Migrant Words

ZEE JLF@The British Library

James Joyce wrote the greatest of Dublin novels in Trieste, while American poet TS Eliot wrote his modernist masterpiece The Wasteland in England. But does migration always positively affect the writing of a novelist? And how has a genre increasingly being heralded as a ‘new world literature’ changed with the times?

In Migrant Words, literary exiles and migrants, Amit Chaudhuri, Lila Azam Zanganeh, Meera Syal and Prajwal Parajuly compared notes with Anita Anand on whether migration positively affects an author’s writings.

Chaudhuri finds his mind going blank at the question: ‘migrant’ is a word used emotionally without meaning a great deal. It has somehow taken on a negative connotation, but for him continues to be beautiful. The idea that a migrant gene seeps in and reforms you is a provocation. For Zanganeh, migrant means belonging nowhere but trying to feeling at home everywhere. It evokes her most chameleon qualities: a migrant is someone who is in constant motion.

Syal is proud to be daughter of immigrants, observing that now we use migrant/ refugee as interchangeable terms. She has always wanted to be seen as complex and individual, yet her migrant roots force her to ask, ‘Where do I come from,’ in a way that continuously influences her creative life and practice.

Parajuly sees himself as homeless. Belonging and not belonging are the origin points of his writing. As Syal notes, this lonely place is also the most creative – the place where your unique voice comes from. Zanganeh feels at home in multiple places. Her writing comes as a gesture of bridging and refining: her path to enable engagement with the world.
Anand proposed that the times we are living in must inform what we are reading. Are we now more political given the way in which we see nations act and interact, particularly with the threat of new walls being built, quite literally.

Being told to ‘go back to where you come from’ is a taunt all the panellists have experienced although not always stated in such explicit terms. It is used all over the world. Chaudhuri experienced it in an India that is deeply territorial, sending him back from Calcutta to Bombay. Zanganeh heard it in French – but had no where else to go. It stimulated her even more to learn their language to gain the power of their words. Parajuly heard it in middle America, where diversity meant driving to an Indian restaurant two and a half hours away and he was surrounded by angry people who had never had passports or left the state.

For Syal’s generation it was part of growing up in Britain. The tribalism of the 70s made her mouthy, ready to square up and be scrappy: we live here too. we belong here. As the daughter of immigrants she was ready to share her knowledge of colonial history: we can’t go back to where we came from. We’re here because you fucked India.

– By Paula Van Hagen

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