Immigrant stories: 'To be an American is an intellectual idea'

At the "Immigrant Stories" panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Sunday, authors explored their fictional works that were based on real immigration patterns that have crossed the American landscape.

Aris Janigian, Armenian American author of “This Angelic Land,” thanked the audience for attending a panel where “the last names beg for a phonetic reading,” causing some members of the audience to let a chuckle escape.

Moderator Oscar Villalon started the conversation by arguing that most American stories are immigrant stories, prompting “The Walking” author Laleh Khadivi to respond that stories are labeled immigrant when they come from those who are “freshest in the line,” and that sometimes that label is used “for the sake of exoticism.”


Pauls Toutonghi, who wrote “Evel Knievel Days,” recalled that his mother’s family, which is Latvian, used to be “very fierce about learning the language and the culture,” and as time went by, it became less relevant. His father is from Egypt.

“To be an American is an intellectual idea,” said Villalon, who questioned how “physically you’re here but psychically you’re somewhere else,” with social media and the Internet crossing physical borders and identities.

Janigian nodded and uttered a single word, “Chechnya,” and the audience understood what he meant, referring to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsanaraev, the Boston bombing suspects who had immigrated to the U.S. from that region.


"People are looking to their past as a bedrock,” as a way to understand our present through our past, Janigian said. Khadivi said she started writing not to tell her story “but the stories that came before me,” as an Iranian American. 

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