The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning
Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham
The expatriate autobiography is a literary form that is both popular and pernicious. These books about Americans living abroad sell very well in the United States. Written in the first person the authors of these books past and present are absolved from strict accuracy in their accounts which leaves them free to be, well, entertaining.
Odd to think that these children of immigration (and all Americans are that except for the native peoples) are writing about their own immigrant/emigrant experience. The "I" they use incessantly (and that itself says something about the culture they came from) is misleading because every American abroad is, in fact, entangled in a new network of friends, family, and colleagues in the host country.
As he or she observes and tries to make sense of his or her life in a new world, he is also being observed and judged.
It is this perspective that we lack when we read the autobiographies of Americans abroad - the perspective of the native citizen spouses, the ostensibly bi-lingual/bi-cultural children, the colleagues at work, and the other members of the community with which that American interacts.
Do such accounts exist? Indeed they do and here is one I read last week L'Américain by Franz-Olivier Giesbert, a famous (or infamous) French journalist/writer here in the Hexagon. I read it in French but it has been translated into English and is available in the usual places.
Giesbert is what we are now referring to as an "Accidental American" - someone born in the U.S. (or born abroad to an American parent) who spent most if not all of his life outside the United States in his other country of citizenship. He was born in Delaware in 1949 to an American father and a French mother and the family left the U.S. for France when he was three years old. This book, written in the first person, is about his relationship with his American father.
Not an easy book to read. Their relationship was fraught with violence, anger, and contempt. At the time of his father's death Giesbert was barely speaking to him. The portrait he paints of him is of a man who was psychologically damaged by the war, who hated America with passion and who loved his adopted country - a love nevertheless tempered with a certain cynicism.
Frederick Giesbert was an American GI who landed on Omaha beach in Normandy, France on June 6th 1944. He met Giesbert's mother, a young lady from Elbeuf, at a dance in Rouen and their romance led her to the United States where they were married and back again to Normandy a few years later. He never returned to the United States and died in France.
Looking beyond the horrendous stories of domestic violence, there are some very revealing passages in Giesbert's book that hint at other forces that were pulling and pushing his father in ways he had not anticipated and that Giesbert could not have known at the time and probably still doesn't understand today:
"Il était comme les immigrés, souvent. Il ne voulait pas retourner dans son pays. Il redoutait de se faire remarquer, qu'on lui confisque sa carte de travail et qu'on l'expulse aux Etats-Unis d'Amérique, sa mère patrie, pour laquelle sa détestation était la mesure de ma vénération.""He was often like the immigrants." What, in heaven's name, is Giesbert talking about? His father was an immigrant. By what other possible term could you call a man or woman from another country with a residency permit and an "accent américain à couper au couteau"? A man who was clearly afraid of being thrown out of the country where he lived, worked and raised a family? A man who, as Salman Rushdie put it, "falls between two stools."
(He was often like the immigrants. He did not want to return to his country. He was afraid to be noticed, that they would confiscate his work permit and deport him to the United States of America, his mother country, for which his hatred was as strong as my adulation.)
And yet Giesbert clearly does not put his father in the "immigrant" category; in other parts of the book he simply refers to him as a "foreigner." Was it because this category in France did not (and still doesn't) include immigrants of European origin from developed countries and, in this case, from a country that Giesbert admired? Or is it Giesbert rejecting an identity that would make him the son of an immigrant?
Reframing his father's life as an immigrant in France changes how one reads the book. It's not so much "My father who happened to be an American living in France" as it is "His father the immigrant, the Other, on this shore, in this world, at this time." The latter being a cross that the children of immigrants bear with great ambivalence - sometimes with pride and sometimes with deep discomfort.
In that light we can look harder at his father's relationship with his home country. Giesbert wrote that his father was very negative about the United States - in particular, what he saw as the gross materialism of the United States in the 1950's. According to the American family members cited in the book his father came back from the war in Europe a changed man and simply could not adjust.
He had expectations for a career in the home country that did not come to fruition ("Il ne trouve pas de travail à sa mesure.") And when he was offered a job in France in his father-in-law's company, he took it. Let's call him an "opportunity migrant." Whatever he said to his son about the "push" out of the U.S., there was a very strong "pull" of meaningful work, recognition, and a better life.
What it sounds like from Giesbert's account of his childhood is that the siren song of the opportunity - the hope that things would be better somewhere else - was not realized in those early years. Instead, he became, according to Giesbert, a very frustrated and angry man who took his emotions out on his family. Perhaps, I speculate, an example of what Eva Hoffman calls "immigrant rage."
Having left one country disappointed and angry (or perhaps just extremely hopeful that a change of geography would be beneficial), the migrant finds himself in another and sometimes encounters a completely different set of reasons to be disappointed and angry (or to lose hope). One web of stifling relationships and an unsatisfactory culture is simply exchanged for another with one important difference: far greater precariousness and the delicious frustration of being forever viewed in the adopted country as the Other, the Exotic Beast or l'Américain. From Hoffman's Lost in Translation:
“I don’t want to be told that ‘exotic is erotic’ or that I have Eastern European intensity or brooding Galician eyes. I no longer want to be propelled by immigrant chutzpah or desperado energy or usurper’s ambition. I no longer want to have the prickly, unrelenting consciousness that I am living in a specific culture.”
Such as being told constantly that one has an "accent américain à couper au couteau."
None of this should be taken as an attempt to explain away his father's earlier behaviour which, according to Giesbert, was extremely abusive. But reading the book with an immigrant eye (and note that I am in the same position as his father was, being the American parent in a French family) there is a great deal in this book to think about. In spite of my general dislike for the expatriate autobiography I find that I regret that Giesbert's father never wrote one. Today we can only know him in a limited way through his son's words and through his actions as described by his child through a child's eyes.
Returning to the homeland was an option - Giesbert never mentions his father naturalizing in France (and explicitly talks about his father having a work permit) which meant that he most likely retained his U.S. citizenship and had the right to go back if he wanted to. He never did. So why did he keep his U.S. citizenship if he was that disgruntled with America and had no intention of returning?
Was it simply to maintain the connection with the family back in the U.S.? Were there things in the U.S. he cared about and feared to lose? Or was it the right of return which gave him a sense that he had choices? Was it a comfort knowing that he could exercise this option and using that possibility as a way of distancing himself from the host country when things were difficult? Were there advantages to being an Exotic Beast that outweighed the disadvantages of being an immigrant? Or was he simply caught between two failures? Failure to be successful in his own country or failure to be successful according to his own standards in the new one? We will never know but these are the questions I ask myself, often.
As for his son, in many respects Giesbert depicts him in much of the book as someone with enormous negative influence and almost celestial power in his formative years. He is clear that his early views of his father's country were shaped in direct opposition to his father's anti-Americanism.
That young love did not translate into action for Giesbert - there was no reverse migration. According to the biographies I found, Giesbert only spent a short time actually living in the U.S. - a few years as a reporter for a French publication and then he returned to France where he has lived ever since. I suspect that the fact of his dual nationality, which may have meant so much once upon a time, now probably means much less - dual citizens being rather more common than they were and Accidental Americans in particular being a rather large club thanks to generous jus soli and jus sanguinas U.S. citizenship laws.
At the end of the book Giesbert relents and he regrets many things but above all, for not forgiving him. In the end his father is no longer a God or a beast, but a mere mortal: broken, hurting and prone to error and vice. But also capable of great love. He seems to have healed with time and Giesbert ends the book with the belated recognition that his father was a very different man at the end of his life. Was he really? Or was it Giesbert who changed?
And so we come full circle and ask what can legitimately be asked of any autobiography:
Is it true?
And here I find myself suddenly at odds with my earlier statement about the questionable veracity of books written in the first person: Does it really matter? We can always ask questions and speculate (it is in our nature to do so) but stories will never give us definitive answers - just different perspectives. I like T.E. Hulme words - ones that are ringing in my mind as I end this essay:
"Never think in a book: here are Truth and all the other capital letters; but think in a theatre and watch the audience. Here is the reality, here are human animals. Listen to the words of heroism and then look at the crowded husbands who applaud. All philosophies are subordinate to this."