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.


13 thoughts on “Immigrant Malaise in Vesna Goldsworthy’s Iron Curtain

  1. What about children or teenagers who immigrate with their families? At 13 I felt the loss, but it’s not like a 13-year-old knows too much about the society he lives in, except for school, family, a few books and TV programs one is exposed to. Has anybody written about that?

    An adult immigrant has a theoretical option of moving back and feeling at home. Somebody who left as a teen doesn’t. His country / culture of birth isn’t truly his at all, while the new culture is his, yes, but I feel it’s still perceived differently by somebody born in it.


    1. “What about children or teenagers who immigrate with their families? At 13 ”

      There is this autobiographical work by Eva Hoffman whose jewish parents emigrated from Krakow to Vancouver (not hugely successfully) when she was 13 (she later she moved to the US to study literature.

      Despite the title and cover blurb there’s very little about language per se. There is some interesting information here and there. One of my favorite bits was her realization while she had been “the pretty sister” in Poland, she was “the plain sister” in Canada.


    2. Yes! The Spanish writer from Ukraine Margaryta Yakovenko. She writes precisely about this, in these very words. Her novel hasn’t been translated into English yet, unfortunately.

      She’s from Mariupol originally. Emigrated at the age of 10.


    1. Much of Ukrainian culture is Russian-speaking. Just like Mexican culture is Spanish-speaking. A Russian-speaking Ukrainian is still very much Ukrainian. 🙂


  2. That is an interesting perspective and makes a lot of sense. When I first moved to the US, I hated everything! I did not really come with the intention of immigrating forever, which made the first shock more bearable as I was fully intending to return. It took me about three years to adjust and to start really liking the place. I think it helped me not having too much contact with other immigrants from my own country, it made the adjustment easier.

    It is very common among the immigrants to complain a lot, there was someone from Russia
    who complained so much that it became a running joke (curiously, their comparison always started with “but in Belgium it is better because…” as they spent some time in Belgium). Needless to say this person lasted about a year and went back to Moscow. Then, what happens to some people after a while is that they start to hate the place they came from. They go back for a visit and start every sentence with “but in everything is better because…”

    I feel pretty well adjusted now, I like where I live and I like where I came from. However, the loss of relationships/culture is real and you never become fully at home (just yesterday someone asked me where I am from because of my accent), but I am good with that. I like my life here and that is what matters.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Out of all the things, I wasn’t expecting an entirely demythized retelling of Medea. Not saying I mind it, but it felt like it’s just there to check some Balkans check, why bring it on?

    Also, on the immigrant experience and speaking as someone who met a Brit or two, the part where the narrator was worrying about the poverty of her in-laws because of the discomfort in their home was physically painful, in an omg she’s reading the room so wrong. Yup, I realize that she’s from an even more privileged position back home – that little line about the international literature festival, and the queued up girls that look like starving students but are daughters of the nomenklatura was laugh-out-loud material – but oh wow she’s reading the room so wrong. It’s a very false note to me that the mother-in-law mentions to our narrator that the family doesn’t really have money – it’s clearly a way of chasing the gold digger away, true, but having it happen at this level of indirection rather than one more extra level of indirection feels like a dissonant note to me.

    And administratively speaking, I notice email logins go to moderation but twitter (and, I presume, wordpress and facebook) don’t. Slightly annoying since I’m mostly quitting twitter but if it’s not an easy fix don’t worry about it.


    1. How come you have already read whatever I’m reading? :-)))

      I also loved the part where she kept harping on Clarissa’s and Paddy’s poverty. I had a similar experience when I first traveled to the UK in 1990. I kept misreading people’s financial situation based on what they ate. People that I know realize must have been quite wealthy (a Land Rover CEO, a heart surgeon) seemed poor to me because they didn’t eat a lot. And the surgeon’s wife (also a doctor) served some carrots at dinner that she proudly declared that she’d grown herself in her garden. Back in the USSR, my family was too fancy to grow our own carrots, so I perceived it as proof of her poverty. :-)))

      I thought that a policeman’s family was wealthier than the CEO and the surgeon because they ate a lot more. And their clothing was very gaudy, unlike the ugly, colorless cashmere stuff that the CEO’s family wore. :-))))))

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s so interesting what you say. I have been writing all my life, I emigrated almost 20 years ago, for the last 15 inmigration has become the big (or only) topic in my writing. Also interesting what you say about the children of cold mothers. I was very happy (to the point of caricature – happy mobile workforce indeed) for the first 12 years or so but after that I’ve been feeling increasingly unhappy. My mother I wouldn’t say is sociopathic but certainly we never bonded properly when I was a child.


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