Sheep in the Big City: On Being an Immigrant & Belonging in The Metropolis
This city, this expanding metropolitan map of vacuous verses and trains pulsating to an idea of home, is at the heart of the immigrant novel. We peruse these pages of glittering Manhattan skylines and London townhouses to look for an idea of home as an escape from the limitations of our childhoods – an enviable escape to progress, and in unspoken sentences, a victory in the race to break out of our skins. Every immigrant novel begins with this promise of escape from the pull of an arcane city left behind and a metal city awaiting the arrival of the immigrant. In this essay, we find the starry-eyed immigrant in the cut-throat corporate world of New York (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), the bustling junction that is Central Square (The Namesake) and an ostensibly thriving multi-cultural London (White Teeth), desperately trying to carve out a niche for himself and belong where the two cities (the old and the new) overlap.
This man here is seeking a lucrative future, an engineering degree from a highly-ranked college and maybe an assistant professorship. He is running from tragedy and poverty. This man, sitting over here, also left home for a better life. He is well-educated and incredulously good-looking. The man by this window of the plane is running from war. Home as he left it is not home as he knew it growing up. The promise of a future at home departed quietly in the oblivion of the night, much like he did. He thinks he is now following the tracks of that promise.
In addition to exploring the highly resonant themes of origin and belonging, the immigration novel is also a travelogue, with an escapee-protagonist at its centre – the journey does not stop with his arrival at the city of destination. It is a persistent struggle to move away from the city of origin – the often sprawling, third world metropolis peppered with shabby pasts and familial obligations and rampant corruption – towards a colder, abstract metropolis that promises bounty to the hard-working and the talented. It is a determined struggle to move away from the cloistered social and chaotic political structures to a more liberating pursuit of ambition and internal peace. At its essence, the escape to the true metropolis is equated with an escape to liberation, to better economy and to better personal growth. The immigrant’s struggle therefore, revealed by-the-by in this travelogue, is his race to the end of a rainbow to find the elusive pot of promised gold.
However, the elevation in circumstances that is often traced for our characters in the immigration novel, the idea of prosperity associated with the move to a metropolis, is often juxtaposed with compromising cultural norms and values. This contrast is apparent throughout Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. As an example, when the second-generation immigrant, Gogol Ganguly confronts his father, a first-generation immigrant, about wanting to officially change his name as an attempt to redefine his identity, the response is in equal parts disappointment and resigned awe, ‘In America anything is possible. Do as you wish.’
The man running from war knows that this is not home. But he did not run from home as the rest of them did – he was made to run. He treads in the remnants of his old home and chooses not to belong. But his kid, the one he sends to school here in this new city, embraces the lack of home, the identity vacuum created by the geographical displacement. Are the outlines of identity marked by geography and birth? Are they marked by the songs of home that your parents sing, a place you have never seen? Songs that return to haunt you when the friends of your childhood begin to notice the color of your skin, the language you speak when you talk to your parents, the foods you have begun to crave now? Why do these men and their kin search for themselves in this city if they are not even certain they brought all of themselves to this place?
While we witness the struggle of our characters, particularly the way they wrestle to balance acculturation with heritage, the question arises, how much of a home does the metropolis become? Does acculturation truly take place for the immigrant? Is the ability to not only assimilate in a city but also call it home the pay-off waiting at the end of an immigration novel’s conflict-ridden story arc? Let’s examine the case of Amir’s father in Khaled Hossein’s The Kite Runner (2003) who finds a small community of Afghans in America in order to feel at home. Ashima Ganguly in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003) yearns for that kind of close-knit community as she raises her children single-handedly without the support of an extended family unit. In romanticizing the homes of their youth, they allow the metropolis to belittle them, for the metropolis does not allow the emotional sentimentality of the lives left behind, which is exactly contrary to the struggle of the immigration novel’s hero – which is the struggle to identify a relate to a new home. We find instead that the metropolis mocks, ostracizes, and alienates our hero, a sentiment echoed rather unsympathetically by Salman Rushdie in his collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands (1992): ‘…the largest and most dangerous pitfall would be the adoption of a ghetto mentality. To forget that there is a world beyond the community to which we belong, to confine ourselves within narrowly defined cultural frontiers, would be, I believe, to go voluntarily into that form of internal exile which in South Africa is called the “homeland”’.
Interestingly, the second-generational immigrant characters in either case realize this foolhardy and inherently conflicted struggle, and breaking from the quaint customs their parents brought from ‘the homeland’, they begin to successfully carve out their own paths within their respective metropolis settings. While their parents became what their homes had made them, the children of the metropolis begin to create homes representative of what they aspire to be.
Despite this story arc, and perhaps even because of it, many critics of the immigration novel speculate that the journey is backwards, a perennially homeward bound ship – that the actual migration is the real defining moment and everything that follows is a reflection. This idea becomes more complex when it tries to encompass the generation gap.
There is a little girl who listens with bored contempt as her parents lovingly talk of home, the city they met in, fell in love in and had to leave their family behind in. She bristles behind closed doors at her parents’ weekend parties where they cook the food of their old cities and sing the songs of their old cities and fall into sad drunken stupors over their old cities. This little girl does not want to sit still in her new frilly clothes – in a small, suburban British town where an older, wilder white girl offers her the possibility of leaving all of this behind and opening the door to bike rides with dashingly dangerous white boys, she does not have the patience or the time for her parents’ eternal nostalgia and their deliberate attempts to not belong.
The immigrant protagonist of the novel often tells his story (or has his story told) with an undercutting sense of loss that stems from what Rushdie calls ‘the physical fact of his discontinuity, of his being in a different place from his past, of his being “elsewhere”’. The immigrant does not expect to find a home in the metropolis, in most cases – a new life, but rarely ever a home. In HM Naqvi’s Homeboy, details of the protagonist’s exciting bar-hopping life in Manhattan are interspersed with flashbacks of home and tinny phone-calls from his mother, both tinged with the fading hues of aging grace – an attempt to say that this, in between the pages, is where home is; quiet, unassuming, in the past. Existence in the metropolis is an illusion – characterized by an alienation and isolation, made all the more urgent by the memories of a warm, familiar home that was abandoned in order to be here.
This sense of loss changes radically when the perspective shifts to the second-generation of immigrants and home becomes a more ambiguous concept, no longer the place where one grew up but where one will be accepted. Identification with any type of group becomes more complex, as A. Singh Ghuman (1999) states, ‘because of dual socialization and racial prejudice’. In Meera Syal’s Anita and Me (1996), the protagonist Meena Kumar presents us with a perfectly constructed paradigm of cultural ambivalence, as she claims that ‘living in the grey area between all categories increasingly felt like home’. She continuously looks up to acceptance from the whiter, more popular Anita Rutter as a ‘passport to acceptance’ in society at large and sequentially rejects her home culture. However, Meena’s life as the daughter of immigrants settled in a small British village is disconnected from what is termed ‘Black Britain’ in the bigger cities, and hence, her experience lacks the prospect of the cosmopolitan promise of freedom. Meena’s struggle to jump from one identity to another takes an interesting turn through the course of the novel as she faces a tragic accident, drifts away from Anita and realizes that, as Devon Campbell-Hall (2009) puts it, ‘class and education would enable the Kumar family to move away from the provinciality of Tollington’, which in turn ‘empowers Meena to confront the inconsistencies of local prejudice’. Here again, the metropolis is offered as an escape to the second-generation immigrant – the metropolis will allow Meena to be who she wants to be despite her Indianness (which she has come to accept and be proud of), as opposed to her life in Tollington, where her existence is a constant struggle to brush off her Indianness in order to avert the simplistic racism of the villagers.
And now to speak of the prodigal sons – the sons who return from the return and the sons who do not. This is the story of the incredulously good-looking and well-educated man who, despite all these years and all his talents and looks, works at a restaurant. He had sons in this city and lost his bearings. In this city and its many streams and pockets, his sons swam to safe islands of their own – far from where he stood; alone, lost, fading. When our children leave us, who in this city of a thousand islands will keep our islands afloat?
All the different avenues of conflict in the immigration novel do eventually lead to refreshing forms of resolution. As an illustration, multiplicity of cultures, the shifting paradigms of how identity is defined through dislocation, and the tension between one’s origins and one’s destination follow a path to resolution through the idea of hybridity – the process through which, as Homi K. Bhabha (1994) claims, ‘the dominant culture is contaminated by the linguistic and racial differences of the native self’. But how often is hybridity achieved? In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), set in England, a Bengali Muslim, Samad Iqbal, attempts to prevent his twin sons from assimilating at all – he sees this as a corrupting process. In order to address this fear, he sends one of his twins, Magid, back to India to be brought up by Samad’s parents. This action fails to make the desired impact, and Magid returns eight years later as an atheist ‘Mr. White-Trousered Englishman’. The other son, Millat, whom Samad could not afford to send to India, after years of ignoring his father’s religion suddenly takes an aggressive, radical interest in it, seeing it as a form of belonging – it becomes his rallying cry, as is apparent from his reaction to the Rushdie affair: ‘Suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands.’ The failure of his sons to find a hybrid-cultural niche, a middle ground, Bhabha’s Third Space, leads to a disheartening realization by Samad: ‘And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie’.’
This dismantles the entire idea of the metropolis controlling and accommodating the identity. Both Magid and Millat become who they are despite their surroundings. Their idea of belonging does not stem from an urge to return, but to escape – setting the entire novel off in reverse action-unfolding. Smith even goes as far as to suggest that the immigrant has no real place in a metropolis because of his uprooting, that he belongs always on the road – constantly moving, constantly searching: ‘Because immigrants have always been particularly prone to repetition – it’s something to do with that experience of moving from West to East or East to West or from island to island. Even when you arrive, you’re still going back and forth; your children are going round and round.’
In the end we have no answers. We have fears, skulking in the recesses of this city that we tried to make our own. The city cannot be anyone’s own. As it swallowed us, we hung onto the mouth and dangled precariously over the abyss while the line of our offspring that hung onto our feet, disappeared into the dark. In this city, we only found questions.
Immigrant fiction is not a homogeneous category: they do not all attempt to vilify the host country, they do not all attempt to see hybridity as a solution, they do not all promise assimilation. But the metropolis is a constant factor – the lack of homogeneity only serves to make the case for the metropolis as a miasma of limitless identities, whether or not these identities arise from the dominant cultures of a metropolis or a rejection of these cultures. It is the essence of the metropolis as the heart of the immigrant novel that is most succinctly captured by Amitav Ghosh in his essay The Diaspora in Indian Culture (1989): ‘to be different in a world of differences is irrevocably to belong’.
Bhabha, H. K. (1994). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Campbell-Hall, D. (2009). Writing Second-Generation Identity in Meera Syal’s Fiction . Shared Waters: Soundings in Postcolonial Literatures (pp. 289 – 307). Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Ghosh, A. (1989). The Diaspora in Indian Culture. Public Culture, 2(1), 76 – 77.
Ghuman, P. A. (1999). Asian Adolescents in the West. Leicester, UK: BPS Books, British Psychological Society.
Hamid, M. (2007). The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Orlando: Harcourt.
Hosseini, K. (2003). The Kite Runner. New York: Riverhead Books.
Lahiri, J. (2003). The Namesake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Mardorossian, C. M. (2003). From Literature of Exile to Migrant Literature. Modern Language Studies, 32(3), 15 – 33.
Rushdie, S. (1991). Imaginary Homelands. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (pp. 9 – 21). London: Granta Books ;.
Smith, Z. (2000). White Teeth: A Novel. New York: Random House.
Syal, M. (1996). Anita and Me. New York: New Press.