73/1030: “All Immigrants are Artists”

To start off on a good note, Saša Stanišić’s first novel is not only perfect (it feels like) for looking at the relationship between migration and media, but also just a really good book. Like, if people ask my what my favorite book is, I can now confidently say Wie der Soldat das Grammafon repariert. 

But this post won’t be about that. Rather, it (after thinking I was finding only references to it and not the actual original statement- and then realizing it appeared in 2013 in The Atlantic as a part of a series “By Heart” in which authors share their favorite passages with readers) will be a response to Edwidge Danticat’s claim that “all immigrants are artists.” This claim actually originally comes from Patricia Engel’s It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris and isn’t really so much a claim as an argument that Danticat finds convincing. While I intend to address this claim, I want readers to keep in mind that there is a push-back against calling literature “immigrant literature,” especially in Germany. One can call literature intercultural, but to declare a certain foreigness in writing written by people whose first language was maybe not German is “passé.” I’ll admit that this is a bit confusing to me, since it suggests that literature continues to remain national even with international contributors, but since people like classifying literature by nation and language, we’ll continue to do so even if new labels may be called for.

Recently, in an article about Yoko Tawada, a Japanese-German writer who recently won the Heirich Kleist prize, the author refers to Danicat in relationship to Tawada, as Tawada being “one of these” artists.

“All immigrants are artists,” Edwidge Danticat has said. Under pressure to make themselves legible, immigrants have no choice but to invent new ways of speaking. And in their reading of the world around them, immigrants uncover the alien that always abides in what seems, for the natives, most familiar. But some people are foreign regardless of geography; they are naturally nonnative, immigrant or not. (Galchen 2016)

People ascribe to the creativity of immigrants theory and don’t find it difficult to associate difficulty with language and expression with new creations. The interesting note about Galchen’s comment is that the opposite is also true. Artists are immigrants, nonnative, or foreign by virtue of their work. This theory I can ascribe to, if only because I identify the ability of some people to stand out from the rest, be picked from the group for characteristics that are different than the “norm.” Fasseler in the original source describes Danticat’s perspective:

trying to start a life in a strange land is an artistic feat of the highest order, one that ranks with (or perhaps above) our greatest cultural achievements.

We can see artistic integration as a cultural achievement, but are these achievements greater than all other artistic creations? One cannot forget that these people are nothing without the others, all with their uniqueness as well. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there does seem to be a certain elitist note in these kinds of comments, and I want readers to be careful about not getting too caught up in the “specialness” because it often gets conflated with “betterness.”

On the other hand, when one considers the original handling of the expression, being an artist by life could be used to dissuade them from actively pursuing it in work, as the father character in Patricia Engel’s It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris tries to dissuade his daughter:

“Pero of course it is, mijita. All your life is a work of art. A painting is not a painting but the way you live each day. A song is not a song but the words you share with the people you love. A book is not a book but the choices you make every day trying to be a decent person.” (qt. in Fasseler)

This moment resonates with Danticat, who describes her own experiences of being the child of migrants and a migrant herself, and the challenges she faced pursuing the profession of artist. This moment also resonates with her, because she sees the positive aspects of this kind of thinking:

 re-creating yourself this way, re-creating your entire life is a form of reinvention on par with the greatest works of literature. This brings art into the realm of what ordinary people do to in order to survive. It takes away the notion that art is too lofty for the masses, and puts it in the day-to-day.

There is something redeeming in the realization that art is also not just about the products produced, but the ways in which we interact and the beautiful moments that can come from these interactions. I’m reminded for a moment of “the medium is the message” and theories of intermediality and that everything we do is an expression- so I guess this claim connects to my PhD project in multiple ways. Probably a good thing and this means it’s worth exploring more closely. But this was a start.

Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge, and Joe Fassler. “‘All Immigrants Are Artists'” The Atlantic. 27 Aug. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Galchen, Rivka. “The Profound Empathy of Yoko Tawada.” The New York TImes. 27 Oct. 2016, Imagine That sec.. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Disclaimer: this series is a collection of brainstorms and free-writes that are a part of my planning for actual text in my dissertation. Therefore, I am giving myself the liberty to make mistakes, make assumptions (call me out on offensive ones, though!), not tie up loose ends, and generally not make any sense. 

Copyright 2016 Dorothea Trotter: because these writings are planning for actual text in my dissertation, some of this will appear in my dissertation. I hold the right to the words in this post and require that interested parties ask for permission before copying the words or ideas too closely. Obviously, the date of posting is the date of copyright and I reserve the right to challenge suspected plagiarism in my future dissertation submission using these blogs as proof of originality.

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One thought on “73/1030: “All Immigrants are Artists”

  1. Pingback: 246/1030: Update in work and life  – Words

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