The Objectionable Fiction of ‘Immigrant Fiction’

In a recent NY Times Sunday Book Review, Jhumpa Lahiri was asked the question:

“What immigrant fiction has been the most important to you, both personally and as an inspiration for your own writing?”

This was her answer:

“I don’t know what to make of the term ‘immigrant fiction.’ Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.”

Quite frankly, I was surprised the NY Times asked Jhumpa Lahiri that question. I suppose when I think about it more deeply, it could be a very reasonable question. After all, Lahiri is Indian-American and writes a lot about the immigrant experience. Perhaps Lahiri’s response resonated with me because I too am a child of immigrants and have heard countless family immigrant stories in my life. My father is from Japan, which is often depicted as exotic and strange, and my mother is also an immigrant. But because she came to the States from Germany and is as white as can be with blond hair and blue-eyes, her appearance and story was never considered quite as “exotic.” As a product of both those personal narratives, I was often told I was the prototypical American, my parents paying their dues in American society—as did all the generations of Americans before—and, therefore, I was a true product of the American story. Don’t get me wrong. Being bi-racial, I knew I was unique. I knew I was not accepted in all social circles. But overall, I never questioned whether my story was un-American.

Therefore, I understood why Lahiri deflected the interviewer’s question that pointed out the distinctions of certain literary works and labeled them as “other.” The very act of categorizing or distinguishing her work from other American stories isolated and marginalized them, placing them in a “minority” bin. Whether it was meant to or not, it stamped an “us” and “them” label on stories and experiences, which is disheartening. As one who has grown up and lived here, pursued an education and a career, fell in love and got married, I find such labels create a signal that my experience, or that of my parents, is somehow illegitimate. It places emphasis on dissimilarities instead of on the common struggles we all face in our communities, or in our own hearts, to find acceptance and belonging—to be at home. No one wants to be considered a stranger in the very land she was raised.

To give some benefit of the doubt, it could be pointed out that the “immigrant fiction” category might have been intended to highlight a unique story and experience, to separate it from the fray of all the other stories out there in order to showcase it in a positive way. There’s something rewarding in the idea of being different from everyone else or having an edge that others don’t have. Early on, we are taught to capitalize on those unique differences that set us apart so that we can be seen or have a leg up over the competition. Although there might be some merit in that perspective, it’s not worth the damage that is inflicted by the labeling, because once pigeonholed, it’s really difficult to get beyond the stereotypes. Although the category might pay off for a writer at first to help promote and sell some books, in the long run, it marginalizes stories and experiences to the “foreign” section, rather than promoting the view that they can expand and speak into our everyday lives. This is why the label “immigrant fiction” offended me, because instead of acknowledging and engulfing such experiences into the community at large, it suggested that they are somehow deviant or misfit.

Another layer to this is what it means for Christian community. Maybe because I was always extra-sensitive to these issues of “the other” or “the outsider,” I paid close attention to those scriptural passages that addressed the stranger, the alien, and the foreigner. There are many. In fact, many key figures in Israel’s history are of foreigners playing crucial roles in fulfilling the promises of God. For instance, Caleb the Kenizzite was grafted into the tribe of Judah; a couple of the judges, such as Othniel and Shamgar, presided over the Israelites in the Promised Land; and of course, the well-known Ruth, the Moabite, who is also listed in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1. Such examples are not just exceptions, but serious and legitimate claims enfolded into Israel’s history, which is bolstered by the countless times God commands the Israelites to welcome the stranger, such as in Leviticus 19:33:

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

This clearly paints a picture of inclusion and expansion, another image of fruitfulness and bounty, welcoming and gathering, enfolding others into a common community and history, and not one of exclusion and isolation.

As well, the Gospels depict the ultimate example of a complete other: Christ, who came to earth as a stranger. Our very Christian identity includes the reality that we were once strangers and foreigners to God, but because of Christ, we are now grafted into the greater story of salvation history. In light of that gospel truth, there is no “other” category now. In humility we acknowledge that we are all the same.

Similarly, I suppose that’s how I would like to envisage my American experience. I want to be identified as included in the culture, not plucked out as an example of something exotic or an exception. In one way or another, whether in an actual immigrant experience or a spiritual one, we’ve all traveled the same road, once being alien, but now considered a legitimate part of the story. There’s no need to pluck some out and put up labels. It’s a collective “we,” not an “us” and “them.” Until we can all own it together, we’ll remain estranged citizens.

About Anita Kobayashi Sung

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