New Americans Grapple With Identity And Country In 'The Good Immigrant' The debate over immigration has exposed real differences in how Americans understand America. In a new essay collection, 26 writers and artists reflect on a polarized country.
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New Americans Grapple With Identity And Country In 'The Good Immigrant'

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New Americans Grapple With Identity And Country In 'The Good Immigrant'

New Americans Grapple With Identity And Country In 'The Good Immigrant'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The debate over immigration has exposed real differences in how Americans understand America. Many on the political left say the country is great because of immigrants. Many on the right agree with President Trump that America can only be great if immigration is dramatically curtailed, especially across the southern border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people. And it's unacceptable.

MARTIN: So how are immigrants experiencing this divide? A new book of essays titled "The Good Immigrant" explores these tensions through the words of immigrants themselves. Here's NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: I recently sat down in our New York bureau with several up-and-coming writers, first- or second-generation immigrants from around the world. And they told me their stories. Novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza is the daughter of immigrants of Indian descent. She talked about her parents moving to Texas a few years ago. One day, a kid from the neighborhood came to their door carrying a bag of candy.

FATIMA FARHEEN MIRZA: Thank you, amma (ph) said. And the girl ran off.

ROSE: Mirza reads from an essay she wrote about what happened next. At first, her mother thought it was a gift, a sort of welcome to the neighborhood.

MIRZA: Then mama looked closer. It was not a gift bag but a Ziploc plastic bag, unadorned and filled only with Skittles.

ROSE: This was during the 2016 presidential campaign. Donald Trump was running for president. And his son, Donald Trump Jr., compared Syrian refugees to Skittles. Quote, "if I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you," Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter, "would you take a handful?" Mirza's family is Muslim. She and her brothers felt the Skittles were clearly meant as an insult. They were furious, but their parents saw it differently.

MIRZA: It's just candy, baba (ph) said, refusing to budge and forbidding me from writing about it. This kind of thinking is not good for you. We will not be making a big deal out of nothing.

ROSE: The bag of Skittles sat untouched on the kitchen table, Mirza writes, until she said to her mother, if you really believe this wasn't malicious, then go ahead and eat one.

MIRZA: Mama stood from the couch, lifted the bag of Skittles and emptied them all into the trash.

ROSE: Mirza told me she decided to write about the episode over her father's objections because it illustrates the fear and mistrust that her family regularly encounters in the U.S. and how the family is divided about the right way to respond.

MIRZA: One thing that my mom would always say after these kind of anti-immigrant interactions would be to say, you know, we're just going to lead by example and prove that we're normal people. And that would really frustrate me because, you know, whatever normal means - but that you have to just prove that you're human.

ROSE: Mirza's essay appears in the new book called "The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect On America." I also talked with Chimene Suleyman, the book's co-editor. She says the title is about the constant pressure to demonstrate that you are the right kind of immigrant.

CHIMENE SULEYMAN: When you're an immigrant, there's kind of this default setting of suspicion and paranoia that surrounds you, that you're not really the good immigrant. You don't start from that position. And you have to jump through kind of almost superhuman hoops before you're kind of allowed to be one of the good ones, before people stop being fearful of you.

ROSE: I invited the other contributors to talk about what being a good immigrant means to them. Novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn moved to New York from Jamaica when she was a teenager.

NICOLE DENNIS-BENN: For me, that good immigrant was staying true to family, to what my parents wanted me to be; that promise, that American dream that they sold to me.

ROSE: Dennis-Benn was the first in her family to go to college, where she was expected to study medicine.

DENNIS-BENN: I'm going to be a doctor, that my father said. I'm going to be the one to pull my family out of poverty. I was working-class Jamaican. And so that was the expectation.

ROSE: But after several years in school, Dennis-Benn realized she didn't want to be a doctor. She wanted to be a writer. I asked her to read the passage in her essay when she confides to a few other immigrants in her pre-med program that she's thinking of changing her major to English.

DENNIS-BENN: Chi Chi (ph), the Nigerian in the group, made a clucking noise and said, you can't be serious. If you want English, then what you doing here? She emphasized here to remind me that I was taking my opportunity for granted, that we were students at one of the most competitive schools for pre-med in the country, that any first-generation immigrant with the weight of her family on her back would kill to take my spot.

ROSE: Several of the writers told me they grew up feeling intense pressure to assimilate in order to play the part of the good immigrant. For the book, author Daniel Jose Older wrote about his childhood in Boston in the 1980s.

DANIEL JOSE OLDER: I really feel like I looked out into the world outside of my doors and just saw a world that had no use for bilingualism, that had no use for Latino culture.

ROSE: Older says he resisted learning Spanish, the language his mother spoke growing up in Cuba, because he wanted to seem more American.

OLDER: And I think there's a tragedy in that, in that form of the immigrant experience that so many of us have that tells us that where we come from doesn't matter because of course it matters, you know, so deeply.

ROSE: All of the contributors I talked to say it's important to write about these issues now because the Trump presidency has brought immigration to the forefront of the national debate. And it has brought anti-immigrant bias out into the open, says Older.

OLDER: The Trump era is an explosion of what's been going on for so long. This is all built into the fabric of this country.

ROSE: That sentiment resonated with co-editor Chimene Suleyman. She told the story of a recent argument with a stranger outside a bar in Brooklyn, where she lives. It's what she wrote about in her essay for the book.

SULEYMAN: He was just, like, a drunk dude looking to have a fight. And he started with this whole, like, in America, this is how we do things in America. If you don't like it, go back to where you came from - kind of thing.

ROSE: Suleyman grew up in London. Her parents immigrated to the U.K. from Turkey before she was born. But she never really felt like people accepted her as British because she's Muslim and clearly not Anglo-Saxon. Now in New York, Suleyman says her British accent changes the way people see her, like the guy who overheard her talking outside the bar.

SULEYMAN: It started with him calling me, you know, a white [expletive] and then me foolishly being like, I'm not white...

(LAUGHTER)

SULEYMAN: ...Like that matters at 1 in the morning when you're shouting at some man that you don't know on the street. (Laughter) Then he just sort of unraveled from that way then called me a Kim Kardashian [expletive] instead.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSE: Earlier in her life, Suleyman says she might have written an essay trying to change the mind of that drunk guy outside the bar but not anymore.

SULEYMAN: We have to, I think, focus a lot less on trying to convince bigots to not be bigots. They can't be the center of, like, my attention. People like us sitting in this room, that has to be my focus. Like, helping each other and listening to each other is far more important to me than constantly arguing with people to allow us to just live and to exist and to be happy.

ROSE: In other words, Suleyman doesn't want to wait for other people to decide who is a good immigrant. She wants immigrants to answer that question for themselves. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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