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Pickle Me This

August 29, 2007

Incendiary vs. harmonic

Now reading If Today Be Sweet by Thrity Umrigar, the story of a Parsi woman from Bombay who must decide whether or not she should move to be with her son in America after the death of her husband. And it’s strange reading this, so soon after Digging to America by Anne Tyler, and not so long after Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake too. Of course I realize that a Parsi family, an Iranian family, and a Bengali family are each entirely separate entities, but what is interesting is the way that together these books might suggest otherwise, forming what seems to be a generic perspective of the American immigrant experience.

In each of these books a widowed woman somewhat acclimatized to America must approach it as someplace new following the loss of her husband. She must grapple with the American-ness of her beloved only son, and find her place within his family and his new life. Son must struggle between his mother and his wife, and their differing values. A grandchild will be the subject of misplaced adoration and expectations. The woman and her husband will have been upstanding, as immigrants themselves working hard and succeeding. Their son will live in an even nicer neighbourhood in Ohio, Baltimore or Massachusetts, and have two cars in the garage. He will sometimes question the American dream, and his mother will wonder if it was all worth it in the end.

The same-ness is phenomenal. Each of these stories has its own merit (and the Tyler and Lahiri in particular are amazing books), but it is almost as though American immigrant fiction has fallen into that proverbial melting pot.

Further, to compare it to the similar British literature I can think of off the top of my head– White Teeth and Brick Lane. These novels are so much more gritty and their narratives take such incendiary turns, in great contrast to the bird-chirping harmony almost audible in the American books. What does this tell us about each country then? Are the stories really so different, or is it just in how they’re told? Do these works function in respective British or American literary traditions?

I may have to sleep on this one. Or you could tell me?

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