Especially in these times of xenophobia, Restless Books is proud to host our annual Prize for New Immigrant Writing, which champions extraordinary, boundary-crossing stories from debut first-generation writers who address identity in a global age. Our judges were blown away by the astounding diversity and talent exhibited in the submissions received for this year's prize in fiction. After much consideration, we are excited to announce the six finalists for our prize.Read More
On Saturday, July 22, Deepak Unnikrishnan, author of Temporary People, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, will be in conversation with Restless publisher Ilan Stavans at the newly opened American Writers Museum in Chicago on the topic of the literature of immigration. As a warm up to that event, Ilan and Deepak had an exchange over email on topics ranging from paranoia and being treated as a "circus beast" at airports, to how immigrants are "the glue of society," to Deepak's childhood in the United Arab Emirates, from which his parents, like other so-called "guest workers" from the Gulf, will eventually be forced to leave.
Ilan Stavans: These are dark times. Nationalism is showing its ugly head again. It feels, at least in the United States, as if the achievements of the Civil Rights era were an illusion. Racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia now sit comfortably in the White House. This is the nation where a mighty woman with a torch—the Mother of Exile—greets immigrants while crying with silent lips: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
America is more than a nation, though: it is an experiment. If it fails, the model it represents for “the homeless, tempest-tost” falls apart all over the world. Imagine, for a minute, this collapse. Now imagine its opposite: a nation made only of immigrants. One where no one is, was, or ever will be a native. After one generation, those born in the country are sent into exile.
Deepak Unnikrishnan: I grew up in the UAE. My parents trained me to leave the homeland, or what I thought was the homeland. I’ve always understood what I was supposed to do: pack up and go, when told to do so, because the rules were crystal clear. But there are different iterations of exile. There’s self-imposed exile, feeling exiled; and then there’s exile forced upon you, beginning with a rhetoric that feeds off resentment, where nabbing the undocumented feels like sport. And that’s just fucking sad, man.
In reaction to your image, if every place demanded this stipulation of its inhabitants, eliminating the word “citizen,” I wonder what nations would look like, what kind of citizens our planet would end up becoming. It’s possible the world could become kinder, or sadder.
Let’s focus on the United States, a country appropriated by wanderers, made up of the decent, the cruel, and the damned, a place of sobering histories, the decimation of indigenous populations, the horrors of slavery, and somehow, over time, a place of hope, where immigrants dreamed of possibilities. Fast forward to the age of Trump. There’s so much combative rhetoric, with the current administration requesting—nope, demanding—certain people be removed and others be barred.
I’m not afraid of the States yet, but I’d be lying if I claimed I haven’t turned vigilant. I was speaking to my dad the other night. He’s never been to the U.S. but he cautioned me against speaking Malayalam on the plane. “Just speak to us in English before you board,” he said, “and we’ll respond in English.”
My father’s the same man who told me not to go out during Hurricane Sandy when I was living in Chicago. Both incidents document the paranoid parent, but my dad’s latest paranoia about language hits a nerve. In late January, days after Trump’s government announced the travel ban, I found myself at an airport in Minneapolis. Fifteen minutes to boarding call, I phoned Amma (mum) and Acchan (dad). As we spoke, I infused my Malayalam with enough English to convince anyone within earshot that “I w-a-s l-o-o-k-i-n-g f-o-r-w-a-r-d t-o l-a-n-d-i-n-g i-n C-h-i-c-a-g-o.” I spoke with such poise and diction that fellow passengers must have thought I was having a phone interview with Google.
Now look, Ilan, I’m used to being a circus beast at airports. The minute my partner hands me my carry on, I’m channeling Laurence Olivier, meaning my accent’s all ramped up. I’m like the model passenger. Try listening in when my credentials are being verified and you’d think I was auditioning for Macbeth. I shave, though. I mean I leave enough facial hair to imply I don’t give a damn when in reality I do. But my name, Deepak, helps, because it’s not Jamal or Majid, and that’s fucked up. But you know what, in Minneapolis, I took deference to the next level. I mean I did whatever I could to sound obedient. Of course, after a while, I’m telling myself: Dude, what the fuck are you doing?
You have to understand, anger isn’t the emotion that dominates this state of fear; it’s sadness.
IS: Yes, immigrants, the very glue of democracy, are perceived today as undercutting its foundations. The future, I’m afraid, is even more dystopian. In the next few decades, climate change, famine, political upheaval, and overpopulation will result in dramatic movements of people from one side of the globe to another, tilting it out of balance.
Yet I must confess: it’s cool to be an outsider. Natives are stuck with a kind of undivided loyalty that makes them square, don’t you think? I, for one, like what Julio Cortázar called “the feeling of not being quite there.” Of course, coolness is relative. It is a chimera when you have no visa, are cold and starving.
DU: We exist in a climate where people and countries pigeonhole particular strains of immigrants, whether they are refugees or former inhabitants of failed states. In America, those sounding such alarms of paranoia would have us believe they’re only interested in the illegals, those who broke rules by overstaying their visas or crossing borders. I accept an administration’s need to be vigilant. I accept the citizens’ right to be wary. At what cost, though? Categorizing people, especially if they are mixed, is a dangerous, misguided game.
This country is drowning in paranoia. First my passport’s vetted. Then maybe my beliefs are vetted. Perhaps my allegiances are vetted. Depending on where I’m coming from, my name, my uncles and aunts, and their uncles and aunts, might also be vetted. If I’m in the States, my phone could get vetted, laptop(s) too, and so on. Might as well volunteer for a CAT scan after that. What next, a psychological exam and a pop quiz! How many times should people claim and somehow prove they are harmless?
IS: Some of the best writers are immigrants. Think of Nabokov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Josef Brodsky, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai…. I imagine Homer was an immigrant too, or at least a wanderer.
DU: I don’t know if the best writers are immigrants. I read writers who never had the opportunity to leave their hometown, as I have. I would say the most useful writers for me have been those who have paid attention to their people, plus other people who are not their people, and wondered—and pondered—long and hard about everyone’s place in the world, including their own. I’m thinking of Primo Levi, Nadine Gordimer, A. Sivanandan, Wilfred Thesiger, Eula Biss, Óscar Martínez, and Kamala Das. By the way, I have special affection for Singer. He helped me understand how language could be preserved on the page, why translations of other tongues mattered.
By the way, I like the word “wanderer.” That’s what most writers are. That’s what the craft’s truly about: exploration and examinations, of us and other selves.
IS: The paranoia drowning us isn’t new, Deepak. It returns with cyclical patience in order to wake us up, to make us more attuned. Churchill used to say that “this is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is just perhaps the end of the beginning.” Comfort is dangerous. It leads to complacency, which in turn fosters ignorance. Ours, no doubt, is a dangerous moment. The forces of chaos are plunging at the door. We will be judged by how we respond. On the surface, globalism is at peril. Yet its critics have been around since the Tower of Babel. Looking for a scapegoat is a sport. Immigrants are vulnerable creatures, which makes them an easy target. But immigrants are also the glue that brings things together. And the bridge that connects those things to other things, creating an enormous wave. Immigrants, willingly or not, are agents of globalism.
When I hear that globalism is being pushed back, I tell myself: yes, that’s good. That’s the only way to appreciate it in full: to have to fight for it, and, while doing so, to explain what its tenants are.
DU: Globalism—I would define the term first. Where I teach, at NYU Abu Dhabi, students get told they are world or global citizens. This supposedly helps them contemplate their future responsibilities to the world. But then I think of my parents, who haven’t traveled much. They could be labeled conservative, yet they instilled in us, my sibling and I, reasonable manners and abilities to confront disagreement.
I don’t think you need to know the world to be kind. I believe what’s dying is conversation, actual conversation, where people at opposite ends of the spectrum spar respectfully over thoughts and ideas. I’m seeing and hearing less of that, Ilan. Everything’s about winning, not about knowing.
IS: Winning is about having your face on TV. Look at our glorious president: at night, between segments of Fox News about him and only him, he walks alone the empty hallways of the White House. The cancer isn’t winning but the accolades that come with it: fame, that ugly and needy lover. And you’re right: knowledge is the casualty. People confuse information with knowledge. Information comes easy but knowledge is hard to get. It requires insight and it often comes to you through frustration and dismay. Truth is, nobody ever waits for you with a lamp beside the golden door. You have to find the light on your own.
Deepak and Ilan's conversation on literature, immigration, and tolerance will continue at the American Writers Museum this upcoming Saturday, July 22. More details here.
Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi and a resident of the States, who has lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, Brooklyn, New York and Chicago, Illinois. He has studied and taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and presently teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi. Temporary People, his first book, was the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
Ilan Stavans is the Publisher of Restless Books and the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His books include On Borrowed Words, Spanglish, Dictionary Days, The Disappearance, and A Critic’s Journey. He has edited The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, the three-volume set Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, among dozens of other volumes. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Jewish Book Award. Stavans’s work, translated into a dozen languages, has been adapted to the stage and screen. He hosted the syndicated PBS television show Conversations with Ilan Stavans. He is a cofounder of the Great Books Summer Program at Amherst, Stanford, and Oxford.
Founded by Mexican immigrant Ilan Stavans, Restless Books has always believed passionately in the rich contributions immigrants have made to our culture and literature. Now in its second year, we're delighted to announce the finalists for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, to be awarded this year for a debut work of nonfiction by a first-generation immigrant. We've been bowled over by the keen insight and wide diversity of experience that these writers have boldly brought to the page. After careful deliberation, judges Anjali Singh and Ilan Stavans have selected four finalists:
2017 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing Shortlist
- King Leopold's Daughter, by Mona de Vestel
- Far from the Rooftop of the World, by Amy Yee
- The Body Papers, by Grace Talusan
- The Fifth Season, by Nikita Nelin
The winning writer will receive $10,000 and publication by Restless Books. Read more about these brilliant up-and-coming authors below, and stay tuned for the announcement of the winner!
—Anjali Singh, Ilan Stavans, and the Restless Books team
About the 2017 nonfiction Finalists
Mona de Vestel
An immigrant of mixed Belgian and Tutsi descent, Mona de Vestel grew up in Brussels and moved to the United States at the age of 13. After completing a degree in Arabic (Georgetown University) and a MFA in Creative Writing (Goddard College), she taught writing at the State University of New York (Oswego & Utica). In addition to teaching and writing, she has written and directed a one-woman show about healing from cancer and performed in a two-year production of Ping Chong’s Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, a documentary theater piece about the history of the Congo.
Her memoir King Leopold’s Daughter is an exploration of the consequences of colonialism on her family in the context of the Belgian Congo, and is set in her native Belgium, Mexico, Congo and the U.S.
A first-generation child of immigrants from Hong Kong, Amy Yee is an award-winning American journalist, writer and poet based in India from 2006 to 2013. She was a correspondent for the Financial Times from 1999 to 2008 in New Delhi and New York. From South Asia she reported from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. As a freelance journalist, she has written for the New York Times, The Economist, NPR, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College, where she won the program’s Academy of American Poets prize, and an MS from Columbia University, and graduated magna cum laude with honors from Wellesley College. Since 2008, she has followed the lives of ordinary Tibetans: Thukjee, a monk and unlikely veterinary assistant; Ngawang, a cook and political refugee; Deckyi, a recent refugee and her husband Dhondup—whose lives painted a portrait of life beyond the the 50th year of Tibetan exile in 2009.
Far from the Rooftop of the World is a close-up look at the lives of ordinary Tibetans in exile who make their way in the world far from home, and also a window into what it was like to live among them in Dharamsala and to travel to other far flung places that became home. Their stories are told against the backdrop of milestones and events in Tibet’s recent history—some memorable, too many tragic—at home and in exile.
Grace Talusan was born in the Philippines and traveled with her parents to the U.S. when she was three years old. She earned an MFA from the University of California, Irvine and has published short stories, long-form journalism, book reviews, and essays. Last year, she traveled to the Philippines as a Fulbright Scholar and lived in Manila for the first time since immigrating. She also teaches writing at Tufts University and Grub Street.
The Body Papers uses documents, such as test results and legal certificates, as inspiration to explore themes of immigration, trauma, hereditary cancer, and survival in memoir.
Nikita Nelin was born in Moscow, Russia and immigrated to the U.S in 1989. His work has appeared in Tablet Magazine, Elephant Journal, Mission at Tenth, Electric Literature, and other publications.
The Fifth Season follows Nikita and his mother Natasha’s flight from the crumbling Soviet Union in November of 1989, three days before the Berlin Wall collapses, as they trek across Europe carrying everything they own. They are part of the last great wave of the Soviet Jewry migration and they are thrown into a world of awe, criminality, foreignness, anti-Semitism, and the wretched paranoia of their fellow refugees. For seven months they travel across Europe as their old world and its ideology complete its unraveling, scrounging for resources and subsisting primarily on a potent mix of improvisation and awe with which Natasha imparts their adventure.