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In 'Members Only,' Pandya Examines Brown Space Between Black And White

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The writer Sameer Pandya describes himself this way.

SAMEER PANDYA: I am a middle-aged Indian American man. I teach at a university.

INSKEEP: The main character of his new novel is also a middle-aged Indian American man teaching at a university.

PANDYA: He is a lecturer in anthropology and has arrived, in some ways, at a midpoint in his life where he is thinking about his own kind of identity, thinking about this life he has grown up in in America in kind of what I think of as the brown space between Black and white.

INSKEEP: That brown space is where Pandya sets his new novel, "Members Only." Much of the action revolves around a private tennis club in California. His main character joins with his family and becomes one of the very few members of color. He gets constant reminders he's not white. He then gets a brutal reminder he is also not Black. He meets a potential Black applicant for the club. And in conversation, the Indian American uses the N-word in the familiar way that some African Americans might do among themselves. His fellow club members are outraged. And, suddenly, this person of color faces demands from white people that he quit the club because of his racism.

PANDYA: This committee is extremely ready to point out a moment of racism on Raj's part.

INSKEEP: Which Raj, the main character, finds infuriating since his fellow club members don't seem to notice their own racism toward him.

Have you had the experience that your main character does of being constantly reminded that you're not entirely a part of white society but not entirely a part of Black society and not really sure where you are?

PANDYA: Yeah, I think it is very much my experience, right? And it is this this idea that I am trying to work through in this novel about belonging, how long you have before that membership, so to speak, gets revoked, right? That's a space I exist in. It's out of that difficulty that I began to think about ways of navigating, ways of managing the space that both I and Raj find ourselves in.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm thinking about the reality that, sometimes, an outside observer sees things that insiders don't see or have stopped seeing. What do you think you might perceive that other people miss because you've been placed as a kind of semioutsider here in America?

PANDYA: Yeah, I think from a very early age arriving in this country, I moved between these spaces, right? And Raj is doing so. Raj goes to high school in a predominantly white city but gets bused there with the African American students and gets bused home after school is over, while at the same time, during the school hours, spends all his time in the way this school has been segregated between the Black and white students.

And I think that what it does - that space of the outside becomes not just as an outsider but then also as a writer, - right? - which is that both of these spaces are deeply observational spaces, that if you are able to see how people are reacting to you, how people are reacting to others, I think, ultimately, it just gives you a lot more information that you don't have if you are embedded within a particular group and feel very comfortable in that group. Discomfort can be, I have found, a powerful tool for perhaps seeing things that other people do not get to see.

INSKEEP: Do you mean, for example, being a liberal, white member of a tennis club and not realizing that you're saying, you know, somewhat racist things all day long?

PANDYA: I think that is a kind of central part of what I'm trying to get to here - right? - which is that there are ways in which being liberal creates its own blind spots.

INSKEEP: Can I get you to read a little bit of this?

PANDYA: Yup.

INSKEEP: This is a moment where your Indian American main character is being pushed to apologize for using this racial epithet. And he says I'll apologize to the African American I insulted but not to you white people. And here's why.

PANDYA: (Reading) As if you were all infallible arbiters, when, in fact, there have been countless instances since I've joined this club when I have been on the receiving end of someone else's stupidity. And I've never gotten an apology. It happens almost every time I come here, maybe even every time, and often more than once. So where's my apology? I'd love an apology for the fact that this club is almost entirely white, and none of you have really done anything to change that; that now that Mark has discovered diversity, your first move as a membership committee is to consider the expulsion of one of the club's only brown members; maybe an apology for every time I've been asked to teach people about India and Islam and everything in between or for every time a member has tried to connect with me by saying that they didn't come to places like this when they were growing up, assuming that I didn't, either; for every time a guest has assumed that I work here or that I've been told that Indian accents are cute and then been asked if I could do one. I'd love an apology for every time someone has spoken to me in one way and the rest of you in another.

INSKEEP: I want to note that your character doesn't call that racism, doesn't call it evil. He calls it stupidity. Why?

PANDYA: Their racism, I think, is embedded in everything that he is saying to them. On the second hand, the idea of stupidity is that they have been stupid enough in a certain way to not examine themselves in this situation - right? - to not examine all that is going on. There is kind of race and the way in which race operates in every interaction in some ways that occurs in the experiences that Raj has at this club.

INSKEEP: What's it like to have this book come out in the midst of this national debate about race?

PANDYA: What I'm hoping is it allows us the kind of conversations, the kinds of changes that need to occur. Race is operating in our country in a particular kind of way - right? - that there are these kind of structural and systemic forms. But perhaps in our own neighborhoods, in our own communities, in our own tennis clubs, those things don't quite reach us, right? And I think that part of the experience of having this book coming out during this time is to initiate a conversation about the fact that there is no part of this country, no aspect of our collective lives where these issues are not prominent.

INSKEEP: Sameer Pandya is the author of the new novel "Members Only." Thanks so much.

PANDYA: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTHCAPE'S "CAPILLARY ACTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.