Skip to content

Digging To America Essay

Much to her surprise Maryam found herself falling in love with the young man her family had arranged for her to meet, a doctor named Kiyan, who was already working in America. Their wedding ceremony was performed long distance: "Kiyan in Baltimore on the phone, Maryam in Tehran in her Western-style floor-length wedding dress with guests from both families surrounding her."

Ms. Tyler, who was married for more than three decades to the Iranian-born child psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi (he died in 1997), delineates Maryam's efforts to come to terms with her new life in America with sympathy and wit, carefully tracking Maryam's ambivalent feelings toward Americans: the indignation she feels when condescending strangers praise her for having "an excellent vocabulary"; her impatience with trendy, multicultural liberals who willfully try to adopt foreigners' foods and traditions; and her anger at her son Sami when he mocks Americans for being self-absorbed, self-righteous and so instantaneously chummy. ("Hello, I love you." "How do you do, let me tell you my marital problems.")

Sami too, we learn, has mixed feelings about America and his heritage. He refused as a child to speak Persian, and as a teenager was, in his mother's words, "more American than the Americans." In high school he dated only blondes, and yet he ended up marrying Ziba Hakimi, the daughter of prosperous Iranian immigrants, who "all but genuflected whenever the shah was mentioned."

All of Sami and Maryam's variegated feelings about America and Americans will be engaged when Bitsy Donaldson draws the Yazdan clan into her orbit, intent on insuring that their adoptive Korean daughters, Jin-Ho and Susan, become the very best of friends.

Bitsy is both a variation on a familiar Tyler character — the mushy, gregarious woman like Maggie in "Breathing Lessons" who is constantly getting involved in other people's affairs — and an insufferably memorable creation in her own right. Big-hearted but bossy, well-meaning but self-righteous, she sets about organizing an elaborate Arrival Party (to be held annually to celebrate Jin-Ho and Susan's arrival in America), complete with an American-flag cake, choral renditions of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" and a screening of the airport arrival videotape.

She insists on getting Jin-Ho a traditional Korean outfit, preaches the virtues of cloth diapers and the dangers of soft drinks, and burbles on about Maryam's Iranian recipes while criticizing the Yazdans' child-rearing decisions.

The Yazdan-Donaldson saga will take several unexpected turns over the years — at one point Maryam becomes involved with Bitsy's widowed father, Dave — and in tracing the families' evolving relationship Ms. Tyler gradually fills in the boldly outlined, even cartoonish figures of her characters, showing the vulnerabilities and insecurities lurking beneath Bitsy's pushy behavior and the regrets and doubts lurking beneath Maryam's aristocratic detachment.

Like Ms. Tyler's best novels, "Digging to America" gives us an intimate picture of middle-class family life: its satisfactions and discontents, its ability to suffocate and console. But at the same time the story ventures into territory more usually associated with writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Gish Jen. It looks at the promises and perils of the American Dream and the knotty, layered relationship — made up in equal parts of envy, admiration, resentment and plain befuddlement — that can develop between native-born Americans and more recent immigrants intent on making their way through the often baffling byways of the New World.

Continue reading the main story

The veteran novelist (The Amateur Marriage, 2004, etc.) extends her range without losing her essence in this tale of two families drawn together by their adopted daughters despite the friction created by their very different personalities and ethnicities.

On Aug. 15, 1997, two baby girls arrive at the Baltimore airport from Korea. Jin-Ho is swept into the exuberant arms of Bitsy and Brad Dickinson-Donaldson, who are throwing “what looked like a gigantic baby shower” in the waiting room with their extended family. Sooki is quietly handed over to the Yazdans—Sami and his wife, Ziba, accompanied by his mother, Iranian immigrant Maryam—who rename her Susan. Wanting to connect Jin-Ho with another Korean child, outgoing Bitsy pulls the Yazdans into her family’s orbit and establishes the annual tradition of celebrating the girls’ Arrival Day. The two couples become close, especially Bitsy and Ziba, but Maryam is dubious about these brash Americans, with their slightly tactless self-assurance and intrusive questions about Iranian traditions. The ensuing culture clash enriches Tyler’s narrative without diminishing her skills as an engaging storyteller and delicate analyst of personality. She examines the insecurities underneath Bitsy’s overbearing manner, American-born Sami’s amused condescension toward both his natal home and the land of his ancestors and a host of other complex aspects of her well-developed characters, including Ziba’s nouveau-riche parents and Bitsy’s easygoing father, Dave. Maryam is the novel’s central figure: a teenaged immigrant, widowed before she was 40, who has never felt quite at home anywhere and maintains a critical distance from Americans and Iranians alike. Only Dave breaches her defenses. After his beloved wife’s death—Tyler’s portrait of his grieving is sensitive and touching—he unabashedly declares his need for Maryam, who reciprocates and then panics. Readers will hope that these flawed, lovable people will find happiness, but they won’t be sure until the final page, so deftly has the author balanced the forces that keep us apart against those that bring us together.

Vintage Tyler, with enough fresh, new touches to earn her the next generation of fans.