By Bix Gabriel
Sometime last year, I wanted to poll my classmates, or anyone studying in an MFA program: Which of these works would you call “immigrant fiction”?
b) Heart of Darkness
d) None of the above
e) All of the above
Depending on how you define immigrant fiction, you might answer d) or e) and both answers could be correct. I never actually administered this survey, but the responses could be instructive. Perhaps, if nothing else, they’d have rid me of my distaste for the label of immigrant fiction.
Immigrant fiction is usually meant to describe fiction about “the immigration experience” (note the singular!). For example, Becoming American: Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today gathers “400 years of writings…by first-generation immigrants about the immigrant experience.” It includes fiction, poems, travel pieces, diary entries and letters. Since the book covers all types of writing and explores the particular intersection of “first-generation immigrants writing about the immigrant experience,” characterizing its contents as “immigrant writing” seems accurate. But in my MFA program and in the literary world, such as I know it, I’ve heard the term “immigrant fiction” being used to describe fiction by immigrants (to the US); about being an immigrant or about immigration; by people of color who aren’t African-American; fiction that is not set in the US (or fantasy worlds); fiction in which the primary (or all) characters are identified as immigrant; and, all of these, interchangeably.
“Immigrant fiction” derives from the same problematic Pantheon in which “Women’s Literature,”
“Black Literature,” and more, exist.
Examining these definitions more closely, I noticed a Venn diagram of sorts: categorization on the basis of the writer’s identity; what the fiction is “about,” its primary “themes” or settings; the identity of the protagonist; and the perceived audience. The label “Immigrant Fiction” derives from the same problematic Pantheon in which “Women’s Literature,” “Black Literature,” and more, exist. And unlike the genre of, say, science fiction, which describes the content and style of the writing, categories like “immigrant” or “Black” fiction seem to be concerned more with the author’s identity and/or perceived audience. But between publishers’, readers’ (audiences!), editors’, writers’ –and, it turns out, MFA students’–definitions, the term “immigrant fiction” has become a muddle, a catchall phrase to describe anything that appears “non-American,” foreign in some way.
It reminds me of the “Ethnic Foods” label used in supermarket aisles, where you might find Goya beans, sriracha sauce, Top Ramen noodle packs. (Incidentally, Goya and Huy Fong Foods, the company that produces the most popular “Rooster” brand of sriracha, are both American owned; Nissin Foods, which manufactures Top Ramen, is a Japanese company with an eponymous US subsidiary.)
Junot Diaz’s revolutionary essay MFA vs. POC came out on April 30, 2014, fifteen days after I had decided which MFA program I would attend. But his experience was one that I had already heard about from many students of color during my research. So I had been careful to pick a program that was diverse in terms of race, orientation, and age, among other things. I already had two Masters degrees, and as a student in her thirties, I felt prepared.
And in fact, I haven’t (yet) had the experience that Junot wrote about–and that many, many other students of color have. The majority of students in my program at Indiana University-Bloomington are of color; the faculty is racially diverse; we have a fellowship specifically for students of color that gives the recipients the chance to write without having to teach for a year; and we read widely–from all over the world.
Last September, in my first MFA workshop ever, we read authors’ first books published in the previous year. One of them was We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. I had read the first chapter of the book, (published as the short story “Hitting Budapest”) one afternoon in 2010, miserable at a job. I re-read it, shared it with my writing group, and when the book came out, bought the hardcover, adorned with a lemony-yellow jacket that cheers me up. In workshop, I was excited that our teacher brought up questions of craft: point of view (which the book employs in a most unusual way), story structures/shapes, and child narrators, to name a few.
When some students described the writing as “immigrant fiction,” I was first confused, then disappointed, and finally, enraged.
Publishers and editors say they want more
I had heard the term immigrant lit long before I joined the MFA. But I had assumed it was a marketing tag, a way for publicists to target audiences, problematic as that is. I had foolishly forgotten, or refused to see, that MFA programs are part of, even feeders to, the same literary world as the publishing industry. In fact, in the classroom I found “immigrant fiction” (which, as we’ve established, might mean many things to many people), being used in a reductionist fashion, to ignore or simply not perceive the literary merits of We Need New Names–precisely because it explicitly explores narratives of immigration.
Conversely, in my second workshop of the MFA, we read all of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novels, including Middlesex. With Middlesex, we explored many craft questions, as well as issues of sexual identity, that the book raises. It was never termed immigrant fiction. Why? It’s not that Middlesex isn’t “about” immigration; the first half of the novel traces the journey of the protagonist’s grandparents’ arrival from Greece to the US, and indeed, the entire book is rooted in Greek and Greek-American identity.
The paradox of identity in the publishing world is this: in response to demand–from writers and readers, a changing marketing place–publishers and editors say they want more “diverse” books, books written by and about characters of color, set in places within and outside the US that haven’t been written about, or rather, published much, before. But, a conscious–or perhaps more terrifying, unconscious–unwillingness or inability to engage with the world, the language, the textures, the craft of such work outside the realms of the category to which the work is assigned ends up reinforcing the existing hierarchies that more “diverse” books are supposed to explode, hence upholding white male authors as the standard-bearers, the canon.
The publishing world is a part of and a reflection of the world around us, which includes people like Donald Trump, and Junot Diaz. So too, is the MFA program. Which might make it unfair to expect the people in and who run them, to interrogate the labels we use.
We are also editors and publishers (usually of University literary magazines). And most importantly, we are writers. That label too, is fraught with complications and complexities. So, what do we writers lose–or perhaps gain, depending on who you are–when we dismiss or refuse to engage with work along multiple, complicated, complex dimensions?
Since that moment in workshop last year, when my fingers gripped the hardback yellow book, and acid leaked into my blood at some classmates’ dismissal of We Need New Names, I’ve thought a lot about what “immigrant fiction” means.
The obvious reason is because my writing is likely to be categorized as such, by many definitions: I was born in India, and live in the States; I am not a US citizen; some of my work is set in the subcontinent; some of my stories feature immigrant characters, etc. Of course it matters to me how my peers critique my work. If they put it in a box of “immigrant fiction” and refuse to engage with it beyond a text that is representative of an identity, I’m simply not going to get valuable feedback as a writer. But there’s more damage caused than a handful of readers dismissing a writer’s work – even if those readers end up working in publishing.
In a 2014 Vulture magazine interview with Gary Shteyngart and Chang-Rae Lee, both of whose work I admire, Shteyngart says about Lee’s book, Native Speaker, “I didn’t know one had permission to write like this about one’s ethnicity. I was absolutely shocked that one could get away with that. And I didn’t see that with a lot of immigrant writers. I still don’t. I can think of Junot Díaz, a few other immigrant writers, but there’s a lot of this sort of endless overcoming of obstacles, racism, the triumph over adversity, and off we go.”
The bigger danger is the underlying implication that
immigrant writers draw solely from the well of lived
experience to create fiction.
Shteyngart exposes the popular perception of “immigrant writing”–that it is almost exclusively concerned with the experience of immigration with its “endless overcoming of obstacles, racism, the triumph over adversity.” But it sounds like Shteyngart too has internalized the dominant narrative of what immigrant fiction is concerned with; that’s one side effect of having a label like “immigrant writing” thrust on your work. Those of us who identify as immigrant, as well as those who don’t, but who are labeled as such, must be vigilant that we don’t see ourselves as having no more to contribute to the American literary landscape than stories of “triumph over adversity.”
The bigger danger is the underlying implication that immigrant writers draw solely from the well of lived experience to create fiction. Here the aphorism of “write what you know” is applied to the extreme–i.e. that immigrant writers only write what we know, what we’ve experienced (either first-hand or through the narratives of our families). What space does such a view of writing, then, leave for the cornerstone of all creative work: imagination?
The view implies that immigrant writing (and by extension, the immigrant writer) may be skilled, have facility with language, be able to craft a story well, but at the end of the day, the work is rooted in experience, outside or devoid of imagination. Or, is there something called “immigrant imagination,” that is somehow separate, unknowable, and different from imagination as exercised by everyone else?
Now, of course, lived experience and imagination aren’t mutually exclusive. But with realist fiction, the imaginative power of the writer becomes masked precisely because of her skill in transforming that which is imagined into what seems real to the reader.
I remember a scene from early in the school year that perfectly illustrates this point.
“We hate poetry,” is what they said.
Six girls, unanimous, arms crossed, eyes rolled and not budging an inch. This was two weeks into teaching in an after-school program for nine to eleven year old girls, for a class called Teaching Writing in the Community for the MFA. My colleague, also a MFA student, and less caught up in my belief that the girls had to master point of view or line breaks, shrugged. We moved on.
Some weeks later, the girls wrote a play, starring the characters of Tunacorn, and Skunkinex who leave their thin rock floating precariously on lava, and voyage through forests and galaxies. Along the way, they come upon their friend, Unachicken, who is vomiting rainbows and must find ways to help her. The girls learned their lines and performed the play the same hour. It was the best fun on a cold almost-spring evening.
We were supposed to be teaching the girls creative writing. But I learned that I had to un-teach myself how to teach, and instead create an environment where the girls could do what came to them naturally: imagining worlds and telling stories. By the end of the class, the girls had written collaborative poetry, stories, character sketches, and dialogue, filled with vivid details including a unicorn with a tuna horn.
Were any of the girls immigrants? I don’t know. I didn’t ask. It’s not that their histories (and identities) don’t matter. Au contraire. The stories the girls made up would reveal if, and to what extent, they wanted to talk about their histories, identities, and realities. The key here is the making it up part. In the TED Talk, “The Danger Of A Single Story” , Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about how as a child she wrote in the manner of the British books she read which didn’t reflect her reality. It wasn’t until years later that she “…started to write about things I recognized.” It’s a real danger. Unicorns and rainbows are part of the My Little Pony empire, and Tunacorn and Unachicken probably come from that world. But, if we’d asked the girls to write about their ‘real lives’, we would have been teaching creative nonfiction or memoir or biography. Fiction, as I like to tell my undergrad students, gives you the freedom to make shit up.
This is the joy and the pain of writing (realist) fiction–to imagine a world and people and events and emotions–to render that imagined world on the page in such a way that the reader believes it as real as the yellow, hardback book she holds in her hand.
I started my second year in the MFA this week, and I’ve abandoned the poll. It wasn’t quite fair because it did what people who talk about “immigrant fiction” often do–lumping together three wildly different works by three people with very different immigration histories and identities as though they were all the same. Still, the poll had a point: the writers are all white men, and I’ve never seen any of their works classified as “immigrant fiction”.
This year, in workshop, I’ve decided not to swallow any acid. This time if colleagues bring up “immigrant fiction”, I’m going to ask what they mean by it; and this time, I’m actually interested in the answers. Because, through engaging with the term, questioning it, and exploring its lack of clear definition, its ambiguities, its many faces, perhaps old meanings can be ruptured, or new meanings made. Or, perhaps, we writers will decide to boot it out of the classroom. And invite Tunacorn in.