Digging to America
Anne Tyler, 2006
Anne Tyler’s richest, most deeply searching novel–a story about what it is to be an American, and about Iranian-born Maryam Yazdan, who, after 35 years in this country, must finally come to terms with her “outsiderness.”
Two families, who would otherwise never have come together, meet by chance at the Baltimore airport—the Donaldsons, a very American couple, and the Yazdans, Maryam’s fully assimilated son and his attractive Iranian wife. Each couple is awaiting the arrival of an adopted infant daughter from Korea. After the instant babies from distant Asia are delivered, Bitsy Donaldson impulsively invites the Yazdans to celebrate: an “arrival party” that from then on is repeated every year as the two families become more and more deeply intertwined.
Even Maryam is drawn in—up to a point. When she finds herself being courted by Bitsy Donaldson’s recently widowed father, all the values she cherishes—her traditions, her privacy, her otherness—are suddenly threatened. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—October 25, 1941
• Where—Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
• Education—B.A., Duke University
• Awards—Pulitzer Prize (see below)
• Currently—lives in Baltimore, Maryland
Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and literary critic. She has published 20 novels, the best known of which are Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1983), The Accidental Tourist (1985), and Breathing Lessons (1988). All three were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the third won it.
She has also won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2012 she was awarded The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. She is recognized for her fully developed characters, her "brilliantly imagined and absolutely accurate detail" (New York Times), and her "rigorous and artful style" and "astute and open language" (also, New York Times). While many of her characters have been described as quirky or eccentric, she has managed to make them seem real through skillfully fleshing out their inner lives in great depth.
Her subject in all her novels has been the American family and marriage: the boredom and exasperating irritants endured by partners, children, siblings, parents; the desire for freedom pulling against the tethers of attachments and conflicted love; the evolution over time of familial love and sense of duty. Tyler celebrates unremarkable Americans and the ordinary details of their everyday lives. Because of her style and subject matter, she has been compared to John Updike, Jane Austen, and Eudora Welty, among others.
The eldest of four children, she was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father, Lloyd Parry Tyler, was an industrial chemist and her mother, Phyllis Mahon Tyler, a social worker. Both her parents were Quakers who were very active with social causes in the Midwest and the South. Her family lived in a succession of Quaker communities in the South until they settled in 1948 in a Quaker commune in Celo, in the mountains of North Carolina near Burnsville.
The Celo Community settlement was founded by conscientious objectors and members of the liberal Hicksite branch of the Society of Friends, with community labor needs shared by the residents. Tyler lived there from age 7 through 11 and helped her parents and others with caring for livestock and organic farming. While she did not attend formal public school in Celo, lessons were taught in art, carpentry, and cooking in homes and in other subjects in a tiny school house. Her early informal training was supplemented by correspondence school.
Her first memory of her own creative story-telling was of crawling under the bed covers at age 3 and "telling myself stories in order to get to sleep at night." Her first book at age 7 was a collection of drawings and stories about "lucky girls...who got to go west in covered wagons." Her favorite book as a child was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. Tyler acknowledges that this book, which she read many times during this period of limited access to books, had a profound influence on her, showing how the years flowed by, people altered, and nothing could ever stay the same."
This early perception of changes over time is a theme that reappears in many of her novels decades later, just as The Little House itself appears in her novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Tyler also describes reading Little Women 22 times as a child. When the Tyler family left Celo after four years to move to Raleigh, NC, 11-year-old Anne had never attended public school and never used a telephone. This unorthodox upbringing enabled her to view "the normal world with a certain amount of distance and surprise."
Raleigh, North Carolina
It also meant that Tyler felt herself to be an outsider in the public schools she attended in Raleigh, a feeling that has followed her most of her life. She believes that this sense of being an outsider has contributed to her becoming a writer:
I believe that any kind of setting-apart situation will do [to become a writer]. In my case, it was emerging from the commune…and trying to fit into the outside world.
Despite her lack of public schooling prior to age 11, Anne entered school academically well ahead of most of her classmates in Raleigh. With access now to libraries, she discovered Eudora Welty, Gabriel García Márquez, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. Welty remains one of her favorite writers, and she credits Welty with showing her that books could be about the everyday details of life, not just about major events.
During her years at N. B. Broughton High School in Raleigh, she was inspired and encouraged by a remarkable English teacher, Phyllis Peacock. Peacock had previously taught the writer Reynolds Price, under whom Tyler would later study at Duke University. She would also later teach the writer Armistead Maupin. Seven years after high school, Tyler would dedicate her first published novel to "Mrs. Peacock, for everything you’ve done."
Tyler won a full scholarship to Duke University, which her parents urged her to go accept it because they also needed money for the education of her three younger brothers. At Duke, Tyler enrolled in Reynolds Price's first creative writing class, which also included a future poet, Fred Chappell. Price was most impressed with the sixteen-year-old Tyler, describing her as "frighteningly mature for 16," "wide-eyed," and "an outsider." Years later Price would describe Tyler as "one of the best novelists alive in the world,… who was almost as good a writer at 16 as she is now."
While an undergraduate, Tyler published her short story "Laura" in the Duke literary journal Archive, for which she won the newly created Anne Flexner award for creative writing. She wrote many short stories, one of which impressed Reynolds Price so that he later stated that it was the "most finished, most accomplished short story I have ever received from an undergraduate in my thirty years of teaching." "The Saints in Caesar’s Household" was published in Archive also and won her a second Anne Flexner award. This short story led to her meeting Diarmuid Russell, to whom Price had sent it with kudos. Russell, who was an agent for both Reynolds Price and for Tyler’s "crowning influence" Eudora Welty, later became Tyler’s agent.
Tyler majored in Russian Literature at Duke—not English—and graduated in 1961, at age 19, having been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. With her Russian Literature background she received a fellowship to graduate school in Slavic Studies at Columbia University although she left after a year without her master's degree. She returned to Duke where she got a job in the library as a Russian bibliographer. It was there that she met Taghi Modarressi, a resident in child psychiatry in Duke Medical School and a writer himself, and they were married a year later (1963).
While working at the Duke library—before and after marrying Modarressi—Tyler continued to write short stories, which appeared in The New Yoker, Saturday Evening Post, and Harpers. She also started work on her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, eventually published 1964, followed by The Tin Can Tree in 1965. Years later she disowned both of these novels, as well as many of the short stories she wrote during this period, going so far as to say she "would like to burn them." She feels that most of this early work suffers from the lack of thorough character development and her failure to rework material repeatedly.
After the birth of two children (1965 and 1967), followed by a move from Montreal, Canada, to Baltimore in the U.S., Tyler had little time or energy for writing. She published nothing from 1965 to 1970. By 1970, however, she began writing again and published three more novels by 1974—A Slipping-Down Life, The Clock Winder, and Celestial Navigation. In her own opinion, her writing improved considerably during this period; with her children entering school, she was able to devote more time—and focus more intensely—than at any time since her undergraduate days.
With Celestial Navigation, Tyler began to get wider recognition. Morgan's Passing (1980) won her the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction and was nominated for both the American Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
With her next novel (her ninth), Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler truly arrived as a recognized artist in the literary world. (She considers Homesick her best work.) Her tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1985. It was also made into a 1988 movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. The popularity of this well-received film further increased the growing public awareness of her work. Her 11th novel, Breathing Lessons, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989 and was Time magazine’s "Book of the Year." It was adapted into a 1994 TV movie, as eventually were four other of her novels.
Since her Pulitzer Prize with Breathing Lessons, Tyler has written 9 more novels, all of favorably reviewed, many Book of the Month Club Main Selections and New York Times Bestsellers.
In Tyler’s own words, the characters are the driving forces behind the stories and the starting point for her writing:
I do make a point of writing down every imaginable facet of my characters before I begin a book, trying to get to know them so I can figure out how they’ll react in any situation…..My reason for writing now is to live lives other than my own, and I do that by burrowing deeper and deeper….till I reach the center of those lives.
The magic of her novels starts with her ability to create those characters in the reader’s mind through the use of remarkably realistic details. The late Canadian author Carol Shields, writing about Tyler's characters, observes:
Tyler has always put her characters to work. Their often humble or eccentric occupations, carefully observed and threaded with humor, are tightly sewn to the other parts of their lives, offering them the mixed benefit of tedium and consolation, as well as a lighted stage for the unfolding of their dramatic selves. She also allows her men and women an opportunity for redemption.
Tyler has clearly spelled out the importance of her characters to her stories: "As far as I’m concerned, character is everything. I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too."
Stylistically, Tyler's writing is difficult to categorize or label. Novelist Cathleen Schine describes how her "style without a style" manages to pull the reader into the story:
So rigorous and artful is the style without a style, so measured and delicate is each observation, so complex is the structure and so astute and open the language, that the reader can relax, feel secure in the narrative and experience the work as something real and natural.
The San Francisco Chronicle made a similar point: "One does not so much read a Tyler novel as visit it.
While Tyler herself does not like to think of her novels in terms of themes, numerous reviewers and scholars have noted the importance of family and marriage relationships to her characters and stories. Reviewing Noah's Compass, New York Times' Mitchiko Kakutani noted that
The central concern of most of this author’s characters has always been their need to define themselves in terms of family—the degree to which they see themselves as creatures shaped by genetics, childhood memories and parental and spousal expectations, and the degree to which they are driven to embrace independent identities of their own.
Tyler is not without her critics. The most common criticism is that her works are "sentimental," "sweet," and "charming and cosy." Even Kakutani has also occasionally bemoaned a "cloying cuteness," noting that "her novels—with their eccentric heroes, their homespun details, their improbable, often heartwarming plots—have often flirted with cuteness." In her own defense, Tyler has said,
For one thing I think it is sort of true. I would say piss and vinegar for [Philip] Roth and for me milk and cookies. I can’t deny it…. [However] there’s more edge under some of my soft language than people realize.
Also, because almost all of Tyler’s work covers the same territory—family and marriage relationships—and are located in the same setting, she has come under criticism for being repetitive and formulaic.
Tyler’s advice to beginning writers:
They should run out and buy the works of Erving Goffman, the sociologist who studied the meaning of gesture in personal interactions. I have cause to think about Erving Goffman nearly every day of my life, every time I see people do something unconscious that reveals more than they’ll ever know about their interiors. Aren’t human beings intriguing? I could go on writing about them forever."(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/10/2015.)
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.
Michiko Kakutani - The New York Times
(Audion version.) Blair Brown is one of those rare performers who can capture an author's voice to perfection.... Her vibrant reading of Digging manifests her outstanding talent as she moves lightly and briskly through the narrative, pausing ever so slightly before Tyler's clever punch lines for added effect. Brown makes this wry satire about the adoption of foreign babies so laugh-out-loud funny that standup comics could study her timing. Both adults and children are played to perfection. Brown's enactment of Iranian immigrant Maryam Yazdan and Ziba, her daughter-in-law, is amazing in her accurate reproduction of the soft and liquid Farsi vowels. In contrast, American-born Sami, Maryam's son, speaks like the prototypical Easterner. Brown remembers that the children of immigrants sound like their peers, not their parents. This hilarious audiobook actually improves a fine novel.
The author's 17th novel exemplifies her skill at depicting seemingly quiet and unremarkable lives with sympathy and humor. Set in Tyler's beloved Baltimore, with some side excursions into the Washington, DC, area, the story concentrates on two middle-class couples who meet when their adopted Korean daughters arrive on the same flight from Asia. At first the new parents appear to have little in common other than the infants. The Donaldsons, who have waited many years for a child, personify stereotypical American white-bread suburbia, while the younger Yazdans are linked to a large and lively Iranian immigrant community. As years pass and the annual multicultural "arrival party" for the little girls becomes a shared tradition, the families and their sometimes eccentric relatives become ever more closely linked. Several perspectives spotlight the various characters' small misunderstandings, larger hurts, and shared moments of warmth, especially those between dignified grandmother Maryam Yazdan and a recently widowed member of the Donaldson clan, whose brief romance threatens the established web of relationships. A touching, well-crafted tale of friendship, families, and what it means to be an American. Recommended for all fiction collections.
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.
1. In calling their baby Susan, the Yazdans "chose a name that resembled the name she had come with, Sooki, and also it was a comfortable sound for Iranians to pronounce" [p. 10]. The Donaldsons keep their baby’s Korean name, Jin-Ho. What is the significance of these choices, both within the context of the novel and in the context of adoption in general? Is it important for an adoptive family to give children from another country or ethnic group a sense of their heritage? What insights does Ziba and Bitsy’s fractious disagreement about "Americanization" [p. 46] offer into this question?
2. Right from the start, Maryam feels a deep connection with Susan—"something around the eyes, some way of looking at things, some onlooker’s look: that was what they shared. Neither one of them quite belonged" [p. 13]. Does Maryam’s pleasure in bonding with Susan hint at needs or emotions that she is unable or unwilling to acknowledge? To what extent does her insistence that she is "Still and forever a guest, on her very best behavior" [p. 15] serve as a convenient excuse for remaining aloof from other people?
3. What aspects of her heritage does Maryam value most and why? Why is she so unsettled by her visit to Iran and her reactions to Iranians in the country [p. 39]? Why is she annoyed when her cousin’s American husband sprinkles bits of Farsi into his conversation [p. 147]? Why has she raised Sami to be "more American than the Americans" [p. 83], even as she clings to her otherness?
4. Does Maryam’s behavior show that she feels not only estranged from American society but also in some way superior to it? What specific incidents and conversations bring this aspect of her personality to light?
5. In addition to being a wonderfully amusing vignette, what is the import of Sami’s "performance piece" [pp. 80-81]? Why does Tyler use humor and mockery to convey a serious point about Americans and how they appear to immigrants? Does the fact that Sami is American-born and-raised make his criticisms more credible (and perhaps more acceptable) than they would be if a newcomer to the country expressed them?
6. How does Maryam differ from Ziba’s parents and her cousin Farah, the other Iranian immigrants depicted in the novel? What factors, both practical and psychological, influence the characters’ desire and ability to make a place for themselves in American society? What do these varying portraits show about the process of assimilation? Are there inherent contradictions between accepting the culture of an adopted homeland and retaining one’s ethnic identity?
7. Compare and contrast Ziba and Bitsy. How do they differ as women? As mothers? Which woman is more sympathetically drawn? How does Tyler use both negative and positive attributes to bring each woman to life? How do the women’s individual approaches to motherhood influence the way they regard and evaluate each other? Is Ziba overly susceptible to Bitsy’s criticism and suggestions? Does her friendship with Ziba, as well as her frequent encounters with Maryam, affect Bitsy’s beliefs or behavior? Does the relationship between Ziba and Bitsy change over the course of the book?
8. How do the portraits of Sami and Brad compare to those of their wives? Are their personalities as richly described? Do they play parallel roles within their families? Is their behavior in relation to their children and wives a reflection of their personalities and the nature of their marriages, or do cultural patterns, expectations, and values also play a part?
9. Does the romance between Dave and Maryam unfold in a realistic way? In addition to Dave’s moving reaction to Connie death, what other events or conversations show that he contains a depth and a self-awareness that Maryam and the others seem oblivious to?
10. What does Maryam’s description of her courtship and marriage [pp. 155-160] add to our image of her? Why has she chosen to keep the story to herself, not even sharing it with Sami? 11. Discuss Maryam’s reaction to Dave’s proposal [pp. 211-214]. What does her conversation with Sami and Ziba reveal about her difficulties in reconciling her prejudices about Americans and her affection for Dave? In what ways do her protests also bring to light her ambivalent feelings about who she is and what she is willing to give up at this stage of her life? Why do you think Maryam makes the decision she does at the end of the book?
12. To what extent does Digging to America echo the themes and concerns Tyler explored in her previous novels? Do Tyler’s views on marriage and family here differ in significant ways from those presented in her earlier works? How does Digging to America compare to other books you have read that portray women trying to establish an identity apart from what is expected—or demanded—of them?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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