Philobiblon: The immigrant experience

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The immigrant experience

I've been reading Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie, a collection of poems inspired by the writer on whom I posted yesterday. I was particularly taken by the piece called "The Immigrants".

... "I see them coming
up from the hold smelling of vomit,
infested, emaciated, their skins grey
with travel; as they step on shore

the old countries recede, become
perfect, thumbnail castles preserved
like gallstones in a glass bottle, the
towns dwindle upon the hillsides
in a light paperweight-clear.

They carry their carpetbags and trunks
with clothes, dishes, the family pictures;
they think they will make an order
like the old one, sow miniature orchards,
carve children and flocks out of wood

but always they are too poor, the sky
is flat, the green fruit shrivels
in the prairie sun, wood is for burning;
and if they go back, the towns

in time have crumbled, their tongues
stumble among awkward teeth ..."

(pp. 32-33)

It struck me that what is different about the immigrant experience in the late 20th and early 21st century, compared to the 19th, is that no one now is heading for the countryside. You get enormous migration within countries from rural to urban areas (but almost never the reverse, except for comfortably-off people "downsizing", which is not the same thing at all), and when people cross borders they are almost always heading for the capital city of their destination state.

What does this mean? I suspect it makes the whole experience less innocent, more frightening and daunting, for there are all of the social obstacles, as well as the practical ones.

But although today it would be different, I couldn't help imagine being in those "infested" holds, or trying to smuggle myself into the back of a lorry. It would do us all well to remember that, however unlikely it might seem, one day it could be us.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other really big difference is that immigration is never forever any more.

We came to Australia on the cusp of this. I remember how devastated my grandfather was, as an old man, knowing he would never see us again.

Now we scamper back and forth, and savvy communities use the world communication system to sustain a diaspora of true practitioners.

- barista

3/30/2005 11:26:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

True, and even phone calls then were a Big Thing.

3/31/2005 01:06:00 am  

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