The truth is, when we are unhappy, we travel back in our minds.” With these words, Sabreet Kang Rajeev hands her readers the key to why she had to write the book that only she could write.
Kang Rajeev’s Generation Zero was named the grand prize winner of the 2020 BookLife Prize in Nonfiction, an annual contest that receives hundreds of submissions across the categories of memoir/autobiography, self-help/relationships, business/personal finance, and inspirational/spirituality. The exceptional work of memoir details her experience of being born to immigrant parents and raised with a dual cultural heritage in the United States. She saw herself as the generational link that forms a human bridge between the old world and the new—an experience both common and unique.
Children born to immigrant parents in the U.S. often speak of a state of permanent cultural cognitive dissonance. To be a woman of color in this situation adds complications to an already path to selfhood, both in society and within the familial unit.
“Having a hyphenated identity made me realize early on that I was different,” Kang Rajeev says. “Even though I was born in America, I wasn’t American because of the color of my skin. What I discovered as I tried to figure out my identity was that the larger battle was between my self-image and others’ perception of me, including my parents. No community or person could truly understand what it felt to be me.”
The book describes the experience of perpetually walking a tightrope, meeting the customs and expectations of the culture of both the parents’ country of origin and the children’s own native U.S. Sometimes painful, but never bitter, Generation Zero is a testament to the power of love and adaptability when the individualism prized by the American-born children comes into conflict with the collective good of the family venerated by their elders.
“As the child of immigrant parents,” Kang Rajeev explains, “sacrifice and commitment to one’s duty is typically the primary—and often only—way you see love expressed, resulting in a mindset that love is something you earn by fulfilling your duty and making sacrifices, not something you’re given just for being born.”
BookLife Prize judge Gina Frangello says themes that particularly stood out in Kang Rajeev’s writing were “the weight of having disappointed her father by being born a girl, and the toxicity of so-called positive stereotypes that kept her working-class family in a kind of hiding and shame.”
One thing that sets Generation Zero apart from other memoirs is its author’s almost uncanny ability to see her family members’ experiences through their eyes as well as her own. With deep empathy and respect, she relates her parents’ travails and terrors; the daily humiliations and insults that befall them as new arrivals struggling to find a foothold in a country that promises opportunity yet remains cold toward them; the endless exhaustion and temptation to yield to despair; and their joys and triumphs as they make their way against all odds.
And how did she write with such compassion and insight of the parents whose values and experiences were sometimes so at odds with her own?
“Ultimately, I realized that, as I critique members of my family, I paint one narrative,” Kang Rajeev says. “Not providing details on how they have felt would mean telling a story about my truth alone. There are multiple ways to view any one event. Trying to understand the full picture is more time-consuming but gives us the beauty of understanding how there are multiple sides to lived experiences in a family.”
As a child, Kang Rajeev says, she often felt that “my words didn’t matter, my thoughts didn’t matter—what mattered was what I was able to achieve. I was silenced as soon as I was born, and I grew up accepting that silence as the only reality I had. The only way I could be heard is if I did something that was so monumental that I would be taken seriously. I didn’t know my worth.”
But Kang Rajeev is proof positive that writing chooses the writer, giving her the words that transform even the most difficult and painful experiences into creative gold. “I hope my readers feel empowered to look within themselves to understand the experiences that make them unique,” she says. “Never feel embarrassed or ashamed of the traumas you have experienced. You are beautiful and brave. Learn to invest in your relationship with yourself as much as you invest in the relationships you have with others. Love your flaws and strengths, and realize the only way to end your suffering is to let your inner voice shine through by becoming self-aware about everything that makes you, well, you.”
Frangello says, “Both timely and timeless, the once ‘voiceless’ Kang Rajeev’s incredibly intimate book is a gift.”
Karen Clark is a freelance writer, editor, and tutor who received her MFA from the City College of New York after owning an antiquarian bookshop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for over a decade.