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Wednesday’s WIP: In Defense of “Immigrant Fiction”

jhumpa_lahiri_photo_newDiscovering that Jhumpa Lahiri was this past week’s “By the Book” interviewee in The New York Times Book Review was a delight. But discovering within the Q&A what Lahiri thinks about “immigrant fiction” was, I confess, something of a disappointment.

In case you haven’t yet read the column, Lahiri was asked, “What immigrant fiction has been the most important to you, both personally and as an inspiration for your own writing?” Her answer:

I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.

Well, yes. And no. Cather’s My Ántonia appealed to me so strongly, on first and subsequent readings, because so much of it is about immigrants. Frankly, the same is true regarding my reception of Lahiri’s work. One of the local literary events I was most disappointed to miss this year was a panel–featuring Christopher Castellani, Ursula Hegi, and Julie Wu–on “the immigrant experience in novels.”

Yes, “many writers” originate from faraway places (or are only a generation or two removed from people who have). But as much as “the tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme,” it’s not omnipresent. What’s wrong with highlighting stories of immigrant experience? Why does Lahiri object to this perspective?

Reading Lahiri’s “By the Book” response on Sunday, I was reminded of one of my favorite reviews of Quiet Americans. I recall how deeply honored (and overwhelmed) I was when I first saw what the reviewer had written:

Dreifus’s clear, direct style and her subject matter bring to mind the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri. Both writers deal with immigrants to the U.S., the interaction of family generations, and the themes of pregnancy and birth. More than once I was reminded of Ashima in Lahiri’s novel The Namesake and her thoughts on living as a newly-arrived Bengali in America: “For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.” Dreifus and Lahiri both explore the out-of-sorts feeling, the interruption of ordinary life by the complications and demands of starting over in a new land, whether by choice or under compulsion. In Quiet Americans, Dreifus has made the extraordinary experiences of her characters accessible to readers who may feel they are far-separated from such events. As a good storyteller should, she shows that the feelings and experiences of the human heart are universal, regardless of the outer circumstances shaping each life.

I remain so grateful for that reviewer’s focus on what might connect my stories and Lahiri’s, and I continue to appreciate that for the reviewer, as for me, much of that connection rests in their shared status as examples of “immigrant fiction.” Even if, it seems, Lahiri might not be equally pleased.

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8 Responses »

  1. I don’t think Lahiri is objecting to fiction that explores the perspective of immigrants. Her objection is with the term itself, in the sense that it’s a way of othering this fiction.

    • I agree with Courtney. What does it mean “immigrant fiction”? If it’s fiction that deals with immigration stories, it’s fiction about immigrants. If not, it sounds a bit strange: do the interviewer means fiction written by people of foreign / mix heritage? Hum, sounds like most Americans (me included) and a lot of writers all over the world… I see this term as ambiguous, and a way to pigeon-hole again writing. I say again since we already have all the “hyphened” literature…

      • As a writer of genre fiction, I think we have more than enough pigeon-holes, as it is. ;^}

        I agree that a large portion of any American fiction hits on immigrant topics, if only tangentially. That is simply the nature of our population.

        I’ve been married to an immigrant for over forty years. That gives me, and our kids, a different perspective than if we were both from families that came over on the Mayflower. (My father-in-law put his oldest son on the boat (literally) for college and told him, “Don’t come back!”)

        The immigrant experience is always a valid topic. And in any medium. Barry Levinson’s film “Avalon”, for instance, has strong parallels to my wife’s family’s experiences. Yet they came to this country about fifty years later. Internet Movie DB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099073/?ref_=sr_5

  2. The only thing I would add to the above perceptive insights is that the designation “immigrant” perpetuates the notion that the preoccupations of recently arrived Americans are “other” and not part of the larger American narrative. In this regard, Lahiri’s remarks are subtly provocative, and certainly more diplomatic than my response would be! I actually think that fiction about immigrants is a healthy and growing genre, but the implications of this popularity are disturbing, to me anyway. When, as a country, we have so much trouble confronting contemporary problems of race and identity, it’s a lot easier to deal with the other if that other is represented in a context of struggle and disadvantage, which unfortunately is the case for many recent arrivals to this country. (It certainly was the case for my parents at times.) Or in the context of past “resolved” events–I see a similar thing going on in some historical fiction.

  3. I’m always grateful when readers take the time to chime in and build a conversation around one of these posts. Thank you all. There’s so much to say here–I’ll try to be brief in my own additional comments.

    First, I think that there’s a useful and important distinction to be made between writING and writERS. This has come up before in my commentaries on “Jewish fiction” (you can find one of them, with links to further commentaries, here).

    Next, as much as I enjoy choosing to read “books,” I benefit from having some categories to help guide and organize what I read. Sometimes multiple labels apply or overlap. Books, like people, can have multi-faceted identities. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with breaking “books” down into “fiction” and other categories, and then breaking “fiction” down into other categories, especially thematic ones.

    I’ve discovered by now, for instance, that I enjoy short stories AND novels (not everyone does). That I’m not drawn to science fiction or crime fiction. Some people I know detest fiction about writers and writing; I often enjoy it.

    I read a lot of “Jewish fiction,” and I’ve already described how much I appreciate “immigrant fiction” (not always American fiction, by the way; one of my most beloved such books, discovered during a semester in France, is Romain Gary’s novel “La Vie devant soi,” written under the pseudonym Émile Ajar). There are devotees of southern fiction and South American fiction, and people who go out of their way to read (or write) fiction focused on animals or illness or university life.

    To each his/her own. It’s fine to disavow “labels” and “niches”–so long as one doesn’t simultaneously seek to benefit from them (see this commentary of mine on that subject), or call for more active editorial attention to the ethnic/gender/other identities of writers and reviewers, or propose/participate in panels organized around thematic or other niches for the AWP conference, or do one’s part to make an online magazine’s call for submissions from feminist writers of color my most popularly retweeted Twitter update ever. It’s important to be consistent.

    As the title of one accepted events for AWP 2014 implies (see p. 36 of the event list), a label can be a “pigeonhole,” or it can be a “portal.” I prefer the latter vision.

    Thank you all, again, for commenting. Can we continue the discussion?

  4. I have to say I agree with the others. Lahore makes a valid point that we are all other and outsider. She’s not dismissing the term, but asking us maybe to rethink it, open our minds to that experience and see it in our own lives. I’m looking forward to reading the column. Thanks, Erica, for always finding these gems.

  5. This is a fascinating conversation. I think Erika’s points about the helpfulness of categories are fair, and the designation between writERS and writING is a very important point. In my initial comment, I was simply considering the fact that Lahiri’s comments may be misinterpreted in this post, but clearly the issue is actually more complex than that. True, categories are helpful, and it’s worthwhile to highlight the types of human experience that stories explore. But Lahiri raises the idea of othering when she says, “If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? ” The answer, of course, is that we do not call it these things. We just call it fiction, and that – I think – is the problem Lahiri is grappling with. This is not a problem that’s limited to discussions of “immigrant fiction.” Our system of categorizing books implies a certain standard: white, male, Christian, American, non-immigrant, etc. Books that fit this standard are simply called fiction; books that deviate from this standard require a label – women’s fiction, Jewish fiction, immigrant fiction, etc. And while we can certainly see this as a portal as opposed to a pigeonhole, we also need to acknowledge that this means accepting the currently defined standard. Lahiri seems reluctant to do so, and she is not alone in that regard.

    The point about not rejecting labels while simultaneously seeking to benefit from them is an interesting one, but I think it’s problematic. How do we define “seeking to benefit”? Does simply writing and selling a book that falls (or is placed by a publisher) into one of these categories amount to “seeking to benefit”? Aren’t we, most of the time, just writing the stories that are authentic and meaningful to us?

    Erika, perhaps this is not what you mean by “seeking to benefit.” Your comment raises examples of calls for more editorial attention and panels organized around niches. But this is complicated as well, because those calls and panels are a response to something that is decidedly not a benefit. While some readers – including, probably, most of us involved in this conversation – are attracted by these categories that designate books as something other than white/male/etc., many are not. Labels such as “immigrant fiction” may interest some readers, but it also might limit the reach of a writer’s work. So if we’re going to insist that writers who reject labels not seek to benefit from them, we need to question how we define that word “benefit.” If a woman writer is a commercial success, but her work is not taken seriously by critics (a situation that we see occurring all the time), does this count as seeking to benefit from her work’s categorization as “women’s fiction.” For some, perhaps commercial success is success enough, but for many it is not. Writers whose work is labeled and categorized as something other than just “fiction” are just as likely to be harmed by that label as they are to be helped. So those calls for more editorial attention to writers of particular identities, or your popular tweet calling for submissions from feminist writers of color, cannot be viewed as simply “seeking to benefit” from labels. They are seeking to counteract the negative effects of those labels, which is, I think, something entirely different.

    In any case, this is an important conversation, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have it. Thanks for regularly providing a space for these discussions on your blog!

    • Hi, Courtney: Thanks so much for your additional comments. For me, the most obvious (least complicated) example of “seeking to benefit” is what I describe in the commentary I cited above (again, available here: http://www.jewishjournal.com/books/article/on_jewish_writing). I’m not sure if you’ve read it yet, but I hope it highlights the main focus of my view.

      The other instances, which I’ve come to consider more recent, are, I agree, more complex. But I still believe that they point to a conundrum: one can’t be altogether dismissive of varieties of experience (lived or fictional) while seeking to incorporate varieties of the same. I don’t claim to have any easy answers (or any best way to articulate this), but I think it’s essential to recognize the dilemma.

      Again, I have nothing conclusive to offer. But I do want to highlight my favorite line in your response: “Aren’t we, most of the time, just writing the stories that are authentic and meaningful to us?” Hopefully, yes, that’s what it comes down to. And, perhaps, that those stories can both resonate with some readers’ own experiences AND provide a new lens for others.

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