Diverse Suburbias

Rowena Clarke

 

Since the nineteen fifties, when suburban living began to establish itself as the new norm, representations of suburbia in American culture have been dominated by a particular set of characteristic tropes. Responding, in part, to the mass-produced nature of suburban landscapes and buildings, with their uniform housing designs and pre-planned street layouts, fiction imagined suburbia as a place of oppressive homogeneity. Popular fiction such as Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955) transmuted cultural fears about suburbia’s repressive uniformity, and the concomitant loss of individuality that brings, into the story of a community being controlled by alien parasites. We can see the very same fears driving the story of much later works like Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972) or Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show, which illustrates just how entrenched these paradigmatic representations of suburban life have become. 

 

Suburb, Munising MI

In the 20th century fiction has imagined suburbia as a place of oppressive homogeneity, responding to the mass-produced nature of suburban landscapes and buildings [Image by Alex Weimer under a CC BY-NC license] 

 

In fiction based in a more realist tradition, these anxieties find form in narratives that trace the (inevitable and often perverted) release of oppressed sexuality, emotion, and individuality within a suburban setting: these are the stories of what really goes on behind the white picket fence – for example, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994). As Marc C. Jurng writes in his 2010 article “Nowhere in Particular: Perceiving Race, Chang-rae Lee's Aloft, and the Question of Asian American Fiction”:

Artists and critics alike have framed suburbia as a landscape that is at once pastoral and gothic. Cul-de-sacs of proper houses and families, the standard-bearers of a national nostalgia, all give up their secrets of violence, adultery, sexual repression, and bourgeois estrangement (618).

As Catherine Jurca has traced in her book White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel, for the majority of the second half of the twentieth century, the suburbs were predominantly made up of ethnically white populations. This demographic bias was reflected in the literature and culture of suburbia during its foundational phase in the nineteen fifties and sixties. As a result, whiteness, too, has become an established characteristic of the literary suburb. However, beginning in the nineteen nineties, the United States began to see a huge shift in the demographics of suburban populations. A study by the Brookings Institution, titled Twenty-First-Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America, has shown the dramatic changes that have taken place throughout the 1990s and the 2000s to the geographic distribution of both domestic and international migrants within the US. The study focuses on the shift away from immigration to central urban areas, and towards the migration of international immigrants and second generation migrant populations to suburban areas. As a result of this shift, as well as a number of other factors, the reality of suburban population demographics is quite different to the image of white suburbia that still persists in the popular imagination. Throughout the nineties and early two thousands, television was full of depictions of suburban America that, for the most part, re-enforced the dominant representation of the suburbs: Desperate Housewives, Weeds, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under. Recent fiction, too, has perpetuated the standard tropes: Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (1993), A. M. Homes's Music for Torching (1999) and Tom Perotta’s Little Children (2004), for example, reinforce cultural ideas of white suburban angst and repressive suburban living.

 

Writers of the New Suburbs

Writers of the New Suburbs: Gary Shteyngart, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Chang-Rae Lee [Images used under fair dealings provisions]

 

There are, however, a number of American writers of suburban fiction whose work challenges the dominant paradigm. Beginning in the late 1990s and approaching critical mass in the 2000s a new generation of writers, themselves predominately foreign born but American raised, have begun to re-write the suburban image in the American imagination. Writers like Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Gary Shteyngart complicate the idea of the suburbs as a stifling and homogeneous community of self-policing WASPs. Instead, we get the suburban New Jersey of Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), dotted with Dominican culture and viewed through the eyes of the apocalyptically minded Oscar, or Lahiri’s Boston and Cambridge exurbs populated by Asian immigrant families negotiating the complex intersections of American and Asian culture.

One of the earliest fiction writers to explore the changing face of the suburbs in the nineties and two thousands was Chang-rae Lee. The attention his work pays to the geographic distribution and division of immigrant communities makes it especially important to establishing a new kind of suburban writing. Lee’s attention to the spatial dynamics of immigrant settlement and his status as an early responder to the shift in suburban demographics marks him as one of the central players in the move towards a break from the traditional paradigm of American suburban fiction. Tracing the representation of immigrant communities in the suburbs through three of Lee’s novels, as we will see below, offers a way of tracking the development of the move towards a less hidebound conception of the American suburbs in fiction.

Lee’s first novel Native Speaker was published in 1995 and tells the story of Henry Park, the son of Korean immigrants, whose work as an industrial spy places him in the position of observer and traitor to the immigrant businesses and communities he monitors. The novel is deeply concerned with identity and belonging and this interest is, in part, played out on the landscape of Manhattan, the Outer Boroughs, and the suburbs. The novel begins and ends in the city, in a reaffirmation of the traditional centrality of city life for immigrant culture. The final scene of the novel depicts Henry, having left his position as a spy, assisting his wife as she teaches English to groups of immigrant children. The diversity of languages and cultures, and Henry’s commitment to uniting them without obliterating them, is a source of strength and hope for the viability of multi-ethnic life in the city. Before it gets to this point, though, the novel tries out the suitability of the suburbs for such a project. 

 

A new kind of suburban writing? Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker explores the geographic division of immigrant communities in Manhattan and The Bronx [Image by Steve McNicholas under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

 

Perhaps responding to the changes in suburban demographics taking place during the nineties, Native Speaker explores the possibility of a suburban life for immigrant communities. First Henry’s father, then Henry himself (along with his wife Lelia, and son, Mitt), move to Westchester County, New York. Westchester was America’s first suburb (as well as being where Lee himself was raised) and, as such, it seems a symbolic choice for this exploratory foray into depictions of literary immigrant suburbia. Henry is ethnically Korean but seems to stand outside both the immigrant cultures that he spies on as part of his work, and the predominantly white communities that he attempts to live among in the suburbs. When Henry’s son, Mitt, is killed – literally smothered to death by the (white) suburban children of their neighborhood – Lee seems to be suggesting that the kind of complex negotiations of identity required of immigrant (and second generation) inhabitants of predominantly white suburbia are not yet possible, despite the demographic changes happening around him.

Lee’s second novel, A Gesture Life, written just before the millennium and first published in the UK in 2000, offers a slightly more optimistic vision of suburban immigrant life. Here, Doc Hata is firmly established within the community of Bedley Run, but (for the majority of the novel) his suburban way of life recapitulates the dominant suburban paradigm rather than truly shifting it. Although Doc Hata’s dark past and diverted desires and emotions are firmly situated in a Korean and Japanese setting, the repression of these fits so neatly into the suburban paradigm that his status as an immigrant can never really disturb that essential correspondence as Doc Hata himself says in the novel’s opening line: “People know me here” (1). Despite Hata’s ease within this dominant version of suburbia, his daughter Sunny represents a challenge to the appearance-obsessed, and coldly unemotional norm. Sunny, adopted by Hata from Korea, despises Bedley Run and horrifies her father with her open displays of sexuality. Sunny runs away from home as a teenager and her reappearance, in the latter half of the novel, challenges Hata’s satisfaction with his version of the suburban norm and pushes the novel to establishing alternative models of suburban living. Sunny’s young son, whose father is African American, represents a hybrid of ethnicities and identities. Hata’s embrace of this child, and his and Sunny’s life in Ebbington – a neighbouring suburb less bound by the nineteen fifties suburban ideal—establishes the possibility of a less racially divisive suburban existence.

Lee’s 2004 novel, Aloft, fully embraces a new vision of suburban life. The novel begins with an aerial image of the suburbs:

The town directly ahead, which is nothing special when you’re on foot looks pretty magnificent now […] There is a mysterious, runelike cipher to the newer, larger homes wagoning in their cul-de-sac hoops […] From up here, all the trees seem ideally formed and arranged […] I know, too, from up here, that I can’t see the messy rest, none of the pedestrian sea-level flotsam that surely blemishes our good scene (1-2).

This opening image recalls the ideals of suburban planners in the nineteen fifties, and also hints at the disappointment that has emerged from suburban towns whose messy, complicated, day-to-day existences have failed to live up to those ideals. Rather than lambast the suburbs for their complex reality, Lee’s novel becomes a protracted exploration of the ways in which that complexity, which in itself begins to undo the suburban paradigm, is something to be celebrated. 

 

Lee's construction of a less racially divisive suburban imaginary critiques the ideals of 1950s suburban planners [Image by James Vaughan under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

 

A part of this celebration of complicatedness is Lee’s description of a multi-ethnic suburbia that contains multiple waves of ethnically diverse immigrants. Jerry, the main protagonist, is a second generation Italian American, his dead wife was a Korean immigrant and his current lover is Puerto Rican. When, at the end of the novel, we see Jerry’s suburban home become a haven for his extended family and friends (of different ethnicities and ages) there is a suggestion that the suburb has become a place in which diversity is not only present, but essential. The novel’s final image of Jerry, deeply grounded in the soil of his garden, stands as a counterpoint to the opening aerial vista and suggests that the novel is concerned with the need to represent suburban America in ways that disrupt those long established paradigms of homogeneity and banality that the opening of the novel alludes to.

Read alongside the shifting demographics of suburban migration, then, Lee’s three novels chart his progress towards a new suburban imaginary, one that offers a broader, less homogeneous and more vital representation of American suburbia. This movement within Lee’s work, although its details are specific to Lee’s fiction, acts as a microcosm of the broader, but more dispersed, changes which have been taking place in contemporary suburban fiction in the twenty-first century. Lee’s work, along with fiction by writers like Diaz and Lahiri, alters the established norms of suburban fiction, moving it away from tropes of white middle class angst and cultural anxieties about conformity towards a more complex portrayal of the kinds of diverse suburban communities that exist in twenty-first century America.

 

CITATION: Rowena Clarke, "Diverse Suburbias," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2013): n. pag. Web. 12 January 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.1.03

 

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’] https://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Rowena-Clarke.jpg[/author_image] [author_info] Rowena Clarke is a PhD student in the English Department at Boston College in Boston, Massachusetts. Her research focuses on the literature and culture of post-war Britain and America. Rowena co-convenes the Contemporary Literature and Globalization research group at Boston College,and has served as a teaching assistant and section leader for the undergraduate course The City in Film and Literature. [/author_info] [/author]

 

Works Cited:

Jurca, Catherine. White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

Jurng, Marc C. “Nowhere in Particular: Perceiving Race, Chang-rae Lee's Aloft, and the Question of Asian American Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 56 (1) (2010): 183-204

Lee, Chang-rae. Native Speaker (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995).

Lee, Chang-rae. A Gesture Life (London: Granta Books, 2000).

Lee, Chang-rae. Aloft (New York: Riverhead Books, 2004).

Singer, Audrey and Susan W. Hardwick. Twenty-First-Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2008).

 

 

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