A few nights ago, instead of sitting in the dark with a lit candle, I opened the April 18, 2011, issue of the New Yorker. Before I turned to the contents, I glanced through the window, surprised when I saw the branches of the dogwood tree, backlit by twilight, to realize how long the light lasts now. I liked that the issue had a title. Journeys. Scanning the page, I paused at a section called Coming to America. Lore Segal. Teju Cole. Azar Nafisi. Gary Shteyngart. Yiyun Li. Kiran Desai. Where to begin?
In the summer of 2007, by fortune or fluke, I found myself at Yaddo. Azar Nafisi was there, working apparently on what became Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter. She is about my age. Or so it seemed. I was intrigued by the way she wore it–her age–the way her appearance was both raspy and light. Marguerite Duras used the word ravaged to describe the look of age in a woman’s face. The Nicaraguan poet Daisy Zamora has this look. Jeanne Moreau has this look. Azar made me think of Jeanne Moreau, of Jeanne Moreau’s voice narrating for Marguerite Duras in the film version of The Lover:
Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then.
We spoke a few times about Iran. I mentioned that my father had worked there, that I had visited in the early 7os. Oh. In the days before. A (very) young journalist, Kirk Johnson, was also a guest at the time. A former employee of USAID in Iraq and the founder and executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, he has become a leading public advocate for Iraqis who assisted the U.S. Government. He has written op-eds on the subject for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Foreign Policy, and given interviews to numerous media outlets, including 60 Minutes, the Today Show, and World News Tonight. The hype of the week centered on ABC news camera teams coming to Saratoga Springs to interview him. I saw him one night in the back garden of the Adelphi Hotel, speaking on behalf of Iraqi refugees seeking asylum. His demeanor was earnest, his delivery, articulate, but there was something erratic, something moving incessantly beneath the surface of his exterior. I don’t know whether Kirk knew Farci or Azar knew Arabic, but I saw them together often, speaking and laughing in a language that sounded both familiar and other worldly.
One night someone asked if we’d like to see the tower in the attic at the top of the mansion. A few of us climbed a narrow staircase and entered a room. It might have had a slanted floor. A wide window at the front of the room looked down on the rose and rock gardens. I remember a mirror and, inside a closet, a kind of kneeling shrine.
A hallway on the west side of the room led to a flat roof, open to the sky. The cracked floor was brittle and creaked as if it might break through as we crossed it. The sky was very dark. Very clear. I hadn’t seen the stars in a long time. It was good to be outside. And then, in pieces through the many branches, the lopsided, dark yellow moon appeared. Behind us, a whispering in Arabic from the shadows.
At Yaddo people come and go. A few days after I arrived, Azar left. Kirk was often alone. One night it was raining. I found him in one of the Adirondack chairs on the back porch of West House, searching his pockets so that he could light a cigarette for Suki Kim, another (very) young writer, author of The Interpreter. I heard only the tail end of their conversation. “What do people do when the Guggenheim money runs out?” Suki asked. Only it was more like she had spoken to herself. She answered herself as well. “I guess they teach.” Kirk asked if I had a match. I shrugged. Did something with my hand and contorted my face somehow instead of answering. “That was such a Middle Eastern no.” “What?” “That was such a Middle Eastern way of telling me no. How did you know how to do that?” I shrugged. Waved my hand back and forth and contorted my face instead of answering.
I suppose it was because of these brief encounters that I turned first to Azar Nafisi’s essay on Coming to America, “Vagabond Nation.” I was disappointed. I didn’t feel in her memory, the fascination with America she had felt as a girl in Tehran. A fascination with misfits that began with the story of the Wizard of Oz and a river called the Mississippi. Her characterization of the stranger sitting in the chair beside her in the room where they were waiting to become naturalized, though exact, was missing something. When she saw him again outside on the street, asking through a rolled down window if she would like a lift, her absent minded response seemed as characterless and unbeautiful as her description of the Immigration and Naturalization office on the side of a highway in Fairfax, Virginia. Perhaps there was another moment to remember. An afterthought. Something she later remembered she had forgotten.
Yiyun Li’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” though its subject, her observation of and astonishment with being happy and having fun that apparently typifies what Americans are most preoccupied with, was interesting enough, true enough, left me equally flat.
Why so hard to please? And who am I to say? I was thinking last week about the difference between competent and exceptional. How rare it is to come upon the exceptional, how I recognize it when I see it. Maybe what I am really getting at is what pleases me? What are the signs? What happens to me? What is left afterwards?
I liked Kiran Desai’s essay, “Fatherland.” I think I dreamed about it last night or maybe I woke up, thinking about it, or maybe I woke up thinking about its structure and was reminded of the way things don’t have to line up neatly or ring and bang open with meaning at the end like a cash register drawer. I liked her admissions of shame:
Some years later in the States, I experienced the mounting dread of the revenge visit. [. . .] They’d dry their underpants on our subdivision bushes and, when they were told they were breaking rules, they’d pooh-pooh American freedom.
I liked the way the voice of her father, long dead, erupted without warning in her ears: Don’t be sentimental. I liked that she listened.
Everyone loves Gary Shteyngart. Everywhere I look, Super Sad True Love Story rises to the top. Without exception. I have a habit of putting off until later what everyone adulates at the moment. But I liked “Map Quest.” I identified easily with his obsession with maps. I loved his idiosyncratic descriptions of color–“the topographical yellows of the African veldt and the pale caviar grays of the Caspian Sea”–and the way he described calculating distances and the time it would take to get back home to Leningrad, even though Leningrad was no longer home. I was charmed by the unflattering way he portrayed himself as a child:
I had spent little time with children in Russia, because my asthma kept me at home. I had no social skills, only the worlds of family and books, so at Hebrew school in Queens I sat at a separate lunch table and talked to myself in Russian as the children laughed and made cuckoo signs at me.
I was charmed by his voice. Even more charmed when I heard it. You can be charmed too. “Map Quest” is accompanied by a short video.
Two more videos from the Coming to America series follow Shteyngart’s. One is a profile of Lore Segal. The other is of Teju Cole.
On tape–her voice, her expressiveness, the way she moves through the landscape, the barge moving past on the Hudson behind her, Lore Segal holds my attention completely. Her essay “Spry for Frying” did not. Maybe the title put me off before I began. Maybe I don’t like blinking signs. Maybe I just don’t like Crisco.
Of the six one-page meditations on Coming to America, Teju Cole’s “Home, Strange Home” worked best for me. So well, in fact, that minutes after I had finished it, I ordered Open City, a novel that, instead of a plot, offers a mind, reflecting and reminiscing as the character wanders around Manhattan. This appeals to me. When I ask myself what it was about “Home, Strange Home” that held me captive, I settled on the identification factor. Maybe it is the way Cole can’t seem to decide whether Nigeria is home or America is home. Maybe it is the way he finds it easier to see one place when he is far away in the other. Though he calls what he remembers from a distance, inventing:
That evening, I began to invent new memories for myself. These new memories were all about the home I had left to come back home: what I had liked about that other life, and what part of it I was happy to be rid of.
Sometimes reading is a kind of fingerpost. Being reminded of yourself is a little like watching someone jump first. And then you understand that it is your turn.