Literary Hub

On the Overdue Evolution of Immigrant Narratives

In the late 1990s, I was an editorial assistant at Hyperion, and my boss had recently acquired a nonfiction anthology called Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women. One morning, the editor of the anthology, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, told me she was aiming to cover voices from as many countries as possible and wondered if I knew any Russian-American writers who might want to contribute. She could think of one or two but they weren’t available.

“I’m a Russian-American writer,” I said. In reality, I was in my early twenties and I hadn’t written a thing. But it was 1998 and there was no one else I could recommend but me.

So I received my very first writing contract and busied myself with becoming understandable to an audience I assumed would be unfamiliar with the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience. My primary model for this type of narrative was Eva Hoffman’s luminous memoir of immigrating from Poland to Canada, Lost in Translation, and I set about earnestly imitating its meditative style, trying to pin down the feeling of belonging nowhere, a sense I’d felt at the time of displacement and invisibility. Looking back now, my first work was an act of introduction, a translation.

Since then, of course, “immigrant literature” has exploded as a book category. American population demographics were changing and those with the privilege to tell the story were coming of age (often children of immigrants or immigrants who came as children or young adults), and more and more readers saw their own experiences reflected on the page. In 1980, immigrants accounted for 6.2 percent of the US population. By 2010, 25 percent of U.S. residents under 18 were first- or second-generation immigrants.

Amy Tan spoke of writing Joy Luck Club in the 1980s from the experience of being the only Chinese student at her school. At that time “multicultural literature” was “building bridges;” the author was the authority on her culture and her literary task included introducing this culture to an American reader unfamiliar but presumably fascinated by its exoticism. There were some common themes in those earlier books: the immigrant as outsider in America, a person torn between the demands of the outside world of the English language and the domestic world of the native one, an “American” child grappling with the growing chasm between herself and her “Old Country” parents.

What right did I have to Russia at this point, so many years after immigration?

A little bit later, when immigrant and global literature started to gain more visibility and even bestseller status with writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith, writers found themselves facing new challenges, of not being from the country trending at that moment or being told that their publisher already had a “similar” book on their lists. 

Chimamanda Adichie was purportedly told by an agent that selling Purple Hibiscus would be less challenging if she were Indian. At the same time, some writers I spoke to were also facing authenticity questions from readers who hailed from their native countries. When my first novel was published, at least one older Russian audience member asked me if I even considered myself Russian. What right did I have to Russia at this point, so many years after immigration? At a recent Association of Writers and Writing Professionals conference, sitting on a panel about immigrant writers, I received a question from a young writer in the audience doubting his own voice: I wasn’t born there, do I dare to write about it?

I hope that this concern is easing as our stories are now rich with fluid identities carrying a multiplicity of allegiances and touchstones. “The idea of this great anguish of living between two worlds has diminished somewhat for many immigrant people, artists and non-artists alike. Not that there is not some uneasiness, but it is no longer the single most urgent anxiety of every immigrant’s life,” Edwidge Danticat recently said. “I would like us to move beyond these tropes of speaking to or for, and of being only between two worlds. We are at the same time speaking to no one and everyone.”

This past semester, I taught a graduate readings course on immigrant writing. I wanted to understand the trajectory of this literature in America. We immersed ourselves in texts from writers like Tan and Garcia, to Danticat, Lahiri, Dinaw Mengestu, Yuri Herrera, Mohsin Hamid, and Min Jin Lee. In part, I suppose by rereading these writers, so many of whom influenced my own work in many ways, I wanted to trace my own creative trajectory from my first essay in Becoming American to my third novel Mother Country.

“Immigrant literature” is a redundant category.

In my first novel, What Happened to Anna K., I remember a conscious desire to make aspects of Russian and Bukharan immigrant life visible to readers. There were all the hallmarks of pleasing, the lingering on food and party scenes, a discursion into the Great Russian Soul. These characters wondered where they belonged.

In my second book, The Imperial Wife, I moved toward an assumption of global identity. The immigrants in that book navigated the world with ease. They were no longer pulled by the one-way ticket of nostalgia.

In my new book, Mother Country, assimilation, acquisition of language and socio-economic struggle is no longer the largest challenge of immigration. It is about government policy, guilt, the creeping unwelcoming climate, the fissures within immigrant communities. With each book, I noticed a greater ease, less explanation, more taking for granted that my readers will not only be willing to take the leap into the unfamiliar but will incorporate my world into their own.

In the novels we were reading for class, texts I now happily consider the canon of American literature, I saw similar shifts in concerns. I noticed how each writer inserted non-English languages in their stories to allow their characters to speak without the intrusion of authorial translation or explanation. If depictions of food once steeped a voyeuristic reader in a foreign culture, now people in a scene simply ate because they were hungry. Once America and the West was a harbor for immigrants, an unambiguous path to a better life. Over time, as these books attest, this assumption was being questioned, interrogated.

“Immigrant literature” is a redundant category, and I’m optimistic about a future where authors from a certain country will not solely be compared with authors from the same country or lumped together with other immigrants, when immigrant writers will not feel pressure to either write or avoid the vast and multi-varied subject of the immigrant experience, where we move beyond native countries as trends, and simply treat all stories as human stories.

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