The Immigrant Story – has it peaked?

Immigrant stories, or traveller’s tales, have been told for ages. From Homer’s Odyssey, to Dante’s travels across the various other•worlds, to Pilgrim’s Progress, to Michener’s tales of mass immigration, to the tales of displacements taking place after wars and ethnic conflicts, to the recent flood of “Asian immigrant comes to North America” books, we have been engaged, entertained, educated and enlightened with these “quest” stories and novels.

Writers who have never had the immigrant experience have also delved into their ancestral pasts to bring us stories of their forebears who first crossed oceans and founded new homes. There is a parallel with the story of life in these tales, where every day is a new journey that holds surprises, reversals and rewards. But have we had enough? This stuff is so close to reality and reality has always been hard to stomach, especially for this generation that is only licking the dregs of the rewards of the previous one due to a flattened, connected and decaying planet. The immigrant story makes us remember, not forget.

Bring on the entertainment they say – give us vampires and goblins and magicians and super•heroes. Give us situations so unreal that they can be safely relegated to fantasy and escapism. Throw in some graphics, sound and movement, and animate the experience; get us into the story and let us become a character, let us choose the ending – better yet, make it into a video game or a movie and we might be able to palate it. And above all, make us laugh. Make us forget.

Being an immigrant and writing what I know, and wanting to cover a part of history and culture that has been somewhat underrepresented in literature, I have frequently returned to the immigrant story over these last dozen years, producing three novels and many short stories in that genre. It is a journey into memory and into acceptance, sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding, but always enlightening. However, I am finding the demographics of those who read these stories to be shifting and are now found in two segments (a) those in my cohort or older who are trying to remember, and (b) the very young •teenagers • who are looking for clues to their origins. The middle tier has vanished – they either do not read anymore or read only to escape or are playing those video games • and I would so like to see them return.

As I get my next collection of immigrant stories, Paradise Revisited, ready for mass consumption (or should that be selective consumption?) I have to ask myself whether this will be the last in this genre and whether I too should wise up (grow up?) and move on to new fields. Wipe out memory and create fantasy. Or write about what happens when the traveller has put down his roots and travels no more. Will stories of fantasy or of stasis be as interesting? Will my heart and soul be engaged in this new crop of “entertainments?”

An interesting inflection point in the writing journey, and indeed, the journey of life…

Home – where is it?

Having lived at various times of my life in different places, I’ve often wondered where home really is. Is it where I live right now as a suburban transplant in a small town by a large lake? Is it back in Toronto or in some large city where everything is more or less the same: same stores, same entertainment, same shopping malls, same pace same anonymity? Or stretching back into the past, is it the Spartan home of an expatriate in an oil•drenched oasis, the home of a hired gun who could be sent back at any time when services are no longer required? Or even further back where it all began, in an island by the sea whose gentle waves and peaceful people later turned into killing machines? (And weren’t those gentle people fighting over whose home the island really was?)

As occupations become more temporary and transferable, as the world shrinks with globalization, as civil and climatic unrest displace populations, the concept of home is becoming a preoccupation for more people than just myself. I tried writing a novel about a man discovering home. The models I drew from were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in which the hero, Ulysses, leaves the island of Ithaca, has many adventures abroad, and returns to drive out the usurpers of his wife and throne, and builds his nest again. But this homecoming is contrary to my personal experiences. When I returned to my old island after a 21•year absence, I drove past the old family home without recognizing it – the place had become a jumble of over•construction. So too was my former transient expat building in the Middle East: I couldn’t see the oil flares in the open desert and the planes coming into land at the airport – instead I stared at the glaring neon sign of a night club in a tall skyscraper that had landed across the street obliterating the once panoramic view. I wasn’t inspired to tarry long in these old haunts for they did not remind me of home any more, and there were no usurpers to throw out or nests to re•build either.

Then I read the old novel, Captain from Castile, and it hit me that Shellabarger’s hero, after finding that his old home in Spain has changed, heads back to the New World, where he had earlier made a fortune and forged his adult identity, to establish his new home. He has no sense of what he will find when he gets there but he pursues the dream, nevertheless. His home is in the present. This premise made more sense to me.

So, where is home? Is it a geographical place, a place in time, or a state of mind? Whatever it is, it is a human dilemma which consumes large quantities of emotion and contemplation. Wars have been waged over homelands, security forces have arisen to protect The Home Land, real•estate and mortgage industries have been formed over our desire to own a home even if we cannot afford it, and families draw battle lines when it comes to divvying up the family home due to a death or a divorce. And transplants like me float around seeking this elusive refuge, leaving a trail of blogs, novels and stories in my wake.

Christians adhere to that Gospel saying “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Could I apply that statement to the concept of home as well and say that the “Home of Man is within himself?” Therefore, there is no need for battle in the name of defending or conquering a home because it cannot be physically damaged or taken away. Like our DNA, home is a unique and personal space. I’d like to say that and end this perennial quest.