Our national debate about immigration has become so two-dimensional, so relentlessly focused on economics and race, that we tend to ignore something harder to define and perhaps more important: the way that exiles and immigrants enlarge our understanding of the world and our place within it. They bring with them their culture — music, food, courtship rituals, child-raising patterns, ways of occupying and moving in space and of relating to other people, histories far differently shaped than ours, and a trove of memories that can be joyous, bitter, shadowed, mundane. From Maxine Hong Kingston to Charles Simic to Jhumpa Lahiri, they have also given us a rich body of literature. Immigrants change our angle of vision and set everyday life slightly atilt; The breath of strangeness an immigrant carries just walking down the street is at once a challenge and an invitation.
Rupinder Gill, Kimi Cunningham Grant and Loung Ung bring very different perspectives to the immigrant experience, but each in her own way deepens our understanding. Gill’s musings are light: Her parents are Indian, she was brought up in Canada, and like many children of immigrants, she longs to escape the limitations of her traditional childhood and indulge in such quintessentially North American activities as driving a car and attending summer camp. Grant’s life is peaceful, but her awareness of the ordeal suffered by her Japanese American grandmother in one of the internment camps set up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor pushes insistently at the edges of her consciousness, and she feels compelled to piece together this story. Ung fled Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia as a child, and nightmarish memories roil her outwardly placid life as a university student. It takes many years and much turmoil before she can find a way to use her experience to help others and reconcile her two realities.
At the beginning of her memoir, “Lulu in the Sky,” Ung is living a typical undergraduate life at a small Catholic college in Burlington, Vt. She gossips with girlfriends, eats a lot of junk food and melts when she encounters a handsome fellow student on the street. But there are differences that go far beyond the expatriate’s usual nostalgia and the fact that Ung thinks and speaks in four languages. For her, earthworms writhing on a sidewalk after rain summon images of rotting corpses, a friendly neck hug provokes uncontrollable rage, and her first attempt to make love with her boyfriend is marred by memories of the Vietnamese soldier who tried to rape her when she was 9. Ung is intensely sensitive to television images of war and genocide; news of Pol Pot’s death brings her close to a nervous breakdown and prompts her finally to commit her story — and that of her ravaged country — to paper.
In two earlier memoirs, Ung described growing up in Cambodia, where she experienced hunger and hardship, and where both her parents and many of her relatives were killed by the Khmer Rouge. She arrived in the United States at the age of 10. “Lulu in the Sky” alternates between her life here and her visits to Cambodia, a country that, despite all, she loves deeply and where she maintains warm and vital relationships with surviving family members. After college, she goes to work for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and becomes active in the international campaign to ban landmines.
At the center of Ung’s story is the loving and preternaturally patient Mark — the handsome boy on the sidewalk — and it is through this relationship that we experience her slow healing and maturation. What begins as an undergraduate crush, with all the usual petty jealousies and insecurities (a decade into the relationship, Ung has still not introduced Mark to the highly traditional brother and sister-in-law who brought her up), deepens into a love that withstands Ung’s prickliness, hesitation and bouts of despair. You can’t help liking and admiring this young woman who, having endured so much as a child, has devoted her life to promoting justice and understanding, and who ends her lively, humorous account with both an excellent bibliography and an idiosyncratic list of favorite restaurants. So when you arrive at the hard-earned happy ending, it’s with a sigh of deep relief.
Grant’s “Silver Like Dust” explores the experiences of her grandmother, who spent three years in a concentration camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo., during World War II. This was a result of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the relocation inland of all Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the Pacific Coast after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The historical details may be of interest to those unfamiliar with this stain on American history, the intense prejudice and discrimination suffered by Asian immigrants even before the war, and the fact that Japanese families who had worked hard and loyally to assimilate lost all they had and were sent to bleak and isolated camps.
But given the extensive written record, this narrative also should have introduced something new: showing the contemporary relevance of this attack on civil liberties — surely not difficult in the post-9/11 environment — or enlivening the story through specific reminiscences of the woman Grant calls her Obaachan. Though Grant does contrast the Japanese internees’ shikataganai — roughly translated as an acceptance of what can’t be changed, which she comes to see as a reflection of wisdom and dignity rather than passivity — with the political activism of her own generation, there’s little else in the way of a contemporary political frame.
Obaachan herself is either not much given to reflection or profoundly reticent, so she offers few revelatory details. Grant attempts to bring their discussions to life on the page with rather prosaic bits of physical description: She herself twirls a grilled shrimp in garlic sauce, Obaachan kicks her sneaker-clad feet as she speaks. When Obaachan kills a small and apparently harmless snake she’s found sunning itself on her path, Grant refers to a “ruthless side of my grandmother” and calls the incident “comical, bewildering, and impressive” but doesn’t convince the reader. And none of this is enough to make her memoir compelling.
Rupinder Gill’s “On the Outside Looking Indian” is sometimes charming and sometimes mildly amusing, but there’s almost nothing at stake here. Gill grew up in a very strict immigrant household, not allowed to take dance classes, go to summer camp or do most of the other things enjoyed by youngsters in her community — a small town an hour from Toronto. She and her sisters passed the time watching television and eating junk food in the basement. Hers was not an unkind or abusive home; the story she tells is the familiar one of traditional immigrant parents struggling to make a life in a new country, and of children who want to assimilate and would rather eat French fries than jalebi. It might have been interesting to learn more about the parents’ lives and thoughts and the deeper differences between the two cultures, but that is not Gill’s focus.
At 30, Gill decides to change her life, take some risks and experience everything she’d been denied as a youngster. She’s not planning drunken orgies, a relocation to the Czech Republic or a jungle trek. Hers is a modest list that includes sleepovers, learning to swim, visiting Disney World and getting a puppy.
Significant memoirs and personal narratives have been written about quiet lives and small events, but they require a poetic or dramatic writing style and the ability to extrapolate from the mundane to the universal. Gill’s style is unfocused, and the challenges she creates for herself don’t really go anywhere. The slumber party doesn’t live up to her teenage fantasies of horror movies and prank calls, though it turns out to be pleasant. We might care about the swimming lessons if Gill had to conquer a real terror of water, longed to become a competitive swimmer or met a sexy man in the pool. As it is, she just learns to swim a bit. No single encounter or event leaps to life — not even a visit to India with her mother — and the narrative has little momentum or unexpected detail to hold the reader’s interest. There’s just no real story here. And by the end, Gill hasn’t even acquired a puppy.
LULU IN THE SKY
A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness
By Loung Ung
Harper Perennial. 330 pp. Paperback, $15.99
SILVER LIKE DUST
One Family’s Story of America’s Japanese Internm ent
By Kimi Cunningham Grant
Pegasus. 325 pp. $26.95
ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING INDIAN
How My Second Childhood Changed My Life
By Rupinder Gill
Riverhead. 277 pp. Paperback, $15