“Refugees,” she said. “How could you not love them? Who else has it worse?”—Dinaw Mengestu
If you wish to have an interesting life, become an immigrant or a refugee. Of course, no one in their right mind would volunteer for the role. Most of us grow up expecting to live and die close to where we were born. Being a displaced person, speaking with a thick accent, unable to give a coherent account to a border policeman of how one ended up so far from home and asking to be given the rights every one of the locals takes for granted, is one of the most humiliating and terrifying experiences one can have. It takes a force beyond our control, like dire poverty, war, political oppression, or some other form of injustice, to make us pack our bags and take to our heels. Whatever our background, whether we happen to have been a professor, a doctor, a ditch digger, an old woman, or a child, our new identity will be that of a pariah seeking mercy or justice. We’ll resemble that old peasant in Kafka’s story “Before the Law,” who keeps pestering the doorkeeper to let him enter some grand, forbidding state institution, even though the gate stands open, giving the impression he can just walk in. But the doorkeeper warns him that if he goes in, he will encounter inside many other doorkeepers standing in his way, each one more powerful than the last, and far less sympathetic.
As a young man newly arrived in the United States, I would overhear immigrants recounting stories of their lives that had more fantastic adventures in them than anything I had read in books. Russian émigrés who left after the Revolution were the first ones from whom I heard tales of epic proportions. I once knew a lady whose parents first went to China from St. Petersburg in 1918, and then after a few years, moved to Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Lisbon, Caracas, and Havana, all of which they thought would become their permanent home, before finally ending up in New York City some 40 years later. Every time I attempted to write down her memories of those journeys and those cities, my narrative struck me as implausible. I had no reason to doubt her veracity; rather, the problem is familiar to almost all immigrants who try to describe what happened to them: they find that their own lives sound unbelievable, not just to strangers, but even to their own ears. To paraphrase Joseph Brodsky, if one were to assign immigrants’ confessions a genre, it would have to be tragicomedy. Nonetheless, is there any other way to make sense of our experience but to turn it into a story? Isn’t that what literature is for, to give voice to such as ourselves who have no voice?
I’ve been asked from time to time if being a refugee made me a poet. I don’t know the answer, but I’m pretty sure it made me the kind of poet I am. What one finds in their writing is an awareness of the perennial immigrant anxieties about split identities, divided families, the difficulty of translating one’s experiences and emotions form one language into another, plus all the hard questions regarding the degree to which one should assimilate or stay faithful to one’s origins. Some people are changed more, some less, by the experience of being torn from their roots. A lot depends, of course on the individuals’ history, whether they were persecuted and impoverished in the old country and whether they plan to return there one day, or simply can’t or won’t. If they had a rich family life, a good job, and a vast number of friends in the previous life, and lost everything because of some war or some eruption of ethnic hatred and violence, it is difficult to imagine that they can ever be entirely contented in their new country. To be an immigrant is to live in perpetual inner turmoil, with no hope of ever resolving any of these issues.
While some may view the immigrant’s inner turmoil as a curse, for a writer it is an ideal opportunity. Finding oneself in such a pickle brings us overnight to an understanding of the human condition that would ordinarily take a lifetime to achieve. It is strange, therefore, that until about 30 years ago, there was little good immigrant writing in this country. The anthology Becoming Americans, published by the Library of America in 2009, which covers four centuries of immigrant writing, noticeably improves in literary quality in recent decades. When I started writing and publishing poetry in the United States in the 1950s, and for a long time after, I didn’t know of a single poet or fiction writer whose second language was English. Now they are everywhere. The explanation must lie in the prevalence of college education among the children of immigrants, which was fairly rare in the past, and the way in which American popular culture, language, and even literature have become familiar the world over. Thus, newcomers to this country are not as alienated from their new surroundings as their fellow immigrants a hundred years ago were, when they had to start from scratch and learn everything about the United States. Exposed to many cultures, curious about people, both similar and different from them, used to negotiating several identities of their own, and savvy about the life in this country, they enrich American literature not only with new subject matter with a quality of compassion for others that, in our present-day narcissism, we often lack as a nation.
“I believe in storytelling as deeply as Scheherazade did,” says the Iranian novelist Laleh Khadivi. Poets believe that, too, though they have their own bag of tricks to cast a spell on the reader.
Reprinted by arrangement with Dalkey Archive Press, from the foreword by Charles Simic for American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans. Copyright © 2013 by Charles Simic.