Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Immigrant Experience

I promised I would write something about Welcome to Americastan, by Jabeen Akhtar, and here it is. The novel is well written, perhaps in part because Akhtar is an experienced writer of environmental regulations, but I have to say that it was of little interest to me. The story is about a young Pakistani-American woman and her family who live on the East Coast. She and her siblings were raised in the U.S. and are essentially American, while their parents still follow many Pakistani customs and actively participate in the local community of Pakistani immigrants. The protagonist, Samira, was dumped by her boyfriend, who then proceeded to marry her best friend. There is a minor incident in which she is briefly accused of being a terrorist. However, the book is completely apolitical, and offers what seems to be a realistic depiction of a well-assimilated Pakistani family during the current post-9/11 period.

Akhtar's writing is precise, but it mostly skims the surface. The descriptions are detailed and accurate, but not really interesting. All of her characters are conventional - most are boringly so - and there is not much in the way of subtlety to be mined from the text. The novel almost reads like a screenplay for an American film, and I suspect that Akhtar would not oppose a film version. Unfortunately for her, her publisher, Penguin, seems to have determined that the book would not sell in the U.S., and my copy is labeled "For sale in India and Pakistan only." It was shipped from India in fragrant packaging that the mailman thought smelled funny. I would say that Akhtar has potential as a writer, but she seems to be driven more by economic motives than by artistic motives. As an aesthetic experience, Welcome to Americastan was a waste of time for me, though compulsive, indiscriminate readers may still enjoy it.

The book did activate some of my dormant thoughts about ethnicity. This seems to be a popular topic in the U.S. In the novel, Samira's ethnicity has mostly vanished, but, because of her name and physical appearance, it is occasionally forced upon her by others. She is well-educated and does not feel out of place in her milieu. Her parents are also well-adjusted, and are appreciative of the economic opportunities afforded here in conjunction with the possibility of retaining their cultural identity through the local Pakistani community. I sometimes get a kick out of thinking about this, because my family background is extremely ethnic, but in my case this is ancient history that has almost been forgotten.

My mother's mother's father, Bedros, was an Armenian who, at about age 16, fled his village in Armenia when he was warned of an impending massacre during the 1894-1896 period. All of the Christians who remained in the village were killed. He then moved to Athens, where the Greeks discriminated against Armenians, and later married a German woman who was living there. He did not identify with the local Armenians and changed his children's surnames by adding "is" to the end in order to make them sound Greek. My mother's father's father, Mardiros, was a successful Armenian businessman who lived in western Turkey. He saw the 1915 Ottoman massacres coming well in advance and sold his possessions and moved the family to Athens. My mother's parents essentially had an arranged marriage that was set up after consultation with an Armenian priest. Most of this Armenian family history was not in evidence in our lives because my mother grew up in Greece. She went to a German school, and her parents spoke French at home. To complicate matters, she married an English soldier when she was only 21 and lived in England for ten years before we all moved to the U.S. In the U.S. she identified herself as Greek, though she did not participate at all in any local Greek community, if there was one.

The other side of my family, my father's, has long provided me with amusing ways to think about ethnicity. When we arrived here in 1957, we were already in the middle class, hardly

...your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

In fact, our English accents and manners temporarily bestowed upon us a relatively high social status. We didn't feel excluded, though some of us retained a certain amount of skepticism towards Americans and American life. Later on, when I began to think about ethnicity here, I decided that English immigrants may actually face a disadvantage. English people apparently are supposed to become assimilated immediately. If, for example, they are churchgoers, there is the Episcopal Church. As far as I know, there are no communities of recent English immigrants. As it was, we felt a certain amount of alienation, but had no cultural resources on which to fall back. To this day, 57 years later, I don't really feel assimilated, though I don't feel English either. Most other English immigrants I've met also seem neither English nor American. Certainly you get no credit or special attention from other English immigrants for being English. It is barely acknowledged.

From my point of view, ethnic assimilation amounts to little more than ostensibly accepting the local propaganda when you move from one geographic region to another. That could be moving from Pakistan to the U.S. or from Massachusetts to Mississippi. There is a lot that I don't buy into in the U.S. and never will. On this subject I am indebted to Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind. When faced with ideological pressure, one may either take the "Pill of Murti-Bing" or resort to "Ketman." The former amounts to taking a drug to obscure any fears or disagreements one has with a new dominating system and then accepting it completely without criticism. The latter involves the maintaining of a conformist outer face while remaining fully independent and critical privately. Under "Ketman," one submits to external pressures with which one does not agree while retaining a sense of integrity by concealing divergent views from others. This results in a hypocritical disconnection between the outer and inner selves. An excellent discussion of these concepts can be found here. Milosz concentrates on how intellectuals reconcile their ideas with those of a totalitarian system that is imposed on them. While conditions are not quite as severe in the U.S., Western capitalism, particularly in the U.S., shows many similarities to totalitarianism. As a person who did not pursue an intellectual career, the compromises that I've had to make have been minimal. The same cannot be said of many of America's public intellectuals on whom I've commented previously. Needless to say, none of these issues show up in Akhtar's novel, which was never intended to be thought provoking.


  1. Your review reminds me a lot of a recent read, Family Life by Akhil Sharma. Similiarly this family moves to the US from India and general assimilation issues ensue. The plot sees one of the 2 sons becoming brain damaged from a swimming pool accident. Then all hopes, dreams and pressures get transferred to the 'well' son who was never the favourite. The book was short which the older I get becomes a huge asset. Speaking of that, our book club is going to do Ulysses. I started it...I am either out of my league (probably) but hard for me to believe that many have found it accessible. I have read most Faulkers' and I am somewhat ok with stream of consiciousness but I can't seem to get on to Joyce. Have you read that. On a happy note, I am reading The Hunter is a Lonely Heart recommended by a book club buddy and I note you enjoyed as well.

    1. I didn't actually say it, but I don't think contemporary U.S. (or probably Canadian) immigrant stories are likely to be interesting. I only read this one because I liked her essay. I read "Ulysses" a long ago and didn't like it at all. I think some of the stories in "Dubliners" are good; the only one I remember is "The Dead." I couldn't get into Faulkner either. I've more or less given up on fiction, or at least I have very low expectations. Actually, I've been enjoying poetry recently, but, as with everything else, I seem to be very picky and end up finding very little that seems good to me. The standards in published poetry are no better than those in published fiction. A lot of things that critics are ecstatic about seem obvious, trite, contrived, awkwardly worded, aesthetically annoying, etc. In contrast, I think the poems I've posted are quite good in different ways - but it seems to be a matter of personal taste. Anyway, I hope you enjoy Carson McCullers.