Real world Trumps im­mi­gra­tion nov­els

Nov­els take on new truths since Don­ald Trump has be­come Amer­i­can pres­i­dent.

Sunday Star-Times - - Books -

Not long be­fore Elec­tion Day, 2016, Samira Ahmed com­pleted the first draft of her novel, In­tern­ment, a dystopian nar­ra­tive about the round­ing up of Mus­limAmer­i­cans. As the news came in that Don­ald Trump had been elected, Ahmed re­ceived a text from a friend who had read the man­u­script and feared Ahmed had writ­ten a work of prophecy.

‘‘She said, ‘I hope you’re not Cas­san­dra,’’ Ahmed told As­so­ci­ated Press dur­ing a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view.

Nov­els about im­mi­grants, like im­mi­gra­tion it­self, are a long and cen­tral part of Amer­i­can cul­ture. To­day, books con­ceived be­fore Trump’s rise ar­rive with a spe­cial time­li­ness as the pres­i­dent, who has called Mex­i­can im­mi­grants ‘‘rapists’’ and ad­vo­cated for a Mus­lim travel ban, shut down the fed­eral gov­ern­ment over his in­sis­tence on fund­ing for a wall along the coun­try’s south­ern bor­der. He has of­ten pushed back on ac­cu­sa­tions that he is xeno­pho­bic and an­ti­im­mi­grant, and de­fended his ac­tions by say­ing that con­trol­ling im­mi­gra­tion was im­por­tant for na­tional se­cu­rity.

In an As­so­ci­ated Press-NORC Cen­tre for Pub­lic Af­fairs Re­search poll con­ducted shortly be­fore the shut­down, 49 per cent men­tioned im­mi­gra­tion as one of the top five prob­lems they hoped the gov­ern­ment ad­dresses in 2019. Only 27 per cent men­tioned im­mi­gra­tion in De­cem­ber 2017.

‘‘While cur­rent head­lines give read­ers timely cov­er­age of im­mi­gra­tion, fic­tion of­fers deeper and more com­plex ex­plo­rations of the is­sue,’’ says Laila Lalami, whose novel The Other Amer­i­cans comes out on March 26.

New fic­tion is set ev­ery­where from Vir­ginia to Cal­i­for­nia, and con­fronts the Amer­i­can Dream nar­ra­tive of as­sim­i­la­tion and up­ward mo­bil­ity. Other works in­clude Va­le­ria Luiselli’s Lost Chil­dren Archive, which tells of young im­mi­grants sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies, and Ni­cole Den­nis-Benn’s Patsy, about a Ja­maican woman’s dis­cov­ery that the US is noth­ing like what she had imag­ined.

‘‘I think there’s been a real blos­som­ing in nov­els about im­mi­gra­tion,’’ says Barnes & No­ble fic­tion buyer Ses­salee Hens­ley, who cites such works as Jean Kwok’s Search­ing for Sylvie Lee, about a fam­ily of Chi­nese im­mi­grants. ‘‘Pub­lish­ers have re­ally been mak­ing an ef­fort to bring in a wider range of voices.’’

Devi S Laskar’s first novel, The At­las of Reds and Blues, fol­lows the dis­heart­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of an Amer­i­can-born daugh­ter of Ben­gali im­mi­grants when she moves her fam­ily to an At­lanta sub­urb. She be­gan the book be­fore Trump was elected, but found its nar­ra­tive fit all too well with the cur­rent time.

‘‘We are all ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion to­gether,’’ Laskar says. ‘‘This story ends in 2010, but I feel like the seeds of what is hap­pen­ing started way back when.’’

Angie Kim be­gan her first novel, Mir­a­cle Creek, sev­eral years ago. But as she fin­ished the fi­nal draft of her story about a Korean im­mi­grant fam­ily at the cen­tre of a Vir­ginia mur­der case, Trump had been elected. Kim be­gan adding, not con­sciously at the time, ma­te­rial on im­mi­gra­tion.

‘‘At first I was writ­ing about lan­guage and the frus­tra­tions for peo­ple who think of them­selves as smart and knowl­edge­able but find them­selves in a place where they don’t speak the lan­guage and they feel like a child again,’’ she says. ‘‘But when I wrote some new scenes, in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary of 2017, they were all cen­tred around racism.’’

Lalami has writ­ten four works of fic­tion, in­clud­ing the Pulitzer Prize fi­nal­ist The Moor’s Ac­count, draw­ing upon her na­tive Mo­rocco. In The Other Amer­i­cans ,she writes of a Mo­roc­can im­mi­grant’s sus­pi­cious death on a Cal­i­for­nia road. She started in 2014, in re­sponse to a health scare in­volv­ing her fa­ther and to a re­cent wave of hate crimes against Mus­lims.

‘‘A lot of peo­ple are in­ter­ested in im­mi­gra­tion be­cause of Trump; he has brought a sense of ur­gency,’’ said Lalami, a pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at River­side. ‘‘But the story would have been the same, al­though read­ers might find it more timely.’’

As sev­eral au­thors point out, their sto­ries seem con­tem­po­rary be­cause the is­sues raised by the Trump pres­i­dency have been around for much of the coun­try’s past, whether the in­tern­ment of Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II or the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act of 1882 or the racist Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 1924.

‘‘All of Amer­i­can his­tory leads up to what’s hap­pen­ing now,’’ Ahmed said.

Luiselli, a na­tive of Mex­ico City, has writ­ten fic­tion and non-fic­tion, and spoke with chil­dren fac­ing de­por­ta­tion for the 2017 pub­li­ca­tion, Tell Me How It Ends: An Es­say in 40 Ques­tions. She be­gan her novel in 2014, ‘‘long be­fore Trump was part of this panorama’’.

‘‘Thou­sands of chil­dren had ar­rived alone and un­doc­u­mented at the bor­der, flee­ing gang vi­o­lence and other cir­cum­stances of un­speak­able vi­o­lence and abuse,’’ Luiselli wrote in an email, adding that she didn’t need to make any ma­jor re­vi­sions once Trump took of­fice.


The Amer­i­can pres­i­dent has had a pro­found ef­fect on nov­els fo­cus­ing on im­mi­gra­tion.

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