Saturday, February 16, 2008

An immigrant's story

I used to belong to a women’s book club. The women were old enough to be my grandmothers, but welcomed me into their genteel circle. They were the wives of former ambassadors and retired oil tycoons. Despite their wealth, the reading options were remarkably limited. The women sustained themselves contentedly on a steady diet of Jane Austen, followed by tea and sandwiches. I thought of quitting, and confided this to the sexagenarian whom I had met in a bookstore and who had invited me to join her club. She persuaded me that the women would really love it if I introduced them to someone fresh and new; this was why she had invited me in the first place. And so it was that I introduced them to the stories of Alice Munro.

I found myself reflecting on this experience as I read the title story from Munro’s “The View from Castle Rock”. The story opens with the longing of Old James to migrate from Scotland to America with his family. On a visit to Edinburgh, Old James takes his young son, Andrew, up the steps of the Castle, points to an area of land in the distance and calls it, “America”.

Once his dream of traveling to America is realized – that is, the minute he steps onto the boat and is assured that it will indeed take him safely there – Old James discovers within himself an immediate nostalgia for his past. And so he spends the entire journey talking his ancestral history out loud to anyone who would listen. He is a fine oral historian, and he frets over whether future generations of his family will even remember their past.

But Old James’ story-telling frustrates and embarrasses his children; they do not understand how this man who has gone from cajoling and wheedling them into fulfilling his long-held dream of migration, is suddenly nostalgic for the past. But I understand Old James. In the same way that I intuited that while Jane Austen represented a time that I would never know, her writings fulfilled a nostalgic longing for these gentrified island women.

Old James’ son, Walter, is also documenting history, but like a younger generation of immigrant, his focus remains squarely on the present. For the entire trip, he neither dwells on the past nor looks to the future. He describes life as it is unfolding right now. It is not until he sets sight on America that he allows himself to contemplate possibilities. His siblings go through a similar process of awareness of being immigrants in the land of opportunity. Agnes, his sister-in-law, recognizes that she can remain with the limited but kindly Andrew whom she picked for the very reason that he would never leave her, or she could run off with the doctor who delivered her baby in transit. Andrew recognizes that he does have the option to leave. And in America, odd, shy Mary eventually finds herself a husband.

Old James’ history includes men who talked to the spirits. And the spirits tell him that his first grandson, Young James, will not survive in America. Perhaps this is why Munro allows this child to be so vividly alive throughout the story. Migration is a matter of life and death.

Alice Munro is now 76 years old, probably about as old as Old James, and finally ready to document her own family’s history. For many immigrants, this kind of looking back can only occur once they are through with the struggles associated with their family’s survival, once they have overcome discrimination and racism, and have finally gained a sense of belonging.

I am reminded of an uncle who would become very annoyed whenever anyone around him waxed nostalgic. His first question would be, “but would you want to go back and live there?” And of course the answer right now is “No”. But some day I will want to return to that island. It will probably be developed beyond all recognition. But my memories of how it used to be will be intact.

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