Authors Explore American Immigrant Experience Award-winning authors Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz and Samina Ali all came to this country as children. As part of NPR's series on the children of immigrants, these writers offer perspective on the transformation of immigrants in America as the next generation assimilates.
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Authors Explore American Immigrant Experience

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Authors Explore American Immigrant Experience

Authors Explore American Immigrant Experience

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR continues its series on the children of immigrants and today we hear from three award-winning authors, Edwidge Danticat, Samina Ali and Junot Diaz. They all came to this country as children - Danticat from Haiti, Ali from India and Diaz from the Dominican Republic. And they offer a unique perspective on the transformation of immigrants in America as the next generation assimilates. We begin with Haitian-born writer Edwidge Danticat.

Ms. EDWIDGE DANTICAT (Writer): I've met children at both ends of the spectrum. You'll have some who completely idealize, sometimes overidealize their parents' birthplaces and that culture, and others in the middle who sort of merge both cultures effortlessly and others who completely are American because that's what they choose and that's what they know.

WERTHEIMER: Edwidge Danticat's most recent book is a memoir, "Brother, I'm Dying," about her uncle's tragic story of trying to immigrate to this country. Danticat has been in America since she was 12, when she lived with her family in a Haitian neighborhood of New York City. America has often been called a melting pot, but Danticat says that does not mean children of immigrants will necessarily shed their cultural heritage.

Ms. DANTICAT: I think it will be as important as the community that they are born into, if it remains vibrant for them. I see, for example, you know, I have two little daughters and they're still very young, but I can still, you know, I think for my daughter, for example, it will be my oldest, you know, she's four, I think it'll be a little more effortless for her in the sense that, you know, with Grandma around, for example, it could be as simple as that. I'm lucky that my daughters have both their grandmothers, you know, who are able to pass this on. I think that's an under-discussed and undervalued aspect of this immigration transition, too.

And that if you have - do you have older living relatives who, in addition to everything else they represent, also represent a culture that we're no longer living in? So having these sort of living libraries, I think is important to this next generation.

WERTHEIMER: For all the political, social and economic challenges that immigrants bring to this country, Danticat says they also bring a cultural richness and vibrancy.

Ms. DANTICAT: Immigration, rather than a burden, can contribute, also. And that's something that sometimes we have to really remind people. I mean, it sounds like a cliche and the arts is a great way to do it. And I think the arts is one of the ways that people are most welcoming to it. And it's one of the places that people are willing, they're willing to enter a book where they read about somebody, the experience. I mean, think of a book like "The Kite Runner," they read this book and they've had an encounter.

You know, they feel like they've met an immigrant through a book. And so even if we had borders that were closed, these cultural borders, these things through the arts would still be open to us if we were open to them.

WERTHEIMER: Author Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic. His Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" was praised for its vibrant prose and street smart language, often in the Spanglish that surrounded Diaz growing up. For the Diaz family, the transformation of language was a big part of the immigrant experience.

Mr. JUNOT DIAZ (Author, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"): Four of us — the first four of us — were all born in Santo Domingo. My little brother was born in the United States. My little brother is someone who grew up with a lot of Spanish around the house, but his Spanish is absolutely miserable. His primary language is English completely. I mean, he's in that situation that you see with a lot of kids who are born in the U.S. and have immigrant parents, where my brother will speak to my mother in English, and she'll answer back in Spanish.

He understands Spanish fluently, but he doesn't speak it. But then I've got, like, a nephew who's completely fluent in both English and Spanish, no problem. But it's up to people's individual choices if they really want to pursue the language. What's fascinating is - and it's hard to put a finger on - but I would argue that my brother is like maybe 30 to 80 times more individualistic than we are. You never know whether that's a product of America — a highly individualistic society — or that's just a choice that my brother made, or an inclination of his own biology.

Ms. SAMINA ALI (Author, "Madras on Rainy Days"): When you're more comfortable with McDonald's and Starbucks and - it's more of a struggle with the older generation and how the older generation might be keeping you back and trying to root you in a country that you don't identify with as much as you might identify with the United States.

WERTHEIMER: That is Samina Ali, author of "Madras on Rainy Days." Like the novelist's protagonist Layla, Ali was raised both in India and the United States and was once wedded to a stranger through an arranged marriage. Her parents would take her back to India every year in hopes of strengthening the bonds of her heritage. Ali says it is a struggle to maintain that continuity with her own children.

Ms. ALI: As a second-generation immigrant, I already see how much I'm losing as I'm passing it on to my son. You know, I don't speak to him in Urdu as my parents spoke to me in Urdu. I speak to him in English. Even when it comes to our religion, I'm Muslim, and even though my parents sent me back to India to make sure I didn't forget who I was, when it comes to my son, I pass on spirituality more than I pass on a specific religion or ideology.

So I can already see it and it makes me sad because he hasn't been to India yet. He doesn't speak Urdu. He doesn't really - he's not growing up in the same way I grew up, but - and I can see how things are already, you know, everything is starting to lose its substance, its strength and it's sort of being weaned out.

WERTHEIMER: Certainly Samina Ali has straddled the divide between American and Indian cultures, but we asked, what about her children?

Ms. ALI: I think they already are. I see it and my daughter's only three weeks old, but my son is nine-and-a-half and I see it in him. I see him sort of struggling to figure out what it means to be Indian. And the funny thing about him is when he was smaller, when he was younger, I would take him back to Minneapolis to my parents' house - and my parents are part of a very large Indian-Muslim community back there - and whenever we went home they would throw parties for us.

And it was usually people from the Muslim-Indian community who came. Everyone spoke Urdu, everyone was Muslim, everyone ate Indian food and for a long time my son thought that was India. He would tell people all the time, I've been to India. We've gone to India. I just was there last weekend. And I would tell him, no, that was actually Minnesota.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALI: And you can tell from his perspective how insular it is.

WERTHEIMER: After 9/11, Samina Ali began working on a new novel about an ordinary American couple who happened to be Muslim. It took her two years to finish the first draft, but now she's busy rewriting. To her surprise, American attitudes had rapidly changed.

Ms. ALI: Within those two years, the United States had changed so much. The atmosphere had changed so much, that by the time I got to the end of it, it almost felt like what I was saying was no longer relevant because we'd already arrived there. And everyone already agreed with me that ordinary Muslims weren't all, you know, fanatical. So it was a very strange journey for me to make, but also to get up from the writing desk and look around and say, oh my god, everyone else made this journey with me.

From an atmosphere of fear, a large majority of Americans were saying, yes, we need to have racial profiling. My ex-husband, I remember, asked me, how are you going to raise our son Muslim in this environment? Why would he ever feel proud to be Muslim? And by the end of it, by the end of my writing this book, we'd already arrived at a place where, you know, people say it again, and again and again, but, no, Barack Obama is not Muslim, but we've elected a president whose middle name is Hussein.

And I think that really tells you where we are as a nation. It really gave me hope for, yeah, my son, and the larger communities and the world. I mean, it just gives me so much hope.

WERTHEIMER: Author Samina Ali, she hopes to publish her new book by next spring. You can read excerpts from books by Ali, Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz on our Web site This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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