating. She moved to California. It was there she learned of her father’s death.

Aarti Shahani will read from her memoir at the Twin Cities Book Festival on Saturday. She describes it as a eulogy to her father. And there is something else.

"It was important to me in 'Here we are' to talk about what was it like growing up under the constant threat of my family being torn apart. That is how I grew up. It is how a lot of people in this country are growing up."

She hopes the book will inspire some to ask about their own family's arrival story in the United States. She predicts every tale will have some evidence of family imperfections, but also a struggle based in love.

Aarti Shahani reads the opening of 'Here We Are'
by MPR