National Public Radio tech correspondent Aarti Namdev Shahani regularly covers Silicon Valley's thorniest news topics and its most influential and intimidating personalities. With her new memoir, "Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares," however, Shahani focuses her journalistic gaze upon her own family, Indian immigrants who came to America with expectations of prosperity and discovered how easy it is to run disastrously afoul of the authorities.
Shahani, who now resides in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, will talk about her new book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at Books Inc. in Mountain View.
Reached by phone, she said it was partly the 2016 election that made her want to tackle a writing project she had been avoiding – a non-fiction account of her immediate family's decades-long struggle with immigration authorities.
"I kind of lifted my head up from my (tech) beat and saw we have a president who is trying to tell a version of my family's story that is simply not true," Shahani said. "It's ugly. It's hateful, and it's a lie. I wanted to tell our story, and the time was now."
She said, "My father was one of those people uprooted by colonialism and searching for home his entire life. That was his fate."
Of Indian heritage, Shahani's father Namdev and his family were displaced following the British Partition in 1947. Working as a film distributor, he eventually made it to Casablanca in Morocco, where he married Shahani's mother and had three children. The family moved to Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York, in 1981.
Shahani asked, "Why would two people living in relative economic stability decide to leave a stable life in one country and take three little kids across the Atlantic Ocean and choose to live undocumented in another country? It seemed like an incredibly risky thing to do."
Namdev Shahani expected that his facility with languages and mathematics would guarantee him a job as soon as he arrived in America. For a long while, he was unable to secure any employment beyond manual labor. Just as he was about to give up, he and a brother opened a successful electronics store.
As a cultural melting pot, the Flushing neighborhood suited the Shahanis. "I grew up in a working-class United Nations," Shahani said. "Every continent was represented in my building. What is really eye-opening about where I grew up is that you see America's capacity for diversity in everyday life."
The good times were short-lived. When Shahani was in high school, her father and uncle were arrested, accused of selling merchandise on behalf of the Cali Colombian drug cartel.
Having accepted a plea bargain based on a lawyer's advice, Namdev Shahani ended up spending eight months at Rikers Island for a crime that Aarti Shahani would later learn probably should not have been prosecuted. Worse, the family learned that Namdev, a green card holder but not a U.S. citizen, could be deported back to India after taking a plea deal.
And 9/11 happened. Suddenly brown-skinned men, even if they were Hindu or Sikh, were under suspicion of being terrorists.
"It took quite a while in my early 20s to realize what a political game-changer 9/11 was," Shahani said. "In my head I kept thinking, 'Well, obviously my family and others have absolutely nothing to do with this. Of course we're going to be able to reform the laws. Of course things will tend toward justice.'"
But that wasn't what happened. Shahani said, "It was a real lesson for me, because I was mourning my city. But in news headlines, my communities and I were suddenly the enemies."
Especially appalling to Shahani were the rules for immediate deportation.
"To have a deportation system that is automatic – meaning a judge literally is not allowed to consider the impact to American children, spouses and family – that's wrong."
Shahani was ultimately able to stop Namdev's deportation. Shahani became a U.S. citizen in the gap year she took between her junior and senior years at the University of Chicago. She also established Families for Freedom, which works on behalf of immigrants threatened with deportation. Her activism has been honored by the Union Square Awards and Legal Aid Society.
Eventually Shahani took a break from activism and enrolled in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Master's in Public Policy program. An NPR Kroc Fellowship encouraged her to try her hand at journalism, which led to an internship with KQED and then to her position with NPR.
Asked how she handles interviewing tech business elite, Shahani said, "I think the thing to do is try not be pre-occupied with sounding smart. I remember when I first moved to Silicon Valley – you meet some of the most brilliant people on earth here. There's a high concentration of smart. One reaction that I had at first was massive insecurity. 'Oh my God, how do I wrap my head around these complicated things people were doing?"
In terms of tech's view of immigration, Shahani said she thinks Silicon Valley is "misguided" in its emphasis on "merit."
"America is about giving families the chance to leap from where they started to where they can go. It's not just a place where people who come from very privileged backgrounds can amass wealth."
Shohani explained, "Immigrants are not the enemy. Immigrants are distinctly American. This country does not survive without the constant infusion of other cultures and other people."
She also said, "The way tech companies are re-organizing the labor market to distance workers from each other has weakened the power of labor, and I find that very troubling."
Namdev Shahani won his deportation case, but his health deteriorated soon after his release from prison. He died in 2015.
Asked about her feelings about her own citizenship, Shahani said, "Americans really believe in justice, that justice should exist and it's something that we strive for. Many parts of the world are OK with gross inequality, with different forms of tribalism."
She concluded, "Thankfully, I've grown up in a culture that seeks constant growth in striving toward a fair society. Whether we have it not, the fact that we hunger for it is distinctly American."
Books Inc. is located at 317 Castro St. For more information, go to www.bookinc.net.