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Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

Little Syria

September 17, 2013 | by

syrialede

“The Foreign Element in New York—The Syrian Colony,” c. 1895

“When one leaves the hurry and roar of lower Broadway and walks southward through narrow Washington-st., the average New-Yorker of Caucasian descent might easily believe he was in the Orient. A block to the east roar the trains of the elevated. A little further eastward are the rushing throngs of Broadway. In the midst of all this tumult and confusion is situated the quiet village of Ahl-esh-Shemal.”

And so, in 1903, the New-York Tribune endeavors to take its readers into Little Syria. Concentrated on Rector and Washington Streets in the lower parts of Manhattan, Little Syria in 1895 was home to an estimated three-thousand residents from modern-day Syria and Lebanon (nearly all Middle Eastern New Yorkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would be referred to as Syrian or Arab, regardless of religion), most of whom had fled persecution under increasingly harsh Ottoman rule. Missionaries, dispatched to the Holy Lands to spread the Christian gospel, told tales of a city made of opportunity, ready and waiting to receive immigrants dedicated to hard work and moral living.

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Street Scene

January 3, 2013 | by

Well into my adolescence, New York City began and ended with a single street. For a long time, it did not even seem important that I learn the name of the street; everyone simply called it the Street of the People of Tang. The Tang, of course, were the Chinese, and Americans, foreigners to the street, named it Chinatown.

Of course, strictly speaking, I was a foreigner too. Because my mother worked in a suburban Connecticut town, all colonnaded colonials and frosty-haired WASPs, and spoke halting English, we boarded the Metro-North only when desperation over the last can of aoki mushrooms made it imperative. Later, when I grew to speak better English than she, I became the navigator. “So when we take the downtown green line, where is it that we get off again?” my mother would ask, eyes squinting nervously over the teeming throngs we would soon join at the mouth of Grand Central. Canal, I answered, always the same answer. We get off at Canal Street.

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Our Little Americanka

September 19, 2011 | by

The cast of 'Russian Dolls.' Barbara Nitke © 2011Lifetime Entertainment Services.

Sometime in the last few years, my sixty-five-year-old father, a Soviet mathematician who spent the first fifty years of his life in Moscow, began speaking to me in English.

That I can’t recall when exactly this happened makes the shift seem, at least in retrospect, both gradual and sudden. One day he was correcting my Russian, his laughter once ascending into a taunting squeal as I attempted to casually use the swear word svoloch (along the lines of “scum”) and mistakenly said slovoch, which, if it were an actual insult, would mean “worder.” Another day, not much later, during what must have been an argument, I couldn’t find the Russian words to describe whatever I was feeling, and I remember my father, calm and patient, saying, “Say eet een English, my luv.” Then last week, a voice mail: “Hi. It is me. Call me back please.” When I return his call, the voice that I know to be father’s asks, without the sharp edges that used to define his accent, “Have you ever been to the Hamptons? Nice place.”

When we moved to the States, I was ten; my father, forty-eight. What this meant was that I lost my accent by the time I started high school while my parents still pulled up to the gas station attendant and said, “Fool up regular.” I spent whole afternoons then explaining to my mother that “ze” and “zat” were nothing like “the” and “that.” That no one in America hung Persian rugs on their walls as decoration. That boiled potatoes were not dinner. When my haughtiness was amusing, they called me “our little Americanka;” other times they looked at me with unrecognizing dismay—there was a stranger in their home, or, worse, a traitor. Read More »

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Francine Prose on ‘My New American Life’

May 13, 2011 | by

Photograph by Stephanie Berger.

Francine Prose is a pleasure to interview. She is quick-witted and gracious, and there is this way that she says my name—“Oh, Thessaly, that’s an excellent question”—that makes me feel, for a split second, as if I’m the award-winning novelist that has something interesting to say. Her latest novel, My New American Life, is about a young Albanian immigrant named Lula, who is working as a nanny for a teenager in a quiet, New Jersey suburb. Her boss has offered to help her get a green card, so Lula waits and waits, until one day, three visitors, unannounced, knock on the door. Will Lula be deported? Are they long-lost Albanian family? Through Lula’s eyes, we see the promise of the American dream as well as the ways it might never come true. Prose and I spoke on the telephone not long ago.

Your protagonist is a twenty-six-year-old Albanian immigrant named Lula who lives in New Jersey. Why Albania?

If you are going to write a novel, I would not suggest that you pick an Albanian unless you are an Albanian. I was writing about immigration, and I wanted to pick someone from the most psycho-isolated Eastern-bloc country. If you go to the Czech Republic now, it is deceptively easy to forget what happened there. But if you go to Albania now, you are not going to forget it— you just can’t; then is now.

In a strange way, the novel began ten years ago, when I was staying at this really crappy Hilton in Tampa, Florida, for a weekend. We got there and there was a plate of food outside someone’s door in the corridor. It was there when we got there and it was there when we left, and I thought, This is just like Eastern Europe, because no one really cares if you ever come back again. In the late eighties, I went with my family to former Yugoslavia. We showed up at some restaurant, ordered dinner, and the waiter came back two hours later and said, “What? I had to eat my dinner.” End-stage capitalism and Eastern-bloc communism have a lot of things in common, as Lula discovers in the course of the book.

So you visited Albania?

I did. I got about forty pages into the novel and I couldn’t go any further. It turns out that you can’t find out about Albania on YouTube as much as one might like to. I mean, you can learn about people’s vacations and weddings and so forth, but not much more. So I went on a trip with the State Department. I was there for about two weeks and I just loved it.

Do you think one has to acquire experience to be a novelist?

Well, I would, because nothing has ever happened to me. I had to go to Albania; I couldn’t make it up. It more often happens the other way around. It is not as if you go around saying “I think I will have a love affair, and then I will write about one.” It’s more “Blah-blah broke up with me and said the most cruel thing,” and ten years later you find a way to put it into a book.

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