I’m about 50 pages from the end of Tyler’s latest novel Digging to America, and one of the things I am liking about the book is how politics of various types are an important part of the novel, but are in the background in a way that strikes me as realistic — at least realistic for some. Tyler shows how politics shapes people’s lives — both specific historical events and the more nebulous “identity politics,” but she does it in a muted kind of way. Politics and history are sometimes topics of conversation, but more often, political forces lie behind the thoughts and actions of the characters and the reader is left to figure out how the characters are affected by them.
The most direct entrance of politics into the novel concerns events in Iran. One of the main characters, Maryam, the grandmother of one of the two adopted babies at the center of the novel, thinks about how the Iranian community in America was divided by their different opinions of the Shah — she was friends with many other Iranians until the question of whether one is loyal to the Shah or not began to rip the group apart. From this point on, she lives even more isolated from her past.
September 11th happens during the timeframe of the novel, but it doesn’t get a description — it surfaces mainly as a matter of increased airport security and the annoyances this causes. One of the Iranian characters describes the fear other people manifest in the presence of anyone of middle-eastern descent. Dave, another grandparent, gives an emotional speech to Maryam about how he doesn’t like being grouped with other “ugly Americans” — how he’s affected by the stereotype — and Maryam retorts, “Whereas we Iranians, on the other hand … are invariably perceived as our unique and separate selves.” This is Dave experiencing both the discomfort of being a victim of stereotyping, and the realization that, as angry as this makes him, he can’t expect everyone else to feel his outrage.
Everyone in the novel is affected in some way by this kind of racial and ethnic stereotyping. Maryam is invested in the idea of herself as a “foreigner,” and because of this she has trouble opening up to her American friends. She is naturally introverted, but this status as “foreigner” feeds into and exaggerates that characteristic. Bitsy tries hard to teach Jin-Ho, her adopted daughter, Korean customs to help her learn about her birth country, but she finds this is more complicated than she expects, and when Jin-Ho grows up a bit, she resists this training. Sami was born and raised in America and he refuses to speak Farsi, although he can understand it, but at the same time he takes great pleasure in mocking Americans as though he weren’t one himself, to the amusement of the Iranians present. All of Tyler’s main characters are involved in some kind of effort to figure out their identity and to negotiate the various elements that go into it: nationality, gender, class, personal history. It is in describing these negotiations that Tyler excels.