Thursday, February 11, 2016

Immigration in literature

This is one of those huge topics that can easily derail a post, but I've been reading quite a few (fictional) books on the topic of immigration and/or the status of new immigrants to the U.S. or Canada.  As it happens, nearly all of these have been set post 1965, around the time immigration to the U.S. and Canada opened back up after several decades of being quite exclusionary, particularly to non-Europeans.  However, in the past I had read more about new immigrants closer to the turn of the century and I've added Transit by Anna Seghers to my TBR pile (true towards the very bottom), and this tackles the issue of Jewish emigrants trying to leave Germany and Europe more broadly in the run-up to and during WWII.  (It sounds like I should pair it with W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants.)  Thus, the stakes are raised in a way that wasn't the case for the novels covering immigration and immigrants around the turn-of-the-20th-century.  One could certainly claim that the Irish potato famine, which launched huge waves of Irish immigration was a life or death struggle, but it still wasn't the same as hiding away from the Nazis to avoid concentration camps.  Thus, Segher's Transit has more in common with the last novels that Bove wrote or Némirovsky's Suite Française.  As it happens, neither the U.S. nor Canada was particularly open to accepting Jewish refugees, and some historians have made a strong case that Canada was in fact the worst First World nation (not part of the Axis) in terms of accepting Jewish refugees.  I will circle back to this mismatch between the way Canada is viewed today and its historical legacy.

Obviously, I haven't read Transit yet, but it certainly seems relevant today when Europe appears to be on the brink of a crisis (or at least about to lose one of the defining features of European unity -- the freedom of movement within the Schengen Area) due to the pressure of immigration from Syria and other failed states in the Middle East and North Africa. These are confusing times, and it will be interesting to see how Europe reacts to this intermingling. I have to say historical trends are not particularly encouraging. I would not say either the U.S. or Canada ever thoroughly integrated its recent (i.e. post 1965) migrant communities, but North America has done a much better job than France with its immigrants from North Africa (many living in the slums outside Paris and perhaps slightly better integrated in Marseilles) to say nothing of Germany with its generations of Turkish immigrants who still are not eligible for full citizenship.*

I'm going to hive off all the novels set after 1965 into a second post.  Even that post may spawn one or two secondary posts, simply because the topic is still so huge.

There seem to be two general approaches to dealing with immigration in literature.  Either one follows a special character who is highly self-aware and is able to enter a new country (legally or illegally) and who then comments upon what he or she finds, or one writes as a "native" observing the huddled masses in the city.  The first stance is quite common among writers from South Asian diasporic writers, such as Mukherjee, Lahiri and Rushdie, though since all their novels fall after 1965, I will hold off discussing them until the folluw-up post.  The talented observer is also to be found in the writings of American Black authors who went into self-imposed exile into Europe either during the 1930s or after WWII, and this would include James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Richard Wright's The Outsider, and John A. Williams's The Man Who Cried I Am.

The outsider looking in at the masses is basically the whole point of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and there are also relatively sympathetic portrayals of immigrant communities throughout John Steinbeck's work and John Dos Passos's early novels.  I know that William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes deals with immigrants interacting with most established Americans, but I haven't read it.  One day...

Of course, I'm quite sure there are a number of urban novels I have forgotten where the narrator is hostile to the teaming masses, but those haven't really stood the test of time. I've heard that Henry Fuller's The Cliff-Dwellers is fairly ambivalent towards the immigrants of Chicago, but I have not read it.  I will try to one day.  I also have not gotten around to the Studs Lonigan trilogy by James T. Farrell, which is about life in Chicago in a neighborhood full of Irish immigrants.

This leads naturally to a third option, though certainly not as common, where the author is writing from the middle of the immigrant community.  At least in the U.S., this was usually tied in with proletarian literature, since it was generally only left-wing intellectuals (and presses) that would take on such novels.  So Mike Gold's Jews without Money and Henry Roth's Call It Spring are both written from authors in the midst of New York Jewish communities (before Jews became "white" in roughly the 1950s).  I have to admit, I seem to have lost my class notes from my course on Proletarian Novels taught by Alan Wald at UMichigan, but there were 3 or 4 other good examples.  If they turn up, I will add a few more.

In this same vein, but not as explicitly leftist, there is a whole series of novels on Swedish farmers moving to America and trying to make a go of it.  This is the basic plot of Vilhelm Moberg's The Emigrants.  This is certainly a really important part of the American melting pot (the Nordic folks that settled the upper Midwest and Plains States and to some extent the Canadian Prairie), which is generally not written about all that much.  I have not read it (and the following 3 books), and it is not on my TBR list at the moment, but I may add it some day.  I have to admit that my interests just lie so much closer to urban literature that reading about farmsteaders is not really my cup of tea.  I would probably tackle Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth first to see if I wanted to read more along these lines.

I'm getting further and further from books I've actually read and about which I can say anything meaningful.  I will close out this post with one of the first major post-colonial writers, George Lamming.  Lamming generally strikes me as someone who felt he was too clever and special to stay behind in his native Barbados and he took advantage of the implied promise of the Empire, i.e. that clever souls could move to London at the heart of the Empire.  And so he did.  And he found that the promise was a half-hearted one at best.  He was never to feel completely accepted in England, and yet, as far I can tell, he never left.  He definitely feels ambivalence about his adopted country, and in many ways strikes me as a forerunner of V.S. Naipaul.  (Indeed, there are a few articles and a monograph drawing out connections between the two.)  This is a bit different from Bharati Mukherjee who only has positive things to say about the U.S. at least in relation to Canada...  I remember thinking quite highly of Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, which I thought just a bit reminiscent of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set in Barbados (my memory may be failing me, however!).  I wasn't as taken with The Emigrants, which moves the setting to England and follows the tribulations of Caribbean immigrants.  Perhaps I would like it more now, and I am considering adding it to the tail end of my long reading list, and then I might follow up with the essays in The Pleasures of Exile and On the Canvas of the World.  As it happens, the Toronto Library does have all these books.  It isn't a particularly high priority, but it's something I will definitely consider.  I would recommend reading In the Castle of My Skin, even if one doesn't want to tackle all the other books.  To me it gives some insights into why a talented person would choose to emigrate to another country, which obviously has some resonance for my situation, though I would not consider myself an exile from the U.S. (at least just yet -- still waiting to see what happens with the 2016 election but things don't look good, particularly with Congress which is where the real problems lie).

* To concentrate all the particularly controversial material, I will confine the rest of the commentary down here. I have a fair bit of experience navigating the immigration channels, as I applied for student visa to Canada and then for work visas to the U.K. and now Canada. I would say that in general I think immigration should be loosened, but not that border control should be completely eliminated. I certainly don't agree with groups like "No One is Illegal," who basically do not recognize the ability of states to set immigration policy. Basically all serious studies of immigration have found that higher levels of immigration have positive benefits in the short- and medium- term, and this is particularly the case in countries with low birth rates, like most of Europe and Canada (here are some relevant studies from RAND looking at immigration in California and the UK). That does not mean that there are no downsides to immigration, in particular the downward push on wages (some studies here and here) and the displacement of some lower "castes" even further down the occupational chain (see here and here -- probably behind paywalls unfortunately).  Even the RAND study of immigration in California cautions that the costs of immigration are increasing and starting to shift the balance in favor of more restrictive and certainly more selective immigration policy for it to still benefit the state.  Several scholars have made a strong case that African-Americans would have better life outcomes except for the fact that they were displaced by the new immigrants who quickly took up a better position in the racial hierarchy in the U.S.** What none of these studies has really focused on is whether there is an ideal number of new immigrants to a society, in particular these more homogeneous societies of Northern Europe that simply do not seem to have the ability to integrate the new immigrants into their society. Certainly my impression from the news reports is that there is a ticking time bomb at the heart of these Nordic societies and perhaps Germany as well. I'll leave aside the issue of the "Islamification of Europe" for another day, perhaps.

** I've been reacting fairly negatively to Mukherjee's Darkness for a few reasons, but the primary one is that she keeps dumping on Canada and claiming that the U.S. is/was so much more genuinely open to South Asian immigrants like herself. People might well have been polite in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it was clear that she was not part of the overwhelmingly white society. I can't deny that was her experience, and a bit of digging around into Canadian immigration history does suggest that Canada's immigration laws were actually even more exclusionary than those of the U.S. at least until 1947. Also, Canada has always received only a small fraction of the immigration that the U.S. has done, though it doesn't take as many immigrants to make Canadian cities feel multicultural. I would certainly argue that by the mid 1990s, the situation had reversed and post 9/11, it was better to be a non-white immigrant in Canada than the U.S. Mukherjee might still not agree, of course.  In any case, my take on the racial hierarchy in Canada is a bit more complex. It's not so much that visible minorities became white but that as new groups came in, the older groups did come closer to the centre and became "more Canadian." So for example, when large numbers of Chinese immigrants started arriving by say the late 1980s, South Asian groups were viewed more positively, since they had once been part of the British empire (and India and Pakistan are still Commonwealth countries) but more to the point, the vast majority of Indians and Pakistanis speak very good English (at least those living in Canada). Thus, the Chinese were the new "other," until they moved a bit closer to the centre with the arrival of Muslim immigrants and particularly this current wave of Syrian immigrants. At least the Chinese are Christian, according to those people holding nationalist tendencies. And so it goes. That doesn't mean there are no tensions, and particularly in Vancouver, mainland Chinese are largely blamed for the affordability crisis in their real estate market. I think there is probably some truth to that, but the affordability crisis is more of a symptom of Toronto and Vancouver finally having become world cities.

† However, it only has a reference copy of Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, so I will have to go to Robarts yet again.  (This seems to be the story of my life for delving into serious fiction; fortunately, I can get an alumni card.)  Amazon has seemed to notice that I am taking an interest in immigrant fiction, and has offered up this book on West Indians in London in the 1950s that seems like a most appropriate book to pair with Lamming's The Emigrants.

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