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Digging to America: A Novel


Digging to America: A Novel Cover

ISBN13: 9780307263940
ISBN10: 0307263940
Condition: Standard
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Author Q & A

A Conversation with Anne Tyler

Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives near Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Morgan Gray: Was there a particular character, image, or idea that inspired the writing of Digging to America?

Anne Tyler: In the summer of 1997, I drove my younger daughter to the Baltimore airport to pick up her husband-to-be, who was flying in from San Francisco for our annual beach trip. When we arrived, we found a gigantic, boisterous collection of strangers assembled, holding placards that made it clear they were waiting to welcome a baby. Of course we had to stay and watch what happened. (In fact, that’s the two of us on page four–the mother and grown daughter.) The baby turned out to be a tiny, very serious Korean boy about six or eight months old, and seeing his new parents reach out to take him from the attendant was one of the most moving moments imaginable. It hung on in my mind for several years, germinating in the dark the way seeds for novels often do.

JMG: I’ve actually had an “arrival day” experience myself: When my younger sister arrived from South Korea twenty-two years ago, my entire family gathered at the airport to welcome her (and we watch the video every year). You’ve captured the feeling of the day–anticipation and nervousness and joy–so perfectly. What prompted you to begin the book with this scene? How does the interaction of the two families give a good glimpse of what’s to come?

AT: I wish I could see that video! One of the thoughts that occurred to me while I was watching the family at the airport was that some people seem by nature so exuberant and outgoing and celebratory, larger than life almost. That’s why I came up with the idea of a second family whose style was the polar opposite–I’ve always been fascinated by inborn, dyed-in-the-wool character traits. And it was fun to set up that first scene as a microcosm of the two families’ future interactions.

JMG: The two families in the book are linked because of their experiences with adoption. Did you research adoptive families before reading the book, or did you have any personal experience with adoption?

AT: As with all my books, I relied on idle daydreams rather than research or personal experience. I thought for months and for years about that family I saw in the airport; I wondered how things were going with them; I entertained various “what-ifs” about how it must feel to take on a ready-made son or daughter. In time, I could almost believe I’d been through the experience myself.

JMG: How did you come up with the title Digging to America? What meaning did you hope readers would take from it–both when they lifted the book from the shelf and after they’d finished reading it? How does it reflect Jin-Ho’s question to her grandfather about children digging to America from her sister’s homeland of China?

AT: The title just drifted in on its own; I’m sure we’ve all had that childish notion of digging to the other side of the world. What surprised me in the writing of this book, though, is that my offhand decision to include Iranian characters (the result of many fond memories of my late husband’s gigantic family in Tehran) gradually turned it into a story about a different kind of digging: the immigrant’s attempt to break through the crust of a foreign culture.

JMG: Maryam thinks that her son and daughter-in-law have a crush on the Donaldsons. What about the family is so alluring to Sami and Ziba? How, in turn, do Sami and Ziba intrigue Bitsy and Brad? How does Sami’s “fight” with Brad bring the two families closer together?

AT: To me, the Donaldsons’ and the Yazdans’ relationship is a romance with the “Other.” It’s composed in equal parts of an attraction toward differentness, a concern that the differentness may be betterness, and the subtle resentment that such a concern calls forth. The families love each other, in their varying ways, but it’s a complicated and ambivalent love–as Brad’s and Sami’s half slugfest, half embrace suggests.

JMG: On page 49, Connie says, “Aren’t family gatherings wearing? They think they can just say anything.” How is Connie’s assessment correct, both in describing the workings of the Yazdans and of her own family? How would both families–the Yazdans in particular– benefit from more forthright dialogue?

AT: Dear Connie is just trying to be a comfort. Maryam’s observation is closer to the truth: The Yazdans, who practice the Iranian tradition of elaborate, formal politeness, would be better off exercising a little more bluntness. And that includes Maryam herself: Why didn’t she just say from the start that she didn’t want to host the party?

JMG: On page 111, Dave says of the Yazdans: “On the surface they seemed all primary colors, innocent and impressionable, but he’d had glimpses of more complicated interiors from time to time.” How do you think Maryam would comment on this assessment? Couldn’t Dave’s observation apply to some members of the Donaldson family as well?

AT: Maryam would be delighted by Dave’s statement, if only he knew. It allows the Yazdans the complexity and particularity that she thinks most Americans fail to acknowledge in foreigners.

JMG: While the book is told from many different points of view, Maryam opens and closes the novel. How does she evolve throughout the course of the book? What about her is so “intimidating” to others, and how is her façade a protective armor? Is she really unsocial?

AT: I was more and more drawn to Maryam as I was writing about her. I like her dignity. And while she does become more open and flexible by the end of the book, she remains quite firmly herself– not unsocial so much as reserved. I admired that.

JMG: It’s interesting that as the narrative focus of the book shifts, the reader sees the world through Jin-Ho’s eyes, but not through Susan’s. What made you decide to do this? How does Jin-Ho share Maryam’s feeling of not belonging?

AT: My main concern was not to have too much of either girl’s voice. A little of a child’s-eye view goes a long way, in my opinion– you don’t want to sound “cute,” and you certainly don’t want to force the reader to stay too long in the terrible country of childhood. So I limited my vantage point to just one of the girls, and because of where that fell in the alternating Yazdan/Donaldson chapters, it happened to be Jin-Ho. It could as easily have been Susan. I’ve been surprised, incidentally, by the number of readers who have asked why that chapter refers to “Jin-Ho’s mom” and “Jin-Ho’s dad” instead of “Bitsy” and “Brad,” as they’re called throughout the rest of the book. To me that seems obvious: most children don’t think of their parents by their first names. Certainly Jin-Ho doesn’t, and she’s the one whose head we’re inside in Chapter 9.

JMG: How is Xiu-Mei’s adoption a different experience for the Donaldsons than Jin-Ho’s? Does Bitsy’s attitude about parenting change during that time?

AT: There are clear differences in the Donaldsons’ experience with Xiu-Mei, but I see them as merely circumstantial. Xiu-Mei is physically frailer and therefore more taxing; Bitsy is a few years older and less resilient. And like most parents, Bitsy has lost a bit of her perfectionist zeal by the time her second child arrives.

JMG: You deftly weave issues of culture, class, and wealth throughout the book. Why did you choose to have the Donaldsons keep the Asian names of their children, while the Yazdans changed hers? How does each family feel threatened by the other?

AT: It made sense to me that the Donaldsons–so intent upon political correctness, so determinedly inclusive–would bend over backwards to encourage the foreignness of their child; while the Yazdans’ longing to fit in would lead them to Americanize their own child as much as possible.

JMG: “We all think the others belong more,” Dave tells Maryam on page 181. Would you say that this book is finding a place within the world? Ultimately, who in this book has the greatest chance of being successful in that quest?

AT: Absolutely that’s what this book is about, although I didn’t know that when I began it. (I thought it was about, maybe, the randomness of families.) But because I agree with Dave that we all feel the others belong more, I don’t think a single one of these characters will ever reach the point where he or she would say, “I’ve succeeded; I’m in. I can sit back and breathe easy now.”

JMG: Bitsy feels that Jin-Ho’s arrival is all part of a plan. Do you agree with her philosophy that things happen for a reason? How is her philosophy shaken by events later in the novel?

AT: Oh, well, Bitsy! She’s always going to say that her way is the best way, and so of course that means it’s part of some grand plan. But life has a tendency to wear people’s edges down over time, and I think Bitsy has lost much of her certitude by the end of the book.

JMG: Bitsy and her first husband are thrust together because their families felt they should be soulmates. Do you think Jin-Ho and “bossy Susan” are in danger of the same fate? How are the two girls similar, and how are they different?

AT: That’s an interesting point. I hadn’t thought of the parallel with Bitsy’s first marriage. I imagine that Jin-Ho and Susan will resist their association more and more as they grow older. I can picture the two of them in their teens, sulking in opposite corners of every Arrival Party, listening to totally different styles of music on their headphones and wearing clothes as unlike each other’s as possible. By the time they’re adults, though . . . well, who knows?

JMG: By the end of the book, Maryam realizes that she’s “winnowed out the people she’s not at ease with.” What about Dave makes her feel uneasy, and how does he make her feel comfortable? Do the two really love one another?

AT: In fact, Maryam is no less guilty of pigeonholing than other people are. Much of her uneasiness with Dave is based simply on his being “so American.” But, yes, I believe they love each other. A lot of misunderstandings may await them in the future, but I do think it’s real love.

JMG: Why does Maryam elect to join the Donaldsons when they knock at her door–although it would have been just as easy for her not to?

AT: That’s just one more step in the Immigration Tango–the pull toward assimilation warring with the fear of losing one’s true self.

JMG: Were there any special routines you followed or books you read while writing this book, to inspire creativity? What were they?

AT: By now I know not to expect “inspiration.” It’s more a matter of going into my writing room at the same time every day, sitting in the same chair, and trusting that mere routine will somehow see me through.

JMG: Is there any particular project that you’re working on right now? What can readers look forward to seeing from you next?

AT: I’m at the very faltering beginning of a book about a man who’s decided he has nothing more to expect from his life. But it’s going so badly that the beginning may be as far as it gets.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Hu Gadrn, June 11, 2009 (view all comments by Hu Gadrn)
Apparently a lot of people like this book. I'm not one of them. The cover said "witty..." and "hilarious..." but I find the book to be neither. The characters feel like characters in a book and not like people.

I'm at page 103 and have not laughed once nor have I thought that any situation or insight presented in the book was interesting. And don't get me started on the sloppy writing (e.g. "He tended to slip into a fusty, overstarched style of speech on these occasions" - yes, you read that correctly, "fusty" - I guess that's meant to be funny).

So why am I still reading it? Like many who'll pick up this book, my wife and I are adopting a baby boy from S Korea. I’ve been doing my homework and this book was part of it.

But sweet mother of the gods, when does this book get good?
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MaggersUK, February 16, 2008 (view all comments by MaggersUK)
I loved this novel; I was sucked into this world completely. It taught me just as much about American Americans as immigrant Americans; and yet I recognised the same thoughts and reasonings and doubts in myself as her characters, so her canvas is universal not parochial, even though all her books are based in Balitmore.
I always think 'That's how I feel!' when reading an Anne Tyler. How does she capture so exquisitely the minutae of everyday life?? She's a genius...
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titianlibrarian, January 21, 2008 (view all comments by titianlibrarian)
A little more breadth than depth when dealing with most of the issues (immigrants' assimilation into American culture, international adoptions, women's friendships, women raising their children, etc.), but the main character's depth makes up for the skimming. Maryam is an Iranian widow who stands at the edge of the family. She is loved by all, but she just doesn't see how she ought to get too involved with her granddaughter's adoption from Korea, her daughter-in-law's involvement with an American family, and the love that an American widower wants to give her. But her loved ones never give up on her, thank goodness.
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Product Details

Tyler, Anne
Intercountry adoption
Publication Date:
May 2006
Grade Level:
9.54x6.64x1.04 in. 1.29 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

Digging to America: A Novel Used Hardcover
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Product details 288 pages Alfred A. Knopf - English 9780307263940 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Anne Tyler put her skilled pen to paper and wrote a powerful novel of America's melting pot. Brought together by international adoptions, two family's lives intertwine and illuminate America's cultural spectrum and all its universalities of human nature. Funny, touching, highly recommended.

"Review A Day" by , "With her 17th novel, Tyler has delivered something startlingly fresh while retaining everything we love about her work. Digging to America delivers the blithely insular, suburban Baltimore characters we expect, but it's a bait-and-switch move....Her success at portraying culture clash and the complex longings and resentments of those new to America confirms what we knew, or should have known, all along: There's nothing small about Tyler's world, nothing precious about her attention to the hopes and fears of ordinary people." (read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
"Review A Day" by , "[S]tupendously wise and very funny....Digging to America succeeds on many levels — as a satire of millennial parenting, a tribute to autumn romances, and, most important, an exploration of our risible (though poignant) attempts to welcome otherness into our midst." (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"Review" by , "The veteran novelist extends her range without losing her essence....Vintage Tyler, with enough fresh, new touches to earn her the next generation of fans."
"Review" by , "Tyler creates many blissful moments of high emotion and keen humor while broaching hard truths about cultural differences, communication breakdowns, and family configurations. This deeply human tale of valiantly improvised lives is one of Tyler's best."
"Review" by , "At a time when discussions of immigration and citizenship have become increasingly fraught, Tyler's Digging to America offers tranquil insight by telling one immigration story and telling it well."
"Review" by , "[A] compelling novel. Anyone can tell a story, but few writers allow us to identify with their 'just folks' characters, and, like Tyler, let us revel in the day-to-day, often repetitive activities that are at the heart of being a family member and a friend."
"Review" by , "Digging to America is studded with lovely observations....Tyler has cast her abiding theme — the art of surviving among shifting, challenging circumstances — in a story more anchored in a specific time than any previous work."
"Review" by , "A touching, well-crafted tale of friendship, families, and what it means to be an American. Recommended."
"Review" by , "Ms. Tyler deserves her reputation as a master of the fine threads of human relationships. The barely registered slights, fleeting intuitions and shivers of pity that pass between these characters are a pleasure to behold."
"Review" by , "If you plan to soak up a few rays while reading [Digging to America], liberally apply the sunscreen before you start the 277-page book. Otherwise, you might find yourself caught up in her 17th novel and not want to stop to slather up again."
"Review" by , "Once again, this wise and warm-hearted author delves beneath the surface of ordinary Americans to find that there are no ordinary Americans."
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