Popular Culture’s Fascination with the Fictions and Realities of the Immigrant Story

Immigration is a frequent headline topic. It is presented as a problem to be fixed – whether the broken bureaucracy on one side or a dilution of cultural identity on the other. Discussions often are heated and viewpoints divisive. These are arguments dating back to the founding of the United States and taking place in countries around the world, so there is something unmistakably universal in the immigrant stories of challenge and triumph. A century ago cultural sentiments were reflected in Charlie Chaplin’s film The Immigrant (1917) and Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia (1918), which both still appear on the syllabi of film and literature students. But there is no dearth of compelling immigrant stories in the 21st century, either.

With the 89th annual Academy Awards in February, a new biopic that emphasizes the immigrant experience has created a buzz among audiences and Academy voters alike. Lion stars Nicole Kidman and Slumdog Millionare alum, Dev Patel, and tells the real life story of Saroo Brierley, who is separated from his family as a young boy in India and yearns to reconnect with them after he reaches adulthood. This duality he experiences is one shared by many immigrants around the world, but director Garth Davis doesn’t limit the themes of Lion to only one demographic. Lion is able to connect with viewers on a universal level, leaving them with a feeling of “incredible joy but also a splash of bittersweet sorrow.” [See Lion, by Susan Wloszczyna, RogerEbert.com, 24.Nov.16.]

“I thought I would be quite fully desensitized, …” the actual Brierley says in an interview with Vanity Fair, “… but I’m not. It just pulls me back in. Everyone has this sort of crescendo, where [they] fall in tears. I just end up doing the same thing.” [See The Stunning True Adoption Story Behind Oscar Hopeful Lion, Vanity Fair, by Yohana Desta 25.Nov.2016.]

Also on the scene, Shanthi Sekaran’s new novel Lucky Boy, which explores the complex nature of the immigrant experience through a heartrending story of motherhood. The author reflected on what drew her to make immigration a central theme in her book during a recent interview with NPR. “Growing up, my mother was a pediatrician and the majority of her patients were immigrants. And I knew from sort of hanging around her office … that there were immigrants whose lives were different from mine. … I’d see kids come in who I didn’t see at school, who I didn’t see in my soccer games. So I knew always that there were different immigrant stories out there, and what I wanted to do with this novel was to recognize that disparity and look at the stories behind it and look at the ramifications of the differences.”

Sekaran also notes in the interview that the novel was inspired by the true story of an undocumented Guatemalan woman whose son was adopted away from her against her will. And while she admits that she was initially horrified by the story, she “also wanted to know what was going through the minds of these people who had adopted her son away from her. … I knew there had to be some complexity in there, something that allowed them to think that taking another woman’s son was OK. And it had something to do with love, and it had something to do with a real need to be a parent.” [See Immigration and Infertility Bring Two Mothers Together Over One “Lucky Boy,” by NPR staff, NPR, 10.Jan.17.]

Immigration is a controversial topic, fraught with contention on both ends of the political spectrum, and it’s not an issue that promises to disappear from the headlines anytime soon. But books and films likely will continue to bring the unique perspectives of immigrants to the cultural forefront, humanizing the issue. Regardless of how many generations our roots extend through or from what country they originally sprang, the immigrant story is our cultural zeitgeist. It is a subject that still should command attention today, because personal experiences are as important as good policy. People and their potential – the pain they endure and the hope they embody – these are the human traits that continue to build America.


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