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BOOKS

In ‘Passage West,’ a cross-cultural American story set in the Golden State

In “Passage West,” Cambridge author Rishi Reddi revisits a history she first glimpsed in law school, when she encountered a 1923 case hinging on the citizenship eligibility of an Indian-born writer, Bhagat Singh Thind.

“It planted a seed in my mind that I never let go of,” said Reddi, who was born in India and moved to the U.S. as a small child. “It was definitely the thing that I was preparing to write and I knew it would need a lot of research and background knowledge.”

Researching her first novel (she has an earlier collection of stories, “Karma”) took Reddi to California’s Imperial Valley during the World War I era, a time when the farming region was home to a large population of South Asian immigrants, along with Mexican farmworkers and Anglo settlers. Reddi reached out to people, now elderly, who had grown up as the children of sharecroppers, often in families with blended Mexican and Punjabi heritage. “That’s the heart and soul of my book,” she said. “To find about this population that had existed before was very important to me. It was like going back in time and finding myself. I could feel that I could claim the country as my own.”

Despite being set a century ago, “Passage West” tells a story that feels startlingly relevant to some of today’s issues, including racism, the rights of immigrants, and debates about America’s future. “The 2016 elections,” Reddi added, “helped me shape the novel in a more focused way. It molded the novel in a way.”

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Reddi’s daughter, who was a baby when she began working on the book, is now set to enter high school in the fall. “All through the writing of it, I felt like a part of me was writing it for her,” Reddi said.

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Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.