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How far would you go to reconnect with your estranged parents?
New York Times reporter Sopan Deb went from New Jersey to India to get to know the people who raised him
In a year that was wild for all of us, New York Times reporter Sopan Deb certainly had an eventful 2020. In December 2019 he was hit by a car and entered into an early quarantine to heal. Soon he proposed to his girlfriend, Wesley Dietrich. Come spring, the real quarantine began. His first book, Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me—a memoir about reconnecting with his estranged parents—was published in April, leaving him to celebrate and hold a book tour digitally. And just last week he announced that his debut novel, The Elm Tree—about a Bengali family in New Jersey dealing with grief—will be published in 2022 by Simon & Schuster. And he and Wesley adopted a pandemic puppy.
Deb’s story of healing family trauma is a rare and captivating one. His parents’ arranged marriage—one his mother, Bishakha, never wanted—was deeply unhappy. Bishakha suffered from mental illness that kept her locked away in her room while Deb was growing up in New Jersey. Deb’s father, Shyamal, was emotionally distant and cold. They divorced as Deb entered high school, and his father became an acquaintance while his mother morphed into more of a roommate. Deb didn’t know the basics about them, like their birthdays or ages or why they came to the United States. By the time Deb was 30, he hadn’t spoken to his mother or seen his father (who moved to India without telling anyone) in several years.
Prompted by an upcoming trip to India for a friend’s wedding, Deb slowly began to explore his own family history and attempt to understand why he and his parents had drifted so far apart. He visited his mother in New Jersey two hours away from his own apartment in New York City, then traveled to Kolkata to reunite with his father. Deb interviewed his parents with the discipline of a journalist, until the intricacies of their lives began to unravel and they were able to connect as family members.
Missed Translations is a naked look at the courage and honesty it takes to repair damaged relationships, and what it means to find out who your parents really are. In August, I spoke with Deb over video chat about love, growth and writing your first novel during a pandemic.
Jillian Anthony: Your [book] is so fascinating to me because I’ve written about personal stuff in the newsletter, but there’s a lot of family stuff I don’t even touch. You already had this book in mind when you went to visit your father in India [in 2018]. What was that process like for you?
Sopan Deb: When I first started my conversation with them I told them I wanted to document the process and I would probably be writing a book. My dad thought the entire time I was writing a book about the history of India, and we had to correct him repeatedly. I was upfront with them throughout the whole process about what I was doing. I told them this is going to be very unvarnished. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. And they seemed fine with it, until they weren’t. Kind of in typical immigrant parents’ style, once the book came out and they saw the reviews, and once they saw that the book was not an attack on them, that’s when they really came around—particularly my mother.
The book chronicles these tough conversations you’re having about history, and everything you go through to try to get to that truth. You end the book saying you’ve still had some issues with your mom, and you and your dad are talking more regularly. Where are your relationships at now?
About the same. This isn’t the movies where everything gets wrapped up neatly. That’s not a realistic thing to ask for now that there are decades and decades worth of trauma and fissures to sift through. We also started from zero, so anything above that’s an improvement. But it’s an ongoing process that will take years and years. There’s some things that will never heal fully. But it’s better than what it used to be. And that’s a huge start for this journey. The fact that all the parties wanted this was a huge thing as well.
If that piece is missing, there’s nothing to be done about it.
To repair an estranged relationship requires both parties to want to repair the estrangement. And there are plenty of estrangements that happened for good reason. It took [my parents] 30 years to get divorced when it should have taken them three days. We often view divorces as a failure. Meanwhile, in many cases, it can be actually the healthy, correct thing to do and I think—particularly in the South Asian community—it’s something that we should talk about more.
You show the humanity of your parents and their flaws, and then you look at those same things in yourself. How did you balance that?
When I went into this I said, Okay, you have to approach this first and foremost as a journalist and not as the son. I think a lot of literature about immigrant families often centers on the children, and they’re often stories of aggrievement. And I didn’t want this to be that. So when I had this conversation with my parents, I approached it as a journalist because I thought it would allow me to be disengaged, dispassionate, in that I could be quote-unquote unbiased with them. And by doing so I can look in the mirror and say, Okay, here’s what my parents did, but here’s also what I did to contribute to this dynamic.
[In the beginning of the book] it had been 11 years since your dad moved [to India], and you guys weren’t really speaking during that time.
Yes, 11 years. 2007 to 2018. My mom I had not seen in four or five years at that point. Her I had not been speaking to. With my dad we had been in touch but a very basic level, and I didn’t know where he was living. Our conversation would last a couple of minutes. He didn’t know anything about me and vice versa.
Did you reconnect with your mom before you went over to India?
Correct. [Wesley and I] had gone down to her apartment for a Mother’s Day lunch before we made the India trip.
And you mentioned that you are engaged to Wesley now. Congratulations! When did that happen?
Thank you. Christmas Day. I mentioned how lucky I felt during the pandemic. I got hit by a car in early December.
Oh my gosh.
I broke my leg and broke my wrist. It was on the Lower East Side and I’m actually lucky be alive right now. It’s the kind of accident where I probably shouldn’t be walking. Christmas came three weeks after the accident. I got down on one knee with the ring, and I couldn’t get back up, because I had a broken butt. [Laughs] It took a year-and-a-half healing process. The weird thing is, is that right when I was ready to go back out into the world and go to restaurants and leave the house and all that, that’s when the pandemic hit.
So did that put love and life in perspective for you before you got engaged?
A little. I think I’ve always considered myself pretty fortunate. I don’t know if you saw—there’s a 26-year-old reporter for CBS who died in New York [in a moped accident], and she was wearing a helmet, and I was like, Whoa, how am I alive and she is not? I’m looking at 95% recovery, so in that respect, I think about it a lot in terms of how lucky I am to be alive. In terms of love, I’ve realized how fortunate I am with Wesley going back to the India trip, because the India trip was very difficult.
It sounds very emotionally challenging.
Poor Wesley had to sit there for all [of these conversations I had with my family]. She was very helpful with the book. She came up with the title of the book, she was copy editor, she really carried me across the finish line for it. So I didn’t need a car accident to be grateful, but I was very grateful for her when [it] happened. I remember calling her while I’m lying on the ground with the ambulance. I remember being like, “Hey listen, I’m okay, but I got hit by a car.” And I remember her thinking, Okay, guess I’ll see you when you get home. I’m like, Uh, that’s not gonna happen. I need you to come to Bellevue right now.
Deb, his fiancee, Wesley, and his father, Shyamal, at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India in 2018
[The book shows] that you found this very loving and functional relationship with Wesley, and I kept thinking how surprising that is, only because you had all of this unresolved childhood trauma. From everything that I’ve learned and seen it’s very hard for people to truly connect with someone in a functional way if you haven’t healed those things.
I think this can go one of two ways. The first way is someone doesn’t know how to be in a relationship. The second way is that you know what not to do. Now, does that mean that I’m a perfect boyfriend-slash-fiance, and I don’t have unresolved issues come up in any meaningful way? No. But I think I have an acute understanding of what caused issues for my parents, and how to keep an eye out for that. You can link it to maturity as well. When you’re 25 and you’re in a bad relationship, a very small voice is like, Yeah, this is toxic, but you’re only 25, you have the rest of your life to figure yourself out. But when you’re entering your thirties, you go, Okay, this is healthy you should stay in this, or this is unhealthy and you should leave now before you wake up and you’re divorced after 20 years.
Yeah, you hopefully learn how to not hurt your own feelings.
Right. I’m by no means an expert on this stuff. I just know that I feel healthy here.
That’s wonderful. And [Wesley] helped you move toward reconnecting with your parents. How have you felt since you healed those connections? For me, once I healed some broken connections in my family, my whole life changed.
I think the biggest thing is my parents feel like humans more than footnotes, more than distant floating heads in my life. That’s very meaningful. It feels like a weight has been lifted off my chest. I feel younger. It feels like a fresh start, in many ways, on who I am as a person.
That’s huge. So now you’re engaged. I thought it was so interesting [when you wrote about daydreaming about your wedding day as a little boy]. You don’t hear a lot of men talking about [that], or it’s a trope that straight men are only begrudgingly getting married anyways.
Is that a trope?
I think so.
The reason I’ve always thought about it is because when you watch families on TV in wedding episodes, and you go to your friends’ weddings, you go, I want that. I didn’t have this warmth when I was growing up in my household. I’d like to give my kids something that I didn’t get to have. And the way to do that is to find a partner. I think my fantasizing about a wedding was not about the wedding itself. It was more about fantasizing about having the kind of partner that my parents didn’t get to have with each other.
That makes sense. All kids are dreaming and hoping for the things that we feel we’re lacking, and that carries on into adulthood.
What is important for me is that Wesley and I make this work. Once you meet her and have a conversation with her for 10 minutes you realize, oh, Sopan’s really reaching here. This is some Ponzi scheme going on. I’m very fortunate.
So now you’re writing a new novel. [Editor’s note: Deb’s debut novel, The Elm Tree, will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2022.]
I’m about 95% done with it. It’s about this Bengali family dealing with grief. The younger daughter passes away in an accident. They find a play that she’s written, and the family wants to stage the play. My hope is actually to finish it this week and spend the next couple of weeks revising it and start taking it out. I forget who told me this recently: You should write fiction for yourself and not worry about audiences or selling it. That has made me into a much better writer. I’m proud of the work no matter what happens to it.
You’ve had a lot going on in the past nine months.
There’s been a lot going on, but all of it has been from my couch.
But it’s still clearly transformative. You physically had this big change and then you put out your first book. And on top of all that, and on top of the pandemic, you’ve written a whole new book. I am very impressed.
Thank you. The coolest part about the book launch was getting letters, DMs, emails, texts from all over the world. People that were like, I read your book, and it made me want to reach out to my brother, or maybe reach out to X-person, and I’m so thankful that you wrote it. And that was very meaningful.
That’s wonderful. My dad is an immigrant from El Salvador. He’s 75, so he’s getting older, and I want to interview him about his past and his history. [Your book] inspired me as well.
Thanks for reading it. It really means a lot to me. One of the strangest things about doing a book like this, or doing any book, is that people read it.
Sopan Deb. Photograph: Amy Lombard
Sopan Deb is a writer for The New York Times and the author of the memoir, Missed Translations: Meeting The Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me.
Before joining the Times, Deb was one of a handful of reporters who covered Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign from start to finish as a campaign embed for CBS News. He covered hundreds of rallies in more than 40 states for a year and a half and was named a “breakout media star” of the election by Politico.
At The New York Times, Deb has interviewed high profile subjects such as Denzel Washington, Stephen Colbert, the cast of Arrested Development, Kyrie Irving and Bill Murray. Deb’s work has previously appeared on NBC, Al Jazeera America and the Boston Globe, ranging from examining the trek of endangered manatees to following a class of blind filmmakers in Boston led by the former executive producer of Friends. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for a documentary he produced for the Boston Globe called “Larger Than Life,” which told the story about the NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s complicated relationship with the city of Boston.
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