Friday August 15th, 1997. Two tiny Korean babies are delivered to two very different Baltimore families. One white American family (Brad and Bitsy, with parents Dave and Connie) adopted Jin-Ho, the other Iranian American family (Sami and Ziba, with Sami’s mother Maryam) adopted Susan. Every year, on the anniversary of ‘Arrival Day’ the two families celebrate together, with more and more elaborately competitive parties, as Jin-ho and Susan take roots and become American.
The books are filled with anecdotes of one family party and another, more mouth watering rendition of Iranian recipes whenever they host the annual events, or the sake of having another party! Just when you think the book is about two Korean babies growing up in American families, the main character turns out to be Maryam, the Iranian widow who reminiscence about her journey to America and her dilemma in the process of aging and falling in love again.
And then the book fell into the CCC syndrome (CCC stands for Characters Cathartic Confusions, highlighted in one of my review), naming every single extended family member, paternal and maternal parents, cousins, sibling’s children and then towards the end of the book, Dave is being called Jin-Ho’s grandpa and Bitsy being Jin-Ho’s mother all the way to the end of the book; and you have to pause and retrack every sentence to reflect who the author is referring to, and which conversation belongs to who! URghh!
But there are bits that I found funny and profound, the part when Sami goes on ranting about Americans:
Or he would get going on the American craze for logic. “Logic is why they’re always suing each other. They believe that for every vent there ahs to be a cause. Surely somebody is to blame! Stumble in the street when you’re not looking and break your leg? Sue the city! Sue the store where you bought your glasses and the doctor who prescribed them! Fall down the stairs, bang your head on a cabinet, sue your landlord! And don’t just sue for medical bills; sue for pain, emotional trauma, public humiliation, lowered self-esteem!”
About openness. “So instantaneously chummy they are, so ‘Hello, I love you,’ so ‘How do you do, let me tell you my marital problems,’ and yet, have any of them ever really, truly let you into their lives? Think about it! Think!”
Or their claim to be so tolerant. “They say they’re a culture without restrictions. An unconfined culture, a laissez-faire culture, a do-your-own-thing kind of culture. But all that means is, they keep their restrictions a secret. They wait until you violate one and then they get all faraway and chilly and unreadable, and you have no idea why.
About Maryam persistent obsession about being foreign:
“A lot of hard work and effort, and still never quite manage to fit it. I am far too sensitive about my foreignness. I make too much of it. One could even call it self-pity. You can get in a, what would you call it, a mind-set about these things. You can start to believe that your life is defined by your foreignness. You think everything would be different if only you belonged. ‘If only I were back home’, you say, and you forget that you wouldn’t belong there either, after all these years. It wouldn’t be home at all anymore.”
Dave comforting words were “You belong,” he told her. “You belong just as much as I do, or who, or Bitsy or …it’s just like Christmas. We all think the others belong more.”
I later found out that why Tyler was able to paint such a vivid description of inner turmoil and write so well about belonging and otherness is because of her personal experiences (see About the writer). Her writing in this book resonates and articulates the feeling that I always feel but could never find the right word say. The crux and the mantra I held close to my heart is: my foreignness is a part of me. I am self sufficient. I don’t try too hard to fit in. Although I can understand a sense of belonging is an inherent yearning of every human being.
Digging to America is a novel about belonging and otherness, pride and prejudice, young love and unexpected old love, and about families and the impossibility of ever getting it right. This is my first Tyler book. it requires big effort on my part to get into the book. Perhaps those triviality of family parties and fussing over family videos and tying balloons to binkies and letting the balloons off into the sky so that Jin-Ho can give up sucking her binky etc. etc. wears me out. Tyler is a Pulitzer prize winner. I believe she might have written a masterpiece to earn it. But this is not one of them.
What I like most about the book: words of wisdom here and there. Bring out everyday material in a hilarious light, sharply observed.
What I like least about the book: trivial, uninteresting, a so-so read.
About the writer:
Anne Tyler (born October 25, 1941) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. novelist. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tyler grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, graduated at age nineteen from Duke University, and completed graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University in New York City. She worked as a librarian and bibliographer before moving to Maryland. In 1963, Tyler married Iranian psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Mohammad Modarressi, with whom she had two daughters, Tezh and Mitra. Modarressi died in 1997. Tyler resides in Baltimore, Maryland, where most of her novels are set, often crossing decades in a family’s life.
Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. The Accidental Tourist was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and was made into a 1988 movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. Tyler’s ninth novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which she considers her best work, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1983. She has edited three anthologies: The Best American Short Stories 1983, Best of the South, and Best of the South: The Best of the Second Decade. She is noteworthy among contemporary best selling novelists, for she does not grant face-to-face interviews and rarely does book tours, nor does she make many other public appearances, although she has made herself available through email interviews.