Tag Archives: immigration

A subtext of what’s important

 

This subtext I reference: it’s nothing special. I mean that all stories have subtext, so it’s not as though authors do so much to inject it. Actually, the perception of subtext is more the job of the reader, in my opinion. These characters of Blended, who live in suburban Oregon in 2016, with the backdrop of an impending, contentious election, have elements to themselves that place them on different sides of social order. They’re parts of groups—some large and dominant, others small and vulnerable. I don’t have to spell it all out. As in therapy, you’d feel where everyone fits, because I think you’d relate.

Tillie Marsden is different from her mother, is closer to the spirit of her dad, who passed away when she was a teen. Mom is parochial, has barely ever left Tennessee, never mind looked beyond American borders with interest or concern. As Tillie volunteers through her local church to help a refugee Pakistani family assimilate into American life, she is re-igniting old, altruistic as well as internationalist leanings. Unlike her family, she is more in touch with her world citizen self. She’s a natural joiner, fits in seamlessly at church, at her non-profit workplace (though she dislikes its autocratic, national politics-mirroring new leadership). She is intuitively inclusive, open to new experiences and people. She is perhaps naïve.

Bill Marsden, her husband, is indulgent of Tillie’s volunteerism, but is skeptical. In between lines, a reader might detect his curmudgeonly scoffing. He’s decent and industrious, and in these ways, he embodies a familiar ethos in western society: he’s a provider, a father; a tacit advocate of neo-liberalist economics, which decree an individualist notion: anyone can make it in this world if they just roll up their sleeves and work hard. Therefore, anyone who isn’t making it is presumptively lazy or unmotivated, or else spending too much time whining. Jacob, his indolent twenty-something son, is therefore something of a challenge, not because he whines, but rather because he doesn’t work hard enough, or doesn’t seize his days properly. Bill is torn between competing needs: to commonly bond with his son versus lighting a fire under him.

Tillie is supportive of Bill’s parental stance, but becomes quietly sympathetic to Jacob’s idiosyncratic, indecisive nature, knowing it’s a function of his individuating path, which ought not be forced. Besides, she remembers a time when she was young and undecided over life’s direction, and was similarly wayward in her habits. Bill, meanwhile, is manifesting his own split internalizations. His late father was a Korean war veteran, and—I sort of hint—a roguish, perhaps womanizing husband (I don’t actually give evidence of this. Again, reader’s job?) Anyway, having not donned a military uniform himself, Bill is solely an economic warrior, and he protects women and children in the plainest and less dramatic ways, eschewing only emotional chores, to his detriment. His mother, still living, is a close-to-home figure—too close, actually. She hoards belongings, clings and irritates, and in so doing, exhibits her unconscious, chronic fear of loss. Thus, Blended is partly about people in relationship who are like one another, and otherwise how they live with differences.

Foreigners intrude, almost literally, and set up a few mirrors, but mostly provide contrast. That’s not the author’s POV, necessarily, but that’s the sense a reader should have if immersed in this fictional Bishop Grove world. My Pakistani refugee family cling together for survival and warmth, and seem ever-calibrating from lingering trauma and seeking fresh air to breathe. The father and husband, Bahram, seems most enamored of his new home and community, and he will look for Tillie’s help in ways that will test her limits. She must figure out a way to help him, to help Mira, his wife, and to help them all while protecting them from common, middle-American projections: that these poor, refugee immigrants are helpless, reliant upon charity; soaking up public resources or Tillie’s time away from her real family.

For many, family is not just the most important unit of society, it is an accomplice to that neo-liberal economic and individualist myth, and this generates considerable stress in some. I have clients, for example, who lament that they don’t have enough time to occupy themselves with social causes, community outreach, and they usually cite the dual priorities of work and family as the reason. I have Tillie belong to a church so as to compliment religious institutions for providing a compromise, for church programs manage to do both, I think: they confront social problems, organize events around community causes while engaging families in a process that brings them together at the same time. This traditional pastime isn’t uniting Tillie, Bill, and Jacob, but that’s only because Bill and Jacob are not religious, which isn’t the fault of the church.

I didn’t have to place action away from American shores to spark this contemplation of outsiders and insiders, similarity and difference, and in an important way I haven’t. I might have fashioned a drama that was closer to home but still compelling notice of diversity and disadvantage: an event based upon the water crisis that has befallen Flint, Michigan, for example, or the Standing Rock controversy, regarding a pipeline project that threatens to impinge upon Sioux Indian lands. Progressives, who can also be parochial, might complain that home-grown oppression is more important for artists and writers to address. As an immigrant and now American (and world) citizen, I lean towards depicting the less fortunate visitor, the truly outside and exiled individual—the refugee—and emphasizing not so much the political triggers of their escape but rather moments of assimilation blended with needs we all have in common. Water is, of course, a need everyone has in common. Oil? I’ll leave that as a question mark.

However, the focus of Blended is upon emotional needs that Americans, foreigners, people from Tennessee, all presumptively have in common: love, attachment, and—paradoxically—separation, and freedom. Hard work. Hard writing. If I keep going like this, I should make it, you might think. I might make it. But for now, I am almost done orienting the reader to what’s important about my novel without giving everything away. I want the reader to do some work, after all. Will you?

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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On Blended: the refugee story

 

So, the plot of Blended centers around Tillie’s decision to volunteer through her local church to help a refugee family from Pakistan assimilate into American society, or more specifically, into the fictional middle-American mini-pot that is Bishop Grove, Oregon. The family consists of a thirty-something couple with seven kids, recently emigrated from the area of Pakistan that is near the dangerous Afghan border. The father is a former translator for a private security force attached to an unidentified American corporation. He says little about this background and Tillie doesn’t inquire, not so much because she isn’t interested—more because she is discreet in her approach. Half-internalizing her ambiguously xenophobic mother, she is reticent in her queries, not wanting to intrude. Tillie is…what’s the word…polite?

This lends an air of tension as the story proceeds, as curiosity builds and mysteries grow. What were their lives actually like in Pakistan? Why did they leave, or why did they leave so suddenly? Why is this foreign couple—Bahram and Mira are their names—so brittle and seemingly distant with each other? It seems inevitable that something will be revealed, and it won’t be pleasant. The reader may observe that Bahram seems enamored of American life, its seeming abundance, material promise. Actually, what he likes most is the fresh, unpolluted air, the greenery in the landscapes; the chance to see an ocean and relax on sand that is devoid of warfare. The rest of the family seems numb, and Tillie wonders: How are the children—aged 1 and ½ through 12—coping with the upheaval in their lives? They seem variably adjusted to circumstances: some are playful and bright; one or two others seem withdrawn and haunted. Whatever is the truth, none of it seems normal to Tillie.

And Tillie herself doesn’t know what normal is. Or, she is re-appraising that vague construct. Such and such is the new normal. That’s commonspeak today, for none of us knows anymore, I guess, what normal is. Peripherally interested in the politics of 2016, and critically observant of her own society’s norms, Tillie is perhaps best positioned to guide a new immigrant without judgment or fear. She is open-minded, and at least imagines that she will not be subject to any fears or judgments from this immigrant family—an assumption that will be tested when they begin to inquire about her. What will they make of her background: of divorce, of blended families, a third marriage, an unsatisfying working like in which she is straining for purpose? She might imagine their envy of so-called first world problems. Meanwhile, what will they think of American consumerism, or the various icons of American culture that they have previously experienced (especially the covetous husband), but only from afar. And will they experience xenophobia, or its umbrella concept, racism, as they settle in?

BTW, in telling this story, I’m not trying to assert myself as any kind of expert with respect to immigration, society’s norms, the politics of the Pakistan-Afghanistan region—none of that. Also, commentary on domestic politics is at best allegorical, perhaps facile, even. We’re not talking to one another properly: that’s the main subtext of Blended. The remaining thematic residue is really in the title. There’s a mix here of background, of present, of future fears and hopes, which block clear thinking, blinds vision. But it’s there to see. Characters observe in others what they might see in history and in themselves, but if they stopped and observed themselves—what’s called the observing ego in object relations/ego psychology—then…well, society would be better, let’s say. Projections are interlocking, moving fast, and in various directions. The author corrals ideas, other bits and pieces, but I, for one, don’t really know how these stories end. My endings are contrivances, my best guess (es), reflecting a desire for tidy order.

Which reminds me…

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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Falling Squirrels

 

Staying with a theme. But first, a departure: last entry I wrote about some public musings (that’s like, thought plus something) of Salman Rushdie, who remarked that there are too many books in the world, sort of. He didn’t sound as elitist as I’m making him sound, but he was cautionary. Should we keep publishing? Do we need to, he meant, given the volume of titles that exist? He forgot one factor, it seems to me. This will sound elitist. People don’t read. Or, they don’t read old-fashioned print–not as much. And they don’t read novels, especially. Or do they? I don’t know. I heard all this on the radio, another declining medium. Perhaps if books could be downloaded onto I-phones. Actually, can they? Is there an AP for that yet….someone?

Anyway, a man in my office—not the same one as last time—also mentioned squirrels this week. I guess people have squirrels on their minds. Coincidence? Maybe not. Maybe squirrels are a new zeitgeist. Squirrels are important because they feature metaphorically in my novel, Blended. They scurry about the property, stealing food, getting in places they shouldn’t. That was the problem, the man in my office said. Squirrels were climbing atop his roof. One had fallen down the chimney and gotten stuck. He had to get it out. Can’t let it—them—run wild.

They run wild in my novel, also. Or, they are onlookers. They comment on us secretly. Tillie Marsden, my protagonist, ignores them, has other nuisances in mind, at home and at work. Home comes first: where will Bill, her third and by far her best husband, insist on taking them on vacation this broken year of 2016? Tillie likes modest getaways to seaside villages. Bill prefers rugged adventure in the wilderness. I know. What first world drama, you’re thinking? How will you, the reader, stand the suspense? Do I know how to grip you, or what? Well, hang on. Give me a few pages. So far, I’ve given you squirrels as metaphors, so you must be intrigued. And there is that interesting title, Blended, after all.

Tillie’s step-son, Jacob, a largely idle twenty-something, is part of that blend. He is an ambiguous nuisance, not stealing but certainly consuming food, and getting in places that he might have left by now, such as the living room couch. He’s back and forth between home and school, drifting towards his future. What he really wants to do with his life is unclear, but what you’ll read (hopefully) are the offhand comments from the millennial crypt: his thoughts about life as it is in art, as in action movies, as in war, terrorism as a spectator sport; modern diet. Tillie is mystified by Jacob, but were she to look more closely, she’d note similarities between him and her younger self.

There is little that is mystifying about Bill, to whom Tillie has been married for seven years. In his late fifties, he is stably employed, financially secure, having launched at least one of his three adult children. Cuckolded by his first wife, Bill seems decent and reliable, if slightly insecure. His only other foible is a curmudgeonly edge, which he betrays as Tillie introduces plans to help refugee families. Bill is skeptical the way that middle America seems skeptical: he doesn’t know much about life in Pakistan, and doesn’t care to know much. Though careful with his thoughts, he probably thinks that immigrants are a problem. They represent security risks. They steal or consume too much; will get in places they shouldn’t.

 

 

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