092. I've Got No Roots: White Immigrant Assimilation & (Romance) Adaptation
How is whiteness & assimilation assumed in the "land of opportunity" narrative & myth of American immigrants? We explore: how names indicate our roots, white privilege, feelings of cultural loss, our own immigrant experiences, plus we talk about Christina Laurens' Roomies novel & upcoming film adaptation.
How is whiteness & assimilation assumed in the "land of opportunity" narrative & myth of American immigrants? We explore: how names indicate our roots, white privilege, feelings of cultural loss, our own immigrant experiences, plus we talk about Christina Laurens' Roomies novel & upcoming film adaptation.
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Guest: Dr. Diana Filar
We talked about Roomies by Christina Lauren
Quotes about Christina Laurens' Roomies adaptation: https://ew.com/books/2018/08/16/how-hollywood-is-rekindling-the-rom-com/
Andrea Martucci: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to episode 92 of Shelf Love, a podcast that unpacks romance novels with nuance. In conversations with scholars, readers, and other experts, Shelf Love contextualizes, the popular romance genre within the broader critical discussion of identity, culture, and love.
I'm your host, Andrea Martucci and on this episode I am joined by my dear old friend, Diana Filar, to discuss The American Dream and white European immigrants in romance novels. Diana, thanks for being here with me today. Why don't we start by explaining how we know each other, and you can give a brief introduction about who you are.
Diana Filar: Thanks. Thanks for having me. I'm so excited to be here. I'm Diana Filar. I'm finishing up a PhD at Brandeis University in the English department and my dissertation is about the contemporary immigrant novel. Especially how names and naming function narratively in those novels.
I know Andrea from our glory days at Emerson College. You were my two time boss, first at the undergraduate lifestyle magazine where I was assistant copy editor.
And then you graduated right after that and then I interned at Ploughshares where you were, managing editor.
Andrea Martucci: Yes. As you said, we both went to Emerson College for undergraduate and we have very similar degrees, although I think it's fair to say we focused in different areas. So we both got a degree technically in writing, literature and publishing and I focused hard on the publishing stuff and you were more interested in the literature side of that, right?
Diana Filar: Yeah. I think I went in going more for like writing, and literature, but more on the writing. I thought I was gonna write fiction and then it ended up being that I was more interested in the literature and I just went down that path and started working with more literature professors, but I did get a BFA, so I wrote like a creative thesis or whatever. That path was the first step to graduate school and my PhD.
Andrea Martucci: So you got a master's degree at the University of New Mexico, and what was your master's in?
Diana Filar: I think it was English and American literature.
Andrea Martucci: You think?
Diana Filar: But. Because the official title of the degree
Andrea Martucci: I got ya.
Diana Filar: And then like specifically in American literary studies. I know, I don't want anyone to think I'm a British Lit person.
Andrea Martucci: God, that would be the worst.
Diana Filar: Right? No, just cause I can't claim any kind of expertise.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. And so then, let's talk a little bit more about what you're doing with your PhD, and you are so close. You're like about to turn in your dissertation or very close to it.
So you have some professional expertise on the topic that we will be discussing today and some personal experience, which we will discuss shortly. But why don't you say a little bit more about the type of literature that you study, and I know we were talking earlier about some of the [00:03:00] terminology or the preferred nomenclature for what you're studying.
Diana Filar: Yeah. Lit Fic is the subject of my dissertation. So it's contemporary immigrant literary fiction, mainly novels. Most of the stuff that's in the dissertation, most of the novels, are from the 21st century. And I think the vast majority are after 2010.
So that's like my real expertise, but if you're talking about the immigrant novel or immigrant literature, you have to know about where that term came from or what people usually think of when they hear immigrant literature. And so usually it goes back to the turn of the 20th century between 1890 and until the Great Depression with what we think of in the US as the great wave of immigration or what a lot of people point to as like their immigrant ancestors coming over, mainly from Eastern and Southern Europe at that time.
And so the novels that kind of came out of that era the nomenclature is an assimilationist's narrative. So really focused on learning English, doing well in school so you can fit in and not be othered and become American and have that success.
And even in some of that sort of mythology around that immigrant American dream, bootstraps rhetoric, it, obviously doesn't have to do with immigrants. The Protestant work ethic in general, but some of it does, like the idea even of the melting pot came from this play from that time, and the poem on the Statue of Liberty was also written around that time.
So there's a whole mythology that comes from that period which also is connected to the sort of progressive era that time after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, which is about labor, but also immigration and How The Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis that showed immigrants living in slums, people just started to pay more attention to how recent immigrants from Europe were living.
That era ended as we came toward the Second World War and the passing of the Johnson Reed Act or the Immigration Act of 1924, which was the first time that limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the US through like actual quotas.
So only 2% of people from each nationality already existing in the US as of the 1890 census were allowed to come, and those are what we now think of as white immigrants. At the time, that was a little more complicated but it's important to note that at that time, immigrants from Asia were still completely excluded.
There was complicated politics around Latinx, what we call now immigrants, but the annexation of lands after the Mexican-American war and how those people just you're American now, like surprise. So after that, obviously fewer immigrants kept coming from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe.
It's interesting though, that, that was almost a hundred years ago and they're still parallels to things , because still at the time, the majority were I guess what you'd call Anglo-Saxon or Northern and Western Europeans. There were larger numbers of them and so of course we were allowing a large percentage in.
Andrea Martucci: One of the [00:06:00] things you hit on there was like the mythology bit , I think we're definitely going to be talking about the perception of what immigration and making it and the American dream and the melting pot, means particularly for people of European descent who live in America, people who we consider white now and as you mentioned, that distinction about who is white actually has changed over time. I wanted to make sure that we hit on what we're trying to talk about today and acknowledge what we're not going to be talking about today and the reasons for that.
Who is an immigrant in the United States? Literally everybody who's here except for Indigenous Americans, as has been covered in previous episodes of this podcast. And I hope is widely understood that Indigenous Americans were forcibly pushed off their lands, killed, violently oppressed in many ways by the colonizers who came to the land that we now call the United States of America.
Talking about immigration, literally, almost everybody who is occupying this land now is an immigrant in one shape or form. However, there are various types of immigrants and you referenced some of them already. There are the original colonizers, who voluntarily came to the United States.
There are involuntary immigrants such as Africans who were enslaved and brought to the United States as forced labor to build the empire. There are various waves of voluntary immigrants who came pursuing opportunity, who perhaps were less privileged in the land they came from.
And then there are refugees. So people who have come to the United States because they're escaping violence, war or persecution.
Diana Filar: I think it's really important to clarify the difference between voluntary and involuntary immigration, especially from the continent of Africa. As you mentioned, enslaved Africans who were brought over to the US as part and parcel of racial capitalism and settler colonialism, of the Indigenous Americans and their lands here, which comes into play too in contemporary novels about voluntary Africans. And so there's a lot there to discuss in terms of race and how it continues to be constructed.
Andrea Martucci: There's a lot of things going on, but because this is I guess, a romance novel podcast, I specifically want to talk about the narrative around white people and how they conceptualize being immigrants and conceptualize America as a land of opportunity. And I wanted to talk about whiteness because I think that the white privilege, it's assumed and often never discussed or the narrative around it is shaped in such a way to obfuscate what's really going on there.
Diana Filar: Especially with regard to whiteness, as you said, there's obfuscation or whiteness is often assumed to be the neutral position against which otherness is created, or whiteness becomes a sort of subjectivity because of [00:09:00] the othering of other sort of racialized groups. And that is essentially how even contemporary immigrants from Europe or Eastern and Southern Europe and these categories of whiteness become confusing or even contemporary immigrants feel somewhat ambivalent.
And we see this in the literature I study, ambivalent about that status because let's say toward the end of the cold war at this turn of ,the century, people were like I felt oppressed in the Soviet Union and here I am, and I feel like an outsider.
Like I don't really speak English and those are all, to some extent, very valid experiences. But at the same time, they're experiencing here in the US the sort of racialization that maybe was less familiar to them back where they came from. So you're perceived as white and therefore not other, but there are privileges that come along with that.
Andrea Martucci: Diana, I know we're throwing around terms about regions of Europe, let's define some things.
So Western Europe, would be considered like the Scandinavian countries, the UK, France, Spain, is that accurate?
Diana Filar: I'm going to be like really annoying, as an academic of course, and be like, oh, it's really complicated because in the same way that, white people became white in the US there's different ethnoracializations that occur within Europe. Being Eastern is " bad" or looked down upon. So former Soviet Union is Eastern Europe or that's how we end up conceiving of it, but some of those countries, including Poland, and I think places like Czechia and Slovakia, end up trying to claim Central Europe as a thing to be less Eastern.
Andrea Martucci: Like a disassociation of wanting to be lumped in as being similar
Diana Filar: Yes. It has to do with class too. Because that part of Europe was less developed for a long time and more associated with sort of peasantry and agriculture. And so there's some distancing, I think that's occurring. Looking at Poland they've got big cities, they've got it, all. Tech, et cetera and all that happened like pretty quickly. I think that's a racialized rhetoric of trying to distance yourself from being Eastern European and all the sort of associations that come with that.
Andrea Martucci: I know you have so much to share about this, but just to ground this in our personal experience as immigrants. So just to like prime you all, we are probably gonna talk about Roomies by Christina Lauren, but what's interesting about Roomies is it's about a first-generation immigrant.
And I thought that it was really interesting, with our two personal experiences. In a recent episode with Jodie Slaughter, I was disputing that I was a WASP. So look there, I was trying to distance myself from the oppressors. And I mentioned that I was like, what am I like half Slavic? Because my ancestors on my father's side are from Poland.
And so you messaged me [00:12:00] afterwards. You're like, yes, Slavic. I think I determined I'm a fourth generation immigrant, so I think my great grandparents were immigrants. My dad's side is Polish and my mom's side is a mix of mostly, I would say Western European cultures, I don't know. We don't know much and that's actually the problem that I want to talk about. Diana, you are a first-generation immigrant from Poland.
Diana Filar: Yes. Or what some people end up calling 1.5 or one and a half generation. I was born in Poland in 1990. Going to age myself. Both of my parents were born in Poland. As far as we know, everyone's Polish going down the line. My father emigrated to America , and he met a couple of his brothers as well. Me and my mom and my brother stayed in Poland. So basically when I was two, we also emigrated and joined my dad along with my aunt and my cousins. We all shared a plane ride over to ye old America.
Some people call it a 1.5 generation because I was so young when we came to the U S and I, have no memories of being a toddler in Poland.
However, I grew up speaking Polish at home. We went back to Poland a lot. Most of my family still lives in Poland. I speak Polish more or less fluently. On Saturdays, I went to Polish school where we learned to read, talk and every year we did geography of Poland. But as you can tell, I don't have an accent. Actually have sort of an American accent when I speak Polish.
So I'm from the Southeastern tip of Poland, which is closest to Ukraine and it's interesting because ,when I talked to my cousins about doing one of those Ancestry.com or 23andMe tests to just be like, are we really Polish? Because for me having grown up in the U S it's interesting to think about all the, the mixing of cultures, but at the same time I know about Europe and Poland's borders in and of itself have changed so many times over the last, like even 200 years.
And so, I don't know to me it doesn't seem that ridiculous to think has some ethnic mixing happened.
They're just so uninterested in that sort of conversation. Like I think it's still very U S centric conversation.
And the story is a little bit complicated by the fact that my grandfather, my father's father was actually born in the US as the son of that great wave. And so that's why it was easier for us to come to the U S. We immediately got Social Security Numbers and green cards and so documentation obviously comes in handy. A lot of , Polish people that we knew that came from the same time, didn't have as easy of a time.
But yeah, growing up, especially earlier on like in elementary and middle school, I felt, neither here nor there.
I brought, quote unquote, weird food to lunch. My teachers would question my English or my ability to learn because [00:15:00] I grew up speaking two languages. Which it's such bullshit.
Well, we moved between towns in Connecticut, when I came to the new school in first grade, they put me in special reading group and very shortly were like we're just confused about why you're here. Our schools decided if you were in the gifted program in like fourth grade and then in fifth grade they were like, why aren't you in the gifted program?
And I was like, I don't know. They decided in fourth grade I was too Polish or something. (laughs)
There were certain stereotypes about where I was at in terms of my learning and my class. Like I think also because my parents have accents when they speak English. And yeah, so that's me.
Andrea Martucci: I've alluded to this on the podcast before, so as I said, my dad's side is Polish. My last name growing up was Drygas.
And apparently in Poland it would have had a Z on the end. And I was so embarrassed growing up by my name because it's dry gas, D-R-Y-G-A-S. So, you know, wet gas jokes and ,yeah.
Diana Filar: That's a rough time.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Not great. In fact some people on my dad's side of the family actually changed their last name to something completely different because they did not want to have a last name that was considered embarrassing. And so I think I have grown up resenting my Polish background. There was nothing to appreciate about it in my upbringing.
It was just I have this weird last name that gets me made fun of. I have literally no information about this culture. I have no connection to it. My dad grew up in Chicopee, Massachusetts, which is a very Polish community, or at least was when he was growing up.
He went to a Catholic church that had masses in Polish. However, my dad never learned Polish. His mom spoke Polish, some of his relatives who lived in the same house, spoke Polish, but my dad never learned Polish and then he moved away. So we did not grow up near that family.
We would visit occasionally. And I never learned how to cook any culturally Polish food or any sort of customs beyond Catholic type things. And so my grandma died when I was fairly young. And then my uncle lived in the same house as my grandma.
And so he knew a bit more about our Polish background. And at some point asked him to teach me a few words in Polish.
So basically this is the extent of what I know of my Polish ancestry and what being an immigrant means to me as a fourth generation immigrant is basically my parents completely assimilated. Each generation has progressively become more economically stable.
My grandparents were a waitress and a house painter. Neither of my parents graduated college but I would say I grew up middle-class and now here I am fourth gen. I have much more education than anybody in previous generations. At the risk of [00:18:00] stigmatizing, every other American accent, I have an accent that is considered fairly neutral or class neutral at least.
And it's the accent that would be considered hard to place where you are from regionally in the US I guess? Again, like you could pinpoint certain regions you're more likely to find somebody with an accent like mine, but it does not place me immediately in the south or the mountains or whatever.
Diana Filar: And I think too, a lot of that has to do with like education. So even people who maybe grew up having regional accents work toward eliminating it because of the sort of class implications, I think. And for me too like if anything, I have a valley girl thing, but that's like a gendered accent.
Andrea Martucci: And I have a career that is like a professionalized white collar career, right?
So what I took away from my upbringing about being an immigrant is that we have the same opportunities as other people in this country and it doesn't matter what our background was, it doesn't matter that previous generations were living much closer to the poverty line and working very different jobs. That I can get an education I can Quote, unquote, move up.
And if I work hard enough, I can do whatever. And this is obviously something that is not available for all immigrants. This is something that, because I am white, I can much more easily pass in places such as places of higher ed, workplaces, out in public, in such a way where I am not visibly marked as being othered, being different, being un-American right.
And so that enables me and people in my family of various generations to be able to progress in that way.
Diana Filar: I do think in most cases there is this sort of like generational progression and that too is how the sort of solidification of whiteness for previously -othered Eastern and Southern Europeans, or even like the Irish, how they became white over the course of the 20th century, was through what you mentioned, like not teaching language or I've heard people say we were discouraged from speaking the mother tongue, if you will, and discouraged from eating quote unquote weird food because we wanted to fit in and we wanted the better life and how you get the better life is by working hard and, not making waves, following the rules, blah, blah, blah.
And as much as I ideologically don't believe in the sort of American dream version of meritocracy and bootstraps, in part, I think because of what we're talking about, like that white privilege can help you in those situations. But it's complicated.
That's not to take away from the hard work that some people do put in and to get what they want or think about their dreams or try for new careers or new life paths and things like that. And that's the thing sometimes it happens more quickly, so obviously when my parents came here they didn't speak English very well or at all and worked in what we think of as lower-class jobs, cleaning, factory [00:21:00] work.
Andrea Martucci: Quote unquote unskilled labor.
Diana Filar: Yes. Yes. And, but, over the almost 30 years that we've been here, my mom went to community college. My dad got like technical training. And so now he's like a skilled factory worker.
And my mom works in a hospital. So these are still not white collar positions, but a way to have a sort of secure middle-class life in a way that was supposed to impart on me, the value of working hard and getting an education. And the whole point that coming to the U S was so that we could have better lives, better education and better jobs.
Because when my parents left Poland, especially the Southeastern part of Poland that we're from is still economically depressed. There's not a lot of work and people leave to go to like larger metropoles and now Europe is more open for that. But in the early nineties it was, primarily the United States.
As I already said, I was a first generation student in higher education, but I'm pretty sure I'm the first to get a doctorate.
Andrea Martucci: I want to talk about assimilation here because the story of my family is assimilating to succeed. So basically learning English, speaking English, primarily to succeed in school and the workplace, and to not be marked as other, and to blend in to these places that would have more questions and more doubt if the assimilation did not happen.
And part of that assimilation could be seen as gaining something. So gaining access to opportunity. And some of it is loss. So losing language, losing customs and rituals and dress and culture across the board. And so now we're at this place where I'm like, I'm an American and I can speak to my ancestry, but I have no actual claim to it beyond those three words and phrases that I cling to because it's like, otherwise I feel like I have no roots. Yeah, I'm an American. I was born here. Like my parents were born here, but I don't know what is my culture? And obviously American culture is a culture as well, but it feels weird and unrooted, and I'm curious, Diana, in terms of assimilation being a more recent immigrant, do you feel like you have retained more culture? Not just because it's more recently about like through conscious deliberate choice?
Diana Filar: Yeah. I think my parents made even a conscious deliberate choice to impart that culture and keep Polish traditions and heritage and those things alive in our home in part, just because that's all they knew, but also in part on purpose.
So they didn't have to sign us up for Polish school. At the beginning, it's not like they were like, oh, we're not going to speak Polish because otherwise there would be no communication. That being said though, I think for me too, like some of the conscious parts of it are, I guess, just studying immigrant literature, immigration , even more broadly is sort of a personal tether for me, but also I have made a conscious effort to learn how to cook [00:24:00] certain dishes. You mentioned some like Roman Catholic traditions, but I believe there's even been some scholarly work done on this, that there are some ethnic traditions, so it's not just Catholic. Like all Catholics don't get their Easter basket blessed on Holy Saturday.
And I think that explains also a lot of just contemporary Polish politics and culture and the ties to the conservative Roman Catholic church but some of those are more ethnic traditions that I think, just happened to be attached to the church. On the other hand, there is some way in which it's inevitable that by studying literature written in English and immersing, myself in writing English, reading in English pretty much all the time, day after day, that some loss happens. And it feels like a loss. Sometimes it feels frustrating and devastating in some way to lose some of that. And I think, I would say now my life is more American in sort of more of a, traditional way than it was maybe when I was younger. Growing up, living on my own. Not speaking Polish every day. Being married to an American. Like all these things.
Andrea Martucci: Do you plan on purposefully and deliberately imparting your Polish heritage to your children?
Diana Filar: I want to, and I hope so.
Like it, it takes effort on part of like your brain. I don't know, like in the throws of raising an infant am I going to be like, speak Polish! (laughs) Like my parents, will be close some of the traditions and my cooking that'll be there. One way that my husband and I have talked about maybe imparting some aspect of the Polishness in the future is through naming. So I was like, I want the name to at least be pronounceable or translatable into Polish. At least the phonetics can be pronounced, but even to like a middle name that's Polish. And I think some of that sort of naming imparts or leaves vestiges, even for someone like you who's generations behind of that sort of ancestry. Where I live right now has a little slice of Polishness left. And there's a Polish Roman Catholic church that has mass in Polish. And there's Polish restaurant, Polish deli. I think they do Polish school. So there's some torture in my child's future.
Andrea Martucci: It's interesting too, because the whole melting pot idea of America too, is that intermarriage and combining of cultures.
Diana Filar: Well, when you think of a melting pot, if you put in all these distinct things, and then you turn the heat on and it all melts into one goo nothing is distinct. So that's the sort of problematic aspect. And then, we got, salad bowls.
lot of different analogies for multiculturalism in the late nineties, I think.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. And the salad bowl is meant to be like, they're all still distinctive, but mixed together
Diana Filar: and we're valuing each for their difference.
Andrea Martucci: But [00:27:00] there starts to be a very practical issue where if every person has a unique blending of cultures and what not it's the diaspora, right? Like you are Polish, you are now a Polish, American your experience that you relate to your children is now a diasporic experience. Your children will have a Polish diaspora experience, not a Polish experience.
Diana Filar: Or even a Polish immigrant experience.
Andrea Martucci: Everybody's experience is different. Everybody has different desires, but there was obviously this push within American culture to push immigrants from that great wave into assimilation and to have a similar worldview about like the opportunity that America presented.
But again, that opportunity was primarily reserved for people who were white. And I'm just going to keep saying like the definition of whiteness has changed over time.
Diana Filar: Yeah. But I think also we would be remiss to not explicitly say that whiteness and assimilation, toward whiteness is an endeavor explicitly based on anti-blackness.
We've talked about all race is a social construct and that includes whiteness. There's this moment in Frederick Douglass's narrative, where he comes upon an Irish dock worker in Baltimore, and they have this sort of interaction and you come away with the sense in that scene that, as oppressed as a laborer or ethnic sort of subgroup, that the Irishman is, he isn't enslaved.
And there's a way in which the Irishman, even if they're not seen as fully white at that point in time, they're also not Black. And that is what was leveraged in order to fully become white or as close to white as possible for what we now see as white ethnic groups. Just like in Roomies.
Andrea Martucci: Diana, obviously you have talked about your lit credentials. Talk about your romance credentials for a moment.
Diana Filar: Long time listener, first time caller of the Shelf Love Podcast. The start of the pandemic, I just listened to every single episode of Shelf Love. And right before that, I had started to dip my toe back into the romance novel pool. I think Helen Hoang's The Kiss Quotient was like my first reentry, which was a great reentry.
And then I started listening to the podcast and getting more and more recommendations, but I read romance as a young'un. I think it started with YA romance. I just love a romance in any category.
Like any TV show, I am here for the love plot. I'm here for the romance conflict. Even if it's not a romance movie, that's what I watch for.
Those stories of love and it's meaning in our culture have been really ingrained in me. And that's my favorite kind of media, like romcoms I'm here for it always.
My parents always encouraged my reading but they had no idea what I was reading I'm pretty sure. I would just come [00:30:00] home bunch of books from the library.
Andrea Martucci: we're just happy. You're reading.
Diana Filar: Yeah. They're like, there she is again reading. But then I went to college and other things took over or, I think you've mentioned it on the podcast too, you just start reading more quote unquote serious works of literature.
But I also always, I can't lie and say that I haven't always loved literary fiction..
Andrea Martucci: Diana mentioned earlier that she was an intern at Ploughshares Literary Journal where I was the managing editor. Ploughshares for those who don't know is one of the top 10 literary magazines in the country and one of the few with an actual professional staff. And I would just like to remind everybody that the entire time I was at Ploughshares, even though I got massive shade from everybody on the staff, everybody I encountered, I was always like, I read romance, not reading any of this literary nonsense you all like.
Diana Filar: Yeah. I got back into it, full throttle in the pandemic. Like last year I read something like 150 novels, most of which were romance. And I think also just cause I was like finding my way back in to what I like in the genre. Dealing with some of those problematic tropes, and a lot of stuff too, that made me uncomfortable which I'm sure is just like well-known in Romancelandia. Some of the obsession with the police and the armed forces, I was just like, that's not for me. But I will say my favorite is enemies to lovers trope, which, maybe we can unpack at a different time on a problematic tropes episode. Actually, I was watching Ginny and Georgia and there's a love triangle that happens spoiler, sorry, everyone. One of the guys is just presented as " he's the good one." He's nice and he cares and he calls and the other one is the bad boy. He comes in through the window ,they have sex, he's moody broody. Doesn't communicate and me and my friend were like, we've been raised in a toxic culture where we think that he's the one, that's the one she should go for.
Andrea Martucci: It's because if he seems more dangerous, it must be he's more worth it because you have to work harder to tame him or something. Like, why would you want the boring guy who's already decent?
It's super toxic. Diana. What is your favorite romance novel that you have read since the pandemic started?
Diana Filar: Oh, God, that's hard. I think, anything in the Talia Hibbert trilogy, even though I haven't even read the third one yet. That's probably my fav. Oh. And I liked the Christina C. Jones novellas a lot as well. I mainly read contemporary, which probably people have picked up on. Andrea encouraged me to read some of the Tessa Dares, that widow house book,
Andrea Martucci: The Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller?
Diana Filar: Yes. So that I liked some of those as well.
Andrea Martucci: So we're going to talk about Roomies by Christina Lauren. I think Roomies is interesting because first of all, it is a first-generation immigrant main character. And also because of conversation around how this is going to be adapted for the screen.
[00:33:00] Diana Filar: Andrea, is that maybe something that you've been working on in your own research?
Andrea Martucci: It is Diana. I'm so glad you mentioned that. And actually I should say that my research on Bridgerton glances only in the most superficial way on the racial differences between the cast of Bridgerton and the characters in Julia Quinn's Bridgerton novels, however, it's a very interesting parallel to what is going on with this adaptation.
So without getting too deep into the plot of Roomies, it is a marriage of convenience where the Irish hero is an undocumented immigrant who has overstayed his visa. He is white. He has a sexy accent. He speaks English. He's a musician. He has a skill and therefore there's a lot of work done I feel in this story where even though the marriage of convenience is to allow him to stay and work. And it is a fraudulent activity, according to the United States government to marry somebody so that they can stay in the country as opposed to marrying somebody because you love them and then therefore them being allowed to stay in the country. There's so much work done I think in the novel to build up the idea that he deserves to be there and also to frame his immigrant status in a way that is attractive, as opposed to carrying the stigma that many other immigrants, particularly immigrants who are not white, face.
Diana Filar: Yeah. So before she even knows anything about him, the heroine, Holland, she sees him all the time, he's busking in the subway. And so there's the trope across, I think American culture of the romantic kind of nomad artist guy.
It turns out he's like a supremely talented musician. And I think on top of the sort of marriage of convenience in terms of getting a green card, there's also the marriage of convenience that Holland happens to already think he's attractive because she sees him busking all the time.
But also she works for her uncle who has penned and is director slash in charge of a very successful Broadway musical. Seems like a Hamilton situation. And their lead musician or something he quits or whatever, and they need someone else. And it turns out that what's his name
Andrea Martucci: Calvin McLoughlin,
Diana Filar: So she sets him up to have an audition in front of her uncle so that he can be the lead guitarist, which no one had ever thought that the guitar could fill in for this musical need, but it turns out it's just what they need.
Andrea Martucci: Just a little bit of exotic spice: the guitar. (jokingly)
Diana Filar: Yeah. And in the end , spoilers, it turns out that he can get a visa because of that being a sort of special skill. Like he's the only person that could do it.
The marriage of convenience doesn't even need to be, the fraud does not need to be completed for the two of them, but they still fall in love anyway, blah, blah, blah. But I think what's interesting. And I think the [00:36:00] reason that I brought up this book is because it just stuck out to me so much that there's a scene early on that really is like the catalyst for bringing them together in that she is waiting at this other station and there's an altercation with her and someone at the station and she falls onto the third rail and he saves her, calls an ambulance, whatever.
But then he disappears and isn't there to be questioned by the authorities because he's worried about them finding out who he is or whatever. . So that's being undocumented, but at the same time, he's out in public, like busking every day in this very public place. And no one's questioning him. No one goes up to him like, Hey, show us your papers or your ID?
Or what are you doing here? No, one's like, get out of here you busker. It seems he's pretty much safe to just go about his business, playing guitar at the subway station every day.
Andrea Martucci: And I mean, he's white and he also seems to be the right quote, unquote kind of immigrant. Not the kind of immigrant who is taking your job the way that certain media frames immigration. So the narrative around having an Irish immigrant is like much less threatening, I think.
Diana Filar: Yeah. Very few people could be like, oh, I'm a classically trained guitarist and so he's taken my job. That's (laughs) that's not happening.
Andrea Martucci: And of course the whole immigrants taking your job thing it's a fallacy. It's problematic. But I feel though, like these choices are intentional choices to make the fraud seem not actually problematic. It's more, look how unfair the system is.
I'm not saying the system is fair. However, choosing to talk about the unfairness of the immigration issues through the lens of the most privileged type of immigrant. One whose language is already the language predominantly spoke in America. One who has less stigma attached because of the country he came from and the associations with Irish people compared to people from other countries, particularly countries where people are not white, there's so much going on here.
And and also the fact that he's highly skilled. It's not like he's a refugee and doesn't have a skill that can translate to economic value.
Diana Filar: But I also want to point out the division between high skill and like low skilled labor, non-skilled labor. I can't do construction.
Andrea Martucci: I can't do it either but I feel like again you could have the what if you're like a brilliant welder? But I think that in the narrative constructs that would be considered less appealing and I think more problematic is the story that's being told here.
Diana Filar: Obviously there's so much, that's part of our national and cultural mythology about what's worthy and what's valuable and also what's attractive. So like you mentioned him having a sexy accent as opposed to a broken English quote unquote.
He's the most [00:39:00] privileged version of what that character could be.
And I think it's interesting even at the level of thinking of white immigrants, if say the gender roles were reversed, right? There's a narrative that we're maybe more familiar with in terms of Eastern European mail-order brides and marriages of convenience.
There is that stereotype. It's a thing that happens. But like that in and of itself, that's a more problematic version. Cause then you're getting into issues of patriarchy and just
Andrea Martucci: Is that a form of sex trafficking?
Diana Filar: Yeah. Whereas his situation, it can be free of some of those questions and conflicts because he's the hero in terms of being male and he's white and from Ireland.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. There is currently a movie in production I believe literally in production right now.
I found this article with an interview with the folks producing this. Jenna Dewan, she was formerly married to Channing Tatum, is producing this movie? Is involved somehow in creating this movie and what they have talked about is that Calvin McLoughlin is now Mateo Perez. So, (Diana: Oh!) Yeah. So this is a quote from the article I found, I'll put the link in the show notes. "In the movie Holland's hero will no longer be Irishman Calvin McLoughlin. Instead, Christina and Lauren have re-imagined the character as a Latino immigrant named Mateo Perez. About the change, Lauren Billings told Entertainment Weekly, "Christina and I, and all the producers felt like the issue of immigration is one we needed to be facing head on with the story. And we had an opportunity and responsibility to do that."" end quote, Christina added that quote., "it was the way the story needed to be told," end quote.
So by the way, Christina Lauren, two people named Christina and Lauren, an author duo. I also recall I saw them at Porter Square Books at a reading before the pandemic and they also made mention of this thing. And I don't know if it was as set in stone at the time, but I don't want to prejudge how they're going to handle this, however , Uh, I have thoughts.
Diana, what do you think some potential issues could be with taking this story and changing one character from being an Irish immigrant to a Latino immigrant named Mateo Perez?
Diana Filar: First I think it needs to be an entirely different story. Like we were talking about earlier, you can't just transpose the sort of background. I don't know what kind of story they're trying to tell .
Andrea Martucci: First of all, what is a Latino immigrant?
Diana Filar: Exactly. I was going to back up and say, they're saying the immigrant issue and the immigrant stories are important to tell, but it's like, why when we say immigrant, it often becomes code for homogenizing all Latinx peoples in the US who may or may not have been here generations, who may or may not identify as Chicano, as different [00:42:00] nationalities, as different indigenous peoples within what are now those nations that have been colonized. I just think right, again, to not project, maybe a lot of work will go on and it will be fleshed out and it'll be attendant to all of these issues.
I, I would just hope it, wasn't just taking that sort of easy fix of saying we need to tell immigrant stories and so therefore we need to tell the Latino story. Latino immigrant stories are also, important. And we have, some media that's good representations of that, on Jane the Virgin and One Day at a Time that I think have especially been lauded for some of that. But yeah, I think that's the biggest concern to me.
Andrea Martucci: What is a Latino immigrant? From where? Latino is an ethnicity, right?
Diana Filar: Sure. It's an ethno racial category that is familiar to the US I think most obviously.
Andrea Martucci: So we're already centering the US in his narrative?
Diana Filar: I can't speak to obviously how other people identify or see themselves but I think there's a way in which even in another Spanish speaking country, people distinguish themselves within different ethnicities even within that place, but then the U S we all become one thing.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. So they have not actually said anything about race here, but Latino is not a race. Latinos can be white. Latinos can be Black. Latinos can be brown.
Diana Filar: Yeah, just the history of colonization from Spain, from the US and the fact that indigenous peoples lived on those lands, it could be many things
Andrea Martucci: Could be. And so I think that the vagueness of re-imagining, the character as a "Latino immigrant named Mateo Perez," there's so much subtext there.
If you read that sentence, that phrasing is meant to convey something. I will tell you that phrasing makes me think a Mexican immigrant, if they are trying to specifically refer to the story of immigration that is most top of mind.
Diana Filar: In our current cultural consciousness, yes. That's what those terms are meant to signify.
Andrea Martucci: However, it is actually very non-specific. It could mean a lot of things. And I think the issue here is that if the story was originally written with two white characters, and again, a Latino immigrant named Mateo Perez could be white racially, right? I'm not saying not white.
However, Christina and Lauren are not Latino immigrants. This is maybe not their story to tell and maybe there's somebody in the writers' room who is better able to tell that story authentically. I think that this is the larger question in romance adaptations and adaptations more generally.
Diana Filar: Yeah. I was going to say is this similar to like the conversations that were happening about Bridgerton before it came out? I'm less familiar with that, but there's a way in which you can read non specificity. You could give it a generous reading. And I'm critical, but I think there's a way in which reading generously is also useful.
Like maybe it's non-specific so as to allow them to actually figure it [00:45:00] out. Am I wary of that because of the history and the past? Yes, of course.
Andrea Martucci: If you're going to take a story though, that is explicitly about immigration and, this isn't a minor part of the story. This is like the entire major crux of the plot and everything, and then change this. And now it's going to be a story about a very different type of immigrant. Like they are explicitly saying no, we wanted to talk about the issue of immigration that is more culturally relevant right now. If we want to tell that story, should we not adapt that story from a story that is already about that? And perhaps written by somebody who intentionally set out to tell that story and had some information about it?
And this is the issue with Bridgerton, right? Is you can say, oh, isn't it great that we have, diversified this text that was all white? And it's like, you haven't diversified the text that's all white. You've taken white characters and have actors playing them who aren't white.
Diana Filar: There's definitely quote unquote racial blindness at play.
Andrea Martucci: I think the other issue then who is benefiting from the racially diverse casting. It's Julia Quinn who wrote a book full of white characters.
And so I think that then when you look at this, if there's going to be a film about this, should it be based on a text written by two white women , about two white characters, neither of whom is of a marginalized racial or ethnic background. Is there not a story that exists that can tell that story that doesn't have to have that sort of shoehorned in and again, maybe they're going to do a fantastic job adapting it and truly changing the story in a way to cover that adequately.
But then you start getting into who's profiting from this, like which stories are getting adapted. And if there's only going to be one story about this, which is a sad state of things to begin with, should that opportunity not have gone to somebody who could speak to this more authentically?
Diana Filar: Yeah. And I think part of the frustration around this, or at least my frustration has to do with what we've already been talking about, is there's recent history for them to see and maybe learn from and go off of. So maybe not just Bridgerton, but there was like a whole hubbub, I guess the end of 2019 and early 2020, about Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt. That was like already a whole thing where we have the sort of story of migration from Mexico told by a woman who now says that one of her grandparents was from Puerto Rico, but who otherwise...
Andrea Martucci: What does that have to do with immigration from Mexico?
Diana Filar: And her husband is maybe an immigrant, but like from Ireland or something. So yeah, there's these false parallels that were made to back it up. The story in and of itself is problematic. A lot of the conversation around that was instead of reading this book, read these other books by actual Latinx writers or Latinx American, Latinx immigrant writers like, Valeria Luiselli or Erika Sanchez, that kind of thing. [00:48:00] Because in some ways the novel American Dirt, it's only using those stereotypes of when you say Latino immigrant, you think of a certain thing. And it's a, almost like a trauma porn kind of thing. It was a bestseller.
Andrea Martucci: And who did the publisher decide was going to write this breakout book that they put a lot of money into making a breakout book, right?
Diana Filar: The conversation not just of who else you should read, but it's also Latinx writers with debut novels, or even second, third novels, they don't get as much press, they don't get advances that kind of thing. It's about resources. It's about putting your money where your mouth is.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think we've basically covered this, but throughout the course of this conversation, we've been talking about how the immigrant experience is different depending on where you're coming from, depending on when you're coming, depending on the legalities, the politics, the rhetoric around different groups and ethnicities and locations, and to pretend like the story of a white Irish immigrant is going to be the exact same story.
Even if you layer in some of the cultural nuance of the situation, again, you're still then running into , why add that to a story that didn't have it instead of adapting a story that did have it. But I think we know why.
Diana Filar: Yeah and like you said, the immigrant experience is different for different people and it's not just because of how we see things in the US. It's because if you think each immigrant group is bringing the sort of cultural context of their own geographic and cultural region with them, that then influences how they experience US customs and racialization and politics and all that.
Andrea Martucci: Do you have any predictions about what instrument he'll play and what style?
Diana Filar: Oh, no. God, I don't even want to think about it. Maybe it'll be a guitar, but it'll be like, like in Coco.
Andrea Martucci: I can already anticipate how they will exoticize and other this character compared to Calvin, who's just playing guitar. He's classically trained. He's not playing like Celtic. I don't know.
Diana Filar: Yeah. That would be something if he was a classically trained Celtic guitarist.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. We'll see.
Diana, any final words on this fascinating and long conversation? (we laugh...ps Jhen cut out a good 45 minutes of convo)
Diana Filar: No, I'm happy I could be a part of it. This podcast is such a part of my last year and a half. (laughs) And I'm glad we've gotten closer because of it. I'm glad I'm reading romance again. And I get to listen to delightful conversations about it.
Andrea Martucci: I appreciate you being here. And I'm so glad that we had this lovely conversation. So the podcast has brought us together.
Thank you for joining me today and thank you to my guest, Diana Filar. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on Shelf Love, Podcast dot com. If you have any thoughts [00:51:00] on the show, I would love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to Andrea at Shelf Love Podcast dot com. This podcast is produced by me, Andrea Martucci. Jhen provided additional production support and edited this episode.
Thank you to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson and Tasha L. Harrison.
Shelf Love is supported by the following Patreon supporters, Gail Martucci, Copper Dog Books, Fredrick Smith. Thank you to these amazing supporters. You can hear your name at the end of Shelf Love episodes by becoming a Patreon supporter at the $20 a month tier, also called the Joyful Hag tier. Or you can support Shelf Love by becoming a Shelf Lovely for $3 a month or a Nuanced Patron for $10 a month, and be listed on the website as a supporter. All patrons get access to the private Discord message board for supporters, and I'm adding more perks as the community grows.
Next up, I'm working on merchandise. You can support Shelf Love on Patreon at Patreon.com/ShelfLove. Your financial support helps subsidize costs such as paying for help with podcast editing and transcription, which allows me to spend more time creating great content for you to enjoy. Again, that link is Patreon.com/ShelfLove
Coming up on August 10th and 11th, 2021, Jodie Slaughter will be joining me for some exciting live events with Copper Dog Books. You've heard Jodie on Shelf Love on episodes, such as Clutch Your Pearls and Think of New England and the Twilight fanfiction episode. I hope you've also read her books, including White Whiskey Bargain, All Things Burn or her latest To Be Alone With You.
Join Jodie and I in a virtual conversation on Wednesday, August 11th at 7:00 PM eastern time. Registration for the virtual event is free. You can also order signed books through Copper Dog Books.
And if you live in the greater Boston area, Please join us on Tuesday, August 10th for an in-person river boat cruise on the Essex River Queen. Embarking from Essex, Massachusetts, you can mingle with other local romance readers, writers and booksellers. Tickets are $20 and includes snacks and dessert. Plus you can buy books to be signed live by Jodie and there's a cash bar and lots of fun activities. You can find more information on copperdogbooks.com. Plus of course, all the information is linked in the show notes. I hope to see you there.
At the end of episode 89, I said that I was going to be doing some thinking about how I could do my part to not just sloganize my support, but to actually do something meaningful to support the causes that I believe. I believe one way that I can add the most value is to use my platform, to help bring attention to projects and [00:54:00] organizations that are doing the work.
At the end of every episode, I'm going to be sharing organizations with rad missions that I hope you consider supporting.
Today I would like to share Honor Black Birth. You can find them online honorblackbirth.org. Here's how they describe their work.
" Honor Black Birth is a St. Louis based storytelling incubator. Reclaiming our stories and depathologizing Black pregnancy one counter narrative. Honor Black Birth shifts the narrative about Black pregnancy and birth. We ground our work in a reproductive justice framework.
We respect lived experience as expertise. We value art and storytelling as a means to feed the imagination and a catalyst for social change. Our featured project is You Lucky You Got A Mama, a feature length documentary exploring the intimacies of pregnancy through a lens of gender."
And so that was directly from the website. On the website honorblackbirth.org, you can find links to purchase merchandise. I purchased a beautifully designed t-shirt that says "giving birth is not a gendered experience." There's like a really beautiful line art drawing of two faces on it. It's really gorgeous.
You can also support Honor Black Birth by funding it on Fundrazr. All the links and more information can be found on honorblackbirth.org.