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REVIEW: The Book of Unknown Americans

November 23, 2014

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AS Hanif Kureishi wrote in a recent article for The Guardian, today’s immigrant is facing the ultimate displacement — it has been shifted from the realm of reality to the fiction of our political nightmares. The immigrant does not have personal agency or history; he solely embodies all the unpleasant aspects of globalisation: the alienation felt by otherwise harmonious communities can easily be scapegoated onto the outsiders. Perhaps, for this reason, far-right groups such as France’s National Front now present themselves as nationalist, anti-globalisation parties, rather than racist, anti-immigration groups per se.

The assumption remains that an immigrant does not have a private life, only an economic one which is why it is seen as an insidious character, always destroying otherwise harmonious communities and preying on the kindness of its hosts to further its individual gains. In her novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henriquez explores the desperation, the underlying processes that constitute a trek to a foreign land, half-believing that the hopeful allure of the new homeland will not be exaggerated and acculturation will not be a terrifying hurdle. Henriquez offers the pages of this book as a platform for immigrants to make their case: “We’re the unknown Americans,” says a character, “the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realise that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them.”

The characters of this book are the Latino tenants of a decrepit apartment building in Delaware. The novel centres on the Rivera family, who have left a relatively comfortable life in Mexico, with the hope that American special-needs education will restore the happiness of their only brain-damaged child, Maribel. The multiple first-person narratives switch points of view, mainly between that of Maribel’s mother, Alma, and of Mayor, a lonely neighbour boy who falls in love with Maribel.

What Henriquez captures well are the details of isolation and poverty: the bleak small-talk about the bleak weather, the unglamourous habitation, the canned-food dinners, linguistic alienation and the paranoias it can breed. For example, the Riveras’ first trip to a petrol station shop ends when their disbelief over the costs of grocery turns into a suspicion of being short-changed, which is eventually left unsubstantiated because they deem it more important to flee from the perceived threat in a leather-clad biker. We also see how geography influences psychology. One scene is particularly relevant in this regard, where Alma is late to pick up her daughter from their designated bus stop. She jumps onto a bus, but not knowing the exact route or connections, she ends up in a desolate neighbourhood. What is interesting to note here is the parallel between the physical and emotional dimension of the character: Alma is traversing the unfamiliar geographical topography of the city, to find the daughter that she lost to a tragic injury. The connections of buses symbolise the synapses of her own emotional network. She starts to fragment as the concept of home crumbles out of her scope.

The author can also be commended for chronicling the intimate process of settling into a new country; how people cope with the initial shock of displacement, how alienated one feels from their new surroundings, and so on. They talk to one another, give each other shopping advice (preferring dollar tree to relatively expensive Latino shops) and often help each other out. The importance of language is also emphasised. When Alma walks into an English as a second language class, her observations about the power of vowels and consonants are revealing and even moving: “That first day, the words were merely sounds in the air, broken like shards of glass, beautiful from a certain angle but jagged from another. They didn’t mean anything to me, still I liked the sound of them ...”; and further on: “English was such a dense, tight language. So many hard letters, like miniature walls. Not open with vowels the way Spanish was. Our throats open, or mouths open, our hearts open […]. And yet, there was something magnificent about it. Profesora Shields explained that in English there was no usted, no tu. There was only one word — you. It applied to all people.”

Again, this dimension of sound — one that threatens and seduces the listener at once captures the allure of the unknown life. As it drifts further away from Alma’s grasp, she too is inflicted with the obscurity of an unassimilated ‘citizen’ — a life lost in translation.

A philosophical intrigue about the relationship between consciousness and sound can be offered here: sound is an abstract and violent intrusion into our psyche, it instills a fear of disassociation within us. It can devastate our perspective of what is real, which is why we question its effect on our consciousness with silly wisdoms such as the one about the falling tree in the forest and whether it makes a sound if there is no one there to hear it. The idea being that if there is no one to record, translate and assimilate the jumble of waves into their consciousness, can they be sure that their experience of a particular thing or event is actually real? In this case, natives are plagued by a faulty philosophy — that the other’s experiences are unreal, simply because they have not heard them. Perhaps, this is why its so easy to convert the immigrant into hyper-fiction.

While these stories undoubtedly address this issue of the unheard experiences, they more often than not fail to be convincingly authentic. This is for two reasons: Henriquez is herself guilty of sterilising the history of her characters by presenting them as the most uncontroversial and benign creatures, and not offering a grander narrative of why so many immigrants flock to places like the US.

The US’s regional privilege and prosperity has often come at the expense of Latin American autonomy. Henriquez makes a moral argument for the right of immigrants to pursue prosperity as long as they remain benign creatures, but she maintains a deafening silence about the historical / political context which leads to the economic and personal displacement of millions.

People are affected by these impersonal forces of history and politics in different, often controversial ways, but the clean, palatable prose of this novel forsakes the vivid complexity of immigrant life. It is odd that none of her characters have any bitterly critical (or reactionary) political views at all, none of them show any unpleasant characteristics. The sample size of peripheral characters is an attempt of justifying representation, but the representation itself is patronising and misleading. A writer must not fool themselves into thinking that they can truly represent the lives of others by internalising them. The best they can hope for is to represent their own engagement with the lives of others.

Having said that, it can still be argued that politics is not a suitable lens to look at the day-to-day battles of people who have concerns bigger than the so-called bigger picture. I might disagree with this whimsical approach, but I appreciate the fact that the bigger concern is the happiness of people who just want to get on with their lives. We don’t always have to employ ideology to impose meaning and purpose to the lives of others. “If people want to tell me to go home,” says a Puerto Rican, “I just turn to them and smile politely and say, ‘I’m already there.’” Ironically, the use of “there” rather than “here,” lends an ominous tone to his well-mannered response.


The Book of Unknown Americans

(NOVEL)

By Cristina Henriquez

Knopf, New York

ISBN 978-0385350848

304pp.