I thoroughly enjoyed Member’s Only by Sameer Pandya. Brown, black and white America converge in this thought provoking novel told by a Bombay native who made his life and career on the west coast. The book covers a one week time span in the life of Raj Bhatt, an Indian-American man, married to a white woman with two young children. Raj is a professor at a local California university and he and his family belong to a private tennis club where he is on the membership committee. Written in first person, we are privy to Raj’s thoughts and emotions as we follow him during this grueling week.
The rollercoaster begins when Raj makes an off-color remark in response to a potential tennis club member of color at the membership meeting. This sets the ball rolling with the white members as they accuse him of being racist, demand he apologize and discuss revoking his membership. Then some of Raj’s college students interpret something he says in class as being anti-Christian and they publicly claim he is a reverse racist. On any normal week, the university and the tennis club both bring him joy and a sense of belonging, but with the way things are going, Raj grapples with how he is different, what behaviors are excusable, and where he really fits it.
With insight, humor, and highly nuanced dialog, Sameer Pandya gives us a glimpse into the middle ground between white and black America, the struggles surrounding what is accepted and how to feel and be treated as an equal based on varied shades of skin color. Raj is delightful, flawed and a wonderful character to go on this journey with. A quick read, very timely with much to think about and discuss, and I highly recommend it!
Author Q & A
Q: We often and most recently hear about racism occurring from white America toward black America, but your story has an interesting perspective as an Indian American man is in the spotlight in Members Only. Where did you get the inspiration to write a book about a predominantly white private tennis club and an Indian American man dealing with racism?
A: My interest began with my attempt to think through brownness, this space between black and white. Raj Bhatt grew up amongst Black and white kids, spending time with both, never fully belonging to either. And so, with this experience in mind, and by placing him in a predominantly white tennis club, I wanted to think about the ways in which that brownness and middleness play themselves out when he is an adult and able to understand and articulate what is going on around him.
Q: Do you think the membership committee choose Raj to appear diverse and open to all? If so, Is Raj ok being welcome because he is Indian?
A: I don’t think the committee consciously invites Raj to appear diverse. Is it unconscious? Perhaps. But no one forces him to be on this committee. He wants to be on it. He thinks his presence there will start to move the club towards the more diverse space he wants to create. To your second question, the novel explores Raj’s own relationship to being welcome in certain spaces because he is Indian American, and the ways in which that welcome has its limits. The ways in which he passes until he doesn’t.
Q: Within the first few pages, someone calls Raj the wrong name and it can be perceived as an act of racism. He casually mentions that the committee either didn’t hear the comment or heard but didn’t know how to respond. This seems like an important point when it comes to our country’s response to racist acts. What are your thoughts.
A: In some ways, we are socialized to not say anything that makes people uncomfortable. Raj himself doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t want to rock the boat at this particular moment. But then we also arrive at other moments where discomfort is inconsequential, considering the circumstances we are dealing with. I begin the novel by thinking about what we talk about when we don’t talk about race. But then, I spend the rest of the book working through what we do talk about when we are forced to.
Q: The tennis club committee wants Raj to be a part of it, but once they interpreted his comment as racist they were asking him to leave. The reverse was not true when Suzanne made a joke about the Browns and the Blacks. How is this important?
A: In this novel, I am exploring who gets to make mistakes, who gets to rebound from them relatively unscathed, and perhaps most importantly, who is asked to apologize for said mistakes. The certainty of one’s belonging in a group shapes one’s ability to make those mistakes. Suzanne can; Raj can’t. And this idea of an apology is really interesting to me. In the particular world of this novel, an apology is a simple Band-Aid for a pretty deep wound that people are not willing to address.
Q: Raj appears well adjusted but he often feels alone seemingly due to his race. Many individuals at the tennis club and students at the university challenged Raj, but the university as an institution was supportive; why did you make this choice?
A: I have been in and around a university campus for my entire adult life—undergrad, graduate school, teaching jobs. I like being on a campus and the opportunity for an exchange of ideas and as a place of rigorous debate. Raj himself loves being on campus—he loves teaching and is good at it. All of this factored into the way this fictional university appears in this novel.
Q: Raj has a pretty difficult week; a remark slips out which seemed racist, he says something during his lecture that out of context seemed to be anti white, he has problems with his kids and then his health takes a turn. Did you plan out all his misfortunes using an outline or did his life unravel as you were writing?
A: At some point, I came across this in Dr Seuss’ Hop on Pop: “Dad is sad. Very, very sad. He had a bad day. What a day Dad had.” I thought about writing a novel based on this bad day, but a day was too short of a period for me. A week seemed better. And on a cork board, I pinned a paper with each day of the week and then would just add and subtract different ideas, different misfortunes. For the most part, one misfortune led to another, and so it was equal parts outlining and unraveling in the act of writing.
Q: Raj was written in first person which really allows the reader in to his thoughts. Was that a decision you made from the beginning?
A: Absolutely. I had his voice in mind and the first person felt like the only option. Also, the first person allowed me to show the layers of his consciousness—the way in which past and present are constantly shaping one another, the way in which his own sense of the world is shaped by joy, anger, disappointment, envy, desire, and on and on.
Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
A: It took a while to write the first chapter, which I originally wrote as a short story. Once the characters and the inciting incident were all set, I wrote the first draft of the entire novel very quickly. And then there was a nearly a year of filling things in, developing strands. But then the serious work of editing began when I sold the book, over the span of another year.
Q: Are you working on something new?
A: I am working on something new. A novel on India and my memory of the place. And I also want to sit with Raj Bhatt a little longer. There are more layers to peel.
About the Author:
Sameer Pandya is the author of the story collection THE BLIND WRITER, which was longlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award. He is also the recipient of the PEN/Civitella Fellowship. His fiction, commentary, and cultural criticism has appeared in a range of publications, including the Atlantic, Salon, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and Narrative Magazine. He teaches creative writing and South Asian and Asian American literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. MEMBERS ONLY is his first novel.