Immigration is on my mind. After an eventful year and a half - relocating to Vermont, buying a house, breaking my neck, relearning how to walk, drafting my second novel - I have returned to Frogsbone, and it seems my world is suddenly filled with news stories and conversations about immigration.
Frogsbone is a celebration of the ways in which immigration has forged New York City, and America more widely. In many ways the book is a love letter to the city, a billet doux to the country I now call home.
My novel explores immigration in the context of the early twentieth century, but I am an immigrant too and I share many of my characters' desires to contribute to the life of my new community. Although I am not allowed to engage in paid work, I support a regular community meal, volunteer at the local food shelf, and foster local children in need, and I also strive to bring some of own cultural heritage to the community in which we now live. Last month I hosted a 'Very English Tea Party' for forty local neighbors, introducing them to the glories of English lemonade, sausage rolls, fairy cakes, and a well-made cup of tea.
Elsewhere I've blogged extensively about some of the linguistic challenges of speaking 'English' English rather than 'American' English (and while I like to think I have gained a degree of bilingualism, there continue to be moments when my attempt to explain something is met with blank stares), but my major challenges as an immigrant are bureaucratic. Susanna - the main character in Frogsbone - passes through Ellis Island on her journey into America. There she is scrutinized by doctors and, because of her facial scarring, is remanded for several days before a specialist committee review her case. Inspired by the real-life diaries of Maud Mosher, the Chief Matron of Ellis Island, I explore many of the contemporaneous debates and concerns associated with immigration. More than a hundred years later, I have been medically examined by a civil surgeon who was, I suspect, far more civilized than those Ellis Island doctors who would hook back immigrants' eyes to check for trachoma and chalk letters on people's coats to record their observations. While that part of the process has improved, however, the bureaucracy of immigration has grown exponentially. My partner and I have filled out numerous forms which have been checked and rechecked by ourselves and two different legal teams prior to their submission. I have had my retinas photographed, my finger prints recorded, my own background and that of family members scrutinized in case of possible misdemeanors in our pasts. I have supplied the addresses of six previous houses I have called home and the contact details of numerous employers. Despite my doctorate in Education and the fact I am a native English speaker, I have often felt helpless and overwhelmed. Only imagine how this process must seem to someone for whom English is not a native tongue!
For the past month I have been travelling through Europe: beginning my journey in Italy, riding trains through Germany, the Netherlands and France, and concluding my vacation in London. According to the most widely read of the English newspapers, England faces a 'migrant crisis' with thousands of foreigners 'swarming' through the Channel Tunnel each night. Yesterday, French riot police sprayed immigrants with tear gas in an attempt to subdue them and David Cameron, the English Prime Minister, plans to send English security forces to France to help prevent migrants from crossing the challenge onto English soil.
The determination to prevent people from entering England makes a mockery of the country's history. England has always been a country of immigrants - from the Romans, who built many of the roads which still shape the landscape; the Saxons and Vikings, who have left a legacy of place names; the Normans, who built castles and left behind an aristocracy; the 1950s' Windrush generation who took the jobs no-one else wanted and expanded the Underground railway system upon which London still depends. More recently, England has been shaped (and, I would argue, improved) by skilled migrants from Poland, young people from Spain, and many more. This continuous shift and evolution is a key ingredient in that which makes countries great; it is the dynamic I celebrate in Frogsbone.
The migrants trapped in Calais are desperate to begin their new lives in England. They share the same dreams which all migrants have: the dream of a new life, the hope for something better, the belief that they can build a better world for themselves and their families and their communities if they can have a fresh start. Even Jeb Bush acknowledges the attempt to cross borders into a new country as an 'act of love'. But these people - most of them from war torn African countries where their life chances are limited - are crammed into camps where fresh water is scarce, food is limited, housing is temporary, and resources are absent. This is not a 'migrant crisis', it is an 'humanitarian crisis' and the journey migrants made through Ellis Island in the early 1900s appears civilized and welcoming in comparison.