Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Immigrants, and The Inheritance of Loss


Yesterday I listened to a fascinating interview on Radio 4 with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, where she talks about her life, her book Infidel and why, despite a death threat, she refuses to stop calling for Muslim reform. You can listen to it here. One of the many things she talks about is the responsibility of immigrants to a new country to adapt to the values they find there. While she admits this is extremely difficult, especially if you have the chasm of religion over which to leap, she thinks it is essential to learn to be a citizen of that country, and not to remain forever a guest.

Her words made me look to myself. In March, it will be 13 years since I left my home country. Of course, I regard myself as an expat, not an immigrant, but I could choose to take up German citizenship, and then perhaps I would feel more anchored here. I try to behave like a citizen: I’ve learnt the language, I pay taxes, I send my children to German schools, I bake cheesecake, I recycle. If I were a real German citizen, would I take it a step further and start eating leberwurst? I don’t know. Immigrants, and how much they choose to separate themselves from the cultures in which they arrive, are huge issues for the world today. Of course, there have always been waves of humanity moving around the planet, taking their traditions and their customs with them, but somehow today the issue seems painfully acute.

Having just finished reading the Kiran Desai’s wonderful The Inheritance of Loss, I thought Ali’s comments seemed to speak to some of the themes in that book. One of the main characters is Jemubhai, a retired judge, who as a young student travels from India to Cambridge to study law. On the strength of his admittance alone, being the first boy in the district to go to an English university and assured of a powerful career on his return, he acquires both a large debt from local moneylenders and a 14-year-old bride. His father-in-law arranges for members of a military band to serenade his departure at the Bombay docks. His arrival in England is met with less pomp – he struggles to find a room to let, and when he does find one miles away from the university, his landlady is unwelcoming and insists on calling him “James”.

Jemu spends his entire time at Cambridge locked in his room, studying fourteen hours a day, eating his landlady’s inadequate food and not making any friends. He suffused by loneliness and his difference:

“For entire days nobody spoke to him at all, his throat jammed with words unuttered, his heart and mind turned into blunt aching things, and elderly ladies, even the hapless – blue-haired, spotted, faces like collapsing pumpkins – moved over when he sat next to them in the bus, so he knew that whatever they had, they were secure in their conviction that it wasn’t even remotely as bad as what he had.”

He scrapes through his exams, makes it into the Indian Civil Service, and returns to India to serve his Majesty as a magistrate. Having experienced awful dislocation in England, he now finds he can’t make a place for himself in India – he is too English. He is sent back to India equipped with a snake-bite kit, a twelve-bore shotgun and a tennis racket. Despite a glorious reception, Jemu finds his wife grotesque and his people alien. He rejects her, the baby he just manages to father, his family, their ways and becomes more English than the English – trying (and failing) to hunt animals with his gun, eating toast for breakfast and crumpets for tea, and pouring all his love into his relationship with his dog. He is a tragic and lonely figure.

Jemu’s plight, doomed as he is to be always alien in his own country, is mirrored by that of a modern immigrant – Biju, the son of Jemu’s cook, who is sent to America to find his fortune. Biju arrives on a two-week ticket and stays for years, becoming part of the underclass of illegals in New York who make cheap labour for unscrupulous restauranteurs. He and his fellow kitchen slaves at the Ghandi Cafe sleep wrapped in tablecloths on the cafe floor at night and have to fight rats out of their hair. Biju’s sights are set on the unobtainable golden ticket – the green card – but unless he can overcome his shyness and persuade an American girl to marry him or inveigle his boss to sponsor him, his chances of getting it are zero.

Desai writes movingly of the condition of the modern immigrant: the unbearable working and sleeping conditions, men packed into tiny rooms like rats, the new arrivals coming in their hordes, bearing letters and seeking help from the old hands, everybody seeking, only very few succeeding. One of Biju’s friends, a glamorous African Muslim, Saeed, manages to scrabble to the top of the pile and find a Vermont hippy to marry him. However he is beset by arrivals from Zanzibar, where his mother has given them his address in New York. He calls them “the tribes” and claims they are stalking him.

The Herculean effort of trying to get a green card eventually wears Biju down, the exhaustion of trying and getting nowhere finally sends him home. He finds the process of being always illegal – keeping his money in his shoe, having no access to healthcare, fearing the authorities – is something he cannot sustain. After a final shopping binge (including baseball caps that say “‘NYC’ and ‘Yankees’ and ‘I Like My Beer Cold And My Women Hot'”), he gets on a flight home. However, unlike Jemu, these accoutrements of a culture are lost and stolen en-route and he arrives home dressed in nothing but a woman’s nightie.

How then is being an immigrant the inheritance of loss? You lose family and you lose love. You lose the immediacy of a culture that you understand and that accepts you. You lose physical access to places and to people. And this reduced state is what you pass on to the next generation, but you try to make it up for them by baking cheesecake and having the grandparents come to stay for very long visits. And loving them.

A third character in the book tragically inherits Jemu’s loss – his granddaughter, Sai. She comes to live with him in her teens, after both her parents have died and the convent in which she is being raised cannot afford to keep her. Of course this cold and loveless man, who she describes as “more lizard than human” cannot love her, or provide anything but the most basic nourishment. Somehow Sai has the good sense to be her own citizen, not requiring access to her grandfather’s lonely land, and her ability to make friendships will sustain her and transport her out of his cold country.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

19 thoughts on “Immigrants, and The Inheritance of Loss

  1. Did you once work for a publisher? Every time you write a review of a book, I want to go out and buy it. Well, actually, I do go out and buy it.

  2. How very interesting – I’ve got that book to read (it was a Christmas present) and I had no idea what it was about. After your wonderful review I’m very keen to move it up the TBR pile!

  3. What a lovely taste of this book, thank you! I remember her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, and being very impressed by it. Your post has got me intrigued to pick up her new one.

  4. Hi Charlotte, I too heard the interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and found it absolutely fascinating. You and I are both immigrants though that may not be what we intended to be, if you see what I mean! “The Inheritance of Loss” is on my TBR pile, as I have been working my way slowly through the Booker short list and thought I’d end with the winner. Kiran Desai is the daughter of the writer Anita Desia, and I’ve loved her books too.

  5. Wonderful review Charlotte.

    While I grew up in California, immigration was always a big issue (and still is of course). Undocumented workers, the politically-correct term du jour, are a huge underclass there. Essentially all gardeners, manual laborers, maids, fast food workers, etc. are hispanic. Not to mention that 99% of the food grown in California, which represents a majority of fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the US, is planted, maintained, harvested and processed by illegal migrant workers, who live and work in the harshest of conditions.

    Everyone always talks about what a problem they were, yet I never saw many citizens lining up for those jobs, or complaining about the tax revenue the workers created.

    These immigrants are in a sense forced to be separate from American culture because they are kept in a subservient state, much like the character Biju. California provides, at least, public and government communications in Spanish, but for the woman out picking strawberries or the man mowing the grass, that doesn’t do much to help them become Americans.

  6. I haven’t read that book and your review is fascinating. I also like the idea that being German means baking cheesecake and recycling. I wonder what making oneself feel British means…

  7. I wonder how many of the people we call immigrants think of thermselves as expats. I loved Russia, but even my husband knows that there was a large part of me resisting full identification with the culture and the people. And the day my husband considers himself British will be a very cold day in hell indeed.

    A firend of mine, who was brought up by a French parent and an English parent in both countries says that he considers his real home somewhere in the middle of the channel.

    The integration issue is harder than it looks to solve. Sounds like a good book.

  8. Sorry, I forgot to say: ‘the integration issue is hard _even when you are largely accepted by the host country_’. Need more coffee, obviously.

  9. Very interesting- I’ve been an immigrant all my life. I never thought of myself as South African. I was always Scottish as we were always going home next year. But when I visited Scotland I realised I didn’t belong there either.

    So I think, arriving here at 18, I just decided that New Zealand WOULD be home. I became a citizen and I married a kiwi who has lived in the same town all his life- where we live today surrounded by extended family. I still don’t always feel all that rooted but until my daughter is older we’ll stay here as I want her to have that sense of belonging somewhere that I never had.

    But on the other hand- while there certainly are some downsides to living with a feeling of essential unrootedness overall I think the thing of always being something of an outsider has given me some very interesting experiences and made me a lot more adaptable & resilient than I otherwise might have been. And as I’ve grown older I’ve found a lot of other communities- academia, sci fi geekdom, book loving bloggers etc, that anchor me quite apart from my actual geographical location.

  10. Ms Make Tea, I think I’m quite addicted to being an outsider, since I’ve done it for so long now. And as you say, you make other communities that help give you the rootedness that where you live perhaps may not.

    Solnushka, I also resist full identification. I could do it, but I choose not to because I want to retain what is special about my homeland. I guess all immigrants feel that way, and it’s understandable.

    Kathryn, I’d like to hear what being British feels like.

    Henitserk, I think it’s a huge issue for so many countries and the sooner they find a humanitarian and respectful way to treat “undocumented workers” the better.

    Ms Herschelian, that’s a nice, ordered way of doing things! And wasn’t Ali just so interesting? What a life.

    Nova, you pick up this one and I’ll take a look at “Hullabaloo”. It hasn’t crossed my radar yet.

    Litlove, I’m sure your TBR pile is huge, but isn’t it lovely to know there are gems awaiting you?

    My pleasure, Lilalia! Hope you enjoy it!

  11. I can never eat leverworst (what it’s called in Dutch) so I guess I will never be a real citizen. Neither can I manage paling (eel) or haring (raw herring). My children take to the leverworst like ducks to water. Perhaps integration will be easier for them.

    As for me – I feel like I am always stuck between two places, and neither of them is home.

    I wouldn’t be able to read that book – it sounds like it would require a little too much honesty with myself!

  12. I’ve got this book on my TBR shelves — thanks for the intriguing review!

  13. Ooh, I just realized what leberwurst is! I grew up eating that and braunschweiger. My German oma would give me slices of liverwurst to eat as a snack. Now I love liver in all forms. (Guess if I immigrated to Germany I’d be OK, except I don’t love beer.)

  14. Fabulous review. Ás the child of immigrant parents (even if only from NZ to Australia) I reflect on some of this a bit – how hard it must be to see your children uncritically adopt the new culture when it is not your own. And how far do you need to go if you’ve moved to a new country.

    My father refuses to take out citizenship, even though he’s been here more than 30 years; my mother succumbed a few years ago.

    Here in Sydney, 35% of the population was born overseas, so being an immigrant is almost prt of the culture as it is.

  15. Hi Charlotte & thanks for stopping by Cooksister! What a pleasure to discover your blog and how beautifully you write! This post is very close to my heart, being an expat myself (a school friend of mine also in London describes it as “emigration by default”!). I will never consider myself English, even if one could come up with a definition of what that might be (celebrating all significant events in your local pub? Eating Marmite? Queuing as if it’s a national sport? Craving a curry after drinking too many lagers??), despite having been here on and off for 6 years. I have applied for citizenship but that’s more to make travelling within Europe easier, rather than feeling it will make me assimilate more.

    And yet, people like my husband and myself must rank pretty highly on the assimilation scale here. English is our home language, there are definite parallels in the culture, and mostly I feel as if we pass almost unnoticed through the “locals”. But assimilation is more than the appearance of fitting in – it also has to do with how you feel, and there is nothing on this planet that will ever make me feel English.

    Yes, there are fantastic advantages to being here – the incredible availability of every cultural activity that interests you, the wealth of culinary choice, the endless opportunities to visit the great cities of Europe, and a salary in a strong international currency. But there is also a tremendous loss, which is described so eloquently in your paragraph on “how is being an immigrant the inheritance of loss?”. You got the tears rolling – your description is so perfect.

    The book is now on my “to read” list – as is your blog!

  16. I have walked past this book quite a few times now wondering whether I should buy it or not. The answer is, I will!

    Your review is both, very subject focused and very personal. Expat, emigrant, immigrant, i don’t know what I am anymore. i have lived in so many different countries that by now, home is where I feel comfortable, not what my passport says. At the same time as losing family, I made a much stronger connection to them, at the same time as losing my friends, I made so many new ones I wouldn’t have met in my old home. I learnt about so many new things…

    The only thing that really makes me sad is that I will never see my friends children grow up, and going to my native country, I feel a little bit more like a stranger every time…

  17. What’s worse is a foreign looking person (chinese), born and bred and quite literally in all other aspects what the host country (british) is. Having to constantly put up with those who tolerate you, when in fact you don’t want to be tolerated in the only country you know.

    Or to prove yourself that you are “different” from the hordes of immigrants that make themselves to be the very stereotypes that my country identifies them as (economic migrants, students, DVD sellers).

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