Wednesday, 9 January 2013

'Digging To America': A Culture Clash in polite society– ethnic assimilation, resistance and narrative perspectives in Anne Tyler’s middle-class suburbia. Part 1

Considering MM's relation to this genre throws up a number of interesting questions, the first obvious one being, in what ways is she interested in americanisation and immigrant experiences? Intellectually clearly, and politically too, but in terms of culture and gender, for instance, does she tend to accept or resist convention? It's worth a look, if not a thesis.

This article, what I wrote in 2008, first appeared in emagazine in the UK.

Digging To America

A Culture Clash in polite society– ethnic assimilation, resistance and narrative perspectives in Anne Tyler’s middle-class suburbia.

“Such a noisy bunch, Iranians could be! More than once Dave had pointed out that they were a whole lot noisier than the Donaldsons. Maryam would have to concede his point, but still it seemed to her that the Donaldsons were…oh, more self-vaunting, self-advertising. They seemed to feel that their occasions – their anniversaries, birthdays, even their leaf-rakings – had such cataclysmic importance that naturally the entire world was longing to celebrate with them. Yes, that was what she objected to: their assumption that they had the right to an unfair share of the universe.”
                                                                                             Digging to America by Anne Tyler

For five hundred years America has experienced wave after wave of mass immigration. From the 16th to the 18th century, new Americans arrived as enslaved Africans or western European colonisers; over the last two hundred years sources of immigration into the US have globalised, with migrations from all over Europe, the Middle East and Asia, from South and Central America, from Africa and the Caribbean. As a nation populated by people with roots in other nations, speaking different languages, holding onto ‘old country’ traditions and values, it’s not surprising that fictional representations of immigrant experiences in the United States have become embedded in American Literature. Literally hundreds of novels have been written on this subject, more than fifty in the last fifteen years alone.

One of the most ambitious and hard –hitting examples of this recent crop is Annie Proulx’s 1996 epic Accordion Crimes. Spanning a century of turbulent history, the novel’s remarkable central protagonist is a green diatonic button accordion, skilfully hand-made by a Sicilian anarchist who sails to New Orleans in 1890, full of hope for a better life. Within a year, however, he is brutally murdered by an anti-union, anti-Italian lynch mob and, as the story unfolds over nine further episodes, his instrument passes into the hands of a succession of immigrant families from different ethnic backgrounds. Their lives are typified by poverty, violence and racism, mainly as victims, but also as perpetrators: in the novel’s epigraph, Proulx cites Cornel West’s observation that “Without the presence of black people in America, European Americans would not be ‘white’ – they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh and others engaged in class, ethnic and gender struggles over resources and identity.” In Accordion Crimes, Proulx’s representation of de-mythologised immigrant experiences emphasises the cruel cultural and physical costs paid by new arrivals fighting for survival in the ‘land of opportunity’.

Anne Tyler’s 2006 novel Digging To America, contributes to this genre of immigration literature in a completely different way. Rather than setting cultural collisions against a gritty backdrop of urban poverty or rural racial tension, Tyler constructs her contemporary story in the comfortable homes and leafy suburbs of bourgeois Baltimore. Without obvious melodrama, Tyler explores the subtle and pervasive influence of ordinary, everyday social interaction on perceptions of ethnic identity, for both the immigrant and ‘host’ communities. Lined up for the middle-class characters in Digging To America there are a succession of Iranian/American parties, a few minor confrontations, countless opportunities for thoughtful reflection as well as a significant romantic interest. Essentially, the cast perform a modern comedy of ethnic manners, as they strive earnestly to adjust to the unspoken codes of a foreign culture. If this sounds a little light-weight, when compared with Proulx’s narrative, for instance, then think again: Tyler’s breezy style belies a serious interest in the gradual processes of change – on outlook, behaviour and identity - that result from regular, often daily, social contact between families from different racial backgrounds. Rivalry and friendship, resistance, acceptance and fascination create an ever-evolving dynamic in Tyler’s world, represented as a shifting balance of power which is both private and public, the subtle struggle for cultural advantage influencing individuals and communities. Maryam Yazdan, perhaps the most significant character viewpoint in the novel, reflects on her own experience of Americaization in terms which are obviously personal yet somehow global:

“Americans are all larger than life. You think that if you keep company with them you will be larger too, but then you see that they’re making you shrink; they’re expanding and edging you out. I could feel myself slipping away.”

From August 15th 1997 (‘Arrival Day’ in Baltimore for the two South Korean baby girls destined for adoption) to August 15th 2004, Digging To America unfolds a complex narrative of multi-cultural suburban life, as different generations of the Iranian-American Yazdan family adjust to the forces of Americanization, mediated through their growing friendship with the Donaldsons, a white liberal American family who, far from asserting any overtly supremacist attitudes, appear acutely sensitive to and supportive of  all things ethnic. In Tyler’s Baltimore, assimilation is a two-way street where elements of the ‘host’ community value ethnicity, often expressed as a fascination with the ‘exotic’, just as elements of the ‘immigrant’ community embrace conformity to the American way of life.

The time-sequence and structure of the novel are clearly designed to chart the steady evolution of these influences. Told chronologically, at a fairly even pace over ten chapters, the story avoids both major time leaps and lengthy flashbacks, though there are many opportunities for Tyler to have her characters reflect on their own ‘back’ stories. As for what happens in the novel, the events the story chronicles are far from sensational, with many of the most dramatic moments – critical illness, death and relationship break-ups, for example - happening ‘offstage’, as reported incidents. Tyler creates tension and interest from this potentially mundane material by focussing sharply on disparities and contrasts, sometimes startling, sometimes shrewdly comic, relating each chapter’s proceedings from a different character’s standpoint (with the notable exception of Chapter 1, which offers a unique perspective and time-sequence and which I’ll return to later). For example: after ‘meeting’ all the main characters at the airport in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 focuses on events – including the Donaldson’s leaf-raking party - from Maryam’s viewpoint; Chapter 3 sees things through the intensely liberal eyes of Bitsy Donaldson; and Chapter 4 is written from the often contradictory perspective of Sami Yazdan. This kind of basic analysis reveals a number of  things about Tyler’s techniques: firstly, it’s clear that she wants to establish some kind of balance between points of view from both communities; that she consciously avoids matching characters directly to dramatic events in order to focus on more distanced, observed responses, rather than on immediate emotional reactions; that she explores a range of ‘reliabilities’ regarding her character viewpoints, from the relatively unreliable seven year old Jin Ho Donaldson in Chapter 9,  to the highly reliable (if a little snooty) Maryam in Chapters 2, 6 and 10;  and that, in giving Maryam Yazdan the lion’s share of perspective, it’s fairly safe to conclude that Tyler is most interested in representing this character’s sensibilities at greater length and in greater depth.