The Divided Self is Every Immigrant’s Legacy
Thrity Umrigar on Fitting in in America
In 2019, I, along with millions of other Americans watched in horror at the assaults on immigration and immigrants unleashed by the Trump administration. The Muslim ban, the border wall, the tearing away of infants from the arms of breast-feeding mothers—it all seemed like scenes out of some macabre, dystopian novel. Most pernicious was the criminalization of those hungry, shivering, traumatized people who were escaping God knows what hell—cartel violence, grinding poverty, a collapsed social structure, class or tribal oppression. What else would cause thousands of people to flee with the clothes on their back and walk across deserts and cross rivers, risking not just their lives, but the lives of their children?
The children. I felt sickened as I noticed that not even the sight of these panicked, weeping, haunted children softened the hearts of those who supported the administration’s atrocities. These were fellow citizens and they were perfectly fine with the cruelties being unleashed in their names.
My mind flashed back to when I first came to this country in 1983 to go to grad school. I encountered so many people who would conversationally and routinely say, “Oh, we’re a country of immigrants.” I was so charmed by the casual, matter-of-fact manner in which people said this, as if this truth was burnt into the American DNA. And this oft-repeated expression made me feel safe and welcomed, even as I grappled with homesickness and missing certain aspects of my life in India.“Oh, we’re a country of immigrants.” I was so charmed by the casual, matter-of-fact manner in which people said this, as if this truth was burnt into the American DNA.
What a different time that was. Of course, even then, I was politically hip enough to know that my treatment and reception (which was wonderfully generous and warm) was different from those unfortunates crossing the border. Even though I’m brown-skinned, I came here speaking fluent English, had had a great education in India and landed in the safest spot in America—a university campus. Others were not so lucky, even back then.
And yet. Something had certainly shifted in the national mood by the 2010s. The cruelty did seem to be the point. And I was having a hard time reconciling this new, sinister reality with my vision of America, this warm, magical country I had come to love and call my own.
It was in this frame of mind that I went to see the 2019 movie, The Farewell. And was completely unprepared for the emotional impact it had on me. One scene in particular slayed me:
After a teary parting from her beloved grandmother Nai Nai in China, the main character, Billi, leaves for the airport with her parents, to make their way back to New York. They all know that this is probably the last time they’ll see the elderly matriarch. Nai Nai stands on the street waving their taxi goodbye, getting smaller and smaller with each mile they travel. Leonard Cohen’s great hymn of solace, Come Healing, plays in the background as Billi sobs her way to the airport.
The splinters that you carried
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind
Has there ever been a more poetic description of immigration, its pull and push, its promise and its punishment? And does one ever stop carrying those splinters in one’s soul? Can the body and mind ever truly heal from what, in some ways, is the most counterintuitive thing of all—leaving behind those you love?
As an immigrant, I felt that scene in my bones, on my skin, my tears merging with those shed by the characters on the screen. I remembered anew that searing pain of leaving behind family and friends, that heaviness with which one departs for the airport, a rending that never gets easier, that hollow feeling of the divided self, transplanted in new soil, yes, but also rooted in another.
I left the movie theater that day, feeling the truth of that scene. And I knew that I would try and capture that feeling in a book someday.
Of course, I didn’t know the plot to my novel The Museum of Failures at that moment. My protagonist, Remy Wadia, a successful Indian-American immigrant who is haunted by his past and his troubled relationship with his mother, had not yet introduced himself to me.As an immigrant, I felt that scene in my bones, on my skin, my tears merging with those shed by the characters on the screen.
The atrocities in the name of “securing the border” went on, even after the courts deemed some of those draconian policies unconstitutional. My liberal, native-born friends were every bit as aghast as I was at what was happening to our country. But they didn’t—couldn’t—feel the plight of these people in their bones, the way that I could.
I didn’t feel qualified to write about the hardships faced by undocumented migrants, the gap between my circumstances and theirs stretching as wide as the Rio Grande. But I could write about the high psychic price that even legal immigrants like myself—people who had come to this country with every possible advantage—paid in terms of saying goodbye to loved ones. I could describe the toll that this distance, this separation exacts.
Immigration is an act of dislocation. That feeling of the divided self, torn between two worlds, is every immigrant’s legacy, as is the struggle to fit into the dominant culture. Literature can be an antidote to this loneliness, a kind of connective tissue that bridges past with present, and the Self with the Other. To read is to empathize. And in the time period that I was working on The Museum of Faliures, empathy seemed to be in very short supply.
Literature can also be an act of commemoration. Like me, Remy is a Parsi, a member of a tiny ethnic and religious minority in India, practitioners of the ancient faith of Zoroastrianism. Like me, he is not particularly religious. But when events conspire to keep Remy in Bombay, he feels a renewed appreciation for this small, tolerant, fun-loving and warm-hearted community in which he was raised. Hovering over that appreciation is the existential dread of knowing that the Parsis of India are on the verge of extinction and may disappear within a generation or two.
The older I get, the more I feel the need to commemorate this quirky, eccentric, cultured, progressive community, which, for the most part, seems to have avoided the fanaticism and bigotries that bedevil so many other faiths. This is a culture that celebrates modernity and prosperity and good food, that educates its girls, that follows a resolutely carnivorous diet and believes that everything tastes better—vegetables, cooked tomatoes, and, in a pinch, even potato chips—if topped with a fried egg. While other religions call for sacrifice and martyrdom and self-flagellation, Zoroastrianism preaches the gospel of joyousness and optimism. This tiny, dying community still managed to give birth to iconic figures such as Zubin Mehta and Freddie Mercury, Rohinton Mistry and Bapsi Sidhwa, the nuclear physicist Homi Bhaba, and Jamshedji Tata, who built the iconic Taj Palace Hotel in Bombay, the first grand hotel in India.
This is a community that has lived up to its ancient promise, made to the Hindu ruler who allowed these Persian refugees into India, to make life better for the people around them
The novel is a paean to this fading culture, so intrinsically woven into the fabric of Bombay—its architecture and its theaters, its art galleries and its science centers.
In this book, I’ve tried to ask these eternal questions: Can one ever go home again? Can human beings, tribal by nature, belong to more than one country or culture? And even if they’re successful, what impact does that division of self, that truncated self, have on a person?
Indian-Americans have, by and large, flourished in America, holding high positions in the health care field, in IT companies and on college campuses. But behind the wealth and the degrees and success, there is also this—that nanosecond where the smell of rain hitting an asphalt road takes you back to childhood, where a certain smell of honeysuckle reminds you of a flower from home, where a patronizing remark by a colleague makes you wonder if you can ever truly belong in a country crafted by white supremacy, where the snatch of a song can transport you eight thousand miles away.
Reading is an act of empathy. It is also a form of space travel. Putting ourselves in each other’s shoes—even if those shoes are mud-caked and falling apart from having walked thousands of miles—may be the greatest service that novels provide.
Thrity Umrigar’s novel The Museum of Failures is available now from Algonquin Books.