‘Little America’ does immigrant storytelling right

During winter break, I watched the first season of “Little America ”—a series on Apple TV+ where every episode tells a different immigrant story that is based on a real person. I appreciate the respect given to each story through an anthology as opposed to mixing people’s deeply personal, unique stories. This allows the series to escape the trap of monolithic immigrant narratives forced into a so-called cohesive season arc. I also skipped around to episodes that interested me, as the viewing order does not affect the overall experience.

The show offers more nuance than the traditional, one-dimensional immigrant narrative themes. The timeless authenticity is a result of narrowing in on each person’s story rather than trying to fit people into pre-existing narratives. No immigrant nor episode in the show is the same. For example, the first episode follows Kabir, a spelling bee champ turned hotel manager, and his efforts to bring back his deported parents; the next follows Marisol, an undocumented squash player nicknamed Jaguar. 

Marisol started playing squash because free shoes were promised at lessons. At first, the sport is a stark reminder of wealth she does not have. But after dedication towards training, squash begins to represent Marisol’s journey of personal growth. The end of each episode concludes with a picture and a few sentences describing where the real life person is today. Reyna, the person Marisol is based off of, is shown to have gained citizenship and attended Columbia University because of the resilience she learned from squash. Jaguar, her apt nickname given by her coach, is also the title of the episode.

In the episode “Cowboy,” Iwegbuna is an economics graduate student in Oklahoma who finds freedom in acting as a cowboy like in the Westerns from his childhood. He communicates with his family in Nigeria by mailing tapes and calling. As Iwegbuna listens, his brother and mother appear in his living room almost like holograms although in reality still in Nigeria. Their stories come to life. Iwegbuna listening to his family’s story brings him to Nigeria, as if he can really experience Nigeria through their stories. 

The near absence of formal politics in the show gives way to the daily, realistic impacts of informal politics, which is both more pleasurable and personal. I don’t need to be an expert on the foreign relations of Iran to value Faraz’s ambition to build a house for his family. Only when we bring our stories, our home, our family and our hope can we make new stories that are unabashed expressions of self-acceptance and freedom. Thus, these stories are not told as Syrian or Nigerian in an exclusively geopolitical context, but rather as unique to each person’s dreams. Breaking from her family’s expectations, Beatrice from Uganda wants to be a baker. Sylviane (Yemana in real life) from Switzerland finds love after a silent retreat. “Little America” makes it clear that home, or the past, does not define who we are but rather serves a base that one can launch from. The show avoids the political immigrant narrative trap, which reduces people to their geopolitical circumstances. This is not an anti-Trump story or even a pro-immigrant story—it’s a pro-Kabir, pro-Rafiq and pro-Iwegbuna story. 

These stories are fictionalized accounts of real personal experiences. For example, Marisol’s real name is Reyna for instance. Stories like these can make us laugh and cry about Reyna’s real story through the  experience of a fictional character, Marisol. Fiction may oversimplify but can make her complicated, gritty story more accessible to a larger audience. Thus, more people carry these stories with them, take action, think of our world differently or spam Twitter with their obsessions.

TV also presents a powerful medium for immigrant stories to resonate and start conversations. I grew up on classics—complex sentences, thick books, extensive imagery. Authors brought readers to a completed painting which was beautiful but could leave little room for alternative interpretation. Later on, I found other mediums such as blog posts, narratives and film—short sentences, writing as you would talk, non-linear storytelling. Because the full context isn’t presented in short TV episodes, the viewer is forced to put together the background story. In taking the time to put together the story, the viewer becomes invested in the story rather than a passive listener of Marisol’s life. The audience can fill in the gaps to bring them closer to the material. A more intentional engagement to the story allows for finding unique meaning to apply to one’s own life because in each story, multiple stories exist. Marisol presents a coming of age story, a first-generation, low-income story, a good sportsman story and more. It is up to the viewer as to which story they form to find meaning in.

“Little America” brings much needed representation of authentic immigrant stories to the screen instead of checkbox diversity. This multicultural perspective extends behind-the-scenes, too. While watching interviews after the series, I found that directors scouted for an international cast and crew. Directors also shift from episode to episode, with many sharing the background of the people whose story they tell. Most notably, director Tze Chun told the story of his mother, Ai, in the episode “The Grand Prize Expo Winners.” The diversity of languages spoken in the show also intrigued me, including Igbo, Levantine Arabic, Luganda, Spanish and more according to Deadline. The start of each episode reads, “This was inspired by a true story,” first in English and then in the language of the respective character. Each episode is framed not by monolithic narrative tropes, rather, for and by the people whose stories are shown. 

I do not personally relate to each episode. Nor should I. We are tempted to make stories digestible, easy to understand and easy to relate to. Diversity is absent if viewers only look for their own stories on screen. I think of my own ignorance when I am not always open to listening to stories of my family or digesting even my own stories. What stories do I lose because they are not presented in an easily digestible, 15-second video that I can instantly share? I realize that watching eight 30-minute TV episodes on winter break is not a deep expression of listening and connection—but can it be the start?

 

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