Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ms. Tyler's Neighborhood

Digging to America by Anne Tyler. Knopf, 288 pages, $24.95.

There have been a number of strong English and American novels and short story collections over the past few years detailing the immigrant experience from the domestic level, usually written by immigrants themselves. Different as they all are, such novels as Monica Ali's Brick Lane, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, and Yiyun Li's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, to name only a few, are all in part about giving up a repressive native world for a liberating foreign one where the price of freedom may well be your own sense of identity.

Anne Tyler’s Digging to America tackles very much this same theme with the author’s customary wit, warmth and feel for character – a three-way culture clash about people struggling to adapt to what they can’t change, whether it’s cultural differences or their own mortality. Tyler is always at her best with families – most memorably in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Breathing Lessons – where her compellingly average or endearingly odd types can scrape against each other. The new novel gives her a lot to work with: two Baltimore families from different cultures, American and Iranian, who forge a wobbly friendship after both adopt Korean orphans.

The natives, Bitsy and Brad Donaldson, are middle-aged, childless, good-hearted liberals who never met a foreign culture they didn't like. Their Iranian American counterparts, Sami and Ziba Yazdan, are young and happy but comparatively insecure, mostly raised in this country but are still feeling their way around. This is doubly true for Sami’s widowed mother, Maryam, who has been here since the Iranian revolution and still gets tripped up both by America, "where everything happened so fast and everybody knew all the rules without asking," and its impossible language.

Where Maryam is trying to fit into this country, Bitsy wants to fit into every country in the world. She's one of those people who tries way too hard, a kind-hearted but self-righteous do-gooder who wears her multi-ethnic sensitivity on her sleeve – literally, as she weaves her own clunky gowns. The Donaldson infant, naturally, will go by her native name of Jin Ho, and Bitsy is aghast when the Yazdans name their child Susan. The Yazdans will also earn demerits for giving up on cloth diapers, and later for sending Susan to a private school.

The families are both close and far from each other, especially on "Arrival Day," their annual commemmoration of the day they met their children and each other. What started simple becomes a competition, as each host family tries to outdo what the other did last year, and their frustration with the other boils over as each one-ups the other in cultural sensitivity or lack of it.

Among themselves, the Yazdans see Americans as pampered; people who don't know what oppression is and who feel as if they have some entitlement to security. "They feel personally outraged by bad luck,” Sami says. "They have been lucky all their lives and they can't imagine that any misfortune should have the right to befall them."

Indeed, where the Yazdans have been shaped at least in part by a struggle against oppression, Bitsy – for all her empathy – doesn’t have a clue how the other half lives. She’s had no direction in life; she’s simply careened from one hippie craft to the next (pottery, painting, weaving) with motherhood (which for all her excesses she's rather good at) serving as something of a last stop.

The interest of the Donaldsons in Iran begins to feel to the Yazdans like encroachment; their friends absorb traditions into the big neutralizing melting-pot where everyone is equal and nothing is distinct. "Americans are all larger than life," says Maryam. "You think that if you keep company with them you will be larger too, but then you see that they're making you shrink; they're expanding and edging you out!"

The differences are further underscored in the late-blooming, on-again, off-again romance between Maryam and Dave, Bitsy's suddenly widowed father -- lonely people both deeply set in their ways who know their time ahead is limited.

For their part, the Donaldsons want to connect with the Yazdans in part because they're sensitive to how Americans look to others. As Dave tells Maryam, in a slight overtone to the war in Iraq, being American can be difficult, since "we're all on the same big ship, so to speak, and wherever the ship goes I have to go, even if it's behaving like some ... grade-school bully."

Tyler’s late husband was Iranian, and her sense of émigré life and traditions is as sure and steady as her grip on the characters. As always, she is an intoxicatingly good writer as well as a somewhat sentimental one. Life is generally sweet in her world, and while the occasional shadow falls over it, there's no doubt if morning ever comes. (A Tyler title, by the way.) There's little sense of evil, no knotty psychological terror, no sexual misadventures, and in honesty you don't really find yourself wishing there were, or not much. She works best at the surface, and she looks at everyone and everything with a great deal of mercy. To use a workplace cliché, she’s very much of a people person. She gets along with everyone. Her characters are decent people with forgivable flaws; they're rarely worse than stubborn or overbearing or misguided by good intentions. She wouldn't put anyone in her books she wouldn't live next to, and readers may find themselves wanting to move into this book as well – not so much because her world is idyllic (although it sometimes is) but because she finds what's interesting and familiar in the day to day world most of us share. You know these people. You probably live next to them.

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