The writer from an immigrant background who exchanges his or her ancestral language for English is an American literary archetype. From Henry Roth, who arrived in Brooklyn in the 1900s from what is now Ukraine, to Junot Díaz, who came to New Jersey in the 1970s from the Dominican Republic, these writers often tell tales of alienation and hardship, but they also reinforce the idea, sometimes even despite themselves, that America is the land of the future—a place where people come to be remade, with all the gains and losses that process involves.
But this model of what it means to be an immigrant writer may be breaking down in the twenty-first century. From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, some of the most accomplished twenty-first-century English-language novelists explore globalized and diasporic lives that self-consciously resist Americanization. Jhumpa Lahiri, whose stories about Bengali families in New England bridge the gap between these older and newer models of immigrant writing, has recently turned to writing in Italian, hoping, she told The New Yorker, “to free my work from geographic coördinates, and to arrive at a more abstract sense of place.”
Most subversive of all, however, is the writer who has the chance to become American and write in the American language but deliberately rejects it. That is the story of Minae Mizumura, a distinguished Japanese novelist who has made her ambivalent feelings about English a central theme of her work. Mizumura was born in Tokyo in 1951, and when she was twelve years old her family moved to the US after her father was transferred to his company’s New York office. She spent the rest of her childhood in a Long Island suburb and then attended Yale, where she went on to earn a graduate degree in French literature. By the time Mizumura finished her studies, she had spent more than half her life in America. Yet she decided to move back to Japan and begin a career as a Japanese novelist, returning only occasionally to the US to teach. She has published eight books of fiction and nonfiction, of which three have been translated into English over the last decade.
Mizumura has made clear that becoming American and writing in English were the road not taken in her life. In a 2003 lecture at the University of Iowa, “Why I Write What I Write,” she summed up her experience this way:
I was given that rare opportunity, the kind of opportunity only given to one in a million in Japan, of switching my first language from Japanese to English. Yet I remained totally blind to its significance until the opportunity was irrevocably lost.
As a result, she lives with the “unhappy knowledge that my stupidity lies at the core of…
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