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.


13 thoughts on “Belonging

  1. Lol, anyone named Bitsy is automatically suspicious in my book! I like Tyler’s sharp portraits of everyday life, too–and though I’ve never heard her compared to Austen, I can see why she could be. I haven’t read this one, but I’m putting it on my list. Thanks for the review!

  2. I read this book when it was first released, and was thinking of re-reading it even before your excellent review, which provides more inspiration to do so. I was particularly interested in this novel (although I love Anne Tyler’s writing and read all her books) because I have close friends who adopted an infant from China several years ago, and also because my daughter in law was born and raised in China, and is embroiled in the process of assimilating to American culture. I appreciate your conclusion to Tyler’s question regarding the dilemma of belonging…”yes, if we can trust sufficiently in affection.”

    I remember finding Bitsy quite alarming as the diletante mother, and so Maryam’s reserve made her the more appealing of the two women for me.

    And the comparison of Tyler to Austen is new to me also – but quite appropriate I think!

  3. I read this book last year and thought it was brilliant. As well as being so easy to read (how does Tyler do that?) I was amazed by the number of universal issues it raised in my mind, such as not being able to have a child; being an outsider or a foreigner, or being different; illness and death; growing old; family relationships between the generations, in-laws and the extended family; traditions, pride and independence; and in particular friendship.

  4. Litlove, you remind me why I should read more Tyler. I like her honest (good with the bad) portraits of America. I’ve a few of her books and enjoyed them all. I think I have Digging to America on my shelf and I should get to it sooner than later.

  5. I like the comment about Bitsy, ‘Bitsy [as in bits] is the most broken of the characters’. Was that an intended wordplay? Do you think Tyler deliberately gave her the name for that reason (as Dickens used to do with his characters – oops!)? What strikes me about this novel, as portrayed by you of course, is that by using the international adoption scenario Tyler is more obviously able to make it possible to extend her commentary out into the big world. She is often portrayed as a domestic (state of the family) writer, which she is, but the family can be seen as a microcosm of society and the national and international state we are all in. The individual and society is the theme of so much literature. It looks like Bitsy takes on the beliefs and rituals of a given orthodoxy. She then adheres to them unquestionningly. It becomes her rule book. Does it break down for her because she uses it to replace her own personal participation in the life she is pursuing? The realtionship of this to the fanaticisms of the world today is an obvious step. Going back to Austen she can similarly be seen working on that little piece of ivory she offered the critics, while commenting on wider issues. Her novels are peopled by characters who operate within the orthodoxies of her society, generally using those orthodoxies to suit their own purposes. It is only when those positions are overcome by feeling that successful outcomes are allowed to emerge. Pride and Prejudice is full of such orthodox figures, anchoring their self-esteem in their socially prescribed positions, which they find it advantageous to accept. What is more available to Tyler are the alternative positions which the modern world can offer against the orthodox and the ability to depict them which would have been severely limited in the literary perametres available to Austen in her society. Please put me right if I have misrepresented Tyler or your good self as I have commited the sin of speculating on a book which I haven’t read, although I have read several of Tyler’s other wonderful books and shall now be seeking this out to add to TBR Towers

  6. Tyler is a deceptively easy writer to read, isn’t she? She makes her kind of realism seem easy to produce, but I’m quite sure it’s not. I laughed at the competition between the two families — and the party the Donaldsons have when they invite the other family over to help clean up their lawn! That was funny. This IS a very astute novel about belonging and assimilation, and I enjoyed your review of it.

  7. How lucky for you that even the book you picked up for a refreshing break from your academic reading on mothers and trauma should provide you such rich material on both! I haven’t read this Tyler but your description encourages me that what I love so much about her brand of realism (that it makes the altogether improbable seem so very likely) is here in abundance.

  8. I read it last December and completely missed the reflection on motherhood. For me, it was more about foreigner assimilation within the society. By finishing the book I had mixed feelings about it, but your review makes me want to go back to it.

  9. I also read this last week, although for me it was a re-read as I read it when it first came out and then it cropped up on one of my f2f groups. I think what struck me most this time round was the difficulty that people have forgiving themselves for who they are and where they belong. Maryam has never spoken of the fact that hers was not the typical Iranian marriage in terms of the way in which it came about but nor can she admit easily that it wasn’t always a blinding success. Most eloquent here though is Dave, when he talks about his awareness of the way in which the world sees Americans and his inability to find ways of combating that. I enjoyed the book on a first read. I came away from a second thinking it even better than I did before.

  10. Gentle Reader – thank you! I’d love to know what you think if you read it. It’s classic Tyler and yet has the very intriguing multi-cultural twist. Ravenous Reader – how interesting to have direct experience of this process! I remember reading Maureen Corrigan’s book ‘Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading’ which had an account of her own trip to China to collect her adopted daughter. Yes, Bitsy was alarming wasn’t she? When I described Maryam, my words seem to come out cooler than I intended, as she is actually very sympathetic as a character. I’m so glad you enjoyed this too! Booksplease – I think your comment is very perceptive; it’s that mix of incredible ease and profound issues that makes Tyler so wonderful to read. I do love her work. Verbivore – I’d love to know what you think of her writing. The easiness of the read often belies the clever depth of her prose. Bookboxed – you have it just right as usual! Bitsy, as in, doing a bit of this and a bit of that but never able to settle to anything until motherhood awakens in her a zealot’s passion. But also Bitsy by the end as in scattered, broken and unsure. It’s clear that she has swallowed a certain ideology whole, nad in her unquestioning attitude to it (because she is convinced of its rightness), she certainly betrays her friendship. I think your comment about fanaticism is wholly apt, and the comparison to Jane Austen is just perfect. Thank you so much for sharing that here. Dorothy – you make me feel relieved. I must say I did wonder whether raking the lawn really was a classic American excuse for a party! And you’re so right about the ease of her realism. I’m so glad to know you enjoyed it too. David – as ever you hit the nail on the head – making the improbable seem likely is exactly what Tyler does so elegantly and entertainingly. I seemed to recall that you liked Anne Tyler, and hope that you enjoy this very much when you come around to it. I think it has much in it to amuse you. Smithereens – I’d love to hear more about those mixed feelings. I’ve never actually had to assimilate myself into another culture, so I was more than ready to accept the portrait Tyler gave. Ann – I’m glad you said that as I really wanted to talk about Dave in the review and didn’t have the space to. I thought he was a terrific character, brilliantly portrayed. I also think Tyler’s writing only gets better the more you read it. Stefanie – I would love to know what you think about this book, or indeed any by Anne Tyler. I found the issues in this one particularly intriguing myself.

  11. I’m been thinking about this one for awhile, but your review really cinched the deal. You write so beautifully, Litlove! I’d be jealous if there was any space in all my admiration. 🙂

  12. Pingback: Best Book Club Books 2 « Tales from the Reading Room

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