[by Nicole O’Neill]
During our discussion of The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez, three themes quickly stood out: 1) the role of characters’ different immigration statuses in the story, 2) what it means to be “American” and how the United States in particular is portrayed and perceived, and 3) how the character of Alma grows and changes over the course of the novel. While our conversation touched on many interesting tangents over the course of our two meetings, time and time again our discussion returned to these central ideas.
The Hispanic immigrants peopling Henriquez’ novel are largely unknown to her readers, both socially and culturally. While these characters all hail from Central and South America, Henriquez deliberately avoids addressing the larger political context of immigration. Indeed, the immigration status of each character has nothing to do with their fate and is not central to their identity or how they relate to each other. At this level, Henriquez’ characters are all clearly American, and arriving in the United States is not their main struggle. Instead, Henriquez focuses on the emotional context of their lives, which is reinforced by the novel’s structure of short, first-person chapters narrated by different characters. Some of these chapters are part of the main narrative, while others are side stories. Perhaps this is a way of bringing in different nations’ perspectives as a form of testimony. However, some of us in the Delve seminar found these transitions to be jarring.
There is a clear sense in the novel of people immigrating to the United States not for themselves, but for their children. Indeed, all of the characters’ grown children are in universities. This echoes the educational motive of Alma and Arturo’s immigration. Although they are as poverty stricken as the other characters, their decision to come to the United States for their daughter Maribel’s school subverts the traditional narrative about coming to America for economic reasons. Alma and Arturo are not attached or attracted to “American” ideas, values, or lifestyles. They don’t aspire to be American. Instead, they came to fix their daughter, and they aren’t thinking of this as immigration. This idea of coming to America to get what you need and then leave is common among immigrants. Politically speaking, this type of “temporary immigration” doesn’t get a lot attention in the larger debate about immigration. Being “American” isn’t black or white: there is a spectrum, with a lot of gray area. Henriquez’ novel thus raises a larger question: When do you transition to being “American”?
The novel’s setting in Delaware breaks our stereotypes of the immigration story. Henriquez’s characters live on the outskirts of town in a ramshackle apartment building. The setting is bleak, isolated, and unattractive. The apartment dwellers don’t have ways to interact with other people in mainstream American culture, or even with other Latinos. In popular media, we get a lot of urban immigrant tales. This is a different perspective of people living on the outskirts. They are going to the Dollar Tree and convenience stores. All the available food is processed, unappealing garbage. This is a deliberately different representation of America than the bustling, vibrant perspective we normally see in immigration stories.
From the start, Alma’s character is positioned as that ofa caretaker, and she evolves enormously over the course of the story. At first, Alma conveys a huge amount of nostalgia, constantly looking back. She has a lot of fantasies about Maribel’s education, how wonderful her family’s life was in Mexico, and what threats they face in America. However, by the end of the book she has started moving forward. She forgives herself for Maribel’s accident and accepts that Maribel is a different person now. She has also decided to live with the tragedy of Arturo’s death. In going back to Mexico, Alma takes with her a newfound hope and belief in the possibility of new beginnings, both of which seem to be very American traits.
At the end of our two meetings, my fellow Delve participants and I all came away with a more nuanced and developed perspective on what it means to be “American,” why people come to the United States, and what the immigrant experience is really like. Our understanding of Henriquez’ novel will undoubtedly evolve further after hearing her speak at the Everybody Reads lecture on Tuesday, March 8, and all of us are looking forward to what she has to say about this important and timely issue.