- Race, Immigration, and American Identity in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie, Ralph Ellison, and William Faulkner
This is a short book with a long title. It covers a big topic by looking narrowly at four examples. It is a version of the thesis the author wrote at Boston University while writing his first novel, The Governor of the Northern Province, a satire of the relations of immigrant and nonimmigrant Canadians that made the 2006 Giller Prize long-list.
Critics have often noted that immigrants to America had to negotiate not just the divide between Old World and New but also the racial divide constitutive of the nation. Boyagoda argues something different: that the influx of immigrants throughout the twentieth century provoked native-born Americans concerned about the racial divide to emphasize the distinction between native-born and immigrant in order not to complicate the issue they saw as most crucial. Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner resented immigrants because the latter did not understand the racial divide as it characterized the South in particular, and therefore were a diversion from the tragic dilemma race posed. In other words, wrestling with the divide between white and Black created another divide between insiders, who could appreciate that race was part of the organic national identity, and outsiders who could not. (A Canadian equivalent is the complication that immigration introduces to [End Page 438] French-English relations, and I cannot but wonder if Boyagoda's Canadianness helped him see the United States.)
Boyagoda's is an important idea, but developed through a discussion of only three authors and four novels: The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Invisible Man, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August. Ellison and Faulkner represent the white and Black South, concerned with solving the problems generated by American history, and Salman Rushdie the immigrant who refuses the notion that problems are ever limited to national or local fields.
We must ask two questions: does Boyagoda's thesis illuminate the novels? and does his choice of novels prove his case? On the first question he scores one out of three. In the chapter on Ellison, Boyagoda points out that the communist and nationalist options rejected by the Invisible Man are represented by immigrants: Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, is foreign-born and coded as Jewish, and Ras is a West Indian. I had not registered Jack's nationality and find the analysis convincing. Boyagoda's analysis of Rushdie shows the inadequate understanding of race in America evinced in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, but that raises the question: why discuss this particular novel, which is not of the status of Ellison's or Faulkner's? Rushdie's novel renders identity in allegorical terms, but Boyagoda does not discuss technique and does not compare how the novels work, only what they say. (Strangely he does not discuss the explicit references to Ellison [and Saul Bellow] in Rushdie's later novel Fury). Boyagoda's discussion of Italians in Faulkner is also not fully convincing. Joe Christmas is called a 'wop' by Percy Grimm but cannot be identified as an Italian or immigrant. There is nothing culturally ethnic about him, for he was raised in an orphanage, which is a point that Boyagoda does not mention.
The answer to the second question is that Boyagoda's argument is worth making but is not proven. The problem is that Rushdie is a full two generations later than Faulkner. The Americas these authors are each talking about are very different. It would make more sense to discuss immigrant writing closer in time to Ellison and Faulkner: say, by Henry Roth or Paule Marshall. The rationale for discussing Rushdie (apart from personal reasons having to do with the history of the thesis) must be that Rushdie is himself an immigrant to America, unlike the makers of Jewish and Italian American literature who were all the children of immigrants. Rushdie presents more of an outsider's point of view than can be achieved by Jews or...