“The Good Immigrant” Edited by Nikesh Shukla

“The Britain that accepted [my grandfather], the place I call home, is now experiencing a period of rejection. The last year has seen a depressing attack on many immigrant communities, as the aggressive rhetoric of adhering to ‘British values’ has catapulted itself into political and social policy. Cameron specifically targets Muslim women for their poor language skills, the tabloid media demonizes refugees on a daily basis, and the rhetoric encouraging us to prove our allegiance to the country’s best interests, makes the place I call home feel less safe for people who, largely, look like me.” – Kieran Yates, “On Going Home”

IMG_0368.JPGIn this staggering collection of voices, contributors from all over the world in various stages along the spectrum of migration share their impressions, outrages, and humanity  as outsiders in today’s UK. And though this compilation was curated in and focused on the UK, there is no doubt that this is an apt window into this global moment, where mass migration meets with not unique but certainly momentous rancor and division. Here, in a series of deeply personal essays, 21 black, Asian, and minority ethnic writers take a painful step to speak their truths and, perhaps, to open the eyes and hearts of those around them to the mind-numbing, soul-crushing press of contemporary xenophobia and bigotry. The essays vary in eloquence and profundity, as any collection might, but together they are a cogent, potent, and persuasive. Below are just a few sips of this thoughtful and thought-provoking collection.

“I have seen this sense of property in the eyes of men who step to their girlfriends, who walk into children’s bedrooms uninvited, in the policemen who slam a brown or black body against a wall for a half-smoked zoot – no, often less. It is there in the white men and women who do not understand, to the point of frustration, why we still walk with the noose of our ancestors around our necks, as we cannot comprehend how they do not carry the indignity of their ancestors tying it there.”  – Chimene Suleyman, “My Name is My Name”

“Respectability politics is the dogged belief that if black people just shape up, dress better and act right, racists would suddenly have a dramatic change of heart, and stop their racist ways. Respectability politics puts all of its faith in racist gatekeepers (telling us that we must change to appeal to their inherent, good-natured humanity), and puts none of its faith in black people living under the weight of poverty and discrimination, scrabbling, trying to make a life anyway they can. Poverty is narrow and limiting. People work within the confines of it. That they have to do that is not the problem. Poverty itself is the problem.” – Reni Eddo-Lodge, “Forming Blackness Through a Screen”

“America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the UK. The reality of Britain is vibrant multi-culturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of Lords and Ladies. Conversely, American society is pretty segregated, but the myth they export is of a racial melting-pot solving crimes and fighting aliens side by side.” – Riz Ahmen, “Airports and Auditions”

“Your shade is not skin deep. Your shade is not just about your heart and soul; your religion and spirituality; your elders and your history; your connection to a country, to geography and to a time and place. Your shade is an industry, your shade is a token, shade is a passport, shade is a cage and shade is a status.” – Salena Godden, “Shade”

“Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” by Mary Norris

“Spelling is the clothing of words, their outward visible sign, and even those who favor sweatpants in everyday life like to make a bella figura, as the Italians say – a good impression – in their prose.”

I love a good grammar book. Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” has been a sort of Bible for me since I was first bludgeoned by it in high school. “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” by Lynne Truss left me snorting and snickering in dorkish glee. So when I heard Mary Norris interviewed by her colleague/boss David Remnick on The New Yorker Radio Hour, I felt compelled to read her book.

IMG_0366Norris worked in The New Yorker‘s copy department for more than three decades. That department and, more broadly, that magazine, serve as a paragon of modern American grammar and usage, an erudite institution to end erudition. Her book is a charming combination – part memoir, part usage guide. In it, we learn how Norris came to her job at The New Yorker, how she thrived in that perfectionist environment, and some of Norris’s and her colleagues’ grammatical peccadillos and pet-peeves.

Mary Norris pokes gleefully at the reputation of copy editors and at writers’ perceptions about the editorial process.

“I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of the New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas.”

“[G]ood writers have a reason for doing things the way they do them, and if you tinker with their work, taking it upon yourself to neutralize a slightly eccentric usage or zap a comma or sharpen the emphasis of something that the writer was deliberately keeping obscure, you are not helping. In my experience, the really great writers enjoy the editorial process. They weigh queries, and they accept or reject them for good reasons. They are not defensive. The whole point of having things read before publication is to test their effect on a general reader. You want to make sure when you go out there that the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up – unless, of course, you are deliberately wearing your clothes inside out.”

“Between You & Me” is full of bon mots, charming anecdotes, and joyful profanity. Norris has, perhaps, tapped into that trope many of us find so deeply pleasing – the profane librarian, the foul-mouthed school marm. I admit I, as one with a fairly foul mouth myself, get an extra charge when I come across profanity in the mouths of those with great poise and a buttoned-up persona. My funny bone was deeply tickled, then, by Norris’s discussion of the role of the hyphen using the example ‘star fucker’:

“In ‘star fucker,’ without a hyphen, each word has equal weight: a fucker who is a star. But in ‘star-fucker’ the hyphen tips the weight of the first element, the object (star) of the activity embodied in the noun (fucking).”

Perhaps more of us would be grammar snobs were usage and composition classes presented in this manner.

Though her topic and writing are certainly niche, Mary Norris’s book was a delightful trip for a self-identified grammar dork. My love affairs with the English language and with that cultural beacon that is The New Yorker were pleasantly stoked by this charming little book. If either of those topics are in your wheelhouse, I submit that you, too, would enjoy giving “Between You & Me” a read.

“Salt Houses” by Hala Alyan

“Salt Houses” is a beautiful, sprawling debut which tells the multigenerational story of a E2CF2BBE-0073-4A2B-AB9E-22604927233EPalestinian family in exile, a family whose own diaspora reflects the wider movement and personalizes the modern current of world migration. Beginning with Salma on the eve of her youngest daughter’s wedding, “Salt Houses” traces four generations of a family, from 4 years before the Six-Day War of 1967 to 2014, exploring identity and culture in fresh and penetrating ways. The reader sees this story from multiple perspectives across decades; there is first Salma, then her three children – Alia, Widad, Mustafa; followed by Alia’s children Riham, Karam, and Souad; and finally their children – Manar, Zain, Linah, and Abdullah.

This family, Palestinian at their roots yet almost always living elsewhere – Kuwait, Lebanon, America – is constantly working to define itself, to find its place in the world and in the geopolitical struggle for belonging. Three different generations of the family’s women speak directly of their view of the diaspora.

Alia, fiercely outspoken throughout her life, speaks with curled lip and palpable disdain:

“‘I’ve said it and said it, this was a long time coming. Nasser, Hussein, walking around with their chests puffed out, thinking they’re peacocks. Scattered men. What kind of leader promises victory with scattered men? An Arab republic. Ha! Look at this – some American money and here’s Israel’s shiny new toys. What do we have? Flags, songs, dreams. They’re going to obliterate us.'”

When her grandson Abdullah seems to be at imminent risk of radicalization, Alia is characteristically direct:

“‘What those men are trying to do, what they’re trying to sell you, this idea that you’re lost and they’re saviors and the rest of the world is evil, that what you need is to bow and surrender and fight, they’ve been doing that for decades. You think you’re their first one? They’ll pick up anyone hungry enough to listen So don’t sit there thinking you’re special. Don’t sit there thinking you have some great secret. We’re all a mess. Iraq’s a mess, Lebanon’s a mess, don’t even get me started on Palestine. But if you think those hypocrites are going to save anything, those liars wearing God like some gold to attract boys…well, then you’re an idiot.'” 

Then there is Souad, whose life in America brings her identity as a Palestinian into tighter focus:

“As a girl, this cataloging of origins never struck her as strange; Kuwait was a place of expatriation and everyone seemed to come from somewhere else. Elie had his Lebanon, Budur her Iraq. Even if a person’s heritage was flimsy, unused for years, you were where your father was from. America wasn’t like that. You became what you coveted. Memories were short. She met Mexicans, Germans, Libyans, who spoke accented English but responded, From here, whenever asked. Souad became brown. People’s eyes glazed over when she tried to explain that, yes, she’d lived in Kuwait, but no, she wasn’t Kuwaiti, and no, she had never been to Palestine, but yes, she was Palestinian. That kind of circuitous logic had no place over there.”

And finally, Manar makes a pilgrimage to Palestine, desperate to see for herself the familial homeland.

“Her pang for Palestine had always been an amorphous thing. It was a hat rack for all her discontent. But suddenly Palestine is real. it is filled with people who have her hair and voice; people live here, she realizes stupidly. They wake under this sun, celebrate anniversaries, march at funerals, watch settlements and checkpoints multiply. While she is busy fucking American boys and writing essays about the diaspora, there were people over here being Palestinian.”

Hala Alyan, a psychologist by training, shares incredible insight into the psychology of one family “caught between present and past, between displacement and home.” Yet her message is about more than immigration. This book is an important work at a critical time, when prejudice and fear cloud judgement, when we forget to see the human in others. Her writing is warm, charismatic, and beautiful, her story achingly personal and deeply human.

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the complimentary Advanced Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “Salt Houses” was released in the U.S. on May 2, 2017. 

The Books That Built the Blogger with Joslyn from Chronic Bibliophilia

So fortunate to be featured on Cathy’s 746 Books blog today. Enjoy!

746 Books

This week on The Books that Built The Blogger, I am delighted to welcome Joslyn from Chronic Bibliophilia. Joslyn’s blog is quite new to me, but I love her book choices, her insightful reviews and her emphasis on women writers. I also love her choices for today’s post, read on and see!

Capture Joslyn

As I’ve gotten older, I have found that though I wear glasses all day long, I see clearer without them when I’m reading. This middle-aged near-sightedness is nothing unusual, but there is something about this heightened focus, this ability to see truer while reading, that is emblematic of my life. Reading has always been an essential part of who I am, a way of interpreting and sometimes escaping the world. Now, it is also when I see most clearly.

Since I first announced to all who would listen that I could read, I have been a…

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

          He is just one.
          And the weight of it about to kills me.
          Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I —
          May not have the heart for it.
          What to do. Call a halt? Toss down the loss-hole those three thousand? Sue for peace? Become great course-reversing foot, king of indecision, laughing-stock for the ages, waffling hick, slim Mr. Turnabout?
          It is out of control. Who is doing it. Who caused it. Whose arrival on the scene began it.
          What am I doing.
          What am I doing here.
          Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforced sadness-masks to hide any sign of their happiness, which – which went on. They could not hide how alive they were with it, with their happiness at the potential of their still-living sons. Until lately I was one of them. Strolling whistling through the slaughterhouse, averting my eyes from the carnage, able to laugh and dream and hope because it had not yet happened to me.

31F17252-8662-49FF-ADCD-DC26070441AEI can’t even… I don’t know how… what to say? George Saunders has shattered boundaries and gleefully disregarded all rules of form. In this, a debut novel from a celebrated literary mogul, one gets the sense that this isn’t just Saunders’ first novel; this is a first in a new art form.

George Saunders has built upon the brief historical anecdote that Abraham Lincoln, upon the death of his beloved son Willie, visited the crypt alone the night of Willie’s interment. Saunders employs historical fact and a keen imagination to flesh out that wondrous night. “Lincoln in the Bardo” takes place in two simultaneous settings – the physical cemetery where Lincoln’s son Willie has just been buried and the ethereal bardo, the Buddhist equivalent of purgatory or limbo. The chapters are of two different structures, both unlike anything I’ve ever read. Saunders pieces together quotes and citations from historical accounts to compose half of the chapters, with no identifiable original writing to tie the quotes together. The other chapters are arranged almost as theater, filled with dialogue among various spirits haunting the bardo.

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With such physical separation, such visible patchwork, one would expect the effect of the book to be jarring and disjointed, but “Lincoln in the Bardo” is as smooth and carefully crafted as 1000 thread-count sheets. With breathtaking attention to detail and an inhuman thoroughness of research, Saunders tells his own story of that night, weaving fact and fiction together with astonishing grace.

By all accounts, Lincoln was visibly shaken by his son’s death, tormented by his loss and struggling to carry on.

“Around midnight I entered to ask if I could bring him something. The sight of him shocked me. His hair was wild, his face pale, with signs of recent tears plainly evident. I marveled at his agitated manner and wondered what might be the outcome if he did not find some relief. I had recently been to visit an iron-works in the state of Pennsylvania, where a steam-release valve had been demonstrated to me; the President’s state put me in mind of the necessity of such an apparatus.”

– In ‘Eyewitness to History: The Lincoln White House,’ edited by Stone Hilyard, account of D. Strumphort, butler

Lincoln flees the White House, stealing into the cemetery desperate to see his son once more. There, undetected by the living, we meet the spirits of the bardo, those who have not yet passed on to their final realm. Unaccustomed to witnessing such grief from and proximity to the living, the spirits are drawn to the strange figure of Mr. Lincoln. As he enters Willie’s crypt, our narrator-spirits can’t resist following him.

“The man bent, lifted the tiny form from the box, and, with surprising grace for one so ill-made, sat all at once on the floor, gathering it into his lap. … Sinking his head into the place between chin and neck, the gentleman sobbed raggedly at first, then unreservedly, giving full vent to his emotions.”

To say that “Lincoln in the Bardo” is extraordinary seems to me an understatement. It has staggering emotional depth. It is haunting and humorous. It shatters boundaries and boldly creates a form all its own. It is perfection.

“Her Father’s Daughter” by Marie Sizun

     “What is a father? The notion of fatherhood is beyond the child. And how could it not be? Fathers, these days, are pretty thin on the ground. There was the Levy children’s father, but they didn’t see him much. The child has almost forgotten him now. The few other children in the building, the concierge’s daughter, for example, don’t have one: he’s a prisoner, or dead, like the father of the two boys on the first floor. Even the child’s mother is fatherless: the grandmother’s husband is someone they never new.
     Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal and not very kind. Or else they’re dead, distant, weak, and much less interesting than their daughters and their sons, who are brimming with courage, spirit and good looks.”

68980D56-E8D0-4993-8F4C-FE82840C85B3This briefest of novels – “Her Father’s Daughter” – is part of Peirene Press’s “Fairy Tale Series”, and though the categorization’s fit is subtle, it is, in fact, accurate. Sizun, writing in French, spins a tale of a young girl, enthralled by her mother and dismissive of her absent father, who is imprisoned during World War II.

“She’s called France, the child is, France like the country. But no one remembers that now. No one ever calls her by that name, even though it was chosen, duty-bound by the war. They just call her ‘the child’, that’s enough. As for calling her name to summon her, to make her come back, that never happens: the child is always there, close by, under her mother’s feet, or consumed with waiting for her. Sometimes, though, her mother gently calls her ‘darling’, ‘my darling’, and it’s not a summons but a tender form of address. She doesn’t pronounce her actual name. Doesn’t use it. It’s only on paper.”

Our omniscient narrator knows France’s inner thoughts and quietly interprets her every move. France is a child given a long leash, a wide berth, untoward freedom. Whether marking the walls with crayons or throwing tantrums, her every whim is acted on and acted out. At first, France declares her mother’s lassitude as a sign of her unwavering devotion and love.

“The child and her mother love nothing more than having fun. Laughing together. Even if sometimes the mother is overcome with sadness and cries in that terrifying way or, and this is worse, stops talking altogether. Is suddenly reduced to stubborn, incomprehensible silence.”

But the knowing reader and any consumer of fairy tales knows all too well that her mother’s distraction teeters dangerously close to disinterest, and that this story, too, will have a dramatic shift of alliances.

Fiercely jealous and deeply devoted to her mother, France’s loyalty, like that of many children too young to be steadfast, is for sale. When her father is eventually released from prison and allowed to return home, France eyes him with great suspicion and alarm. She is, initially, violently opposed to her mother’s showing any affection for this ‘stranger’ of a man.

“It is strange for the child to discover disenchantment, jealousy. Feelings she couldn’t put a name to, but which hurt inside your stomach, and your heart. The child can see she’s no longer the object of her mother’s adoration. The loved one is her father. He’s called ‘darling’ now, not her. He’s looked at, as she was before, with that tender, slightly anxious expression, not her. He’s admired. Not her. Not any more.”

Gradually, however, France decides to answer her mother’s treason with betrayal of her own. As she works her way into her father’s heart, we see the insidious nature of jealousy, the fickle nature of childhood alliances, and the depth of consequence for seemingly simple actions.

Sizun’s writing, and its translation by Adriana Hunter, is clipped and distant yet strangely powerful. It is spare and minimalist, forcing the reader to make leaps and feel clever for reading between the lines. “Her Father’s Daughter” reads like someone’s bedtime story, told in hushed tones to make up a backstory for a striking black and white photograph. It was really quite something to experience.

Thank you to Peirene Press for the complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

“Exit West” by Moshin Hamid

“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart. Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play. Many were arguing that smaller units made more sense, but others argued that smaller units could not defend themselves.”

 

D6F76448-B590-47FF-B391-8D17A5AE0EC1In an unnamed city erupting in chaos and political upheaval, Saeed and Nadia meet in a night school class and are quickly bound to one another. Saeed is quiet, traditional, loyal; Nadia is bold, adventuresome, courageous.

“[Saeed] was an independent-minded, grown man, unmarried, with a decent post and a good education, and as was the case in those days in his city with most independent-minded, grown men, unmarried, with decent posts and good educations, he lived with his parents.”

“Nadia’s experiences during her first months as a single woman living on her own did, in some moments, equal or even surpass the loathsomeness and dangerousness that her family had warned her about. But she had a job at an insurance company, and she was determined to survive, and so she did. … She learned how to dress for self-protection, how best to deal with aggressive men and with the police, and with aggressive men who were the police, and always to trust her instincts about situations to avoid or to exit immediately.”

Though both are deeply affected by their city and the changing winds around them, Nadia’s life, in my opinion, seems thoroughly exhausting; despite her boldness, she lives each day on high alert, hidden behind black robes.

Nadia and Saeed’s budding relationship is circumscribed by strict gender roles and cultural expectations; it is also, in some sense, accelerated by the chaos around them.

“Saeed was certain he was in love. Nadia was not certain what exactly she was feeling, but she was certain it had force. Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions, and furthermore the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one’s appreciation for food.”

Eventually deciding they must flee their city, the couple seeks the help of an ‘agent’, who sells them access to a rumored door. These doors – literal gates that seem to subvert space and time – allow those who pass through them to arrive in another, far away place.  Saeed and Nadia, for instance, end up first on a Greek island, where their sense of national identity and their understanding of the scope of global immigration face steep learning curves.

“They walked away from the beach club and in the lee of a hill they saw what looked like a refugee camp, with hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colors and hues – many colors and hues but mostly falling within a band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea – and these people were gathered around fires that burned inside upright oil drums and speaking in a cacophony that was the languages of the world, what one might hear if one were a communications satellite, or a spymaster tapping into a fiber-optic cable under the sea.”

Moshin Hamid speaks compellingly about the interconnectedness of the world through blended borders, periodic “asides”, and the literal doors through time and space. The asides are “meanwhile” interludes, offering a few paragraphs which hover over a refugee moment elsewhere in the world, but which lack context and resolution. In the end, I understood the purpose of these interludes as a constant reminder of the global nature of these issues, but didn’t find them particularly necessary or hugely effective.

The concept of the literal doors as portals through space and time, however, were an absolute stroke of genius. Though access to the doors is limited, passage seems to be physically taxing, and crossing requires enormous trust and hope in an unknown destination, the doors offer a bit of a “deus ex machina” solution to the problems of emigrating. With these doors, Hamid is able to shift the emphasis away from the journey of immigration and onto the upheaval and battle that comes after the physical journey has been made. Hamid makes clear the destructive force of emigrating on the migrant herself, who must leave everything she knows behind; “[W]hen we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” 

Hamid also lays bare the nationalist, isolationist attitudes of those living in the ‘destination’ countries. He shows not only the brutality and wrong-headedness of these tendencies, but also their futility. Hamid’s solutions, as he sees them, are more along the lines of apocalypse averted rather than utopian plurality.

“But a week passed. And then another. And then the natives and their forces stepped back from the brink. Perhaps they had decided they did not have it in them to do what would have needed to be done, to corral and bloody and where necessary slaughter the migrants, and had determined that some other way would have to be found. Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done. Or perhaps the sheer number of places where there were now doors had made it useless to fight in any one.”

Moshin Hamid’s brand of optimism gives me great hope. It requires not a transformation of the hearts and minds of so many, but simply an acknowledgement of realism and practicality; even if you can’t learn to love your neighbor, perhaps you can learn to accept and acknowledge their humanity. “Exit West” is brilliant, original, eerily timely, and an absolute must-read.