Community Reading Project lecturer discusses political, social divides in US

GVL / Hannah Zajac
Anand Giridharadas, author of The True American, talks about his book to a group of students and faculty in Kirkoff Center, on Mar. 23, 2017

GVL / Hannah Zajac Anand Giridharadas, author of The True American, talks about his book to a group of students and faculty in Kirkoff Center, on Mar. 23, 2017 ​

Megan Webster

Anand Giridharadas, a prolific journalist and author of “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas,” gave a speech at Grand Valley State University in the Kirkhof Center Grand River Room about his nonfiction book. Using “True American,” he connected the aftermath of Sept. 11 with the current turmoil and unrest in the United States.

Giridharadas took the stage Thursday, March 23, and began his speech by stating a very simple question.

“Where are you from?” he asked. “That’s how our story begins tonight. It’s a true story, beginning with a question many of us have answered 1,000 times in our life. Some of us have answered our happy circumstances, some of us have answered knowing there was a little bit of menace or doubt from the question.”

Giridharadas said when he interviewed Rais Bhuiyan, an immigrant from Bangladesh whose story is told in “True American,” Bhuiyan shared with him that after he was shot, he was given many second chances to rebuild his life here in the U.S., yet he couldn’t feel anything but troubled when he noticed the unbalance that was presenting itself on the streets of Dallas.

“He was shocked,” Giridharadas said. “There were pregnant women walking home on the highway in Dallas’ 100-plus degree heat because no one would give them a ride, and he thought to himself, ‘I just got here. I was shot in the face, but people have helped me, people have taken care of me and there are people who have lived here their whole lives and, for reasons that are invisible to me, they are caught in some web where they have no one, they have no resources, they have no family that will help them.’ He came from one of the poorest countries, but he saw them as being poor in a way that no economists’ model can explain.”

Using this moment in his speech as a gateway, Giridharadas said this moment was reflective of today’s society, a time when the wealthiest people in the U.S., who have the most control and the least amount of vulnerability, are using their power and money to control the bottom half of the population. Still, Giridharadas didn’t fail to mention that those higher-ups in the society which they control are not immune to the inevitable consequences of their actions.

“Here we are in this moment where we are waking up the fortunate half of this country to the reality that we did not hear the unfortunate half of this country for a good 35 years,” Giridharadas said, “and are now paying the price that any society pays when it does not listen to a very large number of people who were complaining for a very long time.”

He also said his novel was originally written in a time of racial hate after the worst attack on U.S. soil since World War II and that it is just as relevant today.

“I started writing the book that summer (of 2011, 10 years after Bhuiyan’s assault), and the book came out in 2014,” Giridharadas said. “Here we are, 2017, 16 years from that fearful moment of hate crimes and fear and anger in the air, right back in another moment like that, a moment this time not stroked by terrorists but by our own leaders. 

“Here we are, once again in a moment when the question of ‘who is an American?’ and ‘what is an American?’ is as contested as it has ever been in my lifetime.”

Giridharadas said the people of the U.S. tend to look down at lower classes to point fingers of blame and mistrust when in reality, they should be turning our neck upwards to direct our hate. By highlighting the vulnerable state the U.S. has found itself in, he said there are consequences to this action. Giridharadas also pointed out that outside forces—more specifically, Russian intelligence—were able to manipulate the people of the U.S. during the 2016 election as a result of this vulnerability.

“The smartest intelligence offices in the world looked at our society and concluded that our greatest vulnerability, and of all the things they could do and of all the operations they could try, that our greatest security vulnerability was how susceptible we were to not trusting our weird uncle, our mom who got really religious a couple of years ago or not trusting our gay son,” Giridharadas said. “Their big sociological conclusion about us is that we totally hate each other.”

Giridharadas said as citizens of the U.S., it’s our job to right the wrongs that have been done, to begin repairing ourselves after a damaging time in society and to start turning our neck upwards instead of down as a symbol of unity.

“We have to fix this country. This country is in a totally unconscionable state,” he said. “I don’t say that just about one leader. Our condition as a people with regard to each other is unsustainable and unconscionable. We are not a country right now.

“People who hate each other this much don’t listen to each other this much, don’t trust each other this much, are not a country. We are maybe a bunch of states.”

Before he took the stage, Giridharadas was introduced by not just one, but three people — one of whom was GVSU President Thomas Haas— who gave him glowing reviews and high praise.

Jennifer Getting Jameslyn, director of the Brooks College Office of Integrative Learning and Advising, explained the culminating experience of this talk at GVSU.

“This author visit is the culmination of, as many of you know, a year of reading, talking, programming, thinking, dialoguing around the issues that are part of this book,” she said.

Haas said Giridharadas’ lecture is extremely relevant to the experiences and conversations not only taking place on campus but in the surrounding communities and the nation.

“Given the conversations that are all around us, whatever news outlet or whatever account that you are reading, this is in fact a very relevant conversation, a very relevant dialogue that we can have,” Haas said.

As a final introduction, Gayle Davis, provost and executive vice president for academic and student affairs, discussed Giridharadas’ relevancy to the GVSU community.

“He has really written a book for the day and for us as we have this conversation on our campus about the changes in our country and the entire immigrant experience,” Davis said. “He has come to this book through journalism.”