Healing Lessons on Immigrants from Two Debut Authors
As discussions about immigration dominate and divide the nation, the media and other aspects of society are quick to push their own opinions but slow to empathize with the experience of those caught in the middle — the immigrants themselves. Especially in the South, we tend to amplify our prejudices with the hateful rhetoric of fear that places blame on those outside our norm, the others. What often fails to register within such exchanges are the frightening realities —immigrants and American citizens have become the targets of murderous hate crimes: Srinivas Kuchibholta at a bar in Kansas City, Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche on a train in Portland, and seventeen-year old Nabra Hassenen walking down the sidewalk with a giggling group of teenage friends on a late spring night in suburban Virginia.
To accept and welcome the experiences of these ostracized individuals, society must have an empathetic ear. Authors Richard Morris and Sohrab Homi Fracis confront the arduous task of healing our cultural deafness in their debut novels. With a sense of kinship and tradition, Morris of Maryland and Fracis of Florida each offer readers a different take on humanizing immigrants using themes and motifs common within American literature. These recognizable ideas serve as vehicles to improve and deepen the readers’ connection with characters from a foreign land or culture.
Morris’ Masjid Morning employs the archetype of two lovers whose families come from rival backgrounds. Think the Hatfields and the McCoys feud or Romeo and Juliet – two stories familiar to most Southerners. To draw further on common literary themes, Morris creates stereotypes recognizable within literature set in agricultural settings. However, Morris also often overuses tired ideas, a standard plotline, and stereotypical characters with the dramatic flair of a TV soap opera. His novel follows the growing romance between Amy, the daughter of a local dairy farmer, and Atif, the son of a surgeon heading the construction of a mosque within the rural community. The two meet by chance as Atif stops roadside to aid a stranded Amy with a tire. The further they find themselves wrapped in romance and the newness of their differences, the more convinced each becomes that the other will eventually commit to their chosen lifestyle. Where Amy believes that Atif will finally accept Christianity as his religion, Atif believes that she will be the one to convert to the Islamic faith.
To further the turbulence on the couple’s blossoming romance, both of their fathers are at odds due to their religious beliefs. Amy’s dad, a local farmer, heads a group that aims to stop the progression of the mosque being built by Atif’s father. As tensions stretch on like a rubber band ready to snap, Morris leaves his readers to ponder whether such fervent commitment to ideas fueled by fear is worth the potential breed of hate and violence. This holds a special potency when Amy is imprisoned and deprived of food in an attempt to squelch the relationship. Despite their differences and naïve views of one another, Amy and Atif represent the innocent, innate desire humans possess to know each other despite our differences and instead of distancing or harming one another out of fear. By continuing down the path of unjust aggression in the name of false security and actual ignorance, we risk destroying the community we seek to protect.
Fracis examines another facet of this same issue in Go Home. The coming-of-age story about the travels of Varif, an Indian Parsi Hindu, introduces readers to acts of prejudice through Varif’s eyes and narration. Where Masjid Morning focuses on the destruction of a community when faced with hatred, Go Home narrows to the personal experiences of Varif. This provides a painfully intimate snapshot of how one’s sense of identity can break when he or she fails to find belonging within a community. Despite a storyline that often jumps around from one point on the timeline to another leaving the reader derailed occasionally, Fracis serves his readers an experience that recreates the traveling lifestyle of an outsider. As Varif starts his journey with confidence and wonder toward his new experiences, his sense of placement is soon shaken both abroad and at home.
Varif travels from his home in India to the United States before making the trek back to India and eventually ending in Florida. The reader joins him as he evolves from naivety to wariness toward both cultures. After moving away from the initial comforts of his home in India, he struggles to find his place within American culture. Facing not only shaking encounters such as a physical altercation with locals that injures more than his skin, Varif must also confront the emotions boiling within himself—anger, confusion, grief, unrequited love, and betrayal among them.
Where Morris uses tropes familiar to Southerners as a way to bring his readers to face themselves, Fracis forces readers to experience life through the eyes of the immigrants victimized by prejudice and uneducated fear. While each author uses different methods, both of their works have the same moral lingering long after the covers of each book are closed. By turning on people who look and live differently from us, we turn on ourselves as fellow members of humanity. Whether violence targets those perceived to be fraternizing over lines of color and caste or those from foreign lands, humans attack other humans. Both authors pose the thought: are our enemies so real, or did we create them because of the acts of a few? If created through the acts of a few, we should judge our actions just as carefully.