Will Glovinsky in Public Books:
Was Sharmila Sen “happy” on the first morning she woke up in the United States to the strange smell of bacon frying? That’s what her young son wants to know when, near the end of Not Quite Not White—Sen’s powerful memoir and meditation on race and migration—he interviews her for a school project on immigration. It turns out we already know the answer. “It was a complex animal smell,” we read earlier of the odor she ever after associates with her 1982 arrival in Boston from Calcutta, “making my mouth water and my stomach churn in revulsion at the same time.”
Unwilling to a give her son a placating affirmative, Sen instead emphasizes that, while hardly joyous on arrival, she eventually adapted to life in her new country, just as her son would be able to should he himself have to emigrate one day. Though the prospect pains the young interviewer, it crystalizes an important strand of Sen’s reflections on emigration and belonging. “Should we only teach our children to welcome strangers among us? Or should we also teach them that one day they too might be strangers in a strange land—pushed around the globe by forces of economics, politics, or nature?” For Sen, the answer is at once clear and paradoxical: “We have truly arrived when we are no longer afraid of departure.”
What’s striking about this closing scene is not only the bold parenting or the way Sen turns a hoary Ellis Island mythology on its head.