Tag Archives: refugees

Judging a book by its cover

 

Stay close to home: that was the advice—more of a plea, actually—of Tillie’s mother. She’d been widowed when Tillie was sixteen, and when she was in middle age, where Tillie is now. Where the author of Blended is now. Write about what you know, advise some. And I do, in bits and pieces, with the rest culled from various sources. I know a bit about immigration, actually, because I’m an immigrant from the UK, of almost forty years. Despite that fact, I know something about staying close to home, especially in recent years. I am middle-aged…sigh. The rest of Blended emerges from bits and pieces observed—in some cases poached—from others’ lives, reliable if imperfect witnesses. The subtext of Blended involves that which everyone observes, or ought to, anyway. That’s the stuff everyone gets to think about.

Tillie Marsden, my protagonist, is not an immigrant, but she once departed from another culture. I write that comment as an assimilated Californian, as someone who has never visited Tennessee, Tillie’s birthplace, which she left behind to attend college as a late teen. Today, I—and a lot of Californians, I think—look upon states like Tennessee as foreign countries. It is the heart of Red-state America—red-stained America according to some. It is Trump country. Before it, Bush country, and before that, it was the battleground (or close to it) of the civil rights movement and confederate heritage. In my stereotyping mind, it is linked with provincial conservatism, and therefore it is the backdrop of Tillie’s reactive interests.

And yet, she hasn’t traveled that much. She hasn’t learned that much about foreign culture, exotic or not. She hasn’t had the adventures she may have pined for as a girl; the freedom she may have craved as a young woman. At fifty-two, she has found stability in genteel, suburban, not-quite foreign life. She has a husband of seven years—a man who seems to provide normalcy, even a benignly backwards mentality, in all matters. Bill Marsden, a stalwart Oregonian, has stayed close to home—perhaps too close to home—for he struggles to understand his kids’ separatist ways. He seems split between his parents’ divergent models: father a veteran and rogue; mother a hoarding, hypochondriac nest-builder. Bill’s tacit compromise is to vacation with ardor, but otherwise stay home. Keep mother happy. Keep wives happy.

A one-time divorcee (Tillie has failed at marriage twice), he has yet to get it right with women, and Tillie’s satisfaction is ambiguous. He is vulnerable, and she is at least distracted. There’s a sense in Blended that Tillie’s one-time aspirations, her fanciful dreams, got away from her, but she’s not quite done with them. Former adventures are un-finished; plans were aborted (don’t take that literally). She’s had a stop-start life, both in love and work. In play she has been more careful, though her friends, with whom she lives vicariously, are less so: her workmate, Gina, for example; Bahram, the Pakistani man whom she befriends through her current volunteer work. That volunteer job, seized in serendipity, is the residue of a one-time dalliance with social work: a life that got away.

The cover of Blended says something of her present life, blending iconic images of middle America with ominous clouds hovering above. On the back cover, in the back yard, so to speak, are the onlooking squirrels, symbolizing mischief, possibly menace. Judge it (the cover), for I think you’ll be impressed by the evocative art of my friend and collaborator, Philip Lawson. The interior of the Marsden’s American Craftsman is closed, but not boarded up or wrapped in iron railings for protection. Complacency and comfort, situated on the eve of disruption, is implied. Naivete or ignorance may be suggested also, but for that you’d have to look beyond the cover and read. Reading might be the best antidote to naivete and ignorance, but I don’t know, really. I don’t know anything about the refugee’s immigration, for example. Haven’t lived that. Can’t just read about that. So there. I don’t only write what I know.

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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