The United States is a nation made up of immigrants and their descendants: a combination of different people, places and cultures — the veritable “melting pot.”
For Alice McDermott, it’s those differences that bring people together.
“We all are descended — even if it’s generations back — from people who took a tremendous risk, who looked at the lives that they were given, the situation that they were in, and said, ‘There’s got to be something better,’ or ‘I don’t know what’s out there, but I’m going to go see it, I’m going to go find it,’ ” McDermott said.
McDermott is the author of Someone, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Three. She’ll discuss her work today at 3:30 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Three’s CLSC Roundtable.
While CLSC presentations usually take place on Thursdays, moving McDermott’s presentation to a Tuesday was a conscious decision for Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education. Babcock said she thought McDermott’s presentation would align well with Patrick Griffin’s Monday morning lecture on “sending and receiving societies.”
Babcock said McDermott was a natural choice for Week Three, the theme of which is “Immigration: Origins and Destinations.”
Much of McDermott’s work, including Someone, is set in the Irish immigrant community, a population Babcock said can sometimes get overlooked when people think about immigration.
“Because Someone is so much a single person’s story and the whole novel is seen so much through just the main character’s eyes — truth becomes not a universal thing, but a thing that belongs to the character alone,” McDermott said.
“The novel brings truth to a small ‘t’ rather than a capital ‘T.’ ”
The personal scale that McDermott utilizes in Someone is one she feels can be enriching — something she thinks all fiction can do.
“I think the wonderful thing about fiction as opposed to journalism or nonfiction or books of social science or politics is that we can go to fiction and just have the experience of living another life,” McDermott said. “I don’t think we always have to take a lesson from it. But we can say in the confines of our own limited lives we have read a novel that has allowed us to live someone else’s life. And I think that expands — even if it’s subtly, or inadvertently — it expands the way we look at the world when we come out of the novel.”
And despite Someone’s singular focus, McDermott thinks it can tap into the universal dialogue about immigration. She said that fiction can allow one to “speak broadly” about the immigrant experience.
“It’s something we all share,” McDermott said. “Whether you leave in desperation, whether you leave seeking wealth, we all — somewhere in our backgrounds — are of the nature of people who are willing to take a chance, take a risk, to go out into the unknown. I think that’s sort of incredible and it’s incredibly uniting when you think about it in that way.”
McDermott has visited Chautauqua twice before — once as the author of CLSC selection Charming Billy and once as a part of the “Roger Rosenblatt and Friends” lecture platform. She said coming back to talk about a different book is like coming to Chautauqua for the first time, in part because of its audience.
“The thing that I have learned about Chautauqua is that you will always provide a very intelligent audience: well-read and careful and respectful with eager and avid minds,” McDermott said. “I’m more curious about what the audience has to say. I’m looking forward to hearing that and hearing Chautauquans’ take on the novel.”
The topic of immigration can be a sensitive and often divisive one, but McDermott said there is a sense of unity to be found in it as well.
“The whole thing about being ‘one nation, out of many’ is that we can choose to be divided by the sense of ‘many,’ or we can choose to look for where the ‘one’ comes from,” she said.