Interview with Simrita Dhir, author of the historical novel The Rainbow Acres.
1. What inspired you to write your debut novel The Rainbow Acres?
The Rainbow Acres is a historical novel about displacement and migration that unfurls in the early twentieth century. Being an immigrant, I was naturally curious to explore the history of the earliest immigrants who came to California from my homeland Punjab. I was inspired to write The Rainbow Acres after learning about the brave stories of the pioneer Punjabi farmers of California who started their journeys from Punjab shortly after the gold rush. Undertaking perilous journeys, they sailed across two oceans to reach California with the hope of claiming their piece of the golden land. I thought their stories of strife, struggle and fantastic success had all the twists and turns of a fictional story.
Many of these pioneer Punjabi farmers of California married Mexican women, who had been uprooted by the Mexican revolution. As a result, a fascinating Punjabi-Mexican community sprang up in California. It was a beautiful coming together of two cultures, a truly secular, bi-ethnic set-up that came to exemplify a new and eclectic California.
Even though a lot of sociological research had been done about California’s remarkable Punjabi-Mexican community, there had been no attempt at fictionalizing this episode from Californian history. Finding the Punjabi-Mexican community absolutely riveting, I took it upon myself to render the beautiful story of the melding of two cultures into fiction.
2. How does the theme of the novel ring true in today’s time?
Displacement and migration continue to be deeply relevant issues today where thousands risk lives and limbs every day in the search of new beginnings. In The Rainbow Acres, Kishan Singh’s uncertain journey across two oceans undergoing which, he nearly dies, is no different from the tragic refugee deaths that occur on boats today. Only in the last few years, nearly 9000 migrants have been lost in the Mediterranean Sea. Sophia’s story, too, is deeply reminiscent of the plight of the contemporary Central American refugees who undertake hazardous journeys to start new lives in a faraway land. Across the world, the number of people impelled to flee their homelands has increased to 65 million and refugee admissions in the United States have been trending upwards. Immigrant narratives are vital to conversations about displacement and migration and it is my hope that The Rainbow Acres will promote empathy for immigrants and refugees, thereby facilitating a deeper understanding of those issues.
3. There is a great depth in the writings of Toni Morrison. Having done your PhD on Toni Morrison, what would be the one significant influence that Toni Morrison’s work has on your writing?
Toni Morrison is most certainly one of the greatest storytellers of our time. She has had an indelible impact on me to where I began writing The Rainbow Acres after having internalized her famous lines, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Those lines were always ringing loud in my mind during the years that it took me to write The Rainbow Acres. I felt as though it were imperative to lend a voice to the pioneer Punjabi farmers of California whose achievement has been anything but phenomenal in the annals of Californian history. Starting out as farmhands, they gradually began leasing small tracts of land and eventually became land barons in California to where, today, Punjabi farmers farm hundreds of thousands of acres of California’s prime agricultural land. Their success is a manifestation of the great California Dream and I can never thank them enough for serving as my inspiration for writing The Rainbow Acres.
4. Your book touches the heart and makes the readers experience the emotions of the characters. What emotions did you go through while writing the novel?
The writer lives through the characters. I lived Kishan Singh and Sophia’s anguish and elation every step of the way. Both the protagonists are romantics at heart, which is my personal belief about all immigrants. I believe an immigrant is an incorrigible romantic. I mean one has to be romantic to leave behind all that is familiar and safe and bet a stake on an unfamiliar land. A lot of people, even in the worst of adversities, continue waiting in their land of origin for their luck to change, but an immigrant takes a chance and casts his lot with a faraway land with the uncanny belief that his life will be better in the new place. In the case of Kishan Singh, given the time period, it was beyond brave of him to pack up and undertake the difficult journey across oceans. Never having even seen a picture of the new world, he was armed on the voyage only by the courage of his beliefs and the fire of his dreams. Similarly, Sophia was driven by her hope for more and better in life and it is this hope that energizes her to take the dangerous night journey across the border to start anew along the coast of dreams.
5. Comment on the narrative technique that you chose for The Rainbow Acres.
The alternating narratives of Kishan and Sophia provide unique yet universal insights into the immigrant experience. By choosing this narrative technique, I attempted to focus on the immigrant experience as well on the universal themes of love, loss and moving on. Kishan Singh and Sophia’s journeys evolve along different paths in vastly different surroundings, but both stories embody the quest for more and better in life. Both protagonists are dreamers who tend to look beyond the horizon. Victims of loss and denial, they fight circumstances as well as thought-provoking dilemmas while never losing their nobility. Their uncanny belief in the second chances that the faraway land seems to offer, drives their journeys. I also thought that the alternating narratives of Kishan and Sophia would offer a more engaging reading experience where the reader would be delving in two very different narratives spanning across two different continents. Even as the two narratives run parallel, they promise to converge at some point, which I thought the readers would find intriguing.
6. The novel makes significant comments on the human experience. Was it a conscious decision on your part to do so?
Through history, people have migrated in search of greener pastures. A migrant believes in the promise of the unknown; he is a believer and a doer who takes charge of his life and destiny, someone whose sense of enterprise nudges him to break away from the familiar, take risks and embark upon the new. And while their backgrounds and experiences vary, both Kishan Singh and Sophia embody the immigrant resilience and grit. Kishan Singh loses the most vital aspect of his existence and Sophia’s entire world crashes before her eyes. Their lives are torn apart, they are devastated, but never do their really let go of that inherent belief in themselves and in the world. They pick themselves and move on even as they know that they would face yet more hurdles along new paths. Sophia aptly says in the novel, “The human journey is not the travel of the sun or the moon. It cannot be predicted. One can’t fight one’s story, it always wins.” As their stories unfurl along new roads, Kishan Singh and Sophia continue to discover themselves anew. To quote from the novel, “Everyday was a journey. The odyssey never ended, going on and on instead in a perpetual quest of open roads and yet newer beginnings. And wild ambiguous milestones made it worth taking.”
7. How different are Kishan Singh and Sophia’s immigrant experiences from your own. How much does your lived experience inform the novel?
This is a deeply relevant question. I am an immigrant and a proud one for that. My immigrant experience defines me in many ways and that is the primary reason that I wrote The Rainbow Acres. Having said that, I must mention that the California that I immigrated to in the year 2000 was very different from Kishan and Sophia’s California. The year 2000 was not just the beginning of a new century but also of a brave new millennium. The California that I encountered was an out-and-out multi-ethnic place, the only US state to have no majority race, where everyone belonged, and no one was an outsider, so to say. Unlike Kishan Singh and Sophia, I came to attend university on a F1 Student Visa. Indian students on campus were perceived of as being insightful and intelligent. Generally speaking, being Asian was considered “cool”. I did not encounter any of the confining racial boundaries that Kishan Singh does in The Rainbow Acres. I, however, share Kishan Singh and Sophia’s enamor for the unknown in abundance and find myself invariably drawn to all things new. There are lines in the novel that capture the immigrant mindset. They are as true for me as they are for Kishan Singh and Sophia. “Far horizons were alluring, layered with miracles and romance. And they were always receding farther, arousing the urge to sprint to newer haunts, braver ideas and infinite dreams.”
8. The novel poses a question- Is the journey worth the struggle? How would you respond to that question?
That is a question for the readers to ponder on and come up with their own answers. The journey motif is integral to the story. There are lines in the novel about the course of journeys, “Stories are no one’s slaves. They follow their own course, not anyone’s wishes or dictates.” Long journeys, such as the ones that Kishan Singh and Sophia undertake to reach the fabled land, are bound to be difficult and unpredictable. Along the way, even the most optimistic of voyagers, like Kishan Singh, is bound to reflect upon the question, “Is the journey worth the struggle?”
Both Kishan Singh and Sophia take difficult journeys across unfamiliar terrains, separated from family and everyone who is familiar. In battling hardships, both protagonists are rescued by complete strangers who feature only for brief moments, disappearing immediately after rendering help, but the reverberations of their acts of kindness continue to echo through the length of the novel. Essentially, the novel depicts that in life, one has a choice – either to be dismissive and indifferent or to be kind and thoughtful. Kishan Singh and Sophia are compassionate because they have known suffering and have received kindness from unexpected sources. The representation of strangers in fiction has, more often than not, tended to be one of distrust. So, I wanted to shift that stance and show how in their limited roles, strangers have the ability to leave a lasting impact, gradually leading the protagonists to becoming the finest versions of themselves.
9. Which is your favorite character in the novel and why?
Kishan Singh has lived the longest in my mind. I began reflecting on his character much before I even started work on The Rainbow Acres. Having said that, there are no favorites. All characters whether it be the protagonists Kishan Singh and Sophia or the supporting characters – Jaspal, Roop, Amy and Isabel – are all integral to the evolution and success of the novel. I relate to the struggles, beliefs and mindsets of all characters. There is something of me in all of them.
10. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
To me, writing is deeply energizing. When in the throes of writing, I can work tirelessly for days at a stretch and then take a break for a day or two only to start again with vigor.
11. What is your favorite genre? Is there any other genre that you would like to explore?
Besides literature, I am also a keen student of history and hence, historical fiction is particularly fascinating to me. Historical fiction brings history alive, helps us identify with voices, views and concerns from another time. It also builds empathy, compassion and an appreciation of differences. The way I see it, historical fiction is a wonderful way of associating history with emotion and also serves as a great tool to imbibe life lessons.
12. What is that one most important thing you learnt while writing this book?
Researching and learning about the Punjabi diaspora in California has helped me tremendously in coming to terms with my own journey across oceans. Even though the California that I inherited is a lot different from Kishan Singh’s California, learning about the struggles of the pioneer immigrants from Punjab has strengthened by ability to empathize with people and their struggles in a time that would have otherwise been completely foreign to me. I am glad that in internalizing the strife of the pioneer immigrants from Punjab, I have been able to lend them a voice while being deeply benefitted myself. The stories of the pioneers have urged me to keep going, to find my place in a fast evolving California and be conscious of my actions at all times. I would like to believe that writing The Rainbow Acres has made me a better, more nuanced person.