Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Clark Blaise on the Steep Climb His Characters Face

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Clark Blaise, author of The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis), discusses the difficult cultural adaptation Indian immigrants to Americaand successive generationsmust make.

For the Indian immigrant characters in The Meagre Tarmac, material "success" in this country has been the easy part. After all, they were programmed to study hard, invest wisely, and live frugally. But that other Constitutional promise, "happiness," has been elusive. They were born and grew up in cultures that were warm and embracing but suspicious of personal initiative and prudish in matters sexual. Marriages were arranged between families with the hope (but not the promise) that love would eventually follow.

But this is the generation that came alone to America as graduate students, where, predictably, they learned and prospered, but—at least for my characters—love didn't follow. And so, these appealing men and women, so competent in so many areas, so esteemed, so charming, so poised, suffer from gaping holes in their souls. There's no training-school for dating, for wooing, for negotiating the snakes and ladders of courtship, for dealing with the demands and expectations of the native population of women (even America-born Indian women). Learning to expect—even to demand—personal and sexual happiness may seem natural to the America-born, but it's a steep climb for many Asia-born immigrants.

India has survived thousands of years by holding firm to its inherent value-system. But can a traditional culture stand up to liberal, individualist, secularism? This is a theoretical framing of the same question, and a fair-enough summary of the contents of this book.

That's the core conflict in this collection of linked stories. The Waldekars, Gangulys, da Cunhas, Chutneywalas, Nilingappas, Dasguptas, and their friends have earned earned everything they wanted but learned too late what they really needed. In India, as in most traditional cultures, family is everything, and roles within it are sharply defined. Remove any part, such as a child refusing a marriage arrangement, or a mother leaving the home and finding a job, or a husband abandoning his family and his responsibilities to it, and everything is torn down. I have been married to India (her name is Bharati Mukherjee) for 48 years, so I've been involved as husband, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle and cousin and friend to three generations of immigrants, Indo-Americans, and finally, just plain Americans who've finally negotiated the claims of duty to parents and culture, and the call of their inner child.