Tag Archives: immigration

The Immigrant Novel

15 May

At a recent conference, a tech guru said something interesting (probably not original, but it was well put). What drives us are two conflicting desires — the need to be unique and the need to belong. While in different cultures one of these desires may be slightly more dominant than the other, overall, it is a pretty accurate way to sum up a universal truth about people. It is also a source of a permanent conflict for immigrants. What we have in abundance is uniqueness. What we strive for is to belong. But in order to do that, we have to leave behind, unlearn, forget and even denounce some things that make us who we are.

Molding to a new culture can make you question yourself as if you are a teenager, rebuilding the idea of who she is every time she passes a mirror, a real one or her reflection in someone else’s eyes. It is exhausting. It is an impossible conflict between who you are, who people think you are and who you want to be. Perhaps, that is why it is such a fruitful topic for good novels — because it is complex and human, and requires a mastery of language to express the nuances of emotions that paint even the most mundane situations a deep rich blue:

Shards

imagesEven when you escape a war-torn place, a part of you always remains there. Like your reflection in the shards of a broken mirror, you are not whole but a sum of overlapping, skewed and twisted images, each from a slightly different angle, in slightly different light. Even when you manage to put the pieces together, the cracks remain, like permanent scars. Ismet Prcic’s scars are much deeper than mine. 

Brooklyn

brooklynThis is a book about hope and about love and the sacrifices people that leave and people that stay make in the name of hope and love. It makes you think about the cost of change and wonder (on gray days) if the choice and freedom to build a new and better life might be a Pandora’s box, better left unopened.

Ru

ruThis lyrical book is not as much of a novel as it is a reflection on identity. Tragedies are described in simple words, a stream that sometimes almost feels monotonous and that is what makes them more striking. A key recurring theme is the power of extended family in retaining your identity. Ultimately, this is what grounds you, whether you are in the country you are born, or on the other side of the world.

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Nostalgia Is Fake

26 Mar

CharlieIn a few years, I would have spent as much time in the US as I have in my native Bulgaria. I consider myself pretty well adjusted to my new home. Coming to the US as a graduate student and finding a job right after graduation, I never really suffered through the hardships of the “traditional” immigrant, building her life from scratch. True, when I arrived here, I had a comforter and a set of knives (in retrospect, strange choices and a ridiculous lack of airplane security), but I was not leaving much more behind. It is here that I started my career, had and am raising my children, bought a home. And while I have avoided the constant comparisons of petty details that is quite pervasive and I find quite annoying in my fellow country men and women (In Bulgaria, kids never wear bike helmets and they are just fine!), part of me always thinks that if I was back there, I would feel more on my own turf. I would fit right back in the spot that I left, with the people and conversations resuming from that point forward like a Sleeping Beauty, whose court was frozen while she was napping.

This, of course, is an illusion.

I came across an article in a woman’s magazine that one of my Facebook friends from Bulgaria had shared. When I read it, it hit me — I may not belong here completely, but I will be an odder duck there. If you know Bulgarian, the article is here. If you do not, you would have to trust me to give you the key points. A Bulgarian psychiatrist is interviewed on the value of an apparent recent fascination in Bulgaria with positive thinking. He stopped short of calling positive thinking the “opium for the masses,”* but he surely meant it when he called it “housewives’ metaphysics.” Can you just stop to imagine Self publishing an article right that? Would Facebook even exist if we rejected housewives’ metaphysics?

BaconThe fact that positive thinking is an obsession in Bulgaria in and of itself is ironic and alarming. It is like seeing a tribe of life-long, committed vegetarians in a serious discussion about the benefit of bacon. That was one of the immediate signs that my Bulgarian cultural compass is completely off. But then the language itself has either changed dramatically, or the Internet publication was not good enough (happens worldwide on the worldwide web), or I have lost my year for some of the finer points of my own native language. I find it hard to talk in Bulgarian about what I do, because my entire career has been in the US, so I lack the terminology to explain Public Relations, technology solutions, Cloud services and so on. But surely there are some real Bulgarian words for “positive”, “genesis”, “permissive”. The last straw was the realization that while in my context here I consider myself pretty negative and critical, I did not agree with him. Positive thinking may be an easier way out than reading Seneca and Marc Aurelius as the author recommended, but there is nothing wrong with that.

So for the three Bulgarians, two personal friends and one lost American soul who are still reading this – what does it mean? Time passes and changes you, but it also changes the things you have left behind. Nostalgia is fake. It is for something that was, but would never be, even if you had stayed the same.

*As every self-respecting person with former communist education will tell you, “religion is the opium of the masses.” That is what Karl Marx thought. He had a point.

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