In 2019, im­mi­gra­tion nov­els are timely

Au­thor: Fic­tion of­fers deeper exploration of issue than head­lines

The Commercial Appeal - - Business - Hil­lel Italie | AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

NEW YORK – Not long be­fore Elec­tion Day, 2016, Samira Ahmed com­pleted the first draft of her novel, “In­tern­ment,” a dystopian nar­ra­tive about the round­ing up of Mus­lim-amer­i­cans.

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 The As­so­ci­ated Press dur­ing a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view.

Nov­els about im­mi­grants, like im­mi­gra­tion it­self, are a long and cen­tral part of Amer­i­can cul­ture. In 2019, 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 anti-im­mi­grant, and de­fended his ac­tions by say­ing that con­trol­ling im­mi­gra­tion was im­por­tant for national se­cu­rity.

In an As­so­ci­ated PRESS-NORC Cen­ter for Pub­lic Af­fairs Re­search poll con­ducted shortly be­fore the shutdown, 49 per­cent men­tioned im­mi­gra­tion as one of the top five prob­lems they hoped the gov­ern­ment ad­dresses in 2019. Only 27 per­cent 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 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 U.S. 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 Amer­i­can­born 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 cen­ter 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 write some new scenes, in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary of 2017, they were all cen­tered 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 Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at River­side. “But as far as I’m con­cerned, 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 non­fic­tion 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. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was not par­tic­u­larly hu­mane in their treat­ment of un­doc­u­mented mi­nors,” Luiselli wrote in an email, adding that she didn’t need to make any ma­jor re­vi­sions once Trump took of­fice.

“The thing is, the cri­sis was already there by then.”

“A lot of peo­ple are in­ter­ested in im­mi­gra­tion be­cause of Trump; he has brought a sense of ur­gency.” Laila Lalami


Va­le­ria Luiselli’s “Lost Chil­dren Archive” is about young im­mi­grants sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies. “The Other Amer­i­cans,” by Laila Lalami, con­cerns a Mo­roc­can im­mi­grant’s sus­pi­cious death on a Cal­i­for­nia road.

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