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Does “Immigrant Writing” Exist?

By Susan Harris

Artistic rendition of immigrants on the steamer Germanic, 1887.
Image: Immigrants on the Steamer Germanic, illustration, 1887. Wikimedia Commons.

This month’s issue on migration to and within Italy revisits a frequent WWB topic. It’s an endlessly variable subject, as diverse and specific as the people and countries involved. With this in mind, we’re returning to Saša Stanišić’s bracing “Three Myths of Immigrant Writing: A View from Germany,” from November 2008. A Bosnian who emigrated to Germany in 1992, writes in German, and here translates himself into English, Stanišić challenges stereotypical responses to his and other immigrant writers’ work. To wit:

1. “Immigrant writing” is not a single category. He notes that, contrary to critical assumptions, he and his “immigrant colleagues” actually have very little in common, and cannot usefully be lumped together (one might, he suggests, more fruitfully group their books by color). 

2. Immigrant writers write on far more than the single topic of migration and immigration. Stanišić also debunks the notion that the topic is “reserved” for immigrant writers, and rejects unearned praise based solely on biography: “The quality of the writing does not automatically increase because an immigrant author survived five wars and tells the world about it.”

3. Immigrant writers do not automatically enrich their adopted languages. Stanišić pinpoints the inherent condescension of reviewers virtually patting writers on the head for writing in their new languages (“oh, look how well that foreigner learned German”). Of course writers new to a language can produce dazzling linguistic effects; so can native speakers.

All three of these myths in effect replicate in the literary sphere what too often occurs in the social: the immigrant is stereotyped, isolated, judged by different standards, and excluded from the larger community. In a week in which identity, appropriation, and boundaries are very much in the air, Stanišić provides a useful perspective from which to view this month’s issue as well as our earlier looks at exileimmigration, and migrant labor—and indeed all writing.

Published Sep 16, 2016   Copyright 2016 Susan Harris

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