A re­luc­tant ‘im­mi­grant writer’

An In­dian au­thor on his evolv­ing iden­tity un­der Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Out­look@wash­post.com

Novelist Akhil Sharma on how anti-mi­nor­ity sen­ti­ment can en­cour­age sol­i­dar­ity but also pro­mote new di­vi­sions

Iam brown and from In­dia, and peo­ple reg­u­larly ask me if I see my­self as an im­mi­grant writer. I’ve al­ways said no, be­cause I want peo­ple to see the ex­pe­ri­ences and emo­tions of my char­ac­ters as univer­sal, and be­cause I don’t want be­ing brown to mat­ter that much to me. I feel that if I al­low it to, I will be let­ting white peo­ple de­cide who I am.

But this is a strange time to be an im­mi­grant in Amer­ica. In Mid­town Man­hat­tan re­cently, I was stand­ing on a side­walk wait­ing for a light to change. Near me was a group of white men in suits. A man who looked Mid­dle Eastern drove by in a Rolls-Royce, and one of the men in suits turned to his friends and said, “Ahmed is driv­ing his daddy’s Rolls.” An­other day I was jog­ging around Cen­tral Park, and a woman with a short swing­ing pony­tail who was also jog­ging started curs­ing me: “Go back to Pak­istan.” This sort of ha­tred surely ex­isted be­fore Don­ald Trump be­came pres­i­dent, but it seems his ex­am­ple has made it more ac­cept­able to say such things.

In some mo­ments, I feel pushed to­ward an im­mi­grant iden­tity — and I feel a strong de­sire to re­sist. In other mo­ments, I’m more in­clined to ac­cept the shared iden­tity of be­ing brown, of be­ing South Asian, of be­ing an im­mi­grant. Con­sid­er­ing that these com­mu­ni­ties are un­der at­tack, it feels pusil­lan­i­mous to re­ject my mem­ber­ship. And yet these com­mu­ni­ties are so di­verse that it seems bizarre to see them as shar­ing any­thing but the most gen­eral iden­tity.

For ex­am­ple, a friend of mine, a man who im­mi­grated from South Amer­ica when he was 14 and now works as a porter in a Man­hat­tan apart­ment build­ing near mine, was telling me he hated Trump for la­bel­ing im­mi­grants as crim­i­nals. As I lis­tened, I felt a tight­ness in my chest. I re­mem­bered be­ing a child in New Jersey and go­ing for evening walks with my mother,

Vot­ing for Trump of­fered im­mi­grants a way of sooth­ing them­selves, a way of say­ing: I am not like those peo­ple who are hated; in fact, I am more like the whites who hate.

and peo­ple driv­ing by and shout­ing “Haji,” “sand n-----.” I thought of how, when I’m in a store where there are small, ex­pen­sive things for sale, I keep my hands be­hind my back be­cause I don’t want to be ac­cused of shoplift­ing. I thought of how, if I am walk­ing down a street at night and there is a woman ahead of me who is alone, I whis­tle Brahms so she knows I am no hood­lum. Re­act­ing so strongly to my friend, I could see how a group iden­tity made sense.

Then my friend added that it made him an­gry that Trump could grab women by the gen­i­tals and he could not — that he would like to do so, too, but if he were to at­tempt it, he would end up in jail. Hear­ing this, I felt be­trayed, as if I had ex­tended sym­pa­thy to some­one who was not only alien but was in some way de­spi­ca­ble.

I’ve also had trou­ble fig­ur­ing out what to make of the fact that, ac­cord­ing to exit polls, some 14 per­cent of In­dian Amer­i­cans and as many as 27 per­cent of Asian Amer­i­cans ap­pear to have voted for Trump. Some re­ports sug­gested that In­dian Amer­i­cans were drawn to him be­cause they shared his ha­tred of Mus­lims. In­deed, when I spoke to In­dian ac­quain­tances who voted for Trump, they would mut­ter mys­te­ri­ously, “He un­der­stands Mus­lims.” And they were sus­pi­cious of the Mus­lim back­ground of Huma Abe­din, a top Hil­lary Clin­ton aide.

But this an­tipa­thy does not fully ex­plain what is go­ing on. A bet­ter way to un­der­stand im­mi­grants vot­ing for Trump is to re­al­ize that be­ing a mi­nor­ity can be so painful that one would rather iden­tify with the ma­jor­ity and its ha­tred for mi­nori­ties than live with the feel­ing of be­ing out of place and viewed with con­tempt. The greater the con­tempt to­ward a mi­nor­ity, the stronger the need to dis­as­so­ci­ate from the at­tacked group.

In try­ing to un­der­stand dy­nam­ics like this, po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists have looked at co­op­er­a­tion and com­pe­ti­tion be­tween mi­nori­ties. They have no­ticed that when mi­nor­ity groups see other mi­nori­ties as af­fected by the same sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion, it of­ten leads to sym­pa­thy be­tween groups. But when peo­ple per­ceive them­selves to be part of a hi­er­ar­chy of racial and eth­nic mi­nori­ties, they may be more likely to as­so­ciate them­selves with the ma­jor­ity than with lower-sta­tus groups. Dis­crim­i­na­tion against blacks does not lead to sym­pa­thy with them but in­stead causes other mi­nor­ity groups to iden­tify with whites. This is be­cause the pres­sure placed on African Amer­i­cans is so crush­ing that peo­ple re­ject the pain of em­pa­thy.

Vot­ing for Trump of­fered im­mi­grants a way of sooth­ing them­selves, a way of say­ing: I am not like those peo­ple who are hated; in fact, I am more like the whites who hate.

The idea that I might har­bor the same ten­den­cies fills me with hor­ror. And yet I have no other ex­pla­na­tion for why I have re­jected the la­bel of “im­mi­grant writer”; I didn’t want to be lumped with the mar­ginal.

When peo­ple talk to me about books and writ­ers, I of­ten turn to the tech­ni­cal: how Hem­ing­way used “that” as a sub­sti­tute for com­mas be­cause he was afraid punc­tu­a­tion sig­naled con­struct­ed­ness and in­au­then­tic­ity; how in Faulkner’s sen­tences prepo­si­tions serve as piv­ots, and once one catches on to this, one re­al­izes that it is Faulkner’s dic­tion that is gnarled and not his sen­tence struc­ture. I fo­cus on the in­tri­ca­cies of lan­guage be­cause I want to show that I have a right to be writ­ing in English and can’t be judged as an im­mi­grant writer. Also, in­side this fo­cus on the gran­u­lar is a threat. I am say­ing: I know your lan­guage and your writ­ers bet­ter than you do. Do you re­ally want to doubt my abil­ity to com­mand English?

One dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing an im­mi­grant writer who de­nies the la­bel and one who is more will­ing to claim it is that now I am quicker to see oth­ers as white writ­ers.

In a re­cent ar­ti­cle in Esquire, Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning novelist, stood by his de­ci­sion to spit on Col­son White­head, the African Amer­i­can novelist who won this year’s Pulitzer for “The Un­der­ground Rail­road.” The spit­ting episode oc­curred in 2004, in re­sponse to White­head giv­ing Ford a bad re­view. “I don’t feel any dif­fer­ent about Mr. White­head, or his re­view, or my re­sponse,” Ford wrote in Esquire’s June/July is­sue.

Once I might have writ­ten that off as just a nasty guy be­hav­ing nas­tily — spit­ting on some­one in pub­lic and know­ing that the other per­son’s man­ners will keep him from es­ca­lat­ing the sit­u­a­tion into a fist­fight. But now I am less in­clined to think of Ford as an or­di­nary cretin. In fact, I find my­self look­ing for ev­i­dence of racist predilec­tions.

Ford, who was born in Mis­sis­sippi and grew up in the South, wrote in a 1999 New York Times mag­a­zine es­say, “I was cer­tainly a lit­tle racist as a teen-ager, even if not a very com­mit­ted one.” Ford ap­pears to be say­ing, “I am go­ing to tell a scan­dalous truth about my­self be­cause I am brave and hon­est” — but then he leaves un­said what it means to be an un­com­mit­ted racist. Did he drive by peo­ple walk­ing down the street and curse at them? Did he smash an oc­ca­sional car win­dow? “Man up,” I thought when I read the line. In the same es­say, he re­gret­ted us­ing racial slurs in let­ters he wrote in his late 30s. Yet con­sid­er­ing that he is the sort of nar­cis­sis­tic boor who spits on peo­ple, the way South­ern­ers spat on civil rights pro­test­ers at lunch coun­ters, has he re­ally changed? I’ve al­ways been both­ered by the self-pity and sen­ti­men­tal­ity in Ford’s writ­ing — Mother of God, how many more dead chil­dren will he write about? Now that self-pity and sen­ti­men­tal­ity re­mind me of the sense of be­ing treated un­fairly and the yearn­ing for an ide­al­ized past that Trump has pro­voked in many of his sup­port­ers.

I have be­come will­ing to see my­self as an im­mi­grant writer, but it has made me less tol­er­ant.

In my heart of hearts, I don’t think this is good for any­one. Akhil Sharma’s lat­est book is “A Life of Ad­ven­ture and De­light,” a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries.

CELESTE SLOMANFOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

CELESTE SLOMANFOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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