Our Reading Lives

From an Immigrant’s Desk

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Always books. Never boring.

This is a guest post from Anna Lawton. Anna, born in Italy and living in Washington, DC, is a writer and a former university professor. She is the author of two novels, Family Album and Amy’s Story, and a number of nonfiction books. Among them, Russia 2000: Film and Facts, which won the CHOICE Award for Outstanding Academic Book. She is also the Publisher and CEO of New Academia Publishing. www.annalawton.com.

I am a reader and a writer. Reader comes first, because it is by reading and learning from good literary works that one becomes a writer.  I’ve read hundreds of books, both fiction and nonfiction, and I’ve written a few of my own. My latest novel, Amy’s Story, takes a realistic look at our society, and attempts to make sense of the problems we’re facing today by spinning a compelling tale of love and immigration against a historical background.

I am an immigrant. When I started working on this novel, three years ago, I didn’t know that immigration would become in a short time such a hot issue, although it’s always been controversial. I wasn’t even conscious of writing an “immigration” novel, because that was not my intention. But, I guess, a writer cannot escape her background. It creeps up and informs her work, and finally becomes an integral part of the fiction.

I can sympathize with the difficulties today’s immigrants are encountering. I did encounter some myself. However, I was lucky enough to come to the US not because of poverty or war displacement. Not because of necessity, but because of choice. I came from Italy. My family was quite well off, and I grew up in a comfortable middle-class environment. What brought me here was a romance with a young American who later became my husband. We were still students at the time.

Although I was not in the disadvantaged condition of the typical immigrant, it wasn’t easy at the beginning. The worst challenge was a sense of displacement. My English was adequate, but far from perfect. In those days I got to fully appreciate the essential quality of language as an individual identifier―probably that had something to do with my becoming a writer. I cannot say that I was ever subjected to discrimination, but I was certainly perceived as a foreigner. This was not a problem for anyone, except for me. People were kind but curious (Where are you from?), surprised (Italy, really? You don’t look Italian), interested (Tell me more, I love Italy). I felt I didn’t belong. And that was nobody’s fault. It was a fact.

Therefore, I did my best to assimilate. I already knew American history and admired the principles on which the nation stands, but I needed to deepen my knowledge with good and balanced readings. I immersed myself in history books such as Our Times by Mark Sullivan (6 volumes!!), and The American Century by Norman F. Cantor, which includes an appendix on “Cultural Analysis through Film.” In the end, I succeeded. Now I feel as comfortable here as I do in Italy. Italy has remained my childhood home, a place to visit when I feel like being pampered. America is my home as an adult, where I can live my life to the fullest and strive to realize myself.

The opportunities this country offers have attracted people from all corners of the world since the very beginning. But immigration issues are currently dividing us. Liberals advocate for lenient policies, and even for open borders. Conservatives object with economic arguments and matters of national security. The confrontation has reached a level of frenzy where it’s no longer possible to debate the issue in a rational way. Extremism does not help the cause. The conservative camp would do well to refine and clarify its arguments to make them more palatable. And the liberals should consider a few facts instead of allowing themselves to be driven by ideology.

As I said before, I am an avid reader. I do not limit my readings to authors whom I agree with, or who make me feel good. On the contrary, I want to confront authors who have a different philosophy and divergent opinions. It is through confrontation and debate that the brain opens up and is able to accommodate new points of view. For those who are inclined to follow an ideology, usually a Marxist ideology, it would not be a bad idea to include in their reading list books that subject Western liberalism to a healthy critique, revealing its limitations, contradictions, and the danger of totalitarianism at the end of the road.

For nonfiction, I’d recommend three heavy weights. Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy came out in 1995 but is still relevant to today’s political situation. Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy (2016) is a study of “totalitarian temptations in free societies,” and Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The last of the Soviets (2016) is oral history about the disintegration of the Soviet Union.” This book won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Good choices for fiction would be classics such as George Orwell’s 1984, which added to our vocabulary terms as “Big Brother,” “thoughtcrime,” and “newspeak”; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451; Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange; and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, to name a few. These are stories set in the future (yes, 1984 was the future), which deal with dystopian societies resulting from a political ideology run amok. In the same vein is the recent bestseller, Submission, by Michel Houellebecq (2015). I would also add two novels by Cristina Garcia. Her first, Dreaming in Cuban (1995) deals with the disastrous consequences of the revolution through the eyes of three women; and her last, King of Cuba (2013), is a grotesque and funny flashback of Cuba’s recent history through the eyes of octogenarian Fidel.