I am brown and from India, and people regularly ask me if I see myself as an immigrant writer. I’ve always said no, because I want people to see the experiences and emotions of my characters as universal, and because I don’t want being brown to matter that much to me. I feel that if I allow it to, I will be letting white people decide who I am.
But this is a strange time to be an immigrant in America. In Midtown Manhattan recently, I was standing on a sidewalk waiting for a light to change. Near me was a group of white men in suits. A man who looked Middle Eastern drove by in a Rolls-Royce, and one of the men in suits turned to his friends and said, “Ahmed is driving his daddy’s Rolls.” Another day I was jogging around Central Park, and a woman with a short swinging ponytail who was also jogging started cursing me: “Go back to Pakistan.” This sort of hatred surely existed before Donald Trump became president, but it seems his example has made it more acceptable to say such things.
In some moments, I feel pushed toward an immigrant identity — and I feel a strong desire to resist. In other moments, I’m more inclined to accept the shared identity of being brown, of being South Asian, of being an immigrant. Considering that these communities are under attack, it feels pusillanimous to reject my membership. And yet these communities are so diverse that it seems bizarre to see them as sharing anything but the most general identity.
For example, a friend of mine, a man who immigrated from South America when he was 14 and now works as a porter in a Manhattan apartment building near mine, was telling me he hated Trump for labeling immigrants as criminals. As I listened, I felt a tightness in my chest. I remembered being a child in New Jersey and going for evening walks with my mother, and people driving by and shouting “Haji,” “sand n-----.” I thought of how, when I’m in a store where there are small, expensive things for sale, I keep my hands behind my back because I don’t want to be accused of shoplifting. I thought of how, if I am walking down a street at night and there is a woman ahead of me who is alone, I whistle Brahms so she knows I am no hoodlum. Reacting so strongly to my friend, I could see how a group identity made sense.
Then my friend added that it made him angry that Trump could grab women by the genitals and he could not — that he would like to do so, too, but if he were to attempt it, he would end up in jail. Hearing this, I felt betrayed, as if I had extended sympathy to someone who was not only alien but was in some way despicable.
I’ve also had trouble figuring out what to make of the fact that, according to exit polls, some 14 percent of Indian Americans and as many as 27 percent of Asian Americans appear to have voted for Trump. Some reports suggested that Indian Americans were drawn to him because they shared his hatred of Muslims. Indeed, when I spoke to Indian acquaintances who voted for Trump, they would mutter mysteriously, “He understands Muslims.” And they were suspicious of the Muslim background of Huma Abedin, a top Hillary Clinton aide.
But this antipathy does not fully explain what is going on. A better way to understand immigrants voting for Trump is to realize that being a minority can be so painful that one would rather identify with the majority and its hatred for minorities than live with the feeling of being out of place and viewed with contempt. The greater the contempt toward a minority, the stronger the need to disassociate from the attacked group.
In trying to understand dynamics like this, political scientists have looked at cooperation and competition between minorities. They have noticed that when minority groups see other minorities as affected by the same systemic discrimination, it often leads to sympathy between groups. But when people perceive themselves to be part of a hierarchy of racial and ethnic minorities, they may be more likely to associate themselves with the majority than with lower-status groups. Discrimination against blacks does not lead to sympathy with them but instead causes other minority groups to identify with whites. This is because the pressure placed on African Americans is so crushing that people reject the pain of empathy.
Voting for Trump offered immigrants a way of soothing themselves, a way of saying: I am not like those people who are hated; in fact, I am more like the whites who hate.
The idea that I might harbor the same tendencies fills me with horror. And yet I have no other explanation for why I have rejected the label of “immigrant writer”; I didn’t want to be lumped with the marginal.
When people talk to me about books and writers, I often turn to the technical: how Hemingway used “that” as a substitute for commas because he was afraid punctuation signaled constructedness and inauthenticity; how in Faulkner’s sentences prepositions serve as pivots, and once one catches on to this, one realizes that it is Faulkner’s diction that is gnarled and not his sentence structure. I focus on the intricacies of language because I want to show that I have a right to be writing in English and can’t be judged as an immigrant writer. Also, inside this focus on the granular is a threat. I am saying: I know your language and your writers better than you do. Do you really want to doubt my ability to command English?
One difference between being an immigrant writer who denies the label and one who is more willing to claim it is that now I am quicker to see others as white writers.
In a recent article in Esquire, Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, stood by his decision to spit on Colson Whitehead, the African American novelist who won this year’s Pulitzer for “The Underground Railroad.” The spitting episode occurred in 2004, in response to Whitehead giving Ford a bad review. “I don’t feel any different about Mr. Whitehead, or his review, or my response,” Ford wrote in Esquire’s June/July issue.
Once I might have written that off as just a nasty guy behaving nastily — spitting on someone in public and knowing that the other person’s manners will keep him from escalating the situation into a fistfight. But now I am less inclined to think of Ford as an ordinary cretin. In fact, I find myself looking for evidence of racist predilections.
Ford, who was born in Mississippi and grew up in the South, wrote in a 1999 New York Times magazine essay, “I was certainly a little racist as a teen-ager, even if not a very committed one.” Ford appears to be saying, “I am going to tell a scandalous truth about myself because I am brave and honest” — but then he leaves unsaid what it means to be an uncommitted racist. Did he drive by people walking down the street and curse at them? Did he smash an occasional car window? “Man up,” I thought when I read the line. In the same essay, he regretted using racial slurs in letters he wrote in his late 30s. Yet considering that he is the sort of narcissistic boor who spits on people, the way Southerners spat on civil rights protesters at lunch counters, has he really changed? I’ve always been bothered by the self-pity and sentimentality in Ford’s writing — Mother of God, how many more dead children will he write about? Now that self-pity and sentimentality remind me of the sense of being treated unfairly and the yearning for an idealized past that Trump has provoked in many of his supporters.
I have become willing to see myself as an immigrant writer, but it has made me less tolerant.
In my heart of hearts, I don’t think this is good for anyone.