The Immigrant Experience

Presented by Janet Halls to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
March 3, 2020

IMMIGRANT LITERATURE was new to me before reading The Tortilla Curtain. This book had a profound impact on me, since it was relevant to current events: Hispanic immigrants pressing in on the U.S. Mexico border and “Dreamers” at risk of being deported “home.” For this year’s theme of Cultural Awareness in Literature, I decided to find other equally fascinating novels that break down our stereotypes and humanize immigrants. These books reveal their experiences before coming, their arrival in a foreign land and how they reestablish their lives in our culture. Equally important, these books give us new perspectives on our own culture.

Without reading the books, I’m sure you could brainstorm a similar list of immigrant challenges, as that below. We know this! However, do we really understand what these challenges do to individuals’ lives? That’s what these books are about: They tap into our emotions by letting us walk in unfamiliar shoes. These are riveting stories, but so much more.

Good immigrant literature is important, especially for those of us who are exceptionally blessed by never knowing hunger, poverty, homelessness, war, tyrannical rule, exile and discrimination. Fiction lets us into people’s thoughts and emotions, which helps us deepen our regard, empathy and compassion for immigrants. These books demonstrate clearly that we cannot leap to judgement about actual immigrant situations. Instead, they ask us to learn more about individuals and groups and to take action to counter discrimination. This was said so well in 1986, when a first Sri Lankan refugee ship requested asylum in Canada. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gave this directive: “If we err, we err on the side of fairness and compassion.” If only that were always the case.

CHALLENGES FOR IMMIGRANTS, FROM THESE BOOKS

  • Physical/psychological traumas
  • Far from family and friends
  • Language/communication/miscommunication/misunderstanding
  • Cultural differences: Onus is on the immigrant to adapt/assimilate
  • Cultural/racial ignorance, indifference or hatred
  • Prejudice
  • Governmental bureaucratic ineptitude
  • Systemic discrimination
  • Getting the basics (food, housing)
  • Barriers to employment: language fluency; education, experience, work credentials irrelevant or discounted; no networks/references
  • Getting ahead on Zero or minimum wages, no Nest Egg
  • Not considered American/Canadian (regardless of passport)
  • Alienation– always “the other.”
  • Generational differences: Parents embody home culture and mores; Their children are more easily influenced by North American culture and mores, which might conflict.

THE TORTILLA CURTAIN, T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1995

ON THE BRINK OF AN ENVIRONMENTAL AND HUMAN CATASTROPHE IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

After reading this book, you will not read news about the U.S./Mexico border wall, illegal immigrants or Mexican Americans in the same way. Satiric humour highlights the prejudices of an American couple, as they mount a vendetta against the poor illegal immigrants that are camping near their gated community. The Tortilla Curtain won the 1997 Prix Médici Etranger for best foreign novel, awarded to authors whose fame has not yet matched their talent.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, Andre Dubus III, 1999

A VENDETTA AGAINST IRANIAN-AMERICANS WITH TRAGIC CONSEQUENCES

A County mistake leads to an escalating conflict over who has title for a house in a seaside town near San Francisco. Is it the blue-collar New England family who inherited it, or the Iranian American immigrant who has worked so hard to buy it? A metaphor for our times, House of Sand and Fog is the first American best-selling novel with a Muslim protagonist, finalist for the 1999 National Book Award, selected for Oprah’s Book Club and was made into a movie.

THE BOAT PEOPLE, Sharon Bala, 2018

AN ENGROSSING LEGAL DRAMA BETWEEN SRI LANKAN ASYLUM SEEKERS AND THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA

The inspiration for this novel came from true events: In 2009 and 2010, decrepit cargo ships arrived in Canadian waters, bearing 500+ asylum seekers fleeing the brutal Sri Lankan civil war. Political will had swung 180 degrees since 1986 when another Sri Lankan ship had arrived. Then, Brian Mulroney stated, “We are not in the business of turning away refugees. If we err, we err on the side of fairness and compassion.” The ships arriving 20+ years later ignited a bitter political debate in Canada, while the refugees were imprisoned and subjected to a prolonged court process. That debate continues. Ms. Bala is an immigrant to Canada herself. This is her début novel, selected for 2018 Canada Reads and has been a #1 bestseller in Canada.

The next two are most the most unconventional books I have ever read. For intrepid readers!

THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, Junot Díaz, 2008

AN ISLAND PARADISE ON THE OUTSIDE, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK; NOR IS NEW JERSEY.

The author’s first novel, it garnered the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, and four more. Like Oscar Wao, the author was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. This coming of age story about obese, nerdy Oscar’s search for true love hurtles you between present and past, from the Dominican Republic (long under tyrannical rule) and a poor immigrant neighbourhood in New Jersey. The Watcher, its enigmatic narrator, will shake you to the core (laughing or sobbing) as he tells of his friends’ lives, interspersed with footnotes on the DR’s history. Amazing prose, fabulous fiction.

THE SYMPATHIZER, Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015

A WAR STORY OF VIETNAM, A STORY OF THE VIETNAMESE DIASPORA, A MYSTERY AND A COMEDY

Coming to the U.S. at four, the author admits he finds Vietnam familiar and strange. His novel covers his parents’ era. Like Mr. Diaz’ novel, the book gets under the skin of a serious subject: The Vietnam War and its aftermath; The relationship between Americans and Vietnamese in the U.S. and abroad. As his name implies, The Sympathizer, a double agent, sees situations sympathetically from every angle and finds humor in his most unlikely circumstances. A first novel, it won the Pulitzer Prize, Edgar and four others.