Friday, May 1, 2015

A Small Dig at Digging to America

19. Digging to America by Anne Tyler



Anne Tyler is perhaps the best-known living author from my hometown of Baltimore, but this is the first time I've read her. Her novel tapped into the diversity of the area, and the deep humanity of complicated family and friend relationships. I related to her characters, and I would read her again. Yet, perhaps it's not surprising that I've not read her before.

After all, I'm a relatively young reader, and Tyler seems very invested in being an Adult Fiction writer. This is a boon when it comes to her calm, clear prose, and to the presentation of her adult characters, but I think a loss also, as I will explain below.

The tale is one of two families who have adopted little girls from Korea, Susan and Jin-ho, respectively. The Iranian-American Yazdans adopt Susan, and the "all-American" Donaldsons adopt Jin-ho. Tyler lets us in on the perspectives of all the adult characters, especially the Yazdan grandmother Mariam, whose perspective begins and ends the book. But of the children, there is only a single section in the book. I wished there was more of the girls' perspectives, and in the interview included in the back of the book, I discovered why not.

In response to why she included only one girl's perspective and not the other's, Tyler replies:

My main concern was not to have too much of either girl's voice. A little of a child's-eye view goes a long way, in my opinion--you don't want to sound 'cute,' and you certainly don't want to force the reader to stay too long in the terrible country of childhood.

Excuse me? It is Tyler's prerogative to use the perspectives she chooses, of course, but this seems unnecessarily denigrating of a child's viewpoint, and a waste in light of Tyler's talents. I'm no grandmother, but I strongly related to Tyler's portrayal of Mariam. Here, she observes her new granddaughter:

She [Mariam] was confident that if things went wrong--as they very well might--she could manage.

Now she saw the same quality in Susan...Sometimes she imagined Susan resembled her physically, even, but then she had to laugh at herself. Still, something around the eyes...some onlooker's look; that was what they shared. Neither one of them quite belonged.

Neither Tyler nor I are Iranian, but I strongly related to that perspective as well. And since Tyler is so skilled at getting into the minds of those of diverse (adult) ages and cultures, why not children too?

I bristle at the idea that children are not people, are somehow inherently too "cute," or not worthy of being heard. Also, at the idea that childhood is not worth the reader's time. I personally feel that the perspective of the adoptees, in a story about adoption, is rather a valuable one.

Since I haven't read other Tyler books, I don't know if she includes more child perspectives in her other books. I'm not saying she has to. I'm sure she has plenty of readers who appreciate a lack of child's-eye view. What she said about it just rubbed me the wrong way.

Fans of Adult Fiction and residents of suburban Baltimore will likely enjoy Digging to America. It's a fulfilling read that is likely gratifying to anyone who can relate to feeling like the other, like they don't quite belong, or like they don't know what they're doing (and isn't that all of us?).

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