Sunday, July 26, 2009

Five Books of immigrants

Yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Kaminski selected the five best novels about immigrants to America—three of the five published within the last decade. Pnin, his first choice, is not a novel about an immigrant at all. Timofey Pnin is an émigré—a very different thing. The immigrant comes to America in search of a better life; the émigré comes to escape a far worse one. A more representative novel about Russian immigrants to the U.S. is Gary Shteyngart’s frantic and hilarious Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002).

Only one novel on Kaminski’s list belongs there, in my opinion. That is Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. Here are some other titles that scour the immigrant experience in unpredictable terms.

(1.) Pietro di Donato, Christ in Concrete (1939). A proletarian novel in origin and not merely in subject matter—the author was a bricklayer—Christ in Concrete was the first American novel to explore the lives of Italian immigrants. It is episodic rather than traditionally plotted and carelessly written in places, but these qualities only add to its foreignness—as does its portrait of working-class Catholicism, which is mixed heavily with sensuality and paganism. These are not Mario Puzo’s Italians.

(2.) John Okada, No-No Boy (1957). About a young man, the son of immigrants from Japan, who is drafted for the U.S. Army while his family is in a detention camp. He refuses induction, but he also declines to express any loyalty for the Emperor. Hence the title. The novel begins as he returns to Seattle after his imprisonment, finding himself in a unique situation that nevertheless captures something at the heart of the immigrant experience, especially for the second generation: “[I]t is not enough to be American only in the eyes of the law and it is not enough to be only half an American and know that it is an empty half. . . . I am not Japanese and I am not American.”

(3.) Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959). Selina Boyce is the daughter of immigrants from Barbados living in Brooklyn. To come of age, to come into her own, she must distance herself from her family’s “Bajan” ways. Marshall’s novel complicates the simplistic notions of race and African-American identity now current, for the Caribbean blacks in the novel have little in common with the Brooklyn blacks whose families had been in this country for more than a century. The terminology of race—“Negro,” “black,” “African-American”—conceals those differences. Marshall exposes them to the light.

(4.) Lore Segal, Her First American (1985). Ilka Weissnix, a young Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, plunges into an affair with an angry middle-aged black intellectual. She is unsure whether Alabama is a Southern state, and is unable to distinguish a Negro from a Chinese. Her lover introduces her to America. You can imagine the racial taboos and linguistic barriers that must be negotiated, but as he says, there is nothing about this country that race and sex will not bring out. The author of the autobiographical Holocaust novel Other People’s Houses (1964), Segal herself emigrated to this country in 1951.

(5.) Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker (1995). Born in Seoul and brought to the U.S. by his parents when he was three, Lee published this first novel at the age of thirty. It is an astonishingly accomplished and complex work. Based on the boycott of Korean produce stores by black activists in 1990, the novel is a summa of all the themes enunciated by the first four books on this list: the subordination of the first-generation immigrant to his job, the divided loyalties, the sense of belonging to neither nation, the tragic conflict between American blacks and later immigrants. Written in the voice of a man who is unsparingly honest about himself, whose intelligence is the archive of his family’s ambitions, and who insists upon the truth. Compared by reviewers to Ellison’s Invisible Man, it is more realistic and less political. Yet the comparison is not a scandal.


Jonathan said...

On a related tangent:

A couple of months ago I read "Columbus, and other stories" by Roth and "The Victim" by Bellow, one after the other.

For this reason, I'm not sure right now in which book I noticed the following.

I remember being struck how referring to someone as "rural" or "provincial" was an insult or put-down of some force (I'm sorry I can't remember the exact word, but this was the general sense). It seemed this was aimed at other Jews exhibiting behaviour that might be reminiscent of Singer's pre-war rural Poland.

At the time, I ascribed this to middle-class and educated families looking down at more working-class ones.

After reading your post this morning, it occurred to me that rather than expression of class tensions, this put-down reflected the unease of first-generation Americans, at the more foreign customs and outlooks of their parents.

Any thoughts? Or was I reading too much into Roth and Bellow earlier this year.

JOnathan said...

Ah, I wish there was an edit function on blogspot.

I didn't mean to suggest that either Roth or Bellow put down the rural or provincial, but rather their characters did.

D. G. Myers said...

I’ve reread The Victim within the past two years and don’t recall that insult.

Not sure that it is confined to the Jews, however. A common baseball nickname from the first part of the last century was “Rube,” for an unsophisticated ballplayer from a rural area.

jeff mauvais said...

Paule Marshall is an unjustly neglected writer. Her novels explore not only the West Indian immigrant experience in the United States, but also the return of an immigrant's child to the homeland of her parents (Praisesong for the Widow) and the sense of dislocation felt by a sociologist who's come from the U.S. to "help" islanders adjust to modernity (A Chosen Land, a Chosen People). I'm not aware of another novelist who's explored the situation of the "stranger in a strange land" from so many different angles.

I discovered her work in a small bookstore in Bridgetown, Barbados about thirty years ago. The habit of visiting bookstores wherever work or pleasure takes me has provided me with countless unexpected pleasures through the years. At this point, I seldom carry any books on the outbound portion of a trip, but always return with a bag heavy enough to risk shoulder dislocation.