Monday, December 1, 2014

Is professional dissatisfaction tougher on immigrants?

In teacher training, they always tell you to encourage your students to ask questions. If *you* are thinking it, chances are that others are thinking it, too... that's what you are supposed to say. In the blogging world, people are encouraged to open up and be vulnerable for the same reason. If *you* are struggling with a question, others might be too... So here it is. 

When my cohort of immigrants was leaving Bulgaria in the mid to late 90s, our country was in a deep political and economic crisis. Things have somewhat improved for the better since then even though most people are rightfully disappointed with the pace of democratic change. That economic crisis of the 90s has a lot to do with why so many of us left but also has determined many of the professional choices that we made. Many of the Bulgarian students that I studied with or was aware of at the time chose to study political science, international relations, economics. In some way, we must have sincerely thought that we would one day go home and fix things. Those degrees, however, were also ways out to better, bigger lives. In my mind, for example, I was always going to be a diplomat. I was going to work at the UN or some equally prominent international organization. I was going to travel the world, I was going to contribute to the fair resolution of complex political crises. I was going to be Margaret Thatcher in a better suit. (Don't laugh, all little Bulgarians are conservatives to start with. Some of us recover.) 

Needless to say, those dreams have not materialized. I have taken a convoluted path through professional self-discovery which has led me to a series of jobs and landed me at a tech firm in Memphis. Said path has been instructional at best but, mostly, it has been humbling. I have worked for a couple of small non-profits with questionable impact for even worse pay. I had a job that should have been a PR job but ended up being more or less basic admin work. I have worked a couple of temporary stints when Kyle was finishing up his PhD: both as receptionist at the university that granted my Master's Degree. I have also had two good jobs in tech, including my current position. Both have provided me with tremendous opportunities to learn and grow and have introduced me to some of the coolest people I know but the jobs themselves have not made my heart sing. Not one of the jobs I've had so far has made me feel like I was put on earth to do it. 

Currently, at least in the States, there is a big conversation happening over the meaning of work. So many people are saying you should do what you love, love what you do. And, it should come as no surprise to anyone, that's putting lots of pressure on people: to have a passion, to be moving upwards and onwards towards a clearly defined goal, to be remarkable, to be successful. (There is an entire side of this conversation that has to do with people who do not have the privilege to even engage in mental exercises on this topic but I will stick to naval-gazing at this point.) Naturally, we've been having these conversations at home, too and I've been thinking a lot about where I started on the professional dream front, where I currently am and which direction I am moving into. 

In my case, every day I move farther and farther from that original dream. The closest I come to engaging in political conversation these days is when I binge-watch episodes of Madame Secretary on TV and argue with people on Facebook. Frankly, I don't think that's a bad thing. The dream of solving imaginary political conflicts is the dream of a 16 year old and is better left where it belongs: with high school letters and bad 90s haircuts. But what I have found myself wondering about is the boldness of that dream and it's scope. When did I decide that I didn't need to do anything big? Or that it was too late? Or that there is no point in trying? 

I am really not looking for sympathy here. I have a fantastic job by almost everybody's definition of the word and I am clearly no victim. I know that what I do is meaningful and on most days I feel quite fortunate to be doing the work that I do. Especially when I leave the office and realize that I actually have the energy to read a book or go for a run or pursue a terribly impractical hobby (currently, I'm really into hand-lettering). I guess what I am trying to figure out is what to do about my "calling". Does it exist and I haven't found it yet? Did I find it and dismissed it? Or should I just forget about all that and actually enjoy the un-burden of doing a job that is simply that... a job. 

I write about this here (as opposed to writing about it in my diary) because I feel that even though many people ask themselves these questions, immigrants feel doubly burdened by them. Maybe I am over-generalizing here but I do think that immigrants like me -- who came to the States or elsewhere for college and stayed --  we have so much of our identities based on our professional accomplishments and our intellectual abilities, it's especially hard to struggle with professional dissatisfaction or confusion. I was able to come to the States because I was one of the smart kids, I did well in college and got my jobs despite the fact that my parents were thousands of miles away... literally and figuratively. My confidence that I can take care of myself betrays my ambition. I am fine but am I thriving or where in the world did I get this idea in my head... that I should be THRIVING. 

So, I am curious... what were your professional dreams for yourself? Have you fulfilled them? How does that feel? Is your work your calling? How did you find it? How did you know when you did? 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Joan Didion:
On Going Home

Photograph of Joan Didion via Identity Theory
Or perhaps it is not any more. Sometimes I think that those of us who are now in our thirties were born into the last generation to carry the burden of "home," to find in family life the source of all tension and drama. I had by all objective accounts a "normal" and "happy" family situation, and yet I was almost thirty years old before I could talk to my family on the telephone without crying after I had hung up. We did not fight. Nothing was wrong. And yet some nameless anxiety colored the emotional charges between me and the place that I came from. The question of weather or not you could go home again was a very real part of the sentimental and largely literary baggage with which we left home in the fifties; I suspect that it is irrelevant to the children born of the fragmentation after World War II.

Joan Didion, On Going Home

Monday, November 24, 2014

Azar Nafisi
Of what value is a novel if you have to have been born in a certain latitude in order to enjoy it?
-- Azar Nafisi

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Preeti Singh or Pat Smith?
Same book, "different" author. Which one gets published?

Julia Roberts in the feature film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love

So we all know that racial bias in hiring is real. There's the "Brendan and Lakisha" study - the one in which researchers sent out identical resumes that only differed in that some of them were doctored to belong to "Emily", some to "Brendan", some to "Lakisha", some to "Jamal." Predictably, and sadly so, resumes belonging to seemingly African American candidates got 50% less interview call backs. In a variation of the study, the researchers manipulated the fictitious resumes even further by adding and removing desirable skills. "For us, the most surprising and disheartening result is seeing that applicants with African-American names were not rewarded for having better resumes," they says. Affirmative action opponents are ever so worried that taking racial disparity into consideration would force employers into hiring less deserving candidates that they never recognize the possibility that better candidates are already being overlooked. Similar research has shown that female applicants are continuously rated significantly lower than male applicant in both competence and hireability.

Now, to add an ethnic flavor to this ever-growing body of research, here's a personal account by Indian author Preeti Singh of her success to get noticed by a literary agent in the United States. After completing her manuscript, Singh attended a publishing workshop.
I got down to work - wrote a nice query letter, researched which literary agents/agencies would be best suited for my book and sent it off to all of them. And sat down and waited. And waited. Not an email, not a word, for over three months, despite reminders in some cases.
Well. Tough, you'd say. Writing a book is difficult. Getting it published is ever harder. But then...
Just for fun, one crazy day, I set up another email account - in the name of Pat Smith. Then I sent the same query letter, the blurb, the bio and the sample chapters of Unravel to the very same literary agents. I merely changed Preeti Singh to Pat Smith in the documents.  
You can probably guess where the story ends at this point. Within 10 days, five of the previously unimpressed literary agents responded! All of a sudden, the book was publishable. Singh offers several hilariously speculative reasons why Preeti Signh failed while Pat Smith was able to succeed.
Unravel by Pat Smith becomes exotic. Pat may be a Caucasian, a foreigner who was in India. She observed India closely, and wrote ‘insightfully‘ about Indian women.  She felt the pain of the common sisterhood of shared experiences between women across the world.

As important and illuminating as all of these (formal and informal) studies are in raising awareness about the inherent racial, gender and ethnic bias of the supposedly bias-free capitalist labor market, one's got to wonder how effective awareness can be in bringing about actual change in perceptions and attitudes. And in the particular case of Preeti-vs-Pat's experience, what does all this mean? Why are we uncomfortable to face a narrative whose only downfall is that it fails to reaffirm our biases?

via Parul Sehgal

Sunday, August 24, 2014

On African Immigrants' response to Ferguson

Take a look at this interview with Ethiopian/Eritrean writer Hannah Giorgis on the events in Ferguson. Giorgis argues that African immigrants must stand in solidarity with African Americans and be "Ferguson strong."
"When immigrants come to the US for the first time, she argues, there's often a race to achieve the American dream, "You're sold a lot of images about prosperity and about becoming the right kind of American — and the right kind of American isn't black. ... So I've seen people shift away from wanting to identify with African-American people as both a survival tactic and as a way to assimilate into the 'perfect' American identity. [...But] Our international flavor of respectability politics will not save us from the sin of our skin."

She hopes the legacy of Ferguson will be one of empowerment, of "collective resistance, of talking back to the state." 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Jamila Lyiscott: 3 ways to speak English

So I may not always come before you with excellency of speech
But do not judge me by my language and assume
That I’m too ignorant to teach
‘Cause I speak three tongues
One for each:
Home, school and friends
I’m a tri-lingual orator.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Teju Cole re-reading Baldwin:
Reflections on the "many moving parts" of American racism.

James Baldwin via Ebony Magazine

In the aftermath of Ferguson, although it still feels so premature to call it that, I have found myself speechless, embarrassed and humiliated as many of us have. In disbelief over the absurdity of the particular incident but also utterly embarrassed to be a part of a culture that puts so little value in some of its citizens' lives. I feel the humiliation of so many African American parents... to have to instruct their kids on what to wear, and how to behave as to not arise suspicion. How do you raise a child when you have to simultaneously teach them to be their most true authentic self but also, to protect them, give them pointers on how to obfuscate their identity because "some people" might find it "threatening"?!

I have been reading news reports from Ferguson but knowing "the facts" of what happened, or how many bullets were shot and what cops are saying to protesters has brought me little understanding. What I've needed and what I have started seeking out is accounts on what it FEELS like to inhabit a black body in America. Because the laws are failing us and the institutions that are there to protect us are failing us and there is very little else that one can do other than really, sincerely try to place oneself in the shoes of those who are suffering.

To that end, read Teju Cole's beautiful essay on visiting Leukerbad (Switzerland) and re-reading James Baldwin's 1953 essay "Stranger in the Village." The essay is an examination of racism in the Swiss village, white supremacy "in its simplest form". Writing from Switzerland is also an opportunity for Baldwin to see America more clearly and to reflect on the "more intimate, intricate, familiar, and obscene American forms of white supremacy that he already knew so well."
He was a stranger in Leukerbad, Baldwin wrote, but there was no possibility for blacks to be strangers in the United States, nor for whites to achieve the fantasy of an all-white America purged of blacks. This fantasy about the disposability of black life is a constant in American history. It takes a while to understand that this disposability continues. It takes whites a while to understand it; it takes non-black people of color a while to understand it; and it takes some blacks, whether they’ve always lived in the U.S. or are latecomers like myself, weaned elsewhere on other struggles, a while to understand it. American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.
Should we put together a Ferguson reading list? How disheartening would it be to find texts from the 1950s and 60s so painfully relevant today?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On the difference between dysfunctional people and dysfunctional families, the meaning of success, and characters that defy stereotypes.

Taiye Selasi. Photo via GoodReads

"This was one perk of growing up poor in the tropics. No one ever needed the details."

"Ghana Must Go" tells the story of a family that immigrates to the United States and, despite the difficulties faced by smart, ambitious, uprooted foreign students, manage to get established. The Sais live a comfortable, upper middle class life of lucrative employment, private schooling and the requisite music lessons expected of people of a certain social strata in New England. But when Kweku, the father, is wrongfully terminated from the prestigious job that's made it all possible, his reaction suggests that despite this abundance, his heart still carries the heavy load of needing to prove he is worthy of Success. 

We meet the family the morning of Kweku's death and are propelled through time and geography to explore the emotional burden of success, the high stakes of immigrant parenting and the complex web of familial attachment (and resentment). "Ghana Must Go" is a beautifully told story that shows that in a family defined by immigration, there is no greater distance to travel and no harder border to cross, than the space between people who love each other.
I talked to the astonishing Taiye Selasi about the difference between dysfunctional people and dysfunctional families, the meaning of success and characters that defy stereotypes.

I hope you enjoy!


I read your book immediately after having read Anthony Marra's "Constellation of Vital Phenomena" and felt that his book led me to yours so naturally. I was really surprised. In "Constellation", Sonja (ethnic Russian, born and raised in Chechnya, trained as medical doctor in England) returns to practice in Chechnya in the 1990s mostly because she is worried sick about her younger sister who had stayed behind. Upon her return, Sonja goes out looking for her sister and finds herself in the middle of a city destroyed by warfare. "She wouldn't climb out of bed for her sister," Marra writes, "but she had climbed into a crater. She wouldn't cross a room, but she had crossed a continent." I found this description of family so hilariously accurate and poetic. And I think it was with that thought still fresh on my mind, that I began reading "Ghana Must Go"... It felt so perfectly applicable to the Sai family, too. As you were writing each of the children's characters, did any of them consider not going to Ghana upon receiving the news of Kweku's death?

Certainly, each of the children has—and has had—a peculiar relationship with Kweku. For Olu he is a fallen hero, Taiwo a negligent protector, Kehinde a hidden hurt, Sadie an aching absence. But none is so indifferent that skipping the funeral—not marking his death—is an option.

Helen Broadfoot at The Edit described the Sai family as "dysfunctional", which struck me as very odd. To me, they are actually very high-functioning, especially given the various traumas they find themselves working through. I spent a great deal of time wondering what makes that possible for them. It seems to me that Kweku and Fola's biggest gift to their children is teaching them about living with internal dignity and pride, in addition to wanting to be externally successful. I think that's why as you read about the various setbacks that each of the characters face, you never really think...oh, man, so-and-so is a mess. Nobody, not even Kweku, ever loses their dignity. How deep did you need to dig, to find so much compassion for him? Oh, I don't think the Sais are dysfunctional people at all. They function, individually, as most of us do: pressing on in the face of pain, ignoring our hurts, masking our shame. But of course, they don't function as a family—in precisely the same way most families fail to function: they don't tell each other their deepest truths.

Growing up, I knew so many people whose fathers had abandoned their families. I don't know if it was an epidemic limited to the 80s and 90s, but none of my first cousins, for example, spent an entire childhood with his/her father. I began to wonder at a certain point whether our fathers quite simply didn't care about us: a painful, shaming thought to say the least. It wasn't until my late 20s that I began to befriend my father–and to consider that perhaps these acts of abandonment (his included) manifested a pain of their own. My compassion for Kweku arises, perhaps, from an effort to de-villianize the absentee father, not to excuse his absence but to acknowledge his hurt.

This is the exchange between Fola and Taiwo when Fola is confronted about having sent the twins to Nigeria with their (ultimately abusive) uncle:
"I thought he could provide things I couldn't afford, I wanted you to have, I don't know, to have more..."
"More than what?"
"Than a single mother. Than a mother like me."
I don't think that Fola ever actually believes she would have been a bad mother, but her inability to give a good reason why she thought this was the right thing to do is incredibly authentic. It's exactly what an immigrant would want for their children... MORE. More of what?! More of EVERYTHING. I feel incredible love for Fola and wonder how tired she must always feel... Do you think that by the end of the novel she is able to reach some semblance of peace? Do you think that once her children have all returned to her - literally and metaphorically - she will be able to take a breath? 

Fola is a very particular woman. I always grow a bit sad when I see her taken as an archetype of the African Mother, the Immigrant Mother, or worse: the long-suffering stay-at-home mom. Fola is wholly her own: inexplicable with reference to stereotypes, perhaps inexplicable full stop. The woman still baffles me (laughing). The best we can do, I think, is to look to her past to understand her actions. Fola grew up without a mother (indeed, largely without a father) and so perceives herself as winging it when it comes to parenting. She lost her father in the most arbitrary way, and so doesn't fundamentally trust attachment. But she loves her children with all of her heart and would do anything to ensure their success. Specifically for Taiwo, she defines this success with reference to things she wanted herself: a top-notch education, the chance to study law, professional achievement, etc. By the end of the novel we find her (1) acknowledging her loneliness; (2) accepting that her role as a caretaker no longer provides an identity; and (3) opening to the possibility of new love. This, I think, is reconciliation. This is the beginning of peace.

The meaning of success is such a central theme in the book but also in immigrant conversations all over the world. An immigrant feels so much pressure to escape a choiceless situation but also to make the most of the new place where they arrive. The stakes seem so high. The Sai children seemed to be in an even more difficult predicament, especially the twins... especially Taiwo... Almost organically knowing how important it is to be good, to be successful... but also, again, almost instinctively knowing they have to break free of that pressure. Taiwo's journey sounds really close to your personal journey and as a PhD drop-out myself, I really want to ask how you thought about leaving academia and how that process worked its way into the novel.
Ha! Well, most simply, the novel would never have been written had I not abandoned the D.Phil. But all creative journeys begin with a leap of faith, no? In my case it was acknowledging that I desperately wanted to write, then clearing my life of every other pursuit. It was a long time coming. In 2001—a decade before I finished Ghana Must Go—I wrote an essay about following one's dreams; this slightly evangelical text somehow ended up in the Yale yearbook. I ended that piece quoting the ever-brilliant Rilke, who chastens the young writer to ask himself whether he must write and, if the answer be yes, to "build his life according to that necessity." I laugh when I think how long it took me to follow my own advice. Academia, the professions: they're seductively affirming for the insecure artist. Parents brag, friends admire, bosses and teachers praise. To leave behind the straight-and-narrow requires some nascent faith in oneself (though crushing boredom with one's job or seething envy of other artists have been known to work just as well).

Several reviewers have remarked on the musicality of your writing but I can't help but mention how sartorially sensitive this novel is. When Olu remarks on his father's "scientist-immigrant" glasses, I laughed out loud, because I could absolutely picture those frames! Fashion is such a big part of the immigrant's journey. This interview is becoming too confessional, but my first year as an international student at a small private liberal arts college here in the South, I saved my money to buy a pair of khaki trousers from the GAP. They were hideous and were definitely my first and ONLY pair of khakis. No self-respecting East European woman will ever be seen in public wearing such pants, but I rocked them almost every day my second semester of college and felt so empowered, I felt like I had cracked some code. Your book's focus is so inward and psychological, did sartorial details slip in organically or did you think about them explicitly?

Ah, I never think about the details explicitly: they're just always there. When I walk around I always notice what people are wearing: it's endlessly entertaining, these little visual stories of who a person is or believes him/herself to be. But I love that you recognized the scientist-immigrant glasses! 50% of my West African uncles still wear them. And if I ever get around to running for president of Ghana, I'm going to get a pair, too.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The international mongrels of the world, the international bastards, the patriots of elsewhere

Polaroid portrait of Colum McCann at Taschen New York by Jeremiah Wilson 
In a conversation recently somebody asked me to describe my website, what I write about and why, and I found myself at a loss for words. Yes, this is an immigration blog but even though I often describe it as such, the definition doesn't always fit. At its core, the experiences that have moved me to continue to write over the years are the experiences of an immigrant: the person who leaves their country of national origin to seek better, broader horizons. But, to paraphrase Josip Novakovic, my immigrant saga has neither been touching nor difficult. In many ways, the experiences that I have had in this country have been joyful and nurturing. For the most part, my life in America has aligned with the lives of those with extreme privilege. So, when I feel discomfort about being here, weirdness about not being FROM here, embarrassment about where I am from or ambivalence about where ultimately I would like to end up, I tend to freeze. Perhaps my "issues", I wonder, are not immigrant issues. Maybe...they are psychological. Maybe... it's just me.

But I am now (the last person in the world to be) reading Colum McCann's magnificent Let The Great World Spin and came across an interview with the author in which he said:
I’m interested in what Ondaatje calls the “international mongrels of the world,” or what Rushdie calls the “international bastards,” all those people with no place and yet every place inside them. The best line I ever heard along these lines was from John Berger. I met him in Paris. We were both a little over-served, shall we say, wine and vodka, and I asked him where he was from. He looked at me strangely, as we are friends and we’d been corresponding a long time, and he said, “England, of course.” And I said in the most ridiculous way, “I know, I know, I know, but where are you from from?” He smiled that big smile of his, those eyes of his. He waited a long time and then he said that he was “a citizen—no, no, not a citizen—a patriot of elsewhere.”
An international mongrel, a bastard, a patriot of elsewhere. YES. That's me! But I read what I read, and write what I write to feel less like it's JUST me.

Friday, July 4, 2014


Federico Zandomeneghi, The Reader

The Y.A. debate, in short, is about more than young-adult books and their not-so-young readers. It’s a recapitulation of a deeper debate that we’ve been having for centuries—a debate about why books matter to us, and what reading is “for.” It’s also a debate about who we want to be. Talking about what makes us cry is also a way of talking about ourselves. With each way of talking—sentimental, sensational, aesthetic—we say something different: that we’re kindhearted and empathetic, or passionate and romantic, or sensitive to beauty and the pleasures of art. Saint, lover, artist: surely these are all good ways of being. Probably, though, we’ll keep arguing about them forever. Nabokov was wrong; we never lose interest in the adolescent project of learning to live. 
Pelagia Horgan for The New Yorker