A LABEL TO ABOLISH: SECOND GENERATION MIGRANT

I have been asked to be on the board that will assess an MA dissertation dealing with V.V. Ganeshananthan’s first (and, so far, only) novel, Love Marriage (2008). This work created some stir in the year when it was published, earning the honour of making it to the long list of the Orange Prize, among other distinctions. The focus on the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the United States and in Canada was the main factor why this novel attracted attention, for Ganeshananthan (an American born to Sri Lankan migrant parents) addressed in her work the reality of an ethnic community until then underrepresented in the mimetic fiction in English. It is not, however, my intention to discuss either the arguments articulating the dissertation or the novel’s plot in detail but a concept which is central to both and that needs to be revised: the use of the label ‘second generation migrant’.

Here is how the European Commission defines the concept: ‘A person who was born in and is residing in a country that at least one of their parents previously entered as a migrant’ (https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/content/second-generation-migrant_en). The EC webpage includes two notes: in one, it plainly contradicts this definition with the observation that, according to the Recommendations for the 2010 Censuses of Population and Housing, second generation is ‘generally restricted to those persons whose parents were born abroad’; those with just one foreign parent are a ‘special case’ with ‘a mixed background’. The other note warns that second generation migrant is ‘not defined in legislation but has a more sociological context’ and that the label, anyway, ‘does not relate to a migrant, since the person concerned has not undertaken a migration’. The webpage refers to another section on the wider label ‘person with a migratory background’ and mentions the related term ‘third generation migrant’ (though without offering either a definition or a link).

I find all this deeply offensive and extremely discriminatory. The bottom line here is that, against a most basic tenet of legislation world-wide, being born in a specific state does not guarantee that you will be awarded full citizenship, in the social sense, unless you renounce the foreign background of the migrant members of your family. Besides, it particularly punishes citizens born of two foreign parents of the same nationality by making them appear to be substantially more alien than citizens born of just one foreign parent.

Let me give an example for you to see what I mean. V.V. Ganeshananthan and her protagonist, Yanili, are regarded as second generation migrants with an autobiographical experience that requires a double identity (Sri Lankan American) and that is worth narrating because it explains to the normative host society (that is, white America) what it is like to be the Other. In contrast, nobody thinks of Barron Trump, son of the current President of the United States (himself the grandson of a Bavarian migrant), as a second generation migrant, even though his mother is a Slovenian immigrant. The same applies to Barron’s elder siblings, born of Trump’s marriage to Czech immigrant Ivana Zelníčková. Yes, Ivanka Trump is also a second generation migrant, but who would ever think of her as such?

Obviously, the racial factor is crucial, even though white Melania Trump (née Knavs) looks distinctly non-Anglo, leaving plastic surgery aside. The presumption here is that Melania’s cultural background plays no part in Barron’s upbringing, because she has renounced it to be fully assimilated into American society. If this is the case, it would be anyway quite exceptional, for many foreign parents in mixed couples teach their own language and culture to their children, a situation particularly appreciated by the upper-middle and upper classes. Whereas V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Yanili rejects her parents’ native Tamil language (which she understands but does not speak), for its unwanted connections with a culture she does not know and that gives her no advantage in America (quite the opposite), an American child that rejected, say, her father’s native French would be mocked for taking an absurd decision. I have no idea, though, whether Barron Trumps speaks Slovene or eats Slovenian food, most likely not.

Let me go back to the European Commission’s observation that the term second generation migrant ‘does not relate to a migrant, since the person concerned has not undertaken a migration’. It’s so ridiculous that it’s even funny. It also proves that the label is an oxymoron, for if you’re born in one place you cannot simultaneously be a migrant. Whoever came up with this absurdity seemingly presumed that if your genes come from a migrant, you are a sort of ‘blood migrant’ and your children remain migrants unless you start mixing with the host population. Supposing the ethnic community you belong to tends to intermarry, then the migratory gene is never erased (which is what was basically certified by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws and the equally racist American One-Drop legislation). Migration, a matter connected with spatial displacement, becomes thus a matter connected with racist labelling of the worst kind, which you inherit and possibly also your (third generation migrant) children.

So why should anyone accept being called second generation migrant? The answer is that nobody should. If the law says that any person born on American land is an American, regardless of their parentage, then there is absolutely no reason to separate Americans into diverse social categories depending on their migrant background. And, as I have insisted again and again, if you wish to use a double identity label, like Sri Lankan, that’s fine but, then, that practice should be extended to everyone, so that President Trump should be properly labelled German American. In fact, as it is easy to see, double labels connected with European backgrounds were certainly used in the past but started falling into disuse the moment ethnic and racial labels emerged. Then, Americans of mixed white European descent became normative, provided we forget that only American Indians are native to the land. All the rest are migrants and, at worse, invaders or, even worse, the children of slaves.

There are many more issues to consider in the use of the obnoxious label second generation migrant. Evidently, as I have suggested, it connects with the racial and social status of the migrant parents, with race being an even more important factor than class. In V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage the migrant parents are middle-class (the father is a doctor) and have chosen to live isolated from the American Sri Lankan community. Still, their physical appearance marks their alienness (and that of their daughter) in a way which would not apply to a white, middle-class, French couple who decided to migrate to the United States. I even doubt they would be called migrants.

On the other hand, I find that the academic theorization of migration in all its aspects tends to neglect how international migration worked in the past among European states, as well as internal migration. By this I mean that both transnational and internal migration have always occurred, though reading current scholarship (the product of 1990s post-colonial theorization) it might seem that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Many of the issues raised in Anglophone fiction about migrant persons and communities, and the recurring pattern of feeling doubly out of place in the host country and in the family’s place of origin, are common to all types of migration–not just transnational experiences marked by racial difference. An Andalusian may feel as out of place in Catalonia as a Sri Lankan in the United States, as I have seen in my own family.

Being a second generation (transnational) migrant, then, is connected to how poor and how non-white your foreign parents are. It is an appalling term, used to further discrimination from one generation to the next and to stigmatise as a disadvantage the participation in a culture different from that of the host country (particularly if it is not European). There is, besides, something that always surprises me: the supposed homogeneity of the receiving community, despite the constant migratory movements along all human History. Who are the Americans, or for that matter the British claiming for Brexit, or the Catalans, to determine which persons counts as ‘us’? What community can call itself homogeneous?

Something else puzzles me (or, rather, irritates me). The label second generation migrant supposes implicitly that families are either purely foreign, or purely local, or mixed half and half, but cannot really explain truly mixed families. I mean families in which different generations marry migrants of different types as well as locals. This situation, I think, is far more common, above all in internal migration. It used to be, besides, a matter of pride to declare yourself of very mixed origins. I’m thinking here of Cher, whose genes come from Armenian, Irish, German, English, and Cherokee ancestors. Her mixed ancestry was always mentioned and enthused about in relation to her personal uniqueness and how impossible it is to define her, except by simply calling her American (or Cher). Or think of everyone’s favourite film star this summer: Keanu Reeves, or, as some call him, ‘the Keanu’. How has identity become so narrow these days in comparison to the refreshing idea of the singular human mixture? Even the adjective cosmopolitan is now tied down to a limited experience of the transnational, when it should be everyone’s definition of planetary citizenship.

Could it simply be that Homo Sapiens does not particularly like other Homo Sapiens because our survival depended on tribal grouping for aggression? Is a mistrust of other fellow humans our most fundamental cultural trait? Is this why we need at least three generations to declare that the process of migration is over, even though the individuals of the second and third generations are not migrants at all? Please, consider what you’re doing the next time you define someone as ‘second generation migrant’ and, if you’re called that yourself, how it makes you feel. And think: Barron, Melania, Trump.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A BOOK CO-AUTHORED WITH MA STUDENTS, GENDER IN 21ST CENTURY SF CINEMA: 50 TITLES

My post today seeks to publicise unashamedly the work I have done with my students in the Masters’ Degree in Advanced English Studies at my university, the Autònoma of Barcelona. Last week I had the great pleasure of seeing finally online the e-book Gender in 21st Century SF Cinema: 50 Titles, which can be downloaded for free from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282. We even had a presentation at Llibreria Gigamesh (together with that of my recent book Ocho cuentos góticos: Entre el papel y la pantalla), which can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_XdiT4k1sg . I’ll divide my post, then, in two parts: one dealing with the logistics of setting the e-book in motion, editing and publishing it, and the other one dealing with the main findings in our research. By the way, this is my sixth e-book with students. Here is the complete list:

2019: Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282
2018: Gender and Feminism: The Students’ View, Vol 2. https://ddd.uab.cat/record/129180
2016: Reading SF Short Fiction: 50 Titles, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/163528
2015: Gender and Feminism: The Students’ View, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/129180
2014: Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series https://ddd.uab.cat/record/122987
2014: Addictive and Wonderful: The Experience of Reading the Harry Potter Series, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118225

The most successful one in terms of downloads so far is Reading SF Short Fiction: 50 Titles, now past the 6300 mark. This is nothing in comparison to the millions of clicks a video posted by the most popular YouTubers gets but it’s infinitely much more than any academic publication gets in the Humanities. For this is what the e-books are: academic publications (in English Studies).

I came across the idea of the e-book quite by chance, when I taught the monographic course on Harry Potter in 2013-14. I put then together two volumes, one with the students’ short essays on their experience of reading Rowling’s series, the other with their papers. Progressively, I have transformed my BA and MA electives into project-oriented teaching (or learning) experiences, to the point that I’m beginning to think of students’ exercises written only for my eyes as a waste of time (excuse me!).

What I mean is that since, anyway, I need to correct and mark plenty of these exercises, I’d rather invest my time into texts (or even videos) that can be published online. This gives my teaching and their learning more sense, since we are both producing practical work in cultural communication which has, besides, the advantage of training students professionally. We must, of course, teach students to produce different academic exercises at each level of their studies, but why not aim at producing texts that do have potential impact beyond the classroom? Online publication, as I have learned, is at first a scary proposition but it eventually boosts students’ self-confidence, which should be, I think, one of our main aims as teachers, and as researchers training future researchers.

So, what have I done in the case of Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles? Well, to begin with, imagine the final result: an e-book composed of 50 factsheets, each one dealing with how gender is represented in an English-language science-fiction film. As a researcher I specialise in Gender and in SF, which explains the combination of both fields. It’s the first time I have taught a monographic course on cinema, but I have written extensively about this narrative medium which, besides, I do want to defend from the onslaught of the series everyone is watching these days.

Each factsheet contains some information about the film’s cast and crew, other similar films, and the main awards reaped. Next comes a plot summary (150-200 words), and then the main bulk of analysis: a consideration of the most salient gender issues (300/400 words), followed by the description of a relevant scene (150 words). The factsheet is completed by quotations from three other sources (reviews, academic articles, etc) and links to IMDB, Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, and Wikipedia.

The e-book is a Word document turned into a .pdf, nothing fancy about it. Yet, I have made an effort to teach myself how to produce a nice cover, and to give the factsheets a look as attractive as possible. My students use a template that I have myself produced but, inevitably, when I sit down to edit the final text, I always realize that I should have chosen another type, or size, or style… You name it!! Next time, I’ll run some more print tests before I pass the template onto my students. If you’re thinking of editing an e-book with your students, then, here is a warning: work on the template for as long as it takes (it will save time later), give your students very clear instructions (ditto) and be ready to invest many hours in editing.

I have used for the 50 factsheets (a total of 72000 words, including my own preface) about 65 hours, with 45 to 75 minutes per factsheet. Why so long? Because I checked every source the students quoted from and because I edited their texts in depth. You must also warn them about this: students’ English might not be solid enough to be published online without raising criticism and diverting attention from the content of their work. So, I have indeed smoothed out any problems, corrected errors, etc. I would have done that anyway to mark their papers, though I have certainly used more time in editing than I use in marking. On the other hand, I have used most of our classroom time for students to present a preliminary version of their factsheets (each of the eight students was responsible for six films, and thus six factsheets). The time I have not needed to prepare lectures is the extra time I have invested in the e-book. Yes, very clever of me!

Of course, I would never ever set out to produce an e-book about 50 films I didn’t know, and here’s the other piece of advice: don’t embark students in projects about areas you’re not 100% familiar with. In the case of Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles the difficulty for me was selecting only 50 films, for I had a list of more than 100 possible candidates. The other difficulty was hitting on a good method to give each student a set of films they could be interested in. I made the list in summer, prior to meeting the students and it was only once I met them (quite briefly, over coffee in the MA’s presentation in September) that I decided to give each one specific titles. I operated quite blindly, I must say, but I seem to have made only one error, quickly corrected by two students’ swapping films. In another project I have allowed students to choose freely what they want to work on, but this means that the ones that take long to make up their mind might end up discussing movies they are not interested in at all. In any case, what I’m saying is that I simply got lucky this time! We’ll see next time around.

The purpose of Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles and of the MA course on Gender Studies of which it is a product was finding out whether there is an evolution in the representation of gender issues in current Anglophone cinema. The focus on SF was justified on the grounds that since it is mostly set in the future (not always) this genre is an excellent lab to test out new ideas about genre – do recall that SF also stands for speculative fiction. Rather than name the 50 films chosen I’ll invite you, of course, to download the e-book (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282) and you will see what we found, namely, that there has been no significant evolution.

The path trodden by SF cinema between A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Annihilation (2018) might appear to be progressive; after all, Alex Garland’s Annihilation has an (almost) all-female cast. Yet, this is not a choice that is attractive to all audiences; in fact, its most recalcitrant misogynistic segment is now ‘defeminising’ films, that is to say, producing cuts in which all female characters are erased. The smaller films can risk being more daring than the summer blockbusters but, in the end, whether major or minor SF films are in the hands of male directors and screen writers (there are, however, many women producers). Please, note that I’m here speaking about the difficulties to see more female characters on the cinema screen. The representation of LGTBI+ characters is entirely missing with few exceptions (very, very few and still in secondary roles).

The picture of the present and of the future we have collectively discussed in class is bleak. We are still being told again and again the same story about a heroic man who needs to prove himself. If a strong female character appears (and she’s fast becoming a stereotype), she is isolated from other women and never, in any case, a more prominent hero than the man. We have also noticed that many male characters only stand out as caring parents in the absence of a mother (a pattern you may observe in Signs) or do their job briefly before going away for good (Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds). It takes a major world-wide crisis, like an alien invasion for these men to react. And speaking of Cruise, it’s funny to see that he and Scarlett Johansson contribute star value to the many films they lead in radically different ways: he embodies the confusion of contemporary men (see The Edge of Tomorrow), she women’s alienness whether as human (Lucy) or literally alien (Under the Skin). We have noticed, in short, that with no more diversity among those producing, writing and directing films we will endlessly repeat the same stories, even in films that look beautiful and spectacular and that do have women in key roles (Gravity, Interstellar). We didn’t make any great discovery, though we more or less agreed that Jyn Erson in Rogue One is possibly our favourite hero. But do consider the kind of story she is involved in.

One thing is certain: the impatience of audiences and reviewers with how gender is misrepresented on the cinema screen is growing, and much more so since 2017, when the #MeToo movement began. Reviews written in the 2000s carry fewer comments on gender than those of the 2010s; the more recent the film, the less willing audiences are to condone missteps in gender representation (except the ‘defeminisers’!). My students, indeed, grew more and more annoyed with the clichés and the stereotypes as the course advanced and they identified in each newer film the same old problems. It is our hope, then, that Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles –a certainly anti-patriarchal, feminist volume– increases that annoyance by raising awareness about the errors that can be easily corrected and about the pressing need to find new stories and new storytellers. And this is practically universal, for the e-book’s authors come from Spain (Ainhoa Goicoechea Ortiz, Alexandra Camp Martínez, Alba Sepúlveda Rodríguez-Marín) but also Turkey (Merve Barbal), the United States (Meghan Henderson) and China (Jiadong Zhang, Shuyuen He and Alvin Ng, from Hong Kong).

My thanks to them for having followed me into this adventure. I hope it has been as gratifying for them as it has been for me. And I do hope that if you read Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles you find much to enjoy–though not necessarily in how the SF films which many of us love so deeply (mis)represent gender.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/