Between Universes: The Importance of the Immigrant Experience in Genre Fiction

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Ibi Zoboi “(pronounced e-bee za-boy)”

 

Some interesting thoughts on the immigrant experience and genre fiction, featuring Ibi Zoboi and Junot Díaz:

From Zoboi:

Two things I know for sure as an immigrant: my body and the space that it occupies. My earliest memories of Haiti were of thick warm air, pastel colors, laughing out loud, old men playing dominoes, sweet wet fruit–what any self-respecting Caribbean island ought to be. I remember the excitement of having to get on a plane and then space and time bending itself to transport me to what seemed to be a whole other planet: 1980s crack-era Brooklyn, New York. I was four. I was mortified…

The immigrant experience has got to be the most otherworldly, mind-bending phenomena that can happen to a human. Enter the immigrant woman’s experience and what we have is a space opera super heroine.

From Díaz:

When as a young person you lose all your bearings, all your reference points, when the gap between where you were and where you are is as vast as the one that yawned between the DR and the US, you’re going to struggle mightily to explain not only what happened but also to explain oneself. I came to the US at six and with a single flight I jumped literally from one world to another, from one Age to another…

I fell for genre because I desperately needed it—in my personal mythology, genre helped me create an operational self. I suspect I resonated with the world-building in many of these texts because that’s precisely what I was engaged in as a young immigrant.

 

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I’m not a physical immigrant to the United States. I was born and raised there, and maintain the same love/hate relationship that a lot of people have with their homeland. And, even though I currently live in a place that is as culturally and environmentally dissimilar to the U.S. as Deimos is to Titan, I am not an immigrant here-I’m a guest. My passport (and my tax payments) ensure that the U. S. of A. will welcome me back, albeit with one hand in my pocket and the other on my cell phone.

Thus, the immigrant experience, and how it comes to be important in genre fiction (no, especially in genre fiction, where we’re all essentially immigrants to the worlds that the authors create, or the characters in a work are immigrants shunted across space and/or time while under cryogenic stasis, or the authors themselves are stepping out onto ground that is new and exciting and dangerous for them but old hat for so many others) is one that i’m not intimately familiar with. I mean, I’m as much an immigrant as any other African-American person, but my grandparents and great-grandparents (as far back as I know) all grew up on United States soil. Soil watered with their sorrows and blood, yes, but the only soil they knew outside of vague stirrings of Africa down in their bones.

In this framework, the very act of expression becomes sacred, because of the effort it takes to realign. The language, the schema is brand new, and with it comes power of a sort. But as anyone who is or knows an immigrant to the U.S. can tell you, there is a cost to that power. I should be so lucky that I can look to these writers to lay their experiences bare and share their worlds. I should also be grateful that some of the best people doing it right now have come together to give us a handbook, with which we can get our minds right.

EDIT: Joanne in the comments just hipped me to the forthcoming anthology How to Live On Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens. It drops in March, and you can pre-order it on Kindle right now. Go get that.

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