As a young reader I was drawn to stories told from the perspective of the immigrant experience, in which writers wove their own ethnic heritage into the lives of protagonists navigating life as newcomers, or the sons and daughters of newcomers, into what used the be called the American melting pot. As a Californian I was fascinated by William Saroyan’s Armenians in and around Fresno, California. Later I was devoted to James Baldwin, who struggled as a stranger in his own country, then to the many Jewish writers of the post-World War II era.
I think this interest was fueled by my own uprootedness as a Navy brat, and the fact that my own mostly Irish compatriots had no real body of literature. No one spoke for a descendent of two great grandfathers had escaped the Irish Potato Famine to eke out new lives in the promised land.
When I went to the university and studied literature I mostly focused on modern European writers, but I was also inspired by a wonderfully kind and funny professor from the Bronx whose American Jewish Writers class introduced me on to Roth, Bellow, Mailer, Sontag, Paley, and Malamud—giants who were arguably the American writers of the latter 20th Century.
Clearly not every wave of immigrants enters the literary pantheon. Perhaps there may be a sociological study in this. But I won’t expose myself to the censure that may follow from asking why certain ethnic groups have made no significant contribution to the literary corpus.
There are now ample reasons to believe that major contributors to a future literary canon are likely to be found within the generalized ranks of Asian and Latino writers. These umbrella labels of course don’t allow for the obvious fact that both of them subsume vast numbers of ethnicities and national experiences.
In a recent conversation at UCLA two stars of the American literary scene, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Luis Alberto Urrea, talked about their writing from the perspective of an immigrant raised in a Vietnamese section of San Jose, California and a Mexican-American born in Tijuana, raised in San Diego and living for some time in the Midwest.
Both could be said to be immigrant California writers. But what does that mean?
Nguyen, 47, was born in Vietnam to parents who fled the country after the U.S. retreat from its decades-long war and when it allowed for refugees from the side it backed in the civil war to immigrate to the country that had largely upended their own home. “I was born in Vietnam but made in America” is the first line in his 2016 nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies, in which the adult returns to Vietnam to try to understand what the war meant and discovers that historical events are never fixed in memory but evolve over time.
The Vietnam he never really knew, as for the Americans who fought fecklessly in Southeast Asia, has very particular ways of remembering the survivors and the dead, the victors and the losers. Nguyen’s family was with the Americans on the losing side of the war.
But in America, his family was welcomed and later prospered. But they were lumped together with Japanese and Chinese as “model minorities’’— a paradox coming just a couple of generations after the Chinese exclusion laws of the early 20th Century. Nguyen struggles in his writing against the stereotype of the nice, quiet, industrious Asian. “We’re not s threatening as the big bad Mexican,” he said at UCLA. “I’m still part of the model.”
On the other hand, “America has always needed a bad guy,” Urrea, 63, said. “We’ve always had the other.” Before Trump’s vilification of all Latinos, Urrea pointed out that the border patrol originally chased Asians. The challenge for writers, and Urrea and Nguyen write both fiction and nonfiction, Urrea said, is “How do we get stories out there without making cartoons?”
Early in his career, he said he was told by editors “We can’t get you out there with a weird name like that.” He could have taken his mother’s name, Dashiell, but he felt like a Mexican living in America even though his birth certificate listed him as an American born abroad. In his writing he dances gracefully in works like the collected stories in The Water Museum from the barrio dwellers in San Diego to whites in the Midwest who have seen their way of life turned to dust under the weight of the global economy.
Both writers see their mission as presenting the full complexity of human experience. In his Pulitzer Prize-wining The Sympathizer Nguyen explores an underworld of the Vietnamese diaspora in Southern California that defies the model minority label.
The urge in writing about a group of people is to “either demonize people or make them angelic,” Urrea said. In the story “The National City Reparation Society” from The Water Museum the main character Junior has escaped from the barrio to attend UCLA. He has left his old friends and delinquent ways behind, or so he thinks.
But his old homey Chango who has been released from prison calls him up with other ideas. He has a foolproof scheme for making easy money and wants Junior as to be his partner in crime. It is after the housing crash in 2007 and many people have walked away from their homes leaving behind clothes, flat-screen TVs and other valuables.
Chango’s plan is that they can pose unnoticed as furniture movers—“We move shit—we’re Beaners”—he explains. Junior will be the boss. “As long as you got a suit and talk white, ain’t nobody lookin’ at you, neither.” Junior, who Chango accuses of trying to pass as white by going to UCLA, is taken in. It seems like easy money. It turns out differently.
“To paint people in their full complexity is the challenge,” Urrea said. “I’m always fighting the urge to make everyone noble.”
In The Sympathizer an exiled South Vietnamese general muses:
Americans had promised us salvation from communism if we only did as we were told. They started this war, and now that they’re tired of it, they’ve sold us out… But who is there to blame but ourselves? We were foolish enough to think they would keep their word. Now there’s nowhere to go but America.
“We want to get to the full complexity of things,” Nguyen agreed. “It’s always a risky thing to criticize your own community.”
The great Philip Roth found this out and was famously condemned by prominent Jewish leaders for what they considered the demonization of Jews in his early works like Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye Columbus. The attacks were so vociferous that Roth felt compelled to defend himself in a lengthy essay in Commentary Magazine, then a seminal cultural journal for Jewish thought.
He continued to write about Jewish characters and later was attacked for supposed anti-Americanism, so biting were his satirical looks at the state of affairs in the country. In his defense after his death, the novelist Zadie Smith wrote in The New Yorker that “Roth was an unusually patriotic writer, but his love for his country never outweighed or obscured his curiosity about it. He always wanted to know America, in its beauty and its utter brutality, and to see it in the round: the noble ideals, the bloody reality.”
At the end of his long career, when at 75 he announced his retirement from writing, Roth said he never set out to be a Jewish writer. His books were peopled with Jews from the Newark of his youth to the New York of his adult life because that’s what he knew. He thought of himself as an American writer.
“Writing for me is a form of prayer,” Urrea told the crowd at UCLA. “I don’t walk down the street saying I’m a Mexican.”
I think it is from writers like these that we learn about our country and what it is to be American. These are the true Americans—the artists who excite our imaginations and hold up a mirror to our reflections as flawed and struggling humans.
In The Ghost Writer, Roth gives the writer Nathan Zuckerman this line: “You rebel against the tribal and look for the individual, for your own voice as against the stereotypical voice of the tribe or the tribe's stereotype of itself.”
What more can the reader ask for?
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