Monday, September 29, 2008

Immigrant Fiction--European Style

A recent post in the Guardian by blogger Andrew Gallix (that can't be his real name: sounds more like a cross between Gallic and Asterix) about the new immigrant and ethnic fiction of France raises questions of the supposed globalization of experience as literary lode. Working class immigrant and ethnic fiction played a large role in America's twentieth century, focused to a great extent on assimilation to both the ethos of America and the middle class. By the early 1980s, thanks in large part to the work of Maxine Hong Kingston and others, immigrant fiction turned from assimilationist to work of cultural exploration, "exploring the hyphen" it was sometimes called. Think now of Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz and how different their work is from say, that of Louis Chu and Ed Rivera. I wonder, however, if the specific minority group fiction in foreign languages--say, Paris's banlieue--will appeal to the American sensibility, as did Zadie Smith with White Teeth or Hanif Kureishi with My Beautiful Laundrette (which came to America through the movies). It poses intriguing problems for the translator who must take English-laced French and develop a new code to convey the pervasiveness of American popular sensibility without losing the sense of foreign-language creep in French. The future of translation--both language and experience--becomes increasingly interesting as argot digs deeper into the literary realm.

2 comments:

Dragana said...

As an aspiring "European Immigrant Fiction" writer and obsessive reader of the same, I feel invited to drop some additional names into the pool. Whether the term "immigrant literature" is justified in its existence is a question that is, hm, existential. Most of the (usually young) new authors are distancing themselves from it, probably fearing to be pigeonholed, and insist that their native tongue play no role whatsoever in judging the quality of their work. Fair enough.

Sometimes I read "migrant-lit" books back to back, though categorization is usually a bad idea for reading enjoyment. As expected, when the first in a self-created series happens to impress me a lot, the second one does not, probably much less than if I had read it out of context. For instance, I first read an original in German by this kid Saša Stanišić (how sad that I am calling someone kid who is turning 30 this year and was 28 when the book was published), who also argued on an Iowa panel that the very term "migrant literature" was a misnomer. Anthea Bell's translation is certainly competent, though occasionally she doesn't quite hit the offbeat tone. But, in fairness, that's tough to do, and the catch-22 problem poses itself in all works in translation: it can be hard to transcend a culture's peculiarities, but sometimes it's hard to understand a culture without the element of its literature. That is why I am personally inclined to stick with authors with Eastern European origins, while the receiving country they write about does not matter that much. At the same time I understand that a double whammy--translated pieces about a foreign place--may be a hard sell for any given audience, particularly American (much as I disagree with the Nobel spokesman's recent snub, there is a certain insularity here).

Ambitious writing in a language other than one's first is not a literary unicum, and foreign English writers seem to be on the rise. Among the new bright stars should be Aleksandar Hemon, now in Chicago, who also immigrated from Bosnia in the early 90s when he was nearly 30. It could be argued that his achievement is even bigger, given the advanced age at which he had to master great writing.

Then there is Nataša Radojčić. Her first novel also dealt with the 1990s carnage in Bosnia, but what a difference. I was partial in her favor, which I know I shouldn't be, but like myself she is from Belgrade, came to the USA in her twenties and is a woman, but how flat she fell compared to cocksure firecrackers Saša and Aleksandar (the names are typically synonyms)!

Inevitable if by size alone, the former Soviet-American axis is going strong. Take Lara Vapnyar. She's damn good. Pretty similar, but equally good is Sana Krasikov. Of course there are Gary Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis et al; wonder if the market is anywhere near saturation. As long as readers of any nationality are hungry for introspection and witty presentation of America's little oddities, I don't think there's a dry spell in sight.

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