When immigration and identity collide

A new novel reminds us that love can keep us together.

 

Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel The Golden State is an energetic work of fiction that sharply comments on immigration, identity and modern-day motherhood. Set in California, the story follows 10 days in the life of its resilient protagonist, Daphne, who is fighting to hold her world together as everything around her crumbles.

Her husband, a native of Turkey, has had his green card revoked under dubious circumstances and is stranded half a world away. Two students from the university where Daphne works got into a car accident while overseas — on a study-abroad program she helped arrange — and one of them is dead. Thrown into an emotional abyss, Daphne acts on that most basic of human impulses, and flees. The opening line of the novel reveals her thinking:

“I am staring out the window of my office and thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue.”

And so Daphne impulsively strides out of her office, retrieves her 16-month-old daughter, Honey, from daycare, and points her Oldsmobile northeast, toward the doublewide trailer she inherited from her parents in the high desert of Northern California. Unbeknownst to her, an anti-government secessionist movement is gaining steam in her family’s hometown, and this already-overwhelmed woman is about to get caught up in the midst of yet more high-stakes drama.

A car outside of a 2017 State of Jefferson meeting in Redding, California.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Kiesling, the editor of the online literary website The Millions, brings a wry humor to this emotionally charged story. At her wit’s end, for example, Daphne thinks about seeing her deported husband: “I am alone with our child whose first steps and first words you are missing and I sometime fantasize about meeting you at the airport with her and kissing you passionately and then throttling you until you die.”

Fair enough.

The book offers the reader a chance to compare the seemingly disparate cultures of Turkey, the emerging economy that is home to Daphne’s husband, Engin, and California, a nation-state unto itself. The two places share more similarities than most Americans imagine: Both suffer from random acts of public violence against civilians, and both have leaders with autocratic tendencies.

“The whole trajectory of our marriage has been westward,” Daphne says. “It’s true that in Turkey there is Erdoğan the tyrant sultan and also that there are safety concerns of various kinds but the last incident was the woman from Dagestan who bombed the police station and that was months ago and America is no picnic on that score what with roomfuls of murdered kindergarteners lying in their own blood. Oh God.”

And then, once Daphne arrives in Altavista, the heart of Paiute County, we meet her neighbor: Cindy Cooper. Cindy is a supporter of the State of Jefferson, a movement that believes that Northern California and southern Oregon should secede together and form their own separate state. Listening to her neighbors and family friends endorse secession, wallow in conspiracy theories and complain endlessly about government interference, Daphne thinks, aghast, “This is California.

Daphne is shocked by the nativism and ignorance she finds in her family’s community. Though they are kind to Daphne and her daughter, her neighbors espouse insular, xenophobic beliefs. They equate Islam with ISIS, believe that Barrack Hussein Obama is a secret Muslim, and think that the United Nations has a secret agenda to seize control of their homesteads.

The truth is that California is a wide and diverse vessel that can hold many ideologies simultaneously. A pluralistic society can be home to both an American wife and a deported Turkish husband, to a baby named Honey Mehmeto˘glu and State of Jefferson secessionists who want to be left alone, to bureaucrats in Sacramento and Salem who send more services to the would-be free state of Jefferson than they receive revenue from.

In the midst of all the action, Kiesling carves out small spaces in the novel to describe the California high desert in gorgeous, loving prose.

“The sky is a pallid, milky blue now, save a gray mass to the far north, with the shady apparition of summer rain high in the sky in the far distance,” Kiesling writes. “The valley is a balm after the ravages of town, a vast open view of soft-looking green grasses, the yellow sweep of hills moving up into low forested peaks at the basin’s far reach. It’s not verdant, not gentle, but it looks pretty good.”

In the end, Kiesling’s novel reminds us that love and family are the only glue that can keep us together, particularly when all else seems lost. She also shows us that home is an emotional bond as well as a physical place, and that sometimes running away from our problems makes us miss the solution that was right there in front of us.

Mary Slosson is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. She was formerly a correspondent for the newswire Reuters covering the American West, and has also served as editor of the Telluride Daily Planet in Telluride, Colorado. She is working on her debut novel.

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