Digging to America by Anne Tyler
A few months ago when I came upon this fascinating article, “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by PolicyMic‘s Gracie Jin, I started trolling around for authors venturing into unexpected ‘color’-ful fictional territory. I was fascinated to find two bestselling writers who each took on transracial adoption – with vastly disparate results.
I read Ann Hood’s The Red Thread first; it had an irresponsible glibness about it … a sense of ‘hey, it’s just fiction!’ Transracial adoption was presented with a disturbing tinge of entitlement and commodification. Thank goodness that in Digging to America (energetically read by the fabulous Blair Brown), transracial adoption becomes less a focal point than a plot detail used to bring three generations of two diverse families together.
On Friday, August 15, 1997, the Dickinson-Donaldson and Yazdan clans become inextricably joined when Jin-Ho and Sooki arrive on the same flight from Korea to join their respective waiting families. Jin-Ho Dickinson-Donaldson and Susan Yazdan are the reason their parents and grandparents become friends, neighbors, even lovers, as their stories intertwine over leaf-raking get-togethers, “Arrival” parties, new year celebrations, binky send-offs, and even illness.
Bitsy and Brad Donaldson are the quintessential politically correct, trying-to-be-culturally sensitive older couple with too-loud opinions and not enough nunchi. Their overwhelming exuberance provides welcome and warmth for the younger Iranian American couple, Sami and Ziba Yazdan, whose child-rearing practices couldn’t be more different, with their double careers, preschool enrollment at age 2, and plans for private education. Soon enough, the dual family ties become further entangled when Bitsy’s father Dave and Sami’s mother Maryam begin to (finally!) spend more time together … until they don’t. Quiet, restrained, ever the ‘outsider,’ Maryam nevertheless will eventually claim the protagonist role with transforming awareness.
Anne Tyler’s own long marriage to an Iranian (who died in 1997) and their two hapa Iranian American daughters (daughter Mitra Modarressi is a children’s book author and illustrator; mother and daughter collaborated on two kiddie titles) surely gives her intimate access to ‘the other’ – her own experiences as both an outsider daughter-in-law, and as the wife to an outsider immigrant. That said, experience doesn’t always guarantee an effective transfer to the novel; Ann Hood became the mother of a Chinese-born daughter years before she wrote Red Thread.
For Tyler, her literary strength is surely in the details. Into what might initially seem to be inconsequential, sometimes even comical, small moments in her story, Tyler manages to weave in life-altering history such as 9/11 and its effects, as well as small personal changes signaled by the purchase of a new bicycle helmet. Again and again, Tyler reveals her Pulitzer Prize-winning mastery, a magical metamorphosis of the tiny into something tremendous.
Tidbit: In a rare interview (she eluded the media for 35 years!), Tyler claims she’s working on what will be her ‘final’ novel (say it ain’t so!); the title, she reveals, will be A Spool of Blue Thread. Staying tuned …