(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 19, 2008)
"We thought we knew so much about the world, didn't we? About who we were and all the things we thought we knew about ourselves. But what did we know? What will we ever know? We thought that coming here would make everything good…That we would set our feet here and life would be easy…[But] it only gets harder."
Francisco D'Sai, the young American narrator of this novel, lives in Chicago, sharing two cultures, the American culture of his mother, Denise, and the Konkan culture of his father, Lawrence. The two had married in the 1960s when his mother's Peace Corps duties in India were drawing to a close. Denise, in love with India and its culture, was less than enthusiastic about returning to the US, longing for the warmth and lively spirit of India, something she had not known at home. Lawrence, the conscientious and hard-working oldest son of an oldest son of an oldest son, going back hundreds of years, was anxious to come to the US to seek new opportunities and his fortune.
Determined to succeed in the US, just as he had in India, Lawrence has devoted his time since his arrival to "fitting in," to becoming as American as the people with whom he has associated in his work as a corporate insurance manager. Francisco's mother Denise still longs for the warmth and lively spirit of the India she has known, not really happy as a housewife with an upwardly mobile husband who is never really "at home" to her, even when he is physically present.
Some years after their arrival, when Francisco is still a child, two of Lawrence's brothers appear on their doorstep—helped into the country by Denise. Lawrence resents their presence in the basement quarters he has been forced to set up for them in his house—"Why did I come here if everything I hated about [India] is now dancing in my basement?" he wonders, while Sam and Les make themselves quite loudly at home. Because they do not have the serious family responsibilities of the oldest son of the oldest son, the brothers are Lawrence's opposites. Rowdy and debonair, they adapt quickly to their mixed Hispanic neighborhood, and they are popular additions to the local nightlife.
Soon Sam is teaching his nephew Francisco about his Konkan family in India, telling him stories, family history, and the secrets of the larger family whom Francisco has never seen, along with the story of how the Konkans came to be a Catholic culture among the Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims of larger India. According to Sam, St. Francis Xavier, for whom Francisco is named, came to the west coast of India with Vasco da Gama in the sixteenth century, converting Indians and building churches to celebrate both Catholic and Portuguese culture.
Throughout the novel, Lawrence works to become part of the American mainstream, learning to play tennis, learning to play golf, "upgrading" his house and his neighborhood, and trying to join the country club. He gets "promotions" at work, but he remains an outsider socially.
Filled with wonderful mini-dramas, the novel resembles a collection of short stories from the sixties through the present, focusing on the various characters as they experience their lives and draw conclusions about it. Sometimes humorous, it also deals with serious questions of cultural adjustment, and as the novel evolves, the light-heartedness of the beginning disappears in response to more serious cultural conflicts. This "family saga" evokes genuine feeling as the various characters share their stories with the reader over time and show their difficulties in fitting into the prevailing culture, whether that be Indian or American, from the sixties or the present.
Ultimately, "We remember what we need to…Each of us keeps our memories just as we need them to be. If your memories of what we did are good, let yourself remember them as good. And if they are bad, let them be that, too." Because people do "adjust" their memories, the reader cannot be sure if Francisco, the primary point of view, or Sam, the primary story teller, are as reliable as we think them to be. Each remembers and conveys what is important to him, passing on what he believes will be important to the family which will follow in later generations.Though not autobiographical, according to interviews with the author, the novel, nevertheless, draws on his experiences as someone who shares American and Konkan cultures. It shows the pluses and minuses of both worlds, the humorous and the sad. The novel lacks the sort of sharp focus and unity of spirit which would allow the reader to draw important conclusions about a variety of themes, but it is entertaining, enlightening for the depiction it gives of an unusual culture and the challenges faced by all immigrants who try to blend into a new culture while preserving what is important from their own.
- Amazon readers rating: from 1 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Konkans at Harcourt
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Tony D'Souza
- Peace Corps Writers interview with Tony D'Souza
- Pine Magazine interview with Tony D'Souza
- Everyday Yeah review of White Man
- The New York Times review of White Man
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About the Author:
Tony D'Souza was born and raised in Chicago. He earned Masters degrees in writing from Hollins University and the University of Notre Dame, and served three years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, where he was a rural AIDS educator. He spent five months in Nicaragua covering the Doris Jimenez killing and Eric Volz murder trial.
Tony has contributed to The New Yorker, Playboy, Salon, Esquire, Outside, the O.Henry Awards, Best American Fantasy, McSweeney's, Tin House, Amazon and elsewhere. He received a 2006 NEA Fellowship and a 2007 NEA Japan Friendship Fellowship.
Tony's first novel, Whiteman, received the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.