While reading an, “Arranged Marriage” by Nell Freudenberger, something didn’t sit right. It seems as though there is a trend in contemporary literary fiction (e.g. The New Yorker) to embrace a globalization of narrative. While some stories may take place overseas, a number of them take place in the United States with the main character being an immigrant. Books like Trailing Clouds by David Cowart and Lost and Found in Translation by Martha J. Cutter speak to the long history of immigrant fiction in American literature. After all, we are a country of immigrants. Cowart examines immigrant fiction and breaks it down to the following general features:
- 1. Narration often fragmented.
- 2. Old-country folktales or other material interpolated.
- 3. Travail in school, especially in connection with learning English.
- 4. Narrators make wry, quasi-anthropological observations regarding immigrant diffidence vis-à-vis the self-assurance of native-born Americans.
- 5. Views of what makes the homeland unlivable.
- 6. Immigrants struggle with a sense of psychological and cultural doublenss (point of view often shifts: the same character can be both narrator and object of third-person narration, teller and told).
- 7. In fictions written by women: eating disorders (examples in novels by Alvarez, Danticat, Hegi, Garcia).
- 8. Immigrants exploit immigrants.
- 9. The immigrant must deal with prejudice and homesickness but eventually becomes empowered by a new American identity.
- 10. Cultural contrasts often represented as generational conflict (older immigrants at odds with their more easily Americanized children).
It wasn’t the generalities that bothered me about Freudenberger’s work. What bothered me about “An Arranged Marriage” is how disingenuous it felt. It seems as though Freudenberger has taken these facets of immigrant fiction and stitched together a story that is reductive and unoriginal.
Is this a case of writing to an audience, or trying something new? I’m not sure. The inspiration came from a chance encounter with a woman who later became her friend, and whom she loosely based this work on. The piece, “Grandmother’s House” was published in 2007 and tells of Freudenberger’s trip to India with her friend Farah. It’s a delicate balance speaking for others. Can a writer shift their perspective enough to accurately portray someone’s experience from a different culture? What about writing for someone, or using a large amount of reference material i.e. interviews, and primary sources? It’s a risk. That’s not to say, don’t do it. Writing should always have some risk. Without putting anything on the line, or pushing in new directions, writing becomes stagnant. Freudenberger is deft and careful in portraying Amina and her perspective, however the story fails to articulate Amina’s experience in a way that stays with the reader. Unlike the work of Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Gary Shteyngart, or Ha Jin, Freudenberger’s narrative lacks the energy and authenticity that makes those writer’s work standout.