All seems placid and happy in the New Haven suburb of South Haven — until you venture inside people’s homes, and into their private lives.
Hirsh Sawhney ventured inside and came away with a powerful story. Sawhney, a New Haven author who teaches creative writing and literature at Wesleyan, tells that story in a new book called South Haven. Even before its official release, Barnes & Noble has chosen it for its Discover Great New Writers program. Expect to hear more about this debut book.
South Haven is a fictional town, of course; if it existed, it would be underwater in Long Island Sound. Sawhney knows about suburban New Haven life because he grew up in Orange. (Readers will recognize thinly disguised versions of Pasta Fair on Route 1 and Louis’ Lunch in New Haven.) He knows about the immigrant experience, having grown up in an Indian-American household. And he knows what it’s like to be a little boy suddenly having to navigate a cruel world after losing his mother — even though his own mother is still alive.
The story begins when Siddharth, a sensitive and creative young boy, loses his mother in a car accident. He struggles to choose between his artistic muse and the pressures of conformist delinquency and nihilism while he, his father, and older brother struggle to keep the family together. A romance with a Jewish woman and her troubled son mesh two cultural traditions in a distinctly American suburban stew.
Hirsh brought this reader to tears with a single hug; the dramatic events in the story seem almost predestined to have led up to that quiet moment.
The book also offers, through the bookends of two deaths that upend young Siddharth’s life, a universal look at the complexity of how people wrestle with guilt and blame amid tragic loss.
Rewrites & Politics
Hirsh said in an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” that he hadn’t thought of how the two deaths bookend the novel; his editor pointed it out to him. The interview focused on intentions and happenstance in the writing process, what makes fiction “true,” and what the role of politics is in storytelling.
Hirsh said he mapped out the basic storyline in advance; he didn’t just start a story and see where it took him. He had that climactic hug in mind as he wrote earlier scenes.
But he also found the characters taking him in unplanned directions. The school psychologist who becomes Siddharth’s father’s new romantic partner, for instance, evolved, forcing Hirsh to rewrite some scenes. He originally saw her as a “simpleton”; she became more of a “clear-eyed” active character who “empowers herself throughout the novel and changes my protagonist’s life.”
“There’s that cliche that writers say about letting characters speak to you and control the plot in some way,” Hirsh said. “I always found that a little bit distasteful and cheesy. But as a I got deeper into this, I couldn’t force these individuals in my book to do certain things to conform to the plot.”
The obvious initial comparison to Sawhney’s work is to the star novelist and short-story writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who also writes movingly about Indian-American immigrant families. Sawhney, a critic whose reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian, has been critical of Lahiri for downplaying American complicity in tragedies central to her work; in South Haven, Sawhney tackles political complicity — in this case, Islamophobia among Hindus — head on.
His editor encouraged Hirsh to dig more deeply into Islamophobia than he had in earlier drafts. Hirsh took the advice; Siddharth’s father’s descent into Islamophobia formers a major theme of the concluding section of the novel.
“I can’t speak for all novelists. But one of my goals as a novelist is to create stories that resound authentically or ring true and that do divulge some meaningful political truth about the world that I inhabit,” Hirsh said. “But I’m not forcing it.”
Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full interview With Sawhney. See and hear him read aloud from South Haven at the Institute Library, 847 Chapel St., on Thursday, May 5, beginning at 7 p.m.