Author Edwidge Danticat. (Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone)
As the child of immigrants who has always felt torn between two places, I am consumed by what it means to be an immigrant and how fiction works so well to capture what it means to leave a homeland and become a stranger in a strange land. I’m interested in stories about what we leave behind, what we discover, what we grow to love, what we regret. In an interview with Dwyer Murphy for Guernica, Edwidge Danticat explains this urge to write the immigrant story:
Often when you’re an immigrant writing in English, people think it’s primarily a commercial choice. But for many of us, it’s a choice that rises out of the circumstances of our lives. These are the tools I have at my disposal, based on my experiences. It’s a constant debate, not just in my community but in other communities as well. Where do you belong? You’re kind of one of us, but you now write in a different language. You’re told you don’t belong to American literature or you’re told you don’t belong to Haitian literature. Maybe there’s a place on the hyphen, as Julia Alvarez so brilliantly wrote in one of her essays. That middle generation, the people whose parents brought them to other countries as small children, or even people who were born to immigrant parents, maybe they can have their own literature too.
What do we call these stories, this literature of our own? During a “By the Book” interview in The New York Times, Jhumpa Lahiri says:
I don’t know what to make of the term ‘immigrant fiction.’ Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from.… If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? …. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar.
She makes strong points, particularly at the end of her full answer where she notes that so much of literature involves the tension between alienation and assimilation. I’m not sure if immigrant fiction exists but I can also not think of a better way to describe these stories that intrigue me so much.
In Patricia Engel’s absorbing debut novel, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, she writes a unique child-of-immigrants story and, in turn, creates a literature of her own. The novel is intimate in scope, erotic and, by the end, entirely unexpected.
Lita del Cielo is the daughter of Colombian parents who came to America and found the fabled land of opportunity. Her parents started with nothing and now her father is “known as the King of Latin Foods,” because his arepa business flourished.