An Authorial Feature with Sonia Mehta, by the BreakBread Team
BY CLAYTON TOMLINSON
In BreakBread’s Volume 1, Issue 2 Summer 2021 edition is Sonia Mehta’s contemplative short story about the difficulties of assimilation into white American culture by Middle Eastern Americans. Her “Once They Were,” features a challenging few days in protagonist Dev’s life as he sees how immigrants and their offspring are cleaved from one another by their white neighbors.
Mehta, a high school junior from Ohio, spoke with BreakBread about her story and why she wanted to reveal the subtle and not-so-subtle aspects of racism. Due to recent American political movements, Mehta has noticed that “as the political environment has progressed, blatant, in-your-face racism has become a shameful practice.”
Mehta opens on Dev’s attempt to shot put the 20 yards required by his coach to compete at an upcoming event. During his practice, he is confronted by a group of white students dubbed the Patriot Boys Club. They want to know where Ahmed is, another Middle Eastern student who is Muslim—unlike Dev who is Hindu. They find Ahmed, hiding in a clubhouse. But the reader is never privy to what happens to him in this moment, only later do we find out his family has moved away to a bigger, more anonymous city.
Couched in this action are values tests that the entire school must undergo. Ahmed is being chased by the Patriot Boys because he scoffs at the idea of writing yet another letter to the victims of 9/11. In the story, Ahmed says “We’ve been writing these letters every year since first grade. But I wasn’t being disrespectful. I just didn’t want to write another essay. Now people are saying that I stood and yelled ‘Down with America.’”
Ahmed’s momentary lapse, that is immaterial and yet very realistic to anyone not perfectly aligned with the correct ways of behaving and thinking about certain topics, condemns him to a fate of hidden violence. In her story, Mehta has the Patriot Boys refrain “from acting discriminatory in public, instead participating in subtle yet racist jibes here and there.” They also do not publicly beat Ahmed; instead, he is merely never seen again.
Mehta conceived of the story as a way to demonstrate that homogeneity is not possible. She said that “many immigrant families, such as Dev’s, see assimilation as the only way to ensure acceptance, while others, such as Ahmed’s attempt to stay true to their ancestry.”
The story concludes with Dev’s family discussing Ahmed’s move to the city. Her dad remonstrates Ahmed’s family, saying they were willfully strident and should have done more to fit in. Mehta said she “wanted to tell it how it is, exposing the underlying and subtle problematic events that occur every day.”
This is perhaps the most insidious part of the progress we’ve made as a society. We have not eradicated the racism and violence we were supposed to leave in our less enlightened past, we’ve merely pushed it to the margins. How much has materially changed for immigrant communities since the new millennium? Not much.
Mehta’s story analyses how non-white Americans are forced to make decisions in their day-to-day lives that can have a much larger impact than one might realize. In her view, we are all “put in situations where we have to ask ourselves which side of ourselves we want to act on: impulse or identity.”