for The Sunday Salon
After the traumatic motherhood books I’ve been reading I felt I needed a change, and so picked up Anne Tyler’s Digging to America. I’ve long been a fan of Anne Tyler who, apparently, has been called the American Jane Austen and I think that’s rather a good analogy. She produces the same sharp, wittily satirical portraits of everyday life with the same fundamental tenderness towards humanity, understanding foibles and flaws whilst transforming them into tremendous vehicles for humour. There are dark shadows in Tyler’s work that Austen does not possess, however, and tragedy is never far away from the brilliant and carefully observed scenes of comedy.
Digging to America is ostensibly about adoption, but really about assimilation as two Korean babies are delivered to two typically American families. One family, the Dickenson-Donaldsons are as American as they come, full of overwhelmingly perky good cheer, determinedly celebrating their baby’s ethnicity by putting her into ‘authentic’ Korean outfits and feeding her soya milk. The other family, the Yazduns, are Iranians and although they long to do the right thing in the culture they have embraced as their homeland, their tendency is to remain within the ex-pat tribe. Their little daughter may well have her name changed instantly from Sooki to Susan, and be given American plastic dolls to play with, but the sheer amount of extended family hanging out at her house means that she is quietly growing up bilingual. The two families meet at the airport as they are collecting their babies, quickly form a friendship and seal it with a series of hilariously competitive Arrival Day parties, in which banquets are produced, the video tape of the day runs repetitively (and eventually without anyone paying it the least attention) and the anthem of ‘She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes’ is loudly and tunelessly sung. The parties provide a clever way of showing how rapidly ‘traditions’ are made that are hard to break, whilst the gently unfolding drama of the families explores the concept of tradition in a much broader and significant way.
Tyler has a wonderful time playing with the extent to which life turns out to be culture-specific. Her surreptitiously main character is Maryam Yazdun, grandmother to little Susan, who leads a neatly, orderly self-contained existence and who is very, very touchy about cultural differences. Maryam came over to the States for an arranged marriage that also had a dimension of romantic love to it, a good start for her cross-cultural experience, one might think. But in her heart, Maryam has not assimilated herself at all and she has nothing but scorn for those eager Americans who are clumsily fascinated with her exotic otherness (although she is quick to criticize herself for thinking so uncharitably). Whether it’s the food that’s eaten, or the language that’s spoken, the clothes we wear, the politics we embrace or the behaviour we adopt, it’s all tied in to our cultural origins, and they are hard to shake and even harder to manufacture. Yet as the Korean babies grow up into little American girls, Tyler also shows us that those cultural origins are in no way innate. The early learning experiences and the human compulsion not to stand out in any negative way, forge identity into complex and tenacious patterns. If Maryam provides one part of the picture, Bitsy, the all-American mother of Jin-ho provides the other. Bitsy is excessively concerned that her child should not lose her Korean roots, even though she will have no recollection of them, and is ferociously determined to be perfectly politically correct. I thought Tyler was quite unforgiving in her portrayal of Bitsy’s unconstrained enthusiasm for other cultures. Not that the enthusiasm is necessarily derided, but it emanates from a small-time domestic dictator, a Shah of motherhood. Bitsy is horrified when Ziba Yazdun returns to part-time work and does not mince her words. It’s all very well to have an opinion, but Bitsy has no compunction about criminalizing Ziba’s decision and berating her for it. Maryam Yazdun thinks to herself: ‘Oh those Donaldsons, with their blithe assumption that their way was the only way! Feed your daughter this and not that; let her watch these programs and not those; live here and not there. So American they were.’ But you don’t have to be in America to witness that kind of behaviour. In fact it’s rampant amongst mothers, who (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again) have such tremendous power over children that they can all too easily mistake its limits. Bitsy does not see the contradiction between glorifying different cultures and vilifying different mothering decisions and Tyler is unsparing in her satire. It’s perhaps no surprise that by the end of the novel Bitsy is the most broken of the characters.
So it’s interesting that a novel that considers so astutely the concessions we do and don’t make to difference is fundamentally about belonging. How do we belong to a family, how do we belong to a culture, and how do we belong to ourselves (or in other words, what is our capacity for integrity)? These are the questions this clever, funny, touching book asks over and over again, because the inherent difficulty with belonging is that it seems to blackmail us into being the same, into submitting to a creed and a set of beliefs. Can one really stand out and yet still belong? Tyler’s answer, because hers is always a loving, generous, and optimistic vision, is a cautious ‘yes, if we can trust sufficiently in affection’. And that’s a conclusion that I think Jane Austen herself would have been delighted to reach.