One of the more difficult lessons that living in America has taught me has involved national identity. Being an immigrant has tested the shape – and rigidity – of my conception of myself as a Scot, a European. A shy, slightly prickly Lowlands-Highlander hybrid possessed of (by?) certain internal political and cultural structures that have made me feel entirely out of place in this country of loud opinions and direct eye contact and direct questions on what I would consider 3 drink minimum topics.
It has been helpful in bringing about the creation of Aida, a much more neurotic and unloved version of an immigrant, who I can subject to the stresses of an imagined, mildly monsterous New York City in order to purge some of the tensions I have felt here. Aida is English, Cornish, and comes with her own set of self-identifiers, which is the kind of challenge which makes me feel less guilty for angling so much from my own experience. Perhaps I will be able to work in similar quirks of experience and have them feel accurate. Notice the careful word choice ‘feel accurate’, not ‘be genuine’ or ‘authentic’. Not the final, defining word.
I’m sure there are lots of novels about the immigrant experience, but what I have read tends to focus on genuine, heartbreaking hardship. I think of Let The Great World Spin, which I had to give up reading, because it was too much New York destitution for me to handle just then. I want, instead, to focus on the quieter story that might be within my abilities – the story of the immigrant who goes home. There was some anecdotal statistic I read that one in three immigrants couldn’t hack the jungles of NYC, gave up on the American dream and got back on the boat. It seems plausible, compelling. For each person who does decide to return, the moment when homesickness becomes desire becomes determination to leave could have been created through the interaction of a thousand sights, ideas, responses, catastrophes, abandonments, judgments – or by any single one element sparking at a precise intensity or moment in time.
How will Aida get to that crisis point? And what will she have become, once back on familiar territory?