Tag Archives: immigration in fiction

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Shifting cultures

Cover imageXuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection comes garlanded with praise from Lauren Groff, herself no slouch when it comes to crafting short stories. Wang explores the second-generation immigrant experience through the lens of experience, having arrived in the States with her parents aged seven. Her collection comprises twelve lengthy stories divided into three sections: Family, Love, and Time and Space.

Home Remedies begins with ‘Mott Street in July’ which sees three children of Chinese immigrants left to fend for themselves in the one-bedroom flat they’ve long outgrown, their eyes fixed on an American future. Its dreamlike quality is mirrored in the final story ‘The Art of Straying Off Course’, a whirlwind of snapshots which takes us through an architect’s life as her career progresses until she visits her ancestral home, neatly bookending the collection. One of my favourites, ‘Vaulting the Sea’, is about two seven-year-old boys, future Olympic hopefuls, who become the closest of friends but as they grow older one wants more from the other than he’s able to give. The titular ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments’ is made up of a list of emotional ills with advice for remedying them, from dealing with a crush on an ageing professor to avoiding a father’s grief-stricken phone calls when his ancient dog dies. In ‘Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships’ a divorced computer scientist muses on the failure of his logical approach to his relationship with his daughter who has never known the hunger he endured and doesn’t appreciate the fact that he knows to the dollar how much it has cost to raise her. ‘The Strawberry Years’ has a photographer struggling to make ends meet and fed up with the multitude of requests to look after Chinese visitors, one of who seems intent on taking over his apartment with her burgeoning Livestream audience’s approval.

Told mostly from the perspective of young Chinese, these are poignant, sharply observed stories often undercut with a dark humour. Some explore intergenerational relationships and the gulf which exists between the expectations and experience of parents and children. They reveal the sheer pace of change for many Chinese, from the living memory of the Cultural Revolution to expectations of a future little different from those of wealthy Americans. Wang’s characters range from the spoilt second-generation rich boy, returning from the States after an act of cruelty for which his best friend may have to pay, to the young man who agrees to a marriage he knows will make him a rich man but at a high price. Her writing is plain yet striking:

His father was a coal miner, a thin, muscular man who looked permanently charred

The blue-eyed girl was still holding on to his hand and he was about to ask “Where is the party?” but the words came to him in Chinese. Then like a voice in an interrupted dream, they flew out of him in perfect English  

I liked the girl I married very much, but not the woman she became after we immigrated to America  

Not all the stories worked for me but it’s an interesting collection which explores a culture I’m ashamed to say I know far less about than I should.

If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood: Belonging, and not belonging

Cover imageSome of you may have noticed that I’m attracted to novels about immigrants. The theme has an entry all to itself in my occasional Five Books I’ve Read series. I’ve lived my life in just one country which is perhaps why I’m so curious about how it might feel to leave your homeland, not always willingly. Abbigail N. Rosewood’s debut, If I Had Two Lives, tells the story of a young woman who spent her first twelve years in Vietnam until her mother’s determination to root out corruption becomes so dangerous that she sends her daughter to the United States.

In 1993, when our unnamed narrator is just three, her mother leaves in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. Intent on helping to modernise her country, her mother refuses to let corruption stand in her way. When she’s seven, our narrator is brought to the camp for political prisoners where her mother lives, protected by the man her daughter calls ‘the soldier’. She makes friends with the child of a camp employee, poor in comparison with our narrator’s privilege. These two become the closest of friends, sharing adventures, even dreams, which helps to soothe the wounds inflicted by their parents, emotional and otherwise. The last time our narrator sees her friend, she’s surrounded by the flames of the sugarcane field they’ve set alight. The following day our narrator flies to the States. When we next meet her, she’s supporting herself with a string of dead-end jobs after dropping out of college. An encounter with a woman in a bar results in an immediate connection and, perhaps, a way to fill the emotional chasm she’s endured since she was a child.

Rosewood’s narrator tells her story in her own voice, exploring themes of dislocation and belonging with poignancy and immediacy. Quick to anger, her mother is so driven that she has neither the time nor emotional energy to expend on her daughter who looks for family where she can find it. When she arrives in the States, she tells whatever story she needs to belong, accepting the stereotype of the poor immigrant:

I didn’t realise then that learning a new language permanently separated you from yourself so that each version was neither a lie nor a whole truth

Rosewood’s writing has an aching poignancy, and is often lyrically poetic:

Remembrances were like slivers of glass, crystal clear until you picked them up and smudged their surface with your fingerprints

Her narrator’s story is one of loss, isolation and a yearning to belong, summed up for me in the quietly devastating line: What I learned over the years – abandonment was love’s destiny. You’ll be relieved to hear it ends on a note of hope.

The Americans by Chitra Viraraghavan: A sense of belonging

Cover imageI’m fascinated by fiction about the immigrant experience. From Meera Syal’s Anita and Me and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane to Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, novels can tell you so much about the way immigrants see their adoptive country and the way it sees them, helping the rest of us understand the dislocation of not quite belonging to one culture or the other. This is the territory that Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans explores through eleven immigrants – both first and second generation – scattered across the USA, all with a connection to Tara Kumar who is visiting from Madras.

For some reason I’d thought The Americans was a set of linked short stories when I included it in my September preview but it’s firmly introduced as a novel on its jacket and that’s how it reads, although not the kind that lends itself to the usual brief recap. It roams far and wide across the US – from Chicago to Portland, Boston to L.A. – telling the stories of a widely disparate set of people. CLN is an elderly widower with whom Tara strikes up a conversation on his way to his first visit to his daughter in Chicago. Lavi is the fifteen-year-old niece – all hormones and crushes – Tara goes to Kentucky to look after while her sister takes her autistic eight-year-old son for treatment in New Jersey. Shantanu is the uncle, illegally in the US and entangled in the criminal web of his boss, who Tara hopes to visit. Akhil is the misfit whose worried parents have asked Tara to check on while Madhulika is the friend in Portland whose arranged marriage is floundering. These are a few of the characters in Viraraghavan’s wide-ranging novel, each of whom has a story to tell – some run-of-the-mill, others not so – all linked back to Tara who, of course, has her own tale. The novel is set in 2005, sufficiently distant from 9/11 for its full effects to be felt on anyone with a brown skin, many of whom find themselves regarded with even more suspicion than they did before.

With so many interwoven narrative strands, each busy with characters, there’s a danger that The Americans might have run away with itself but Viraraghavan manages to keep it all under control, neatly linking each strand back to Tara’s. Only Akhil’s seemed a little strained perhaps because it’s both more dramatic and tangential than most of the others. Viraraghavan explores a wide range of experience, from Tara’s wealthy sister who employs both a housekeeper and a cleaner, to Shantanu, who risks everything despite his expired visa to protect a trafficked young woman. Instances of casual racism, both directed at the Indian characters and by them at others, are all delivered convincingly and with a light touch. While the typescript book reports scattered through the narratives jarred a little, they’re neatly tied in to Tara’s own story at the end of the novel. Well worth reading, although I suspect that it won’t get the attention it deserves. And well done HarperCollins for publishing it straight into affordable paperback.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: A sad story filled with warmth as well as sorrow

Cover imageThe immigrant experience is a rich theme for fiction, one which offers many of us a glimpse into a world that we will never know and, I would like to think, fosters a level of empathy and tolerance apparently unknown to many tabloid editors with their pernicious headlines. Cristina Henríquez’s brilliantly named The Book of Unknown Americans tells the story of a family who have left their beloved Mexico for the US in the hope of helping their young daughter Maribel, brain-damaged in an accident just a year ago.

Alma and Arturo move into a Delware apartment block tenanted by immigrants from a multitude of countries south of the US border and owned by a man who himself immigrated from Parguay. They’re legal and above board: Arturo found a job picking mushrooms – way beneath his qualifications and capabilities – before they made the journey to the US. They have come so that Maribel can attend the school which both he and Alma hope will help her recover. Life is far from easy but they make friends with their neighbours who have a son around Maribel’s age. Bullied and humiliated at school, Mayor can’t believe his luck when he sees his gorgeous young neighbour. A friendship grows between the two which Mayor hopes may become more than platonic. As Maribel improves Alma relaxes a little but still cannot rid herself of her guilt at her daughter’s accident, or of her fear of the young boy with a skateboard who has his eye on Maribel. All does not go well in a story made more poignant by the knowledge that it was inspired by one told to Henríquez by her father.

Narrated by Mayor and Alma, the novel is punctuated by the testimonies of their fellow tenants some of whom have fled unrest and persecution while others are hoping to escape poverty, seeking a better life for themselves and their children – the same story the world over. Their jobs are often the grubby ones that Americans – for whom anyone with a brown face is Mexican wherever they come from – won’t do. The pay is poor but many have worked hard to make lives for themselves and their families. Homesickness for the familiar, for friends, family and all that’s left behind; the struggles with language and the constant feeling of not belonging run vividly through Alma’s narrative while Mayor’s struggles to fit in and his fellow students’ casual racism give us a glimpse of what life can be like for the second generation immigrant caught between two cultures. It’s a sad story, humanely told, filled with warmth as well as sorrow.

If you’re as fascinated by the immigrant theme as I am you might be interested in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Oscar Hijuelos’s Empress of the Splendid Season or Dinawa Mengestu’s Children of the Revolution, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed. I’m sure there must be many more. Let me know if you’ve spotted any gaping holes in my list that you think I should fill.