I wonder how many people have finished an Anne Tyler novel and thought, "I could write like that," only to goggle at a blank piece of paper for an hour and then scratch out four or five doomed attempts. Imitating Anne Tyler is like bumbling around the local ice rink after watching Michelle Kwan: sure to make you feel stupid. The genius of Tyler's art lies in its illusion of artlessness.
Digging to America
And to some extent, Tyler's illusion of artlessness rests in the familiarity of her material. Most of her novels have focused on "ordinary" people: middle-class, secular suburbanites, a slice of America familiar to anybody with a television. But under the familiar surface of Tyler's writing flows the mingled currents of affection and pain that fill every human life: the universal drama of family love, the struggle to be loyal to one group of people over many years. Family turmoil is the hinge on which Tyler's stories swing: her characters strive toward and against one another, sometimes changing emotional direction within a single sentence. This is a private turbulence we all understand, never mind the many things that divide us. Fiction, at least, offers some catharsis.
Digging to America, Tyler's seventeenth novel, is another chronicle of families in flux. This time, though, she casts her gaze a little wider, bringing together two very different family cultures: the Donaldsons, her usual group of educated, white Baltimoreans, and the Yazdans, a young Iranian American couple who want very much to be all-American, to be "ordinary." The two families converge at the airport on the day they bring home their adopted Korean daughters, who arrive on the same plane. Tyler makes us spectators at a scene initially dominated by Donaldson relatives with cameras and baby paraphenalia:
Step around the bend, then, and you'd come upon what looked like a gigantic baby shower. The entire waiting area for the flight from San Francisco was packed with people bearing pink- and blue-wrapped gifts, or hanging onto flotillas of silvery balloons printed with IT'S A GIRL! and trailing spirals of pink ribbon. A man gripped the wicker handle of a wheeled and skirted bassinet and a woman stood ready with a stroller so chrome-trimmed and bristling with levers that it seemed capable of entering the Indy 500. At least half a dozen people held video cameras A woman spoke into a tape recorder in an urgent, secretive way MOM, the button on the woman's shoulder readone of those laminated buttons such as you might see in an election year.
Brian and Bitsy Donaldson greet their baby daughter amid flashbulbs and tears; then a voice calls out "Yazd-dun" ("Yaz-dan" another voice corrects) and the crowd parts to let a second adoptive family through:
Three people no one had noticed before approached in single file: a youngish couple, foreign looking, olive-skinned and attractive, followed by an older woman with a chignon of sleek black hair knotted low on the nape of her neck.
The older woman is Sami's widowed mother, Maryam, whose composed correctness is like an exclamation point on the shyness of her son and daughter-in-law.
The Donaldsons and Yazdans seem so different on the surface: one family group supremely confident, the other uncertain and careful. Such superficial differences are nothing, though, when set against the powerful shared experience of that Arrival Day (an event that will be celebrated by both families for years to come). Soon, Brian and Bitsy invite Ziba and Sami over to their house for "leaf-raking." This sounds to Maryam like "some idiomatic expression having to do with socializing. Break the ice, mend fences, chew the fat, rake leaves." But the invitation is literal. The families work side by side in the autumn leaves, and before a long a friendship begins which will grow right along with the children.
Ironically,the closer the two families grow, the more painfully different they feel. Ziba feels drawn to the older, more maternal Bitsy Donaldson, but Sami finds Bitsy irritating. His sense of separateness makes it hard for him to see her eccentricities as personal rather than generally Americanher bossiness, for example, or her need to turn everything, even potty-training, into an occasion (Bitsy's solution to the pacifier problem is classic: sending all the Binkies away on balloons, thereby initiating a metereological disaster). Bitsy herself can't understand the Yazdans' need to be "normal" Americanswhy, for instance, they change their daughter's name from the Korean "Sooki" to boring old "Susan" (Bitsy and her husband saddle their own poor child with the name "Jin-Ho Dickinson-Donaldson"). Still, for all the minor irritations of the friendship, the two families feel more in common with each other than with all the "natural parents" around them.
Can this unlikely friendship bear the weight of something more permanent and emotionally bindinga marriage, for instance? When Bitsy's widowed father, Dave Dickinson, falls in love with proud, beautiful Maryam Yazdan, both families watch with mixed joy and trepidation. Maryam rebuffs him at first, but the persistent Dave overcomes her reserve and for a little while they enjoy a true and tender romance. Hopes are high, but so are the stakes. Eventually, Maryam will have to decide whether to commit to Dave or move on and grow old alone. The future of the two families' friendship seems to depend her decision.
Tyler writes sympathetically from the point of view of several characters, including children (Jin-Ho's chapter is wonderful, maybe the best in the book). The last third of the novel, though, really belongs to Maryam, a woman unsure of herself after many years in America. She still finds Americans baffling and frustrating; more than ever, she resents their casual, even cheery plundering of other cultures and traditions (as if everything belonged to them, anyway). She loathes their almost rapacious interest in her foreignness, the way they fuss over her exotic habitsit's as if they're really saying, "You're not of us, you're not really American."
But Maryam isn't at home with other Iranians, either; she dislikes the coarseness of the young generation. She doesn't blend well with her daughter-in-law's family, the buoyant, loud Hakimis, who, for their part, see her as aloof and intimidating. Even Maryan's son Sami misunderstands her. Because her marriage to his father was arranged and carried out by proxy (before they reunited in America), he assumes it was loveless and unromantic. That shows how little Sami knows about his mother and father; but how could Maryam ever explain herself to him, her son, who has become a foreigner to her?
Maryam's tragedy is that she loves and needs people but finds the "translation" of herself difficult in a foreign society, even a free and open one where people accept cultural differences. Becoming an American is hard work, not unlike staying married or enduring a lifetime of Christmases with impossible family members.
And should that sound as if it's spoken from experience, I admit that I read Digging to America with special sympathy. I thought of my own family, now so divided by opposing cultures and beliefs, still loving each other in spite of all, but for how long? Over how many generations? There are so many ways to separate people, all kinds of tools the world uses to carve us into groups that loathe and distrust each other.
How encouraging it is to imagine that two clans of strangers really could meet at an airport one day and form a friendship strong enough to endure small annoyances and even grand disappointmentsa friendship based on the families' love for two children adopted from the other side of the world. Such is the catharsis of fiction, too seldom mirrored in the real world.
Betty Smartt Carter is a novelist living in Alabama.
Copyright © 2006 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
Live Like You Are Dying | Finding wisdom in wilderness. (Aug. 15, 2006)
Alchemy in Philadelphia | Revising the history of the "Scientific Revolution." (Aug. 1, 2006)
Not the Wheel Thing | A history of the Tour de France. (Aug. 1, 2006)
Welcoming Resurrection | A volume of new poems from Luci Shaw. July 18, 2006)
Truth, Justice, and | Some critics of Superman Returns are more blinkered than Lex Luthor. (July 11, 2006)
Dining Dilemmas | How shall we then eat? (June 27, 2006)
Incorrigibly Bookish | Michael Dirda on reading and life. (June 20, 2006)
The Not-So-Evil Empire | A report on The Historical Society's conference earlier this month. (June 13, 2006)
Very Important Fiction | The Gospel according to The New York Times Book Review. (May 23, 2006)
Back to the Garden | Digging in the dirt as spiritual formation. (May 16, 2006)
Words Made Flesh | Calvin College's 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing. (April 25, 2006)
Betrayed Again | The Gospel of Judas Roadshow. (April 18, 2006)
American Theocrat | Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic political ambitions, and the evangelical pawns. (April 11, 2006)
Was George Washington a Christian? | A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. (April 4, 2006)
The Mystery of the Numbers | B&C's annual baseball preview, 2006 edition. (March 21, 2006)
Passionately Ambivalent | Christians in the art world. (Feb. 14, 2006)
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