On the Universal Urgency of Immigrant Literature
Christopher Castellani: "Every child of immigrants is born into a sense of loss."
“There are only two possible stories,” goes the old adage, frequently attributed to John Gardner: “a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” It’s the sort of thing I’ve said casually to my students over the years as a way to help us organize our ideas, but it strikes me now that every immigrant story I know of falls into one or—in most cases, both—of those archetypes: a character leaves behind a place—a life, really: a home, a language, a personhood—to embark on a personal quest; or a character enters an unfamiliar country, where they are a stranger to most, and finds they must navigate its codes and culture in order to survive. The leaving behind is as much a theme in these stories as is the navigation, and the adventure is as much a loss as it is a journey of discoveries.
Embedded in the tropes of all immigrant literature, then, are these classic elements of storytelling, elements that get at the heart of identity. For this reason alone, it should surprise no one that immigrant literature is so rich and varied and compelling and satisfying even to readers who have never left their hometown. In The New York Times, Parul Seghal wrote, “Aren’t the themes of immigrant literature—estrangement, homelessness, fractured identities—the stuff of all modern literature, if not life?”
Seen through this lens, we might even consider The Wizard of Oz—Dorothy’s journey from black-and-white to color and then back again—as an immigrant tale. Maybe even Alice in Wonderland, or Gulliver’s Travels. Dorothy, Alice, and Gulliver are all on journeys, and they all find themselves strangers who come to town. They’re all stories of dislocation, of a kind of restlessness hand-in-hand with loneliness, all stories in which a character must grapple with that most essential question: “how do I live?” Or, to be more precise, “how do I live here?” I’m not implying here that all stories are immigrant stories, of course, but that all immigrant stories, all these tales of departure and arrival, wrestle with universal—and therefore relatable—questions.
Just as there is no arrival without departure in these stories, there is no departure without the specter of Return. This could mean return to the homeland, to the origin, to the place where identity is coherent or at least stable; it could also mean returning to the barely-known place where one began and seeing it as if for the first time. For some immigrants, in both fiction and nonfiction, Return is filled with very real terror: threats of persecution, imprisonment, or unspeakable violence. For others, Return is a beautiful, lifelong, longed-for dream: it holds the potential for the closing of the circle of life, for happy reunions, for a reclamation of a simpler past, or for a reckoning with a place and people that could not be understood without having left them behind. For most, Return is something in between terror and peace, something vexed at best, and it’s this in-betweenness, this vexedness, that has always interested me most in immigrant literature, and which seems best-suited to the literary writer: the ambivalence of home, its over-determination and contradictions, the guilt and tension and mystery of it.
Though I am not an immigrant myself, I am the son of Italian immigrants and have tried to contend with this vexedness in my first three novels, which were inspired by my parents’ experiences growing up in Italy in the 1930s, migrating to the US after WWII, and raising first-generation children. These novels have been shelved in bookstores as immigrant literature, a category that has itself, especially recently, become contentious. To some critics, the category both presupposes and reinforces the myth that a person travels from one culturally monolithic place—a homeland, say Italy—to another culturally monolithic place—a New World, say the United States—with their culturally monolithic identity—say, their “Italiannness”—strapped to their backs.
It tends to forget or minimize the fact that the Italian comes from many bloodlines and classes and regions, that New York is a very different place from Kansas, that “Italianness” is a construct, and a murky one at that; and that people’s reasons for choosing one home over another are as varied and contradictory as the people themselves. One of the many challenges of the category of immigrant literature is that the books that fit this descriptor are too often viewed as historical documents of, say, the “Italian-American experience” writ large, rather than as nuanced individual histories as unique and unrepeatable as the people who wrote them.
We have an unfortunate, if forgivable, tendency to group these books by nationality or ethnicity or itinerary, and to zoom in on commonalities and cultural truisms across them, and then to make broad generalizations about those commonalities and truisms. Regrettably, I have done this myself as a reader, this flattening of books and stories into almost utilitarian or self-edifying documents. I am as guilty as anyone of the type of mindset that turns to Zadie Smith to understand the world of contemporary London or that, seeing that China is in the news, considers picking up The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.
At my core, though, I don’t believe such utilitarian or self-edifying reasons are why we consume literature. I believe we go to books—all types of books—to slow down our lives, not escape from them or “learn something.” And, as a writer, I believe we make art not to figure out the human condition, or to solve the questions of why we make the choices we make, but to complicate those choices and journeys, to make them more nuanced, less “flat.”
For us writers of immigrant fiction, this necessarily begs the question of audience, a question for which there is, again, no right or clear answer. “For whom is my story written?” we ask ourselves, plagued by the demands of both the Muse (by which I mean our own artistic vision) and the Marketplace (by which I mean the commercial demands of publishing). I’m more interested in the Muse, which asks: am I writing for the person outside my culture, the one who is reading my book to “learn something?” Or am I writing for the person within my culture, who is reading for insight into our shared experience, to be seen?”
Identifying and then settling on this hypothetical audience, helps to answer further major and seemingly minor questions, though it never fully resolves them—questions like, “How much history must I explain or contextualize? In what language should I tell it? Do I italicize the ‘foreign’ words?” For example, if I’m an Iranian-American telling the story of an Iranian who flees that country in the 1970s and emigrates to Boston, don’t I limit myself if my audience is Westerners with limited knowledge of anything but their own country’s histories? Don’t I want to write for my people back in Iran, in our own language, to illuminate for them the strangeness of Boston—to treat Boston as the culture and history that must be contextualized and explained? But what if that language, or that history, is as foreign to me as it is to the average Westerner? Do I still have the right to tell it, just because I have Iranian blood?”
Mostly, what we writers end up doing when it comes to these questions of audience is choosing the “All of the Above” option, trying, with varying degrees of success, to have it both ways, to appeal to every possible reader even when we aren’t consciously trying to do so. This blurs our focus and dilutes the impact of the story in the process. In this sense, our books belong fully to neither culture; they occupy that middle ground, that new space our unique identity and our unique perspective and our divided loyalties, and our limited knowledge and experience, has created, the one that belongs to us and us alone. I call this “riding the hyphen,” the straddling of that little black line between Italian-American, or Russian-German or, well, pick your hybridity.
To me, the most exciting demand of immigrant literature is to see the hyphen not as a bridge between two easily recognizable and digestible identities, but as the rope in a of tug-of-war. In my own work, I have tried to dramatize that tug-of-war, all that pulling and falling and sliding into the mud, by locating it in the most charged and personal context of all: the family.
My parents’ true point of departure from their homeland was not a port town, but a home. They did not leave Italy on a ship from the Bay of Naples; they left Italy the moment they untangled themselves from the arms of their mothers in the thresholds of the stone houses of Sant’Elpidio, the tiny village in which they were both born and where they expected to spend the entirety of their lives. My parents did not flee hardship; they fled predictability, tradition, and security. In doing so, they fled their families, the primary source of their identities, which meant abandoning themselves and all of the future selves they’d been imagining for as long as they’d been alive.
This abandonment caused immeasurable heartache and fear, and it’s important to emphasize that not even this fear, or the lack of certainty of survival, was enough to stop them from leaving. Such is the inexorable and fierce pull and drive of the immigrant, that, when leaving behind stability and security for the promise of a better place, she will also leave behind reason.I can’t help thinking that every child of immigrants is born into this sort of loss, that loss itself is encoded in our genes.
“A character must want and want intensely,” goes another old adage of the writing workshop, this one attributed to Janet Burroway. There is no story without desire, and without an obstacle to that desire. Here, again, a classic element of storytelling is embedded in the trope of immigrant literature—that unstoppable, improbable desire, the one that launches the character into an adventure without the benefit of reason or security. This desire is particularly potent, of course, when the immigrant is leaving behind not security or stability, but persecution or poverty; then it becomes less a desire than a demand of a life force, an innate instinct to survive. And from this instinct, great stories are born.
We all grew up on a steady diet of these stories—about our parents and families, about the childhoods we’ve forgotten, about our neighborhoods and countries—and it’s the stories themselves, as much if not more than what we actually experienced and remembered, that have shaped our identity, our worldview, and our values. I would argue that we base our decisions—including, importantly, our votes—more on the stories we’ve internalized than the facts we read in the newspaper. Perhaps this is why facts have become less compelling lately: the stories we consume on the news, news that is often skewed to reinforce a single narrative, are infinitely more convincing to us than statistics, reason, theory, and even the precedents of history.
We can stare a fact in the fact and say, “no, that is not consistent with my experience, therefore I do not believe it,” forgetting, for a crucial moment, that it wasn’t our own experience at all; it was a story we read or saw or that was told to us by someone we trusted. I can’t think of a single country that isn’t currently facing a crisis of immigration; everywhere we look, people are asking themselves, “who are these people who want to come live with me, and why should I care about them?” The more immigrant stories there are in the world, the more stories of cultural negotiation and adaptation and preservation, of resistance and assimilation, and the more authentically they reflect and illuminate the complex intersectionality of race and gender and class and sexual identity, the more we will all feel like immigrants, complete with our own desires to leave, to explore, and perhaps even to return. And then, I hope, the better informed—emotionally, psychically—we will be about our decisions, our votes, and the stories we pass on to others.
When I was in elementary school, both my parents worked full-time working-class jobs—my father in the shipping department of a commercial bakery, my mother as a seamstress—and in the afternoons I was put into the care of a neglectful teenager down the street. She’d talk on the phone or entertain boyfriends while, in an empty room upstairs, I watched anxiously from the window for our family car, increasingly panicked that it would never arrive, that something terrible had happened to my mother and father, something that would keep them from me forever. The panic would crescendo as six o’clock neared and I imagined the inevitability of my life without them.
I’m convinced now that my life as an immigrant writer began there, in the upstairs window of that babysitter’s house. Not the physical act of putting words to paper, of course, but the loneliness and longing necessary to do so, to preserve time in narrative, to record voices and stories in order to keep them close and to protect them. Somehow, even then, I sensed that the only way to conquer time—to have some mastery over it, at least, however illusory that mastery would turn out to be—was through storytelling. Looking back in this way, I can’t help but see a parallel between my mother listening at the kitchen table to the Italian radio station for some connection to her lost world, and me with my face pressed to the babysitter’s window, praying that the only world I knew wouldn’t be lost the way hers was.
My parents were riding their own hyphen, a part of them in a far-off place and another part of them in mine. Though they benefited from the privilege of whiteness, as I have done, they struggled with discrimination from the outside world and an internal sense of difference and exile. They were mine, but they never fully belonged to me; the part of them in that far-off place was and will forever be unknowable to me, speaking a language I can’t understand. I can’t help thinking that every child of immigrants is born into this sort of loss, that loss itself is encoded in our genes, that every immigrant story is an elegy. Because the child of immigrants knows loss as a condition of life, we come to expect it, and because we sense that loss is imminent, we tend to cling as fiercely as possible to the stories we grow up with. “All Americans have something lonely about them,” writes Ryu Murakami in his novel, In the Miso Soup. “I don’t know what the reason might be, except maybe that they’re all descended from immigrants.”
According to Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, “The idea of this great anguish of living between two worlds has diminished somewhat for many immigrant people, artists and non-artists alike. Not that there is not some uneasiness, but it is no longer the single most urgent anxiety of every immigrant’s life. I would like us to move beyond these tropes of speaking to or for, and of being only between two worlds. We are at the same time speaking to no one and everyone.”
Danticat is right, of course, that the hyphen is not necessarily the source of the single most urgent anxiety of every immigrant’s life; for all of us, our relationship to the hyphen is one of degree, and is often superseded by very real threats to our very existence in the places we live. But when there is an urgent anxiety in our work, when there is a question of audience, or of authentic voice, or of writing for social change, or of the political ramifications of a particular piece of art, then it is on the hyphen that every reader and critic inevitably focuses. As artists, we are judged by how successfully we’ve negotiated and interpreted the hyphen: the freshness and depth we’ve brought to it, the stereotypes we’ve reinforced or challenged.
The essay began as a talk for the Writing About Immigration edition of the Sozopol Fiction Seminars of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation in June 2019.