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: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/