Immigrant Malaise in Vesna Goldsworthy’s Iron Curtain

Writers who are immigrants tend to be wounded people. Their wound is immigration itself, and as writers they are complex enough to feel the wound.

I’m not saying that every immigrant necessarily perceives immigration as catastrophic. There are exceptions.* But look, we all agree that moving house or having a friend die is major life trauma. So why shouldn’t moving country, abandoning your language, and having your whole country die to you not be an even bigger calamity?

This is why there are so many woke immigrant writers. They hate their new country but don’t know why. So they latch on to the explanation provided by the newspapers and TV. Immigration can’t possibly be a bad thing, so it’s got to be structural injustices that are causing the pain. These poor people rave against racism-sexism-somethingphobia because it’s easier to attribute their suffering to the ills that matter to the locals. It makes

So far, I’ve only seen Eastern European writers manage to avoid this form of dishonesty and grieve their emigration as it deserves to be grieved. Grieving, by the way, doesn’t mean that you are sorry you did it and that you want to go back. It simply means that people aren’t vacuum cleaners, and you can’t switch them off by pressing a button.

I felt an immigrant’s grief not when I moved from Ukraine to Canada but when I went from Canada to the US. It was very hard. The buildings were ugly, the sky hung in a crooked way, the air smelled disgusting, everything was wrong. I now love this country but it took years to figure out how to do that. I wouldn’t blame anybody for failing. Not because this is a bad country – it’s a wonderful one – but because it’s really hard to disgorge a country and ingest another one instead.

Vesna Goldsworthy has spent a couple of decades writing about immigrant grief. In her novel The Iron Curtain: A Love Story, a young woman called Milena leaves Serbia in 1985 to come to the UK, and she just absolutely hates it. The reason why the Iron Curtain makes an appearance in the story is to explain why the protagonist can’t go back. But all the Soviet-bloc stuff in the novel is uninteresting. It’s all been done a million times, and Goldsworthy has nothing new to add. It’s the description of the immigrant malaise that makes the novel.

Milena’s disgust with the UK seems exaggerated and lacking in motive. But the reason why her suffering seems spurious is because we aren’t used to linking emigration and grief. It’s convenient to have a highly mobile workforce that can be dragged around at will. So we pretend that immigrants can only be upset about not being able to get shuffled around faster and more easily. What else can they possibly be unhappy about? Everybody piled on Trump when he said the quiet part out loud but deep inside we all think that nobody can possibly be attached to the shithole countries that immigrants come from. If only it weren’t for structural racism and patriarchy, our widely accepted narrative goes, all immigrants would be blissfully happy.

Multiculturalism passionately despises culture precisely because it believes culture is extremely easy to leave behind. It’s an oxymoron to have “multi” and “culture” joined in one word.

* Children of cold, insensitive, almost sociopathic mothers tend to be such exceptions. N is an example.

Quote of the Day

A writer who grew up in Socialist Serbia and ended up working in British academia:

Daughter of a self-managed workers’ paradise, I excel at my job. I criticize and self-criticize, I censor and self-censor, I compose self-assessment sheets about self-managed time, I sit on teaching and research committees, I attend meetings and take notes, I know that literature has hidden and insidious meanings. […] My communist upbringing, my upbringing in communism—to be able to live with myself without believing in anything I say, to be able to accept things without asking too many questions—has certainly stood me in good stead throughout my working life.

In the art of the long meeting, British university workers easily outdid anything I’d encountered in my socialist upbringing. The sessions were often longer than the communist plenaries, the acronyms just as plentiful, the put-downs just as complicatedly veiled in oblique metaphor, the passions just as high, even if the stakes were often infinitesimal.

Vesna Goldsworthy, Chernobyl Strawberries

Obviously, she’s exaggerating but there’s definitely something to the analogy.