When people discuss “the immigrant narrative,” you may picture Ellis Island. But what is that process like today? We talk to two writers about the more modern immigrant journey. First, journalist and author Daniel Connolly talks about Isaias Ramos, a bright young man whose life is complicated by his status as an illegal immigrant. Then, author Shilpi Somaya Gowda discusses her own family’s experiences immigrating from India. Two very different stories bound by a common thread: the immigrant narrative.
- Daniel Connolly, journalist and author of The Book of Isaias: A Child of Immigrants Seeks His Own America
- Shilpi Somaya Gowda, author of The Golden Son
Links for more information:
The Immigrant Narrative in Modern Times
Karen Hand: Isaias Ramos is the child of immigrants from Mexico, he’s been in America since he was very young and in 2012 Ramos was starting his senior year of high school in Memphis, Tennessee. He was captain of the quiz bowl team, he scored in the top 10% of the national college entrance exam, and things were shaping up for a bright future.
Daniel Connolly: Like many children of Mexican immigrants, Isaias was in a position where his parents wanted him to do well and go far in school, but they didn’t know how to help – they themselves did not go very far in school in Mexico, because of poverty dropped out of school early – his father had left school after the 6th grade, his mother after the 9th grade and for them the US school system and college system was very very different than what they’re used to and Isaias had to make decisions about it largely on his own with the help of people at school.
Hand: That’s Daniel Connolly a journalist and author of The Book of Isaias a non-fiction account of Ramos’ life. Connolly covered immigration for the Associated Press for years and says the trouble Ramos faced as a child of uneducated immigrants is not uncommon.
Connolly: There were people at school like the guidance office who were encouraging him to not just apply to college but to aim high, try to get into an elite school like Harvard and at the same Isaias questioned the value of college – he didn’t really see how it fit into his life. And so for that reason there is this tension between his skepticism of college and the guidance office and everyone else recognizing how bright he was.
Hand: However Ramos’ college decision was complicated even further by the fact that his family had come to America illegally when he was very little.
Connolly: In Tennessee as in many other states that creates a lot of obstacles in terms of paying in state tuition and eligibility for state scholarships.
Hand: At this point it may be easy to assume Connolly wrote his book with the intention of defending illegal immigration but Connolly says that’s not true.
Connolly: Honestly there is a lot of harm created by the illegal immigration system and that trend is justifying what’s been done it has hurt not just immigrants but American worker in skills like construction, who are competing directly with people here illegally. So when I talk about this I think people imagine that I’m defending the system or defending the way things are – I’m trying to explain it pointing towards the underlying cause of the situation.
Hand: Connolly says its important for people to understand how illegal immigration became such a prevalent issue and who is to blame.
Connolly: Our government historically chose not to enforce these laws and the reason they did it was businesses wanted a low cost labor force and when the government moved to enforce the law on the interior of the country these businesses pushed back and said don’t do it. Classic examples I’ve brought up many times is in the Vidalia onion fields of Georgia in the late 1990’s the government started arresting Mexican immigrant workers who were here illegally, other workers heard about it, they fled and then all of a sudden the farmers didn’t have a way to harvest their crop. The farmers, the big line owners, petitioned to the government and they go the restrictions lifted and the immigrant workers came back and harvested the crops and that type of pressure from businesses has led to the situation we have that these people are here illegally. So to the criticism of “just enforce the law” I try to make people understand that the immigrants themselves are not fully responsible for creating the illegal immigration system number one, number two – enforcement today applied broadly can affect a lot of US citizens because many of these folks have been here many years and many have kids who are US citizens.
Hand: Connolly says it’s telling the story of people like Ramos; innocent children who were brought to America very young, that motivates him to write about illegal immigration.
Connolly: As human beings we learn really well through stories, so I wanted this book to be a story about a family and about young people growing up in America. So it helps create empathy for the subject, for the people, and it helps you understand how we got here and where we’re going. So there’s drama built into the narrative in The Book of Isaias – we’ve got someone with great potential and we don’t know what’s going to happen to him.
Hand: Connolly’s book happens to be about illegal immigrants from Mexico and though that’s a familiar angle, it is not the only immigration story being lived right now. Author Shilpi Somaya Gowda is telling a completely different immigrant story in her fictional novel, The Golden Son.
Shilpi Somaya Gowda: My stories have immigrant families at the core of the store because that comes from my own personal family experience as a child of Indian immigrants and I’ve gone through my own smaller immigration paths myself, moving from Canada to the United States. I think that there’s such a common, human, experience that comes from picking up and leaving one place and trying to pursue a better life in a new country or even a new state or a new part of the country. And I do think fiction is one of those ways in which we can get to know people as individuals almost as if you were getting to know a friend or a neighbor or a colleague and by getting to know their particular story I think it helps us understand the challenges that immigrants go through and the fact that we all are more similar than we are different.
Hand: Gowda says that she didn’t write her novel to push any agenda; she says she simply wrote the story that came to her.
Gowda: The Golden Son is a story of two childhood friends from an Indian village; a boy named Anil who is the “golden son”, the oldest cherished son of his family and he’s expected to grow up and not only lead his family but be the arbiter of the communities disputes which is the role that his father and his grandfather played before him. But he has his own dreams and he wants to come to America to become a doctor so that’s what he does. He goes to Dallas, Texas and does his medical residency at an inner city hospital there. And the second friend is a girl named Leena, who does not have as many economic and educational opportunities as her friend Anil does. So she has an arranged marriage and moves to another village in India. And each of them, Anil and Leena, they start out in the same place as friends and they go on their own journeys and their paths cross again later in life and that’s when everything is a little more complicated.
Hand: Gowda says what she did try to do was give a voice to Indian heritage in American culture.
Gowda: The history of storytelling is always affected by who is telling the history and I think as different groups of people come into their own and have a voice, in my case when I was growing up I did not read one Indian author of my generation and now there are dozens if not hundreds. I think as I saw that personally as a young person growing up I thought, “Oh you mean my stories are stories that somebody would want to read? And they’re not just about my narrow little world?” So I think that there is a rise of people having a greater voice and being able to tell their stories, that’s how individuals learn from one another. We can’t all have personal interactions with each other, but we can learn about people through stories and be able to have empathy and understand them.
Hand: Gowda says she used her novel to highlight one difference between the two societies she knew best – that she found especially fascinating.
Gowda: Often my father or my uncle or an elder cousin would have these disputes brought to them from somewhere in the extended family or community and whether it was a marital problem or a parent/child issue or a business dealing that needed resolving, these things would get worked out over the kitchen table by an elevated or respected member of the family. So I grew up watching all these lives being changed through the informal arbitration process and that was something that I really wanted to write about. Because I think it’s such a fascinating part of the culture and it’s another way of contrasting the culture of India in this case and the west. You know that the way we administer justice in the west is very much arms length, I mean we’re not supposed to know any of the players, we don’t work or live next to them when we go back to our normal lives. I think it’s kind of interesting to look at the flipside of that, what happens if all of these people have to go back to living together? They’re not going to the parking lot and getting into their cars and going back to their individual lives. They have to farm next to each other, they live next to each other, and how does that change how decisions are made and lives are changed?
Hand: Though she enjoys contrasting her cultures, Gowda says one of the most rewarding parts of what she does is in the universal appeal of the immigrant narrative.
Gowda: It’s always fun for me to hear from people whose parents came here to the United States from Italy, or from Ireland, or some place that is not necessarily in the news as being a country from which people are immigrating today. But they have the same sort of experiences with their parents and grandparents, with the language and the food, and the cultural differences between the two places that they feel like they’re from. So I guess I do hope that after the fact and after having written the story how people find some common experience with the idea of todays immigrants and some story in their own personal history.
Hand: And though their books are very different, one a non fiction story of illegal immigration and the other a fiction story of legal immigration, both Gowda and Connolly believe in the power of telling the story of outsiders to bridge the divide and encourage collaboration.
Connolly: We’ve got a huge generation of children of immigrants growing up in the US today and as these young folks grow up and get into different fields I think we’re going to see just more and more of these stories in all of media. The power of these stories is that this is what America’s like today and the entertainment and stories are a reflection of that and I think that as time goes on these stories will simply become part of the American narrative.
Hand: Daniel Connolly’s “The Book of Isaias” and Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s “The Golden Son” are both available now. For more information on all of our guests, visit our site ViewpointsOnline.net. You can find us on Twitter @viewpointsradio, our executive producer is Reed Pence, and our production direction is Sean Waldron. I’m Karen Hand.