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.
The story of immigration is so often the story of myth—oft-repeated stories about what the old country was like, what it took to leave, and what it takes to stay in the new country. As we get to know Lita, she explains, “I can tell you all about the Great American Crossover because my parents never shut up about the early days.” We quickly learn that Lita’s life is not necessarily her own—the family is tight knit and dysfunctional in the way of all families. Lita’s sense of obligation keeps her bound to her parents and brothers even when, perhaps, she would prefer to be bound only to herself. The tension between who Lita is and who she wants to be and who she should be and how unclear the distinctions between these possibilities are, drives the novel forward.
Before she joins the family business, Lita has a year to study in Paris, a year in which she can figure out who she is when she is not so intensely wrapped up in what her family needs from her. Lita moves into the House of Stars, a once grand manor fading into elegant decrepitude like its mistress, Séraphine. The house is populated by young women, mostly daughters of privilege, expats indulging in all that Paris has to offer. Engel meticulously chronicles the decadence of youth abroad. Though the set up is, at times, a bit much, a bit too enamored with the idea of gay Paree, Engel she has an eye for detail. She knows how to drown the reader in a sense of enchantment.
Lita is an interesting character and Engel does a fine job of expressing Lita’s anxieties and her initial awkwardness as she tries to fit in with a group of women who have overwhelming personalities. The secondary characters are as distinct as Lita, which makes the story even more satisfying. Every person we meet matters and the story could not be told without them.
There is also immense tenderness in It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, especially when Lita meets Cato, her romantic interest. She writes exquisite moments such as, “There was no morning, only this perpetual hour, this room warm with our breath and sweat, these sheets pushed off of the bed, this silence of two bare bodies.” The eroticism builds slowly and heavily. There is texture—the warmth of breath, the dew of sweaty skin, a lover’s taste lingering on the lips. The language pulls you just within reach.
As Lita and Cato get to know each other, she unburdens herself. “I told him of my family, my race through school, running on guilt for the debt of my parents’ hardships, my life a project in honoring their sacrifices, how I never felt that my life belonged only to me but to them and I sometimes resented it, which made me ashamed.” This lamentation perfectly captures the unique position of the child of immigrants, when you are not physically but emotionally displaced.
As her time in Paris comes to an end, Lita must decide which home she will choose—the one she has created in Europe with Cato or the home that is her family. Before she has made her decision, Lita observes, “But to go anywhere, to begin again, one must leave something behind.” The power of this excellent novel is in how Engel holds us in her thrall as she complicates where Lita is going and what she will leave behind. The heart this story breaks, might be your own.
Roxane Gay talks about writing with Kiese Laymon.