Wednesday, May 31, 2006

One more post on Anne Tyler

I finished Digging to America last night and have just a couple more things I want to say about it. If you're planning on reading this book, you might want to skip the post, although I'll warn you when I'm about to give something big away about the plot.

First of all, for those of you who are planning on reading this book, notice the "binky party" that happens near the end. Please, please, under no circumstances, ever hold a binky party for your child.

I liked this line from another part of the book:

Maryam stood in the kitchen doorway with a salad bowl in her hands and wondered if every decision she had ever made had been geared toward preserving her outsiderness.

As someone who can think of herself as an "outsider" and who likes to stand outside of things, I was touched by this character and by her realization. Maryam's way of negotiating this dilemma of insider- and outsiderness is central to the book, and it makes sense to me that it takes her a while to understand that she may have been reinforcing her outsider status without fully realizing it.

But I was uncertain what to think about a couple of things Maryam contemplates (and stop reading here if you don't like to know much about a book before you read it). She says at one point:

Oh, the agonizing back-and-forth of romance! The advances and retreats, the secret wounds, the strategic withdrawals!

Wasn't the real culture clash the one between the two sexes?

Later, when she is thinking about relationships, she says:

Sometimes lately she felt as if she had emigrated all over again. Once more she had left her past self behind, moved to an alien land, and lost any hope of returning.

Now, I'm not sure I buy this equation of relationships with emigration and with culture clashes. On the one hand, it's a cool metaphor for what it's like to enter a relationship with someone -- it's about leaving behind one's old world and entering a new, about adapting one's life -- one's culture -- to enter into someone else's, about having an experience with alienness and otherness.

But these lines, and the events that happen right at the end of the book, seem to me to collapse love with immigration/culture clashes in a way that overly simplifies what it means for a person to take on a new culture and nationality. I don't think the real culture clash is the clash between the sexes. This seems to me to privilege the experience of gender above other kinds. At the very end of the book, Maryam makes a decision to engage with the Americans who have entered her life instead of blocking them out, and it becomes a question of whether she will stay in her relationship with Dave, who seems to her to be the quintessence of Americanness. And so she resolves her questions about culture and national identity by deciding to keep the relationship going. This seems like an interesting way of solving the problem -- what could be a more decisive way of changing and adapting than falling in love with an American? -- and yet something bothers me about this narrative solution. Can cultural clashes get solved solely through personal relationships?

I'm definitely not being clear here. I guess, to a degree, problems of immigration and cultural differences can work themselves out, for individuals, in the context of family and love, but the novel's ending seems to imply that this is the best and maybe only available context. This seems to me to be untrue to the rest of the book, which did a good job of showing how politics and family interweave without collapsing the two areas into one another. The personal is political, yes, but are all politics personal?