STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're talking this Thanksgiving week about what it means to become American. And we've heard about the often wrenching experience of immigration. It was wrenching for the writer Junot Diaz and for the writer Jhumpa Lahiri. She says that after decades here, she still feels only half American. It was a bit different for the writer Joseph O'Neill who wrote a novel called "Netherland" about immigrants like himself in New York.
Mr. JOSEPH O'NEILL (Author, "Netherland"): I had no grand intention to become an American citizen, but then I stayed. In fact, it was my plan to go back after a couple of years, but then I stayed and stayed. And then there just came a point where I had no real desire to go back to some other place. And I realized, you know, that I'd become an American. Maybe not exclusively an American, but in addition to what I was already, I was also an American.
INSKEEP: Joseph O'Neill was already Irish because he was born there. He's also Turkish like his mother. You could even say he's Dutch, since he grew up in the Netherlands. People like O'Neill straddle the borders between nations.
Mr. O'NEILL: When you ask somebody are you an American or are you an Irishman, or are you, you know, from South Africa, or from wherever, I think the meaning of that question has changed so much in the last 15-20 years, simply because the meaning of nationality and nationhood has changed so much. I think that the age of globalization has completely emptied, essentially, the kind of geographic distances that were so significant in the past.
INSKEEP: Well, how has that changed the meaning of nationhood or nationality?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, because - let's take an immigrant. It used to be the case - I mean, I'm thinking of Ireland where I'm from - that for an Irishman to come to the United States involved a perilous journey by ship over the sea. And it involved singing lots of songs before you left, saying goodbye. And once you were in the United States, it involved singing lots of songs about how you were never going to set foot in Ireland again.
But nowadays the transfer of people from country to country is not irrevocable in the way that it used to be. You can go backwards and forwards as often you like, subject to legal and financial restrictions. And furthermore, you can stay in touch with everyone back home. You can read their blogs. You can speak to them on the phone. You can - there are all sorts of ways.
So that there's this enormous collapse in the very idea of migration, so that migration becomes less traumatic and less decisive than it used to be. And you have these rather fused and rather blurred identities that emerge as a consequence.
INSKEEP: Was there something when you came here and began interacting with Americans that you thought people didn't get about you and your experience?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, of course they didn't get anything about me or my experience. But in a way I didn't mind. I mean, in fact one of the great pluses of being an immigrant is that you get to start again. In terms of your identity, you get to shed the sort of narratives which cling to you, where you come from. And at the same time, I felt in New York City that I - you know, that people were just interested to take me at face value. And so I was free to sort of say what I liked about myself and to say as much as I liked about myself.
INSKEEP: Did you say different things about yourself at different times?
Mr. O'NEILL: Not really. But, you know, they don't ask you the questions. Like if you're from London, if you're living in London, people immediately ask you where did you go to school and who do you know? And they're immediately trying to categorize people in terms of class and background and so forth - and race, whereas here people aren't that interested. And it's liberating on the one hand and sort of ignorant on the other hand.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: I was just wondering do you think we're less curious or just more open-minded and willing to take you for whatever you are at this minute?
Mr. O'NEILL: I think people are sort of less curious, but at the same time, sort of, you know, cheerfully so. And as long as you kind of show good, you know, willing, they're prepared to stick the label of American on you.
INSKEEP: Yeah, whatever, buddy. Have a beer.
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah, have a beer, have a good time, and you know - I mean, it's amazing to me. I was speaking to someone the other day. And, you know, they were talking about their babysitter who they said was one of the family and had been with them for many years and was from "the Islands," I quote. And I said, oh, right. Which Island in particular? And they didn't know. And this person had been living with them for years.
You know, I'm sure they were fantastic employers and did the right thing, and all the rest of it. But, you know, you think, well, that's a very strange state of affairs that you don't penetrate beneath the surface of a stranger and inquire into that person's history. It's very odd.
INSKEEP: Well, now, you tried to do that because as a - whatever we're going to call you, a Turkish, Irish, Netherlands, American - you began writing about people from, well, the Islands. You began writing about this guy from the West Indies.
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Chuck Ramkissoon?
Mr. O'NEILL: Correct, yeah.
INSKEEP: Is it fair to say that Chuck is trying to redefine what it means to be American?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I think Chuck, as a Trinidad immigrant, is invoking a pre-existing tradition of what it means to be American. He's trying to plug into the rags-to-riches narrative, which is part of the legend of America and of New York especially. And so I don't think he's trying to reinvent the wheel, but merely trying to find himself a place on the wheel.
INSKEEP: Although, let's talk about what the guy's doing. He's a cricket enthusiast - this sport that very few Americans can understand. And he's insisting there's a place for this sport, there's an audience for this sport. In fact, it's in the American DNA, he writes in an email at one point.
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah. I suppose the question - I mean, the great challenge for somebody who wants to start a cricket business in the United States is making this sport, which is the most popular bat and ball sport in the world, visible to the American public. He discusses this thing in political terms, which is to say that if America can't understand cricket, how can it expect to understand the world?
And so I suppose what he's trying to do, what a cricket entrepreneur in this country - cricket immigrant in this country is trying to do, is trying to make a contribution and is trying to kind of continue in the tradition whereby America receives a constant enrichment from the newcomers who arrive to it.
INSKEEP: You mentioned that at one point that this character you write about, this West Indian immigrant, is involved in the classic American story, rags to riches.
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Of course, the classic American version is a very specific kind of rags to riches. It's not that somebody suddenly makes you a prince. It's that you strive and dig and find some scheme and do whatever you have to do to make a little bit of money. And that's what...
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah.
INSKEEP: And that's what he's doing. He's got different businesses. He's got different sidelines.
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah.
INSKEEP: And when I read about that, I think about, well, so many American novels that - you go back to Mark Twain who wrote about a kind of striver and schemer in the Gilded Age and was kind of a striver and a schemer himself. He always had some idea to strike it rich. Were you thinking about - "The Great Gatsby" is another - I mean, were you thinking about so many American characters that had come before Chuck Ramkissoon when you presented this West Indian immigrant to a reader like me?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I think so. But I think, more specifically, Chuck Ramkissoon himself, the character, is thinking about it. He lives in the United States for a number of years. And he becomes aware of this very specific kind of narrative in American life which essentially authorizes people to do whatever it takes to climb up by their boot straps and to make something of themselves, even if that means cutting corners from time to time - which is what Chuck ends up doing - and even if it means being a bit of a rogue, because I think there's a sort of tolerance within the culture for this sort of irregular kind of self-enrichment, because it's not a perfect society, the United States. It doesn't provide everyone with the same start in life.
And therefore if someone wants to do better for themselves, people kind of turn a blind eye and in fact have a smile, even if they've broken a few rules along the way. And this guy, Chuck Ramkissoon, is aware of that and tries to plug into it.
INSKEEP: Well, Joseph O'Neill, I've enjoyed speaking with you.
Mr. O'NEILL: Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: And happy Thanksgiving.
Mr. O'NEILL: Happy Thanksgiving to you as well.
INSKEEP: You can read an excerpt from Joseph O'Neill's novel "Netherland" at npr.org. Our conversations on becoming American continue into the holiday. Tomorrow our three immigrant writers describe Thanksgiving as they have experienced it. This is NPR News.