This is a guest post from Nicole Froio. Nicole is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She writes about human rights, feminism, pop culture, and politics. She is an intersectional feminist who blogs at wordsbynicolefroio.com. See more here. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleFroio.
It is my belief that immigrant stories are the best kind of stories. There’s something about the clash of cultures that is immensely interesting to me. The dilemmas that arise, the new tastes the characters acquire, the reactions of people towards the “different/foreign” person, the things the immigrant characters find weird (but grow to enjoy or continue to hate in different ways). It’s a rich scenery ripe for so much exploration that other types of stories often pale in comparison.
Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is a prime example of why immigrant stories can go so deep into culture and family dynamics. As we sink into Amina’s world of childhood memories that tie up with the present in heart-breaking ways, we learn about Indian culture and the stressful journey of fitting in for people of color in America. Immigration can be a scar that comes up over and over in a family’s history and it’s not easy to explain why. Jacobs manages to dig into these issues beautifully by looking at three different generations of the same family and the difference between their views, customs and relationships.
The most obvious immigrant story published in the last few years is, of course, Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie. The culture shock and adaptation process the main character, Ifemelu, goes through is painful but exciting. While the book is mostly told from Ifemelu’s point of view in the third person, one of the most brilliant parts of the novel is when we read Ifemelu’s thoughts on race in America through her blog posts. Adichie manages to get her character’s true opinions across, without the narrator as a middle man, making Ifemelu’s existence both plausible in a digital world and extremely relatable.
There are less obvious immigrant stories that I still categorize as so because of how a new world is presented to the reader through the eyes of a newbie. Calling the Harry Potter series an immigrant story may be stretching it a bit, but that’s how I see a lot of its narrative take form. Instead of dropping the readers on their heads in a new world (like many fantasy novelists can do so well and others do so badly), it feels personal and exciting to be discovering the wizarding world along with the main character. Harry Potter is not (technically) an immigrant, but his story is one of clashing the familiar with the new and of discovering a world along with the reader, particularly in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Ultimately, this is what is so compelling about immigrant stories: that we are discovering a culture or a country through the eyes of someone else. In these narratives, we are taken by the hand by the main character, as if we were walking right next to them in this new journey. The character that we are experiencing the new world through might see things we wouldn’t. Most important of all, they can make us see familiar things in a a completely new perspective.