Book Review: Digging to America by Anne Tyler - a witty and endearing portrait of modern family life, multilingualism and culture

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In this blog post I am going to review a book I read recently - Digging to America by Anne Tyler.  Anne Tyler is a famous American novelist and I have read multiple articles about her and quite a few reviews of her books over the years, yet somehow never got around to reading one of  her works up until very recently. Digging to America may not be  her most famous book - she has published an impressive 22 novels to date, including the Pulitzer Prize winning Breathing Lessons and A Spool of Blue Thread, which came out in 2015 to great acclaim and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Yet it is this book I have chosen due to its subject matter - multiculturalism, family life and the experience of immigrating to and assimilating in a foreign country, all of which are topics I find fascinating and very relatable.

The novel is set in Baltimore and revolves around two Korean baby girls, who get adopted by two American families. The families meet at the airport,  whilst waiting for their respective adopted children to arrive in the US on the same flight from Korea. They  immediately bond over this exciting and emotional experience and develop a warm friendship over the years. It becomes a tradition for both sets of parents, as well as grandparents and other relatives to host an annual Arrival Party to celebrate the day their little treasures first arrived on American soil.

Even though the two little girls - Susan and Jin-Ho - are seemingly the book’s main protagonists, the central character in this novel is in fact Maryam Yazdan, Susan’s paternal grandmother, who is Iranian American. Having immigrated to the States to be with her new husband aged 19, Maryam is a naturalised American citizen, who, nevertheless,  retains very close emotional, linguistic and cultural ties with her country of birth and feels nostalgic about her life and family back home despite Iran’s troubled political past. Maryam is well-integrated into the American society and yet does not feel like she truly belongs. At one of the gatherings the two families have together, someone asks her where she is from and if she likes living in America. “I have been here for 39 years” is Maryam’s polite and slightly weary response. “Of course I like it.” I am sure a lot of people living outside the country of their birth can relate to this experience. You can live somewhere for decades, learn the language, become a citizen, do your best to fit in and still have your “foreignness” pointed out to you with questions like that, which, albeit innocent enough, can be very annoying at best. Maryam also has to deal with ill-informed and at times patronising comments  about her country’s tradition and culture. A man takes her out on a date and casually remarks that he would like to see her wear “her native dress” sometime. Needless to say, that first date is also their last. 

Maryam’s American-born son Sami, Susan’s father, does not share her affection for and attachment to Iran. Never having even been to Iran, he is an all-American thirty something, who understands his mother’s native tongue - Farsi- but has not spoken it since the age of four, when he discovered that he was the only Farsi speaking child in his kindergarten class. As so many children of first-generation migrants, he chose to drop the language of his parents in favour of the language spoken by everyone outside his home environment. His wife Ziba, who immigrated to the US with her family as a teenager, has fully integrated into her adoptive country’s culture and despite her slightly accented English seems “native born, almost”. 

And then, of course, there the two little girls. After their initial meeting, two families soon discover that they have very different approaches to raising their daughters. The Iranian American Yazdans are keen to ensure their adored baby girl adapts well to her new country by changing her name from Sookie to a more American sounding Susan and making every effort to give her a typical American upbringing. Immigrants themselves,  and still struggling with certain cultural identity issues, they are eager to spare Susan any such qualms in the future. The other family - the Donaldsons - take a totally different view. The parents keep the baby’s original Asian name - Jim-Ho and her Asian haircut. “ We don’t feel we should Americanize her” says Bitsy, the child’s adoptive mother, keen on preserving her daughter’s cultural heritage by dressing her in traditional Korean dresses. Every year, on the anniversary of the girls’ arrival, the families  take turns hosting an Arrival Party for them, where they eat cake, watch a video of that first airport meet and greet and sing “ She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”. But what will the girls themselves think of these celebrations when they get older? Will they feel embarrassed and will they end up wishing their parents simply threw them a birthday party instead? 

Food is a recurring theme throughout the novel and is used to accentuate Maryam’s and other Iranian characters’  love for their country and the way they are perceived by others. One year,  the Yazdans invite the Donaldsons to their traditional Iranian New Year’s dinner (celebrated in spring). Maryam spends a whole week shopping for ingredients, cooking and setting up  the traditional Haftseen table for their guests.  When Maryam travels to Vermont to visit her cousin, the latter’s American husband serves them a full Iranian meal for dinner, taking special care to pronounce the names of all the complicated dishes in perfect Farsi. His well-meaning attempt at paying homage to his wife’s culture amuses and slightly irritates Maryam, who finds the whole experience utterly ridiculous. 

Digging to America is a very warm and humorous story of familial and cultural ties, child rearing, cultural identity and modern American life. I have thourougly enjoyed reading it and will be stocking up on more Anne Tyler books in the near future. 

Have you read this novel? I would love to hear your thoughts on it - please feel free to leave a comment or drop me a message via the Contact link.