“I learned recently, to my surprise, that I had written a novel about the immigrant experience. The novel I thought I’d written was simply about a mother and daughter,” writes Amit Majmudar, author of the novel The Abundance, in a recent commentary published in the New York Times. Majmudar goes on to examine the “immigrant” label’s pros and cons.
PRO: “A minority author may well have an advantage. The American fiction-reading world, though sometimes reproached for not translating enough contemporary literature from foreign languages, actually has a huge appetite for stories about other people who live in other ways. And an abundance of these stories are written by authors who embody the American and the “foreign” at once.”
CON: “Fiction strives to attain the universal through the particular; readers want to relate to characters, to see themselves. …That may well be how the art itself favors a majority author who writes for the majority. For a minority writer, the strangeness that attracted a reader’s curiosity in the first place is also a strangeness that must be overcome.”
Once upon a time, I eschewed the labels that get placed on writers that aren’t white and male, mainly because I feared being called a woman/African/whatever writer would push me into a literary ghetto that would hamper my chances of reaching a trans-racial, transnational audience of all genders. But much to my surprise, at a recent event, I found myself proudly declaring myself an “African writer” to someone I was conversing with.
“Why would you limit yourself with that moniker?” he asked me. I responded, “I am an African and I am a writer, and so I am an African writer. Simple as that.” Just like I’m a female writer. And a New York writer. Just like Jack Kerouac is an American writer. Just like Chris Cleave is a British writer.
Only certain categories and labels are seen as limiting, except as Majmudar points out, when they aren’t. The New York Times recently heralded Granta literary magazine’s “Best of Young British Novelists” list, noting the abundance of writers “either born outside Britain or are the children of immigrants” (pro), and another NYT piece notes the advantage of the foreign-sounding name to the writer. Another form of exoticism? Perhaps, but America, and the so-called Developed World, is a land of labels; and like it or fuck it, we have been trained to tag and search by tag from the grocery store aisle to dating sites. Tags are helpful.
Perhaps I was so vehement because after three years promoting my book Powder Necklace, I’ve had to learn how to connect with audiences I don’t personally know, and in doing so I’ve relied on things I know we share in common. In a setting of New Yorkers, I’m from Queens. Amongst liberal arts alums, I’m a Seven Sister College grad. Amongst high schoolers, I try not to try too hard. Amongst African-Americans, I am black. Amongst Africans, I am African. Of course, no matter where I am, I am all of the above–and so much more.
We need to remember labels are just shortcuts; shorthand to get us to what we’re looking for faster. But once we’ve arrived at our destination, once we’re holding the product in our hand, it’s time to peel the label off and examine the contents for what they truly are. Majmudar pretty much says this (and more) in his piece “Am I an ‘Immigrant’ Writer“. Check it out for yourself here.