Literature by immigrant writers has transformed, enriched and has in fact come to define much of contemporary American literature. The immigrant experience is the essential American story, the narrative of those who created a nation, and this is demonstrated by writers as diverse as Vladmir Nobokov and Anita Desai in the Library of America’s new anthology, “Becoming America: Writing the Immigrant Experience.” Eighty-five writers from over forty countries contribute to this new kind of American history, a testimony to the challenges and struggles that made America the engine of change it is today.
On Tuesday, October 27, an event featuring contributing authors Jhumpa Lahiri and Gary Shteyngart was held at Casa Italiana. Lahiri, the Indian-American author of “Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Namesake,” and Shteyngart, the Russian-American author of “Absurdistan” read excerpts from the book and discussed their experiences as immigrant authors in America. The event was sponsored by Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish studies, the American Studies Program and the Library of America, and was moderated by Illan Stavans, editor of the anthology.
People stood lining the walls of the ornate auditorium as Professor Jeremy Dauber opened the event with a reading of two short excerpts from the memoirs of female Jewish immigrants a century apart. Dauber spoke of immigration as the catalyst of what is considered “American” — immigrants from the time of 17th century Jamestown to present-day Brooklyn, regardless of whether they came to America for economic opportunity or political sanctuary, have shaped the American national character. Immigrants bring with them a fresh perspective, sensitive to details and idiosyncrasies of American life that the natives are too close to see. This manifests itself in different ways — one Puerto Rican is surprised and embarrassed by public displays of affection, a young immigrant named Charles Chaplin is confused by the man with an obviously German accent calling himself “American”.
The immigrant is also all the more sensitive to the American promise — and its betrayal. Lahiri spoke of her lifelong struggle with finding “home” and “roots” – which has finally paused in Brooklyn, New York, where she lives with her husband and children. Both authors spoke of their struggles with their conflicting identities and their complex and uneasy relationships with the nations they lay claim to. Lahiri was quiet, restrained, and poised – much like her writing she was introspective and yet constantly observant. Shteyngart on the other hand was exuberant and effusive, amusing the audience endlessly with his impeccable sense of humor while interspersing moments of profundity and deeply insightful observations. Their attitudes toward their own experiences were also so different — with her one got the sense that she grew up in an environment of resistance to embracing the new land and culture and a constant longing for home, whereas his seems an environment of gratitude toward America, in which home was neither desirable nor desired. She speaks like an eternal expatriate, he like a man accepting of his two worlds. The conversation flowed naturally, from their relationships with their first languages and with English and the complexities and challenges of the experience of the immigrant author.
Shteyngart touched upon broader issues in American literature, citing that while Germany has a translation rate of 30-40%, this rate is only 2% in America, indicating a certain apathy about international literature in America. It falls on the immigrant writer, therefore, to fill this gap, to infuse culture and diversity in he world of American writing and cure America of what Shteyngart calls its “antiseptic nature.”
There were many highlights of the conversation, such as when Shteynagrt spoke of his literary beginnings: a novella his grandmother bribed him with bananas to write when he was four years old and an ardent Lenin devotee (the plot concerns how Lenin and a goose conquer Finland and, after political unrest starts, Lenin eats the goose). They spoke of returning to their countries of origin to find answers to how their parents became who they are – questions that America cannot explain. He spoke of how the first signs of a fading country is the fake and exaggerated patriotism that arises in its people. She spoke of the infinite contradictions inherent in the adolescence of America. He spoke of the incessant longing for the “other” place that immigrants feel — at home they long for their new life, in their new lives they long for home, and of the guilt of the second generation. She spoke of the importance of uprooting oneself every once in a while, of the enrichment that time away from a comfort zone can bring. The pieces they chose to read were also much like them – his was theatrical, exclamatory, insightful, hers was quiet, somber and emotionally rich.
During the discussion, one got the feeling Lahiri seemed to dramatize her experience, her emotion, her struggle, perhaps for the sake of her art. I spoke to several friends who had similar experiences – they were immigrants themselves and had moved here young, or were the second generation that Lahiri writes so masterfully about. Prapti Chatterjee, CC 2012, says “As a Bengali who moved here when I was five, I relate to some things she talks about – like practicing my accent in front of the mirror, but I don’t feel I’ve had to struggle to find home here.” Parinitha Sastry, CC 2011, says “I feel she writes the stories of the wrong generation, and describes the wrong struggles. I think the real complications are in the reconstruction of family structures when entire families uproot themselves and resettle abroad. Also, there are bigger issues she could be writing: what about the realignment of political alignments or the construction of political opinion in a new country? What about bigger issues of economic development in India, or Pakistan’s political instability? I don’t believe a personal struggle with a name change is the biggest issue facing the Indian diaspora today.”