Something that I enjoy when I read stories about people who have immigrated is to see how their identities change as they go from place to place. This transformation of character belies an unshakable strength that escapes many people who stay stagnant all their lives.
In Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine, the main character, Jyoti, transforms several times within the book to survive. Jyoti’s story shows the immigrant’s struggle and the danger of being female while immigrating.
For the immigrant woman, the threat of being denied her agency and personhood is much higher than for their male counterparts. Sadly, women face the danger of being sex trafficked, raped, and a slew of other dangers as they make the journey to a better life that is often not faced by men. Mind you, this isn’t to say a male immigrant’s path to a new life is riddled with ease, but Mukherjee places emphasis on the difference in her female character’s struggle to pin down their identities. This left me questioning how different subgroups of immigrants build their identities once they start their new lives.
It would seem that the author also wanted to prove a point about the flexibility of women vs. men as they move into their new lives. According to Mukherjee in a 1990 interview with the Iowa Review, women are more likely to be the family member who has to go out into the community when the family arrives to speak on behalf of their families. By doing these things, they can build ties to their new homes.
Men often spend time living in the past and remembering their homes fondly, which can sometimes hinder their progress toward building new ties with their current community. This was an interesting argument because it’s a point that Mukherjee makes about Punjabi men who have immigrated and the American men who still long for the “glory days” of their country.
If I had to choose a book I’d recommend to read after Jasmine to showcase how immigration intersects with women and those who are impoverished, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid is an excellent follow-up to Mukherjee’s book.
In Lucy, Kincaid explores the vapid and consumeristic undertones of American culture through the eyes of her teenaged protagonist. Fleeing her British-ruled Caribbean island, Lucy Potter, a nineteen-year-old au pair, comes to New York to take care of an upper-class White couple’s children. Lucy goes through all the steps of disillusionment with her life in America after having dreamed of escaping her island life and colonialism in general.
Where Jyoti in Jasmine comes to America and seems to insert herself wherever she goes seamlessly, Lucy questions ev-ery-thing she sees and all those around her. And this singular decimation of the world Lucy inhabits is why I love this book.
Lucy is for you if you’re a lover of books where there is an exploration of character and heavy emphasis on internal dialogue. Be warned, though, Lucy is not a “go with the flow” type of character. Kincaid’s writing is definitely not about smoothing the way for a reader to have a “feel-good experience.” You will feel everything about this slim volume, and like Jasmine, you will think about the main character long after you close the book.
Tell me what books have left you thinking about the characters well after closing the book in the comment section.