In This Land is Your Land, Suketu Mehta argues for immigration; its economic benefits as much as its moral imperative. He speaks to Samanth Subramanian on what drove him to write the book

Words by Samanth Subramanian | 04 Nov, 2019

Suketu Mehta: I was working on my endless New York book when someone from Foreign Policy Magazine contacted me and said: “We’re doing an immigration issue. Do you have something like a family story, something you can quickly knock out?” That will take a week or two, I thought. But as I started writing, I found myself getting outraged and angry as I’d never been before, just thinking about this whole current fucking immigration debate worldwide. It’s all from the viewpoint of the west, of the rich countries. Is immigration good for us? How many immigrants should we let in? Should they be skilled or unskilled?

Well, what about the immigrants themselves? Why are they moving? It’s not because they hate their homes or their languages or their food or people. It’s because they have no choice. They move because these rich countries stole the future of poor countries through colonialism, war, inequality, and now, climate change.

So the piece comes out, and I begin to get an avalanche of hate mail. It was unbelievable. Ann Coulter and this one guy, some white supremacist named Steve Sailer, who really has it in for me, tweeted about it. He was like: You die, go back to your country, on and on. It felt like being in high school in 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis when my friend Rajesh and I were walking down the hallway. This Irish kid yelled, “Fucking ayatollahs!” at us, and we said, “Hey, hey, we ain’t Iranians, we’re Indians.” Then he went, “Fucking Gandhis!”

So as all this was happening, my agent contacted me while I was at the Bangalore Literature Festival and said: “You’re turning this article into a book.” I said: “I’m already writing a book,” referring to my New York book, and she said, “No, write this one instead.” Because I’m scared of her, in a week I had a book proposal.

By the time I returned to New York, nine publishers were bidding on it. And Farrar, Straus, and Giroux made a pre-emptive bid for three books. One of them is this small book—The Secret Life of Cities—that has only been published in Spanish and Italian. It’s a sort of meditation, a riff on migration, alienation, and community in global cities. And then everyone wanted This Land is Your Land, like, yesterday. It’s a short book, just about 200 pages with 80 pages of footnotes. I’ve never written anything so fast. I did it in a year. I felt so strongly about it. It included research trips to places like Morocco, Spain, Hungary, Serbia, and the Mexican border.

SS (Samanth Subramanian): Why did you feel this urgency?

SM: The Czech poet, Jaroslav Seifert, once said that for anyone else, not to tell the truth can be a tactical manoeuvre. They can just be silent. But a writer who’s not telling the truth is lying, even if he’s just staying quiet. I’ve never seen it so bad in this country or in Europe. There’s just a massive global backlash against immigration. At the same time, people have never migrated in such large numbers. There’s a quarter of a billion people who’re living in a country other than theirs.

Anyone else, not to tell the truth can be a tactical manoeuvre. They can just be silent. But a writer who’s not telling the truth is lying, even if he’s just staying quiet

SS: The current backlash is a reaction to that?

SM: No, it’s not just the numbers, that’s the interesting thing. The world could take in much more immigration than it does, and everyone would be better off. I did a lot of research on numbers; it can’t just be me on a soapbox. If you had open borders—and I’m not advocating for open borders—world GDP would double. The world would be wealthier by $78tn a year. In the US, there’s this notion that the country is full up, that we can’t take any more immigrants. The US takes in 1 million people per year. And we think of ourselves as the most immigrant-friendly country, which is what the Republicans keep saying. The US ranks 23rd in the world in the number of immigrants it takes in as a proportion of its population. Even if we tripled our immigration intake, from 1 to 3 million per year, we wouldn’t even be in the top five immigrant-friendly countries.

Australia, Canada and Switzerland all take in far higher percentages of immigrants and are doing just fine. Basically, people are moving in larger numbers. The world can comfortably accommodate many times this number. During the age of mass migration, from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century, one-quarter of Europe got up and moved to the US.

With what result? The US replaced Europe at the pinnacle of world wealth and power.

SS: Were these positions you held before you set out to write the book—misgivings you had intuitively—before you went out there and found that there was a wealth of academic evidence to back them up? How did it happen? Which came first?

SM: I didn’t have any kind of empirical evidence, because this was not the track I was on. Every book, I think, begins with a puzzle, with a question you ask yourself. You could write a magazine article from a commission, but a book has to feel necessary on a deep intrinsic level. And it felt necessary to write this book now.

So as I did it, I just went very deep into all kinds of obscure journals and economic studies and papers. And of course, I spoke to a lot of people. I was educating myself. I’m not an economist or a demographer, I’m a storyteller. I found all these people who had the evidence. It’s all there …This is an angry book, but with a happy ending, and the happy ending is that when immigrants move, everyone benefits. The figures are just staggering. If you wanted to help the poorest people in the world, the fastest way to do so would be to ease the barriers to immigration. Last year, immigrants sent back $689bn in remittances, which is three times more than the direct gain from abolishing all trade barriers, four times more than all the foreign aid that these countries receive, and 100 times the amount of all debt relief. When they send these small amounts of money back, they don’t send them to governments, like foreign aid. It doesn’t go to the local junta leader. It goes to your aunt or your grandmother, who’s very economical with the money. And it’s used to build a house, send a child to school.

SS: Why did your own family move to the US?

SM: My parents wanted to provide a better life for my sisters and me. We come from a business family, so we would have been just fine in Mumbai. My mother’s father moved from rural Gujarat to Nairobi—from one part of the British Empire to another—because it was impossible to make a living in rural Gujarat. People were dying of hunger there because of regular famines. The British had been stealing from India for 200 years. When the British arrived in India, India’s share of world GDP was 23%. By 1947, it was under 4%. During the colonial period, the European share of world GDP went from 20 to 60%. We began our long trek around the world because one rich country stole our future.

SS: In the book, you describe arriving in New York City in 1977. What was that experience like?

SM: When we arrived, there was a blackout—an electricity outage. People rampaged through the streets breaking into shops, looting. As a 14-year-old, I got mugged twice on the streets of Queens. It was a dirty city …

SS: They mugged a schoolboy?

SM: Oh, yes. This gang comes up to me and shows me a knife, which was entirely unnecessary. “So, what have you got?” And I start pulling out, like a schoolboy, pieces of paper, pencils, and then the money I had: 12c. The gang leader says: “This is the guy we’re looking for?” Then he said to me: “Keep it, man, you need it more than we do.” And they walked off in disgust. Our car got broken into regularly, then it was stolen. So it was not a great city, and it was an incredibly racist city. I was in Queens, where I went to this terribly racist Catholic school. I was one of the first minority kids in the school and represented everything that working-class whites were scared of. The teachers called me a pagan. I only attended the school for three years. Now, this same school is overrun with South Asians—Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, and other riffraff. Queens, that whole neighbourhood is just full of non-white working-class people now. Back then, it was full of Irish, Italians, Poles. We outbred them.

SS: You have made this point about cities, I think, quite rightly. That in cities, there is a tolerance that you have, just purely because of proximity. The New York you arrived in was not necessarily like that.

SM: There’s an urban experience of difference in New York that I experienced firsthand in this building I grew up in, in Jackson Heights, Queens. It was filled with Indians and Pakistanis, Haitians and Dominicans, Russians, Jews, and Muslims as well as Chinese. The super was Greek, but it was owned by a Turk. These were all people who had been killing each other just before they got on the plane. Here we were living next to each other. It’s not that we loved each other. We said racist things about everyone else when we shut our doors. But there was a modus vivendi. There were demarcated areas where we could interact. It’s not like we invited everyone into our homes, but in the schools, in the shops, the workplaces, we interacted. And everyone was there, really, as immigrants. Immigrants aren’t interested in rioting and looting and pillaging. They’re interested in making a living.

SS: So, a city is the best engine we have to get people to get along with each other, but at the same time, it is also vulnerable to breaking down at some point. One of the most striking things that kept coming back to me when I read about your experiences in Jackson Heights was that Queens, which is arguably the most diverse neighbourhood on the planet, has also produced Donald Trump. The paradox is impossible to escape.

SM: Exactly!

SS: After high school, you ended up at New York University?

SM: I started out in the business school. I was going to be a diamond trader. Then I took this Introduction to Sociology course, and it blew my mind, and I just read everything I could. I took classes in philosophy and anthropology and creative writing. I had no idea what I was going to do. Then I worked in my family’s business for a short while. My father brought home this packet of diamonds for me to sort out, and I spilled them on a shag carpet. It took three days to take apart this shag carpet, look for the little tiny rocks. I was not meant for it.

Then I applied on a whim to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and I got in.

SS: Had you written anything before that?

SM: No. I mean, only at NYU, in undergrad literary magazines. Nothing that had got published beyond that. I wrote fiction. I did the workshop for two years. Then I needed a job and found one at a computer magazine which had just started. At the beginning, they gave me a couple of issues and said, “All right, kid, go home. We don’t think you belong here, but see if there’s something you might contribute.” I came back and said: “What you need is a humour column.” And so it was then that I began my writing career, as Dear Aunt Lannie.

SS: That was your first nonfiction writing job?

SM: Yes. I worked for that magazine, then for Computer Reseller News, a trade magazine for computer dealers. That’s when I really learned about investigative journalism. I had to figure out what Microsoft and Apple and Oracle were doing so that dealers could act on the information and make business decisions. I had to sneak into conferences and cultivate sources and get people drunk and get them to tell me shit that they shouldn’t say.

SS: Proper journalism.

SM: Yes, “proper journalism”. I found out I was good at it. People liked to talk to me. I broke this major story about Oracle. The day the story came out, Oracle stock experienced what was until that time, the most significant drop in Nasdaq history. Suddenly the New York Times was following up on my story. I then got recruited by McGraw-Hill to run a magazine in Paris called Data Communications International, which was about large corporate data networks. I moved to Paris, had this fantastic apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis and an unlimited expense account.

Paris is too beautiful to write about large corporate data networks, so six months in, I went back to writing fiction. I wrote short stories. Then I started to write for the Village Voice. I did a story on Aids in India. They told me to write a 500-word story, and I sent them 7,000 words. It became the cover story. This was when I first developed a kind of approach to long-form nonfiction, which is to go deep into the data but also collect the human stories. The little stories tell the big stories.

You know, in the statues of Nataraja (the Hindu god), Shiva dances on a dwarf. The dwarf is the ordinary human, and he’s struggling to escape from underneath this massive foot of history and time, personal and political. The dwarf is my focus. Always has been.

SS: How did it go from that to Maximum City?

SM: My breakthrough really was this story about the Bhopal gas disaster. I wrote a 10,000-word story on that. It led to another piece for Granta Magazine about the 1992 riots in Bombay. That resulted in a two-book contract for Knopf on Mumbai. One was a novel called Alphabet, which was a tale told by a foetus while still gestating. I wrote 200 pages of that, and Sonny Mehta [his editor at Knopf] said to me, “Do the nonfiction first.”

“Why?” I asked him.

“Well, because I want to read it,” he responded.

So I thought I’d go to Mumbai and write a quick-and-dirty book about a quick-and-dirty city and come back in a year or two. Seven years later, I dropped a stack of 1,667 pages on Sonny’s desk, and he stopped speaking to me for nine months. It had become my obsession.

SS: What was writing and researching that book like? You had all these gangsters, politicians, filmmakers, bar dancers, prostitutes …

SM: Everyone had a story, and everyone was so generous with their stories. Rich and poor, male and female, they just told me their stories. So that was a feast. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to come back.

I wrote the book and thought I would go back to the novel, but then I got divorced, which was … It took a lot to deal with. And then I needed money, so I signed a contract for a New York book. New York is much harder to crack. You can’t just walk into a building or a shop in New York and start asking questions. You’ll get shooed out. Also, New York has many, many more people writing about it. Every little corner of it. When I was writing about Bombay, I pretty much had it to myself.