Writing Immigrant Characters as a “Rookie American”
Lara Vapnyar on Empathy and Assimilation
I’ve lived in the United States for over 20 years, but the appalling dichotomy between Americans and immigrants has never seemed clearer. The message coming from the political right is bad enough: we have honest, hard-working, patriotic Americans fighting for survival alongside parasitic, devious, dangerous immigrants. But after Melania Trump’s convention speech fiasco, even certain left-wing publications joined in with their ideas of immigrants raised on cheating and plagiarism.
I don’t understand how both sides seem to be forgetting an obvious fact that all Americans, except for Native Americans, came to this country from somewhere else, whether their ancestors arrived here by choice or were brought here against their will. That’s embedded in the very idea of this country. Immigrants are Americans too; they consider this country their home, plan to raise their families here, and naturally have America’s best interests at heart. There shouldn’t be a dichotomy at all; it’s just that some of the Americans have been living here for generations, and others have only just arrived. I call the former “seasoned Americans” and the latter “rookie Americans.”
Both me and most of the characters I write are rookie Americans, and we navigate the landscape of our adoptive country while making inevitable rookie mistakes.
Many immigrants come to their new countries for survival because the conditions in their countries—be it poverty, wars or tyrannical regimes—make it impossible for them to keep themselves and their families alive. I do not belong to this category. My life wasn’t in danger in Russia. Like the majority of immigrants all over the world my, friends, family, and myself came here for the opportunities. We felt that we were capable of achieving much more in this country than in the country where we were born. Our motivation was not so different from that of people who leave Wichita for New York to look for career opportunities, but the trauma and cultural shock we experienced during the move was much greater.
In some way the process of immigration is like dying and being reborn. Perhaps, this is why I’m obsessed with afterlife in my fiction. You leave everything that was familiar behind and find yourself in completely new, incomprehensible surroundings. You have to learn everything from scratch, decipher all the puzzling cultural codes, and perform the most daunting task of all—finding a place for yourself in this new and strange country. Now, there is an additional pressure to do all this in a very short time. Nobody expected immigrants to assimilate right away a hundred years ago. They would live in their immigrant enclaves their whole lives and consider themselves lucky if their children got to break away. Today, globalization makes assimilation seem deceptively easy, and people who fail to assimilate quickly enough are often viewed negatively. But trying to rush this process too much leads to terrible rookie mistakes.
Vadik, one of the four main characters in my new novel Still Here, is a rookie American. When he hears that all the middle-class Americans are supposed to enjoy downhill skiing, he drives to the closest mountain, rents skis, buys a discounted lift ticket, and gets to the top before he realizes that he has no idea how to ski. He ends up breaking his arm, and his friend Sergey says to him:
“Adaptation is a painstaking process… You keep trying to fit in right away, and end up breaking your bones.”
This episode is borrowed from my own life. I once saw an 80 percent off coupon for lift tickets that I couldn’t resist. My husband and I decided to go skiing with our two kids, then 5 and 8. We all knew how to cross-country ski and figured that downhill couldn’t be that different. For some reason, I thought that the toughest part would be to get to the chairlift on skis. I was wrong. The toughest part was crawling down the icy slope—the tickets were discounted for a reason—while clutching the skis and begging the kids to be brave and not cry. There were broken bones, at least.
My other attempt to plunge right into the middle-class American life was to make the entire family learn to play tennis. I went on Ebay to look for the cheapest tennis racket. Since I had no idea what a tennis racket is supposed to look like, I wound up buying this:
* * * *
Figuring out our social status in America has been one of the most daunting tasks of assimilation. In Russia, my family belonged to the so-called “intelligentsia.” That was easy—if you were college educated, liked travel, books, theater and art-house movies, and lived in a tastefully decorated apartment, that was it: you belonged to the intelligentsia. I remember watching Hannah and Her Sisters with my mother shortly before we left Russia. She kept saying how much she loved the apartment where most of the action takes place. “Nice, modest,” she said, “I hope we can find one like that.” It’s only here that we understood that we would have never been able to afford “one like that.” Never, no matter how hard we worked. Membership to the intelligentsia turned out to be very expensive, and it was clear that we didn’t belong there anymore. But we had no idea where we did belong.
Since my daughter got accepted into Hunter College High School, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the other parents. The education at Hunter is free and the admission supposedly perfectly democratic. If a child passes a really tough test, she is accepted. Most affluent parents hire expensive tutors to help their children pass the test, so it’s not really fair, but it is what it is. I have spent many hours waiting for my daughter at this school, all while trying to observe the social differences. I later put my findings into this passage from Still Here.
You could easily divide the parents into two categories: Susan Sontag types and Outer Borough types… The Sontag types were all 50 years old, wore no makeup, had various amounts of gray in their hair, and roughly the same amount of intellectual flair. They clothes looked elegant yet comfortable, a sure sign of them being very very expensive. Some of the Sontags were beautiful, others were not, a lot of them were Asian, a few of them were men.
Outer Borough types wore puffy jackets and knitted hats. There were a few more men among them; non-white men wore suits and dressy shoes under their jackets, while white men wore jeans and work boots.
The hard part was figuring out on which side of the social divide I stood. I was 35 years old, didn’t have any gray in my hair, and lived on Staten Island. This marked me clearly as an Outer Borough type. Then I would think that since my pieces were published in the New Yorker and the New York Times, and I taught at an Ivy League school, I was probably closer to a Sontag type. But then I would remind myself that my pieces were only published in the New Yorker every couple of years and my teaching job was part-time and start doubting my belonging. My coat usually came as a deciding factor. With a cheap puffy coat like the one I wore, I was a model Outer Borougher.
* * * *
When I first started writing fiction in English, I was still in a confused rookie American state. On the one hand, it gave me the advantage of an outsider’s perspective. I could observe things about the American way of life that other people didn’t notice because they were too used to them. It was easier for me to see the American quirks.
The major difference between Russians and Americans was that Americans believed that they were in charge of their lives, that they could control them. Not just that, but that it was their responsibility to control their lives as much as they could. They would try to fight to the very end against all sense, because they would consider letting go irresponsible.
Americans didn’t believe in luck as much as Russians did. They believed in hard work and fair play. They believed in rules. That life had certain rules, and if you followed them and did everything right, you were protected. They did say things like “life ain’t fair,” but they secretly believed that people brought the unfairness of life on themselves.
On the other hand, the outsider’s perspective hampered my ability to create complex, fully realized characters because I lacked the needed level of intimacy with them. I knew everything there was to know about them, but the magic was lacking. It was like baby formula when compared to a mother’s milk. All of the right elements were present, but something indescribable but essential was missing.
One of my biggest mistakes was trying to understand Americans through novels, film, and TV. It does help, but on a very superficial level. I was once with my mother in a Memorial Sloan Kettering patient lounge, waiting for her chemotherapy appointment when a loud group of women rushed in, all festively dressed, carrying balloons, a pastry box, and a bottle of champagne. One of them was wan and visibly in pain, but the others looking chipper as hell, laughing and chatting loudly. “Are they insane?” I asked my mother. “No, “ she said, “They are having a chemo party, like from Sex and The City. Remember, what Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda did for Samantha?” I did remember. The characters in the show were trying to stay upbeat in the face of a death threat, denying the possibility of death by ignoring it. These women at Sloan Kettering were doing the same. I got it, but I couldn’t tell if this attitude towards death was something intrinsically American or simply foisted onto American viewers by American television until they took it on as their own.
One of my Russian friends also looked for clues to understanding Americans in American art. She came to New York to study, went on one date with an American man, and fell in love at first sight. Unfortunately, they had to spend some time apart after that first date; this gave my friend, a very bookish woman, enough time to study his favorite books. He said that he was a fan of Philip Roth, so she checked out six or seven Philip Roth’s novels from the library and read them with a scholarly attention, rereading the puzzling passages and making notes on the margins. “You know what,” she told me after her work was done, “I can’t date him anymore. I kind of hate him now.” I tried to tell her that what she hated were Roth’s fictional characters, not the man she was seeing. I tried to remind her that we both adored Chekhov, who was a misogynist and anti-Semite. “No,” she told me, “I can’t.” She didn’t know this man well enough to see him beyond Philip Roth’s characters.
In a similar way, a writer can’t approach creating characters if she can’t see them past the reflections of literature or film. You need to know them intimately, and you need to be able to imagine yourself in their place first. Otherwise, you will just end up creating reflections of reflections. And you can’t rush this process. You have to stand back and let yourself be submerged in the American culture and the American way of life, until you become a seasoned American. I feel that I am almost there. But meanwhile, my biggest hope is that my American readers will see my Russian-born characters past that superficial layer of “otherness” and recognize them as flawed and complex but identifiable human beings.