Ways of Being: New Immigrant Fiction

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, March 10, 2016

THE MIGRANT IS the “defining figure of the 20th century,” Salman Rushdie wrote 20 years ago in the literary magazine Granta. In “this century of wandering,” of refugees and writers in exile carrying “cities in their bedrolls,” migrants taught us what it was to be human, he said, because they’d lost those very things that gave shape to their humanity — roots, culture, social knowledge — and were forced to devise new ways of being. And the migrant writer hatched a new language along the way. “To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free,” Rushdie wrote in his 1991 essay collection, “Imaginary Homelands.” Shoals of people still move across the world today, but the idea of a literature of migration seems to have fallen out of fashion — not with readers but with writers, some of whom chafe at being narrowly categorized, consigned to an ethnic beat, their work treated as sociology instead of art.

 “I don’t know what to make of the term ‘immigrant fiction,’ ” Jhumpa Lahiri said in a 2013 interview in the Book Review. “If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction?” There’s a feeling that the designation edges writers to the margins — they are forever hyphenated and their work sapped of its universality. “I’m not an immigrant writer,” the poet Richard Blanco told The Los Angeles Review of Books. “I am the son of immigrants, and I’m an immigrant myself who is a writer. You always worry if you’re writing in the context of your story, it’s not ­mainstream.”

This is all very reasonable. Aren’t the themes of immigrant literature — estrangement, homelessness, fractured identities — the stuff of all modern literature, if not life? “Can it be that we’re all exiles?” Roberto Bolaño asked. “Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?” Alienation is alienation, after all. Kafka spoke to everyone when he wrote in a (possibly apocryphal) diary entry: “Enclosed in my own four walls, I found myself as an immigrant imprisoned in a foreign country; . . . I saw my family as strange aliens whose foreign customs, rites and very language defied comprehension; . . . though I did not want it, they forced me to participate in their bizarre rituals.”

 The trouble is that the migrant is not a metaphor, or not always. Two novels published this month make this plain, rendering the trauma of migration with harsh clarity. A LIFE APART (Norton, paper, $16.95), by Neel Mukherjee, and THE YEAR OF THE RUNAWAYS (Knopf, $27.95),by Sunjeev Sahota, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, recount the stories of Indians making a miserable transition to life in England — from the costs of the journey (much dignity, one kidney) to the caste politics at either end to the first beating, the first sight of snow. Bolaño may be right, we may all be strangers in strange lands — but for some of us, these authors point out, this terrain is not merely internal, and it must be navigated without language or aid (to say nothing about that kidney).

Both books are elegies of sorts for the many characters who don’t survive the journey, who are broken or just turn sour or strange. But they couldn’t be more different. Sahota writes about the lowest castes and the tribes of the unlucky — lonely men lacking even nourishing fantasies, who suffer at home, angle to enter England by any means necessary only to be greeted by violence and dangerous, low-paying work. His sentences are crowded with incident, but he’s fundamentally an aloof, emotionally reticent writer. Mukherjee, who has inveighed against this very kind of prose in his criticism (“the dominant and unquestioned orthodoxy of contemporary Anglophone fiction”), is fussier.He is partial to elaborately upholstered sentences, sometimes unhappily so, and a contrapuntal structure — there’s a novel within this novel. He follows just one character: a young Bengali writer studying at Oxford on scholarship. But in both books, the favored and unfavored quickly lose their footing. They run out of money and overstay their visas. They’re forced into the twilight life of sex work and hard labor.

“A Life Apart” and “The Year of the Runaways” are part of a wave of recent books that cast a more critical eye on migration than usual. The immigrant novel has tended to be optimistic by nature — stories of upward mobility tinged with nostalgia for the motherland and animated by the character’s struggle to balance individual desires and the demands of the family or community.

 Authors like NoViolet Bulawayo, Laila Lalami, Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zia Haider Rahman, however, bring more skepticism and a wider angle to the topic. As Pankaj Mishra pointed out in his 2013 essay on the global novel, many of these writers are likely to be as leery of nationalism and global capitalism as they are of arranged marriage. Assimilation is regarded as impossible; ambitions are swiftly aborted. “When we got to America we took our dreams, looked at them tenderly as if they were newly born children and put them away,” NoViolet Bulawayo writes in “We Need New Names,” her novel about a young girl who escapes from Zimbabwe to America only to be disappointed by the lack of opportunity. “We would never be the things we had wanted to be: doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers.” There are no fantasies of acceptance, let alone belonging. In Zia Haider Rahman’s “In the Light of What We Know,” a British-Bangladeshi character thinks, “If an immigration officer at Heathrow had ever said ‘Welcome home’ to me, I would have given my life for England, for my country, there and then.”

Sahota takes it further in “The Year of the Runaways”: “What decadence this belonging rubbish was, what time the rich must have if they could sit around and weave great worries out of such threadbare things.” Strikingly, British people play scant roles in both Sahota’s and Mukherjee’s books. The central drama is internal, less the adaptation of oneself to a country — so resolutely hostile — than to one’s own evolving self.

There is a beautiful pitilessness at the heart of both books. The characters suffer and suffer. They don’t yearn for their lost lives; they don’t adjust particularly well to their new ones. The passing consolations are in friendships that are nearly always strategic and temporary, more cautious mutual-disarmament agreements than intimacy: Mukherjee’s writer finds a kind of fraternity among the men he meets cruising for sex, and the runaways in Sahota’s book — three immigrants from India and a British-Indian woman who enters into a sham marriage with one of them — form a loose, very combustible family unit for a time.

Rushdie wrote that the migrant had to discover new ways to be human. These books recognize what a task that is; they recognize that migration can be, for some, an almost posthumous existence, that it awakens not only the desire to succeed but also, sometimes, the drive to extinguish what little remains of the self. One wants to praise these novels as immigrant fiction not in order to marginalize them but to pinpoint how deeply and clearly they see across borders and into character and history (“vision” and “visitor” share a Latin root; the visitor is she who has come to see, she who notices). This is the bitter paradox regarding the grousing about immigrant fiction: that a genre with such a wide sweep, with such a vantage point on the contingencies of human and cultural behavior, can be derided for, of all things, narrowness.

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