Immigration, artistry and transformation

When I came across this piece in The Atlantic last month, it struck a wonderful chord. In it, Joe Fassler talks to writer Edwidge Danticat about the links between immigration and creativity. One of Danticat’s favourite books is Patricia Engel’s It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, which discusses how for immigrants, life is a work of art. In moving to a new country, immigrants face situations that require a creativity and resolve that is seen most often in creative arts, and which can implicitly teach their children about the value of these endeavors.

While I haven’t read Engel’s book, the sentiment certainly corroborates many of the discussions I had with Hong Kong return migrants. Even when people didn’t speak explicitly about art, their experiences moving to another country, and even returning to their home country, demanded transformation, a remaking of everyday life, and a sense of humor.

Thinking about how this resonates with the work of artists made me consider how even things like Austin Kleon’s ten rules for stealing like an artist could be re-written with immigrants in mind. My exploration of what that might look like is not based on research so much as a creative extrapolation from the experience of my family and other immigrants I have encountered. Therefore please read it as an experiment in pushing this link between immigration and artistry forward, not as a comment on any debates within migration literature (nor actual advice that should be given to all immigrants). The statements below in quotes are Kleon’s original advice, and any other comments are my own. Your thoughts and responses are welcomed

1. Steal ideas from the locals – though you will re-work them as you do so, it is helpful to build on what others already have discovered about your new context.

2. “Don’t wait until you  know who you are to get started” – this one applies to immigrants as it does to artists. Life in a new place is hard, but it keeps going whether you  know how you fit in or not.

3. Make the life you want to live – it’s hard to live exactly as you did before, or as the locals do, so why not make the life you want for yourself in your new context.

4. “Use your hands” – while for artists this is about making things, for immigrants it is probably more about making connections and relationships

5. “Side projects and hobbies are important” – whether taking on new pursuits or continuing old ones, leisure can be incredibly important for some immigrants’ happiness and sense of community in a new place

6. “The secret: do good work and share it with people” – proving yourself as an artist and as an immigrant are not necessarily all that different

7. “Geography is no longer our master” – this is something immigrants are certainly already aware of

8. “Be nice (the world is a small town)” – especially now with the internet and social media, keeping connected is easier than ever, so even what immigrants do in other countries can make it back to the ears and eyes of their families elsewhere!

9. “Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done)” – I’m not sure this advice is as necessary for immigrants as artists – or so the stereotype of hardworking and motivated immigrants would suggest

10. Creativity is the way to find your new normal – whether subtraction or addition, immigration is about transformation and creativity is, as Engel suggests, a key component of this

While the parallel starts to show its weaknesses when you try to push it further like this, I still appreciate the way that picturing immigrants as artists frames them as key actors in the transformation of their lives. So much discussion of immigrant adaptation is about fitting in and therefore highlights normal practices in the larger population. As I’ve seen in my research though, when people immigrate their experience is much more about creative adaptations to new ways of living. In my work I’ve used creative methods to get at some of these adaptations, but I think there is much more that can be done in this vein. As a next step though, I’ll have to go and pick up Engel’s book.

Pondering creativity

I don’t always remember to take the timeit sometimes gets hidden within the routines
but when I am at my best
it is often in the midst of creativity

Ever since I discovered Maria Popova’s wonderful Brain Pickings site, I have had a lot more reminders regarding how to cultivate creativity. Two that I have particularly enjoyed are on Graham Wallas’ four stages of creativity and John Cleese talking about five factors to make your life more creative. Though creativity is more often an explicit concern for those in the arts than those in the social sciences, all research is ultimately creative. Aspiring to produce creative engagements is not something that should be discipline-specific. So I try to build in time to periodically ponder creativity… and watching John Cleese was a great way to do it.