Joseph O'Neill, The New Immigrant Experience
During this week of Thanksgiving — the most American of holidays — NPR is spending time thinking about what it means to become an American. The answers come from three noted authors — Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Joseph O'Neill — who've written about newcomers to the United States.
Author Joseph O'Neill knows a thing or two about shifting identity and geography: Raised in Holland, the half-Irish, half-Turkish author of Netherland now lives with his family in New York City.
O'Neill tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that the meaning of nationality and nationhood have changed dramatically in the past two decades. The age of globalization has led to what O'Neill calls an "enormous collapse in the idea of migration."
"It used to be the case that for an Irishman to come to the U.S. involved a perilous journey on a ship," O'Neill says. "It involved singing lots of songs before you left saying goodbye, and once you were in the U.S., it involved singing lots of songs about how you were never going to set foot in Ireland again."
Not so anymore. Nowadays, says O'Neill, the transfer of people from country to country is less decisive: "You can go backwards and forwards as much as you like, subject to legal and financial restrictions. And you can stay in touch with everyone back home. You can read their blogs, you can speak to them on the phone."
The ease of movement has resulted in the emergence of fused and blurred identities, says O'Neill.
"One of the great pluses of being an immigrant is you get to start again in terms of your identity," he says. "You get to shed the narratives which cling to you."
O'Neill says he found America to be a welcoming place, where people were less inclined to make judgments based on race or class — but also not particularly interested in learning about his background.
"As long as you show willingness, they are prepared to stick the label of 'American' on you," he says.
The immigrant experience carries over into O'Neill's fiction. The protagonist of Netherland is an immigrant from Trinidad whose effort to make his fortunes in his new homeland is inspired by the classic American rags-to-riches narrative.
"[There's a] specific narrative in American life, which essentially authorizes people to do whatever it takes to climb up by their bootstraps and to make something of themselves. Even if it means cutting corners from time to time," O'Neill says.
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