In recent weeks, President Trump’s administration announced major changes to the US immigration system. Politically, immigration in the US has always been a hornet’s nest with both the Left and the Right using conflicting arguments to suit their specific agendas at any given point in time. Brexit has highlighted how immigration has become more than a deep-rooted concern in Europe.
In his essay, Reflections on Exile, Edward Said described the different immigrant categories — exile, refugee, expatriate, and émigré — as follows:
Exile originated in the age-old practice of banishment. Once banished, the exile lives an anomalous and miserable life, with the stigma of being an outsider… The word “refugee” has become a political one, suggesting large herds of innocent and bewildered people requiring urgent international assistance, whereas “exile” carries with it, I think, a touch of solitude and spirituality. Expatriates voluntarily live in an alien country, usually for personal or social reasons… Expatriates may share in the solitude and estrangement of exile, but they do not suffer under its rigid proscriptions. Émigrés enjoy an ambiguous status. Technically, an émigré is anyone who emigrates to a new country. Choice in the matter is certainly a possibility.
Whatever category an immigrant may fall into, he/she has to constantly redefine and renegotiate his/her socio-cultural and geopolitical identities. This ongoing complex, scary, and messy tussle is both personal and political and is often not explicitly understood by even the person trying to cope with it. Here is a stellar collection of short stories — by Bernard Malamud, Amy Tan, Anzia Yezierska, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Oindrila Mukherjee — revealing and highlighting exactly this dynamic.
As always, click on the story title to read it free online.
Many of Malamud’s short stories focused on the Jewish immigrant experience in America. I’ve got his ‘Complete Stories‘ and enjoy dipping into them for both the deep insights and the melancholy humor that he brought together so uniquely in a simple, conversational prose.
In this story, a Jewish refugee, Oskar, has escaped Nazi Germany to come to the US and hopes to become a lecturer. But, first, he needs to learn the English language. The narrator is a college student who is teaching him on the side, as he has been teaching a few others like Oskar.
Like other refugees, Oskar is also trying to cope with displacement, alienation, lack of friends, financial difficulty, and inability to speak the language. But, unlike the rest, it seems he has lost all faith and confidence in his own abilities. While trying to help him regain these, the narrator finds himself sinking into Oskar’s sadness without really understanding what it was all about. The ending of this story is harsh and rather abrupt but Malamud’s skill is in how he leads us to it — unexpectedly and yet, inevitably.
I was in those days a poor student and would brashly attempt to teach anybody anything for a buck an hour, although I have since learned better. Mostly I gave English lessons to recently arrived refugees. The college sent me; I had acquired a little experience. Already a few of my students were trying their broken English, theirs and mine, in the American marketplace. I was just twenty, on my way into my senior year in college, a skinny, life-hungry kid, eating himself waiting for the next World War to start. It was a goddamn cheat. Here I was, palpitating to get going, and across the ocean, Adolf Hitler, in black boots and a square moustache, was tearing up all the flowers. Will I ever forget what went on with Danzig that summer?
Tan’s novel includes sixteen interlocking stories about the lives of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their four American-born daughters. In this one, the immigrant mother, Suyuan, wants her American-born daughter, Jing-Mei, to develop an expertise in some skill so she can be a child prodigy like one of her friends’ daughters. They try various things unsuccessfully before Suyuan settles on the piano. Jing-Mei does not apply herself well enough during lessons and performs poorly in concert. When she stops playing entirely, Suyuan is devastated but not deterred and keeps the pressure on. There is a big mother-daughter showdown where harsh words are said by both and the daughter lands the sucker punch. The ending, though not surprising, is bittersweet.
What Tan does so well in this story, as she does with all these stories, is make us sympathize with both protagonist and antagonist. We understand the mother’s underlying desperation to be someone in America through her daughter and to make up for the horrific past she left behind in China. And we also see the daughter, fearful of her mother’s ambition and lacking the same confidence, wanted to just be herself.
My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.
“Of course, you can be a prodigy, too,” my mother told me when I was nine. “You can be best anything. What does Auntie Lindo know? Her daughter, she is only best tricky.”
America was where all my mother’s hopes lay. She had come to San Francisco in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. Things could get better in so many ways.
Yezierska came to the US as a child with her family during the first World War. In New York City’s Lower East Side, she worked in a sweatshop and other such menial jobs during the day. In the evenings, she went to school. Most of her fiction is about immigrant women — Jewish and Puerto Rican — struggling to assimilate and establish their American identities. She had quite the life journey from sweatshop work to writing in Hollywood.
This story, found in the ‘How I Found America‘ collection, is actually autobiographical and about how she struggled not only to learn to communicate with Americans but also to convince them that she had something worthwhile to say. Eventually, through all the efforts to earn a living wage and trying to work up to a respectable enough job, she came to the realization that America was still an evolving country and she could contribute to its creation and development through her immigrant stories.
The Yiddish-American dialect here is so musical and Yezierska packs the narrative with genuine emotion without reducing it to maudlin sentimentality.
“What is it you want to do, child?” she asked me.
“I want to do something with my head, my feelings. All day long, only with my hands I work.”
“First you must learn English.” She patted me as if I was not yet grown up. “Put your mind on that, and then we’ll see.”
So for a time I learned the language. I could almost begin to think with English words in my head. But in my heart the emptiness still hurt. I burned to give, to give something, to do something, to be something. The dead work with my hands was killing me. My work left only hard stones on my heart.
Again I went to our factory teacher and cried out to her: “I know already to read and write the English language, but I can’t put it into words what I want. What is it in me so different that can’t come out?”
I have shared other stories by Adichie a few times before. For me, she is one of the best voices of today. This is an older story and was shortlisted for the 2002 Caine Prize. It is also in her collection, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck,’ as the title story.
The narration is in second person POV and explores the experience of a young Nigerian Igbo immigrant woman, Akunna, in the US. The descriptions of how America is so different from the perceptions many immigrants have before arriving are universally recognizable, of course. And, beyond dealing with her own incorrect American stereotypes, the stereotypes that the Americans have of her past life and culture come as a shock. Akunna tries to get her head around all that even as she sees how migration to a foreign country means exploitation, powerlessness, alienation, and loneliness. Anxious about being unable to adequately support her family back home, she begins to assert herself in small but significant ways, including with a new lover, and gains back some of her confidence.
Adichie has spoken and written often about how she never understood what being “black” meant till she came to America as an immigrant — this is an interesting 2013 NPR interview.
You believed that everybody in America had a car and a gun. Your uncles and aunts and cousins believed it too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you, “In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.”
They trooped into the shantytown house in Lagos, standing beside the nail-studded zinc walls because chairs did not go round, to say good bye in loud voices and tell you with lowered voices what they wanted you to send them. In comparison to the big car and house (and possibly gun), the things they wanted were minor—handbags and shoes and vitamin supplements. You said okay, no problem.
I have shared this one before.
Now, this is an all too familiar story for most first-generation Indian immigrants to the US of the past 2-3 decades. Most came to the US for higher education — a long, drawn-out journey that can begin a year or two before even setting foot in the country.
Mukherjee writes with the collective “we” point of view, which is perfect for this kind of story because she is describing a huge common bond between many such immigrants. In their home country, they might have lived entirely different lives. But this one big life step of moving to the US binds them all together in a lengthy, shared, and deeply personal experience.
She juxtaposes, so beautifully, the various mundane bureaucratic processes with the associated emotional upheavals so that we feel the anxiety and tension ratcheting up throughout. The visuals are heartbreakingly familiar to first-generation Indian immigrants like myself.
There are some stories I read and go, “Damn. I wanted to have written that. I was going to write that.” This is one of them.
We are a mixed bunch. Some of us are going to study English, history, or political science. We are progressive and modern and eat animals indiscriminately and support homosexuality even though we have never known anyone who is gay. Some of us are engineers whose fathers slaved as government employees in small towns so we could attend the Indian Institute of Technology. We have spent most of our lives memorizing textbooks. Some of us are computer scientists. We want to write code and work for Microsoft or Apple. We are the most confident ones today because we have been told the Americans need us. All of us strain our ears to hear the conversations at the different windows. We envy the continuing student who is simply renewing her visa and gets done in a few minutes. Not everyone is so fortunate. One man in his thirties gesticulates wildly to make his case. He wears a cream shirt, a brown striped tie, black boots. His hair is slicked back, and he holds a brown folder. The agent, a middle-aged white woman, stares at the computer screen in front of her as they speak. She never smiles. The man looks around the room, pleading with us to help. In his eyes is a look of desperation. We hear the words “project,” “company,” “cousin.” The agent shakes her head and mouths the word “sorry.”
If this has whetted your appetite, here are a couple more links to explore:
— One of my own stories — The Golden Amulet — about an Indian immigrant couple in California, published in Amazon’s Day One Literary Journal.
Do you have a favorite story about immigrants to the US? Please do share in the comments below.