Fiction writers have long found the stranger in a strange land rich material. An immigrant’s emotions are big and primitive: the heartache of leaving home, the fear of the unknown. Helplessness, loneliness and desperation. The pain of exclusion, and perhaps, at last, the joy of embrace. One of countless examples, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, about four Chinese immigrant women and their daughters in San Francisco, was a tearaway bestseller. If there are truly only a handful of stories to tell in the world, one is surely “foreigner comes to town”.
In fact, a certain brand of immigration tale has grown so standard that we may not need many more. Take Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates, about a Chinese family that emigrates to Canada. It’s a harmless, agreeable book, and the young girl protagonist is sweet. But you know the drill: the new country is scary, they have all these different customs, the father works terribly hard in a Chinese restaurant, but eventually the little girl begins to learn a bit of English and make friends…I cannot pretend to have finished it.
At a time when immigration, legal and illegal, is never out of the news, what is useful is fiction that takes on the subject with a harder edge - both the experience and the political issue. Feelings run deep on this matter on both sides, and they aren’t all pretty. Even Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which explores cultural identity crises amid the zany ethnic patchwork of contemporary London, has a bouncy, comical cast, and ultimately promotes the ideal of the-more-the-merrier. Check out any BNP rally. Those chaps don’t look very merry.
Three recent books engage with immigration in a grittier mien. Harbor is a debut novel by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Lorraine Adams. Her Algerian protagonist, Aziz, washes up in Boston harbour after stowing away in a tanker for 52 days. Starved and injured, he finds refuge among a hodgepodge of fellow Algerian immigrants, mostly illegal. Adams does not naively buy into the stereotype that all of America’s new arrivals are upstanding hard workers merely searching for a better life. Aziz himself works numerous above-board, menial jobs, albeit off the books. But if his friends are, as we hear so incessantly, “doing the jobs that natives don’t want”, then Americans are too lazy to fence their own stolen goods, to run their own drugs, or to carry out their own smuggling, identity theft and credit card fraud.
Nor is Adams naive about the US authorities, who parlay green cards as bribes for touts and accept bribes themselves. She depicts the legal system’s approach to immigration as capricious and ineffective. The FBI gets altogether the wrong end of the stick in piecing together a terrorist plot in which Aziz’s “cell” is supposedly conspiring. In the end, the nasty elements get to stay, and only the innocent are deported.
Aziz’s reflections on “the pretty new nothing that was America” contribute the fresh perspective that newcomers bring: “Sexy, what did it mean? So many women and so many men saying sexy, everywhere he went. It may have been the word he learned first, after yes.”
And Adams captures the soulless fungibility that many an immigrant must feel, clinging to employment’s lowest rungs: “If he were to die or to quit or not be there for some reason, another, not like him but adequate to his function, would be fitted in and, like the tab in his cereal box, would keep it neat and closed.”
All the main characters in Nigerian writer Segun Afolabi’s short story collection A Life Elsewhere are transplants, and several stories go at immigration full bore. In “Monday Morning”, a family of African asylum seekers negotiates an unnamed British city, where “people looked at them with their mouths turned down. Sour. The eyes narrowed to slits.” A skilled chef, the father furtively does construction work while they wait for their case to be heard. With so much rhetoric flying about asylum, readers might find it a useful exercise to experience a gritty asylum hostel from the inside looking out.
Afolabi’s stories grapple with the concept of home - a simple enough notion when people stay put, a tangled one when they don’t. Long enough removed from your native land, where is home? Is one of the sacrifices of an emigre never having a home again, in that sense of the place profoundly where you belong, and where you are forever welcome? As a corollary, what are the implications for a country like the US, where a tenth of the population was born somewhere else and therefore doesn’t enjoy a native’s instinctive sense of allegiance? What happens when such a large segment of a country is disconnected, alienated, or even hostile because they don’t feel at home? As Afolabi writes, “No one tells you you need a firm place in the world until it’s too late and you’re floundering - a poor skater on black ice.”
In “Mrs Minter”, an elderly wife pines to leave Britain and retire to her native St Lucia. Her Nigerian husband, for whom as a young man home was “a small and inconsequential place” and “a kind of prison”, has also come full circle, and pines to return instead to Zaria. Torn in opposite directions, the couple remains in Britain - which, if “Something in the Water” is any guide, is probably the right choice.
“Something in the Water” embodies the old Thomas Wolfe aphorism that you can’t go home again. For years a resident of Britain, Femi takes his American wife on a tour of his origins in Nigeria, where he immediately begins hankering for London, “its midwinter shiver. The snow and ice they had left behind. Home. When had that occurred, this subtle transference of affection for another place? Like a love, adulterous and unwitting.” Ashamed of a country whose hotels provide only intermittent electricity and running water, he yearns to fly “high above here, sipping vodka on ice, watching a blockbuster”. When their taxi runs out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, his wife thinks she’s having an adventure, but Femi is terrified. Home is threatening and barbaric; elsewhere is safe. This story illustrates third-world brain-drain, for it must be an ironclad rule of human nature that you can’t do a U-turn on indoor plumbing.
In her marvellous second novel The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai romanticises neither home nor elsewhere. For both the characters stuck back in the Himalayas and the young man who escapes to the US, life is tough. One would be hard-pressed to answer these villagers’ most pressing question, posed archetypally by The Clash: “Should I stay or should I go?”
Desai is even sympathetic with poor native Yankee blighters deprived of another country to flee to, since according to the rest of the world there’s nowhere else to go. “The overweight confidence-leached citizens hunched over a pizza slice” lie awake nights “wondering if, in America - in America! - they were really getting the best of what was on offer”.
Young Biju decamps to New York, but to crowded, rat-infested digs and a string of grungy, poorly paid restaurant jobs. Desai captures the disconnected quality that also plagues the immigrants in Harbor and A Life Elsewhere, a tentativeness and transience reliably exacerbated by legal illegitimacy. Of a friend, “Biju knew he probably wouldn’t see him again. This was what happened. You lived intensely with others, only to have them disappear overnight, since the shadow class was condemned to movement. The men left for other jobs, towns, got deported, returned home, changed names. Eventually he made sure not to let friendships sink deep anymore.”
Unusually, The Inheritance of Loss heeds not only the brave new world, but also the country left behind. Life may be lousy for Biju, but in the meantime his village in India is overrun by a Nepalese insurgency. Food grows scarce; pets disappear. Only waiting for Biju’s letters and imagining the munificent life his son must be leading in the land of the free maintains his father’s spirits. While the folks back home nurse the myth of the emigrant’s life of wealth and luxury, Biju nurses his own myth about a warm, companionable town where everyone knows him. When Biju surrenders to homesickness and, laden with electrical appliances and tennis shoes, heads back to a village he has no idea has gone to hell, it is impossible not to wince.
Desai’s bleak, if droll, take on the immigrant story is the most sophisticated of these three authors. With all this toing and froing, mixing and matching, no one knows who they are anymore. Life in the US is crass, rootless and empty; life in rural India is scrappy, desperate and shambolic. Stay home, leave, or go back, some form of disappointment lies in wait. Desai drops more than a suggestion that the whole impulse to emigrate isn’t so much economic as religious - that this longing for a “better life” is for a heaven or Valhalla that all-too-real countries in North America or Europe can approximate only in the most farcical forms.
I noted initially that feelings run high about immigration on both sides. All three of these books do a fine job of fleshing out the emotional universe of immigrants in the west. Plenty of recent non-fiction has examined immigration from the western perspective - who should we let in and how many, if any. Yet most fiction has conspicuously refused to explore the emotional universe of the host population, some portion of which feels resentful, put-upon, fearful, displaced, and - should the numbers soar high enough - invaded and overrun.
There are obvious reasons for such neglect. In narrative terms, the immigrant is structurally sympathetic: weak, defenceless, disadvantaged and motivated by that desire for a “better life” that implies not only ambition, but spiritual quest. An immigrant is thrown on his wits and must display cunning, ingenuity and enterprise to survive in a harsh environment. That’s the kind of self-starter that the capitalist west idolises, yet these days is hard-pressed to locate in its own middle and upper classes.
By contrast, native western characters in the immigration drama present themselves to fiction writers as inherently unappealing: spoilt, obese and aging. Frittering millions on health farms, plastic surgery and Jacuzzis. What’s worse, their feelings about immigration - or at least the ones that tend to “run high” - appear unattractive. How do you construct a hero out of xenophobia, paranoia, suspicion, selfishness, territorialism, parochialism, inhospitality and bigotry?
The only novel I’ve read that attempts to address immigration even-handedly is T.C. Boyle’s 1995 The Tortilla Curtain (which is terrific). Like Lorraine Adams, Boyle depicts his primary immigrant characters as honest and hard-working, but they are surrounded by a shadier lot: thieves, drug-runners and rapists. The Tortilla Curtain portrays the costs to the host community of unchecked, illegal immigration. The Mexican protagonist and his pregnant wife “America” sleep rough in a Californian public park, which they not only foul and litter, but inadvertently set on fire during a drought. For once, the host population is given the dignity of names and faces, rather than merely constituting a backdrop crowd of the fatuously well-off who are not very nice.
Yet Boyle’s native-born Americans are still too affluent and small-minded to engage the reader’s sympathy appreciably. When “America” loses the skin on her hands to toxic solvents because her employers can’t be bothered to provide rubber gloves, or is preyed upon sexually and cheated of hard-earned wages, it’s hard to get fussed when our American family on the wealthy estate nearby loses their dog. In the end it’s still the Mexicans who stake out the moral high ground, even if they leave a few Coke cans behind.
The only novel I know of that puts the host population’s case ferociously is Jean Raspail’s infamous The Camp of the Saints - first published in French in 1973, but set in 2000, when the world’s population has ballooned to 7 billion (and he was not far off). A stinking “river of sperm”, 800,000 desperate residents of Calcutta hijack a fleet of ships and head for the coast of France. Meanwhile, gormlessly liberal France prepares to greet the convoy with open arms. The first landing party is a tide of bloated corpses thrown overboard. Similar sea-jackings are under way. The full-scale invasion of the first world by the third has begun.
The Camp of the Saints is blatantly racist. The mascot of the approaching ships is a grotesquely deformed dwarf, their human cargo characterised as a “sweating, starving mass, stewing in urine and noxious gases”. The purple prose does the author’s cause a disservice, for many defensible sentiments drown in hyperbolic poison. Raspail is at his best when writing about his own countrymen, who are, in his view, too paralysed with self-contempt to defend their own borders: “Cowardice toward the weak is cowardice at its most subtle, and indeed, its most deadly.”
So are the powerful emotions surrounding immigration on the receiving end inherently unworthy of compassion? Are westerners who are uncomfortable with a tide of uninvited new arrivals ipso facto the villains of the tale? I think not. That discomfort need not proceed from bigotry alone, but surely from the same primitive notion of home that concerns Segun Afolabi. Illegal immigration occasions the sensation of a householder when total strangers burst through his front door without knocking and take up indefinite residence in the guest room. Britain memorialises its natives’ brave fight against the Nazis in the second world war. In sufficient quantity, the arrival of foreign populations can begin to duplicate the experience of military occupation - your nation is no longer your home. Yet native western citizenries are implicitly told on a daily basis that to object is prejudiced, and they had best keep their mouths shut. This is a silencing in which fiction has been complicit.
As an American resident of Britain, I am an immigrant myself. Perhaps I can never quite regard the UK as home either, so that on my yearly trips to New York City I would like to relish returning somewhere that is. Yet one in four adults in New York today does not speak English. The recreation area where I once hit a tennis ball against a backboard in Riverside Park has now been colonised by immigrants from Guatemala. The last few times I practised my forehand, I drew wary looks and felt unwelcome. I don’t practise there any more, and I resent that a bit. Does that make me a bigot? In a story, would I look bad?
Surely fiction could stand to render as passably sympathetic an unease - or even fury - at being made to feel a foreigner in one’s own country. In the face of mainstream disquiet over immigration, most centrist politicians abdicate to the venomous rightwing. By likewise failing to engage with understandably primal reactions to the compromise of one’s home, fiction writers may abdicate the role of comforter and champion to future Jean Raspails of a subtler, more beguiling stripe. Literarily, readers are being cheated, for filling in only one side of the equation deprives a compelling modern drama of its delicious complexity.
Lionel Shriver’s novel “Double Fault” is published by Serpent’s Tail.
by Lorraine Adams
Portobello Books £7.99, 291 pages
A LIFE ELSEWHERE
by Segun Afolabi
Jonathan Cape £11.99, 288 pages
THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS
by Kiran Desai
Hamish Hamilton £12.99, 368 pages
THE TORTILLA CURTAIN
by T.C. Boyle
Bloomsbury £6.99, 355 pages
THE CAMP OF THE SAINTS
By Jean Raspail
The Social Contract Press $13.50, 316 pages
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