Friday, January 04, 2008

Not foreign but unfamiliar

I'm reading Gary Shteyngart's first novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, and re-reading Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction debut, the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri's characters are Indian, while Shteynagart's anti-hero is a Russian Jew, but all feel "foreign," to various degrees, in these United States. The novel and the short stories deal with the feelings of living in a no man's land, between the old country and the new, unable to return home, and unable to feel at home. The styles are a study in contrast. Lahiri's restrained and transparent prose probes and empathizes. Shteyngart is funny, exuberant, and bewildered.

Despite the sharply different instruments, in order to render the "foreign," both reify the "native." So, in "A Temporary Matter," the first story of Lahiri's collection, the marital breakdown between Shoba and Shukumar is contrasted with the marital partnership of their neighbors, the Bradfords. In the second story "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," the "native" tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating acts as a foil for the violent bloodshed of Indo-Pakistani war over Bangladesh. In Handbook, Vladimir, whose childhood was spent in Leningrad, falls in love with Francesca mostly because she is seen as American.

In colonial narratives, writers describe the exotic as a means of distinguishing between us and them, depicting either us or them as a single, stable, ahistorical essence. I wonder if contemporary immigration narratives are doing the same thing. In narrating the crises of personal and national identity, these immigration narratives depict the "native" as an essence, whether as a goal for assimilation, a standard for measurement, or a weight for overthrowing.

To conceive of oneself as foreign, one needs to conceive of the native. No foreigner, no native, and vice versa. But not all polarities in thought are equally pernicious. Foreign : native can be reformulated as unfamiliar: familiar. The latter makes room for becoming familiar with what is, on first encounter, strange, threatening, alien; becoming familiar through contact, experience, conversation, imagination; becoming familiar with not only the good and the strong, but also the bad and the weak; becoming familiar, not becoming the Other, but becoming, as the etymological meaning of the word suggests, family.

So, instead of calling languages "foreign," we can call them "unfamiliar languages," a term that will always need contextualization. Instead of "foreign policy," we will have "policy towards the unfamiliar." And those we see passing through our airports, our cities, our schools are not "foreigners," but cousins, great-aunts, grand-nephews, perhaps, mother, perhaps, son.


Anonymous said...

BAFTA is quite advanced for this. Instead of naming films for "Best Film" and "Best Foreign Film" like the Oscars, BAFTA renames them "Best Film (in English)" and "Best Film (Not in English)."

Jee Leong Koh said...

I like the renaming. One cheer for BAFTA.