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Being an outsider is actually an immigrant’s advantage, says this writer

February 16, 2017 at 6:20 PM EST
Who better to teach American literature than a resident alien who was born in Zambia? That’s how Namwali Serpell, a self-identified outsider, sees it. Serpell, a writer and associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, gives her Brief But Spectacular take on being an immigrant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, another installment in our Brief But Spectacular series.

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian-born writer and associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.

Her first novel, “The Old Drift,” comes out next year, but, here, she describes her own story.

NAMWALI SERPELL, Author: There are all these different terms for what an immigrant is in America, when you have the permission to stay.

There’s permanent resident, there’s resident alien. Immigration officials are really funny with me, because they look at my permanent resident card. And I’m always very anxious about this when I’m at the — I mean, will they let me back in? Can I still be here?

I teach American literature. And I start out all of my courses by saying, you might be wondering why a Zambian citizen and a resident alien of the United States is teaching you the history of American literature. But who better than an outsider to teach you about American literature?

All of the great literature of the U.S. is told through the story of an outsider, Nick Carraway in “Gatsby” or Humbert Humbert in “Lolita.”

Being on the outside or being an alien is the condition of being American. And it’s a way to see the country from within, but also with a different perspective.

I remember when my parents told me we were moving to the States. My sisters and I were really excited. For me, at age 8, it was a pretty intense shift. I had kids kind of making fun of me, making fun of my hair, making fun of my accent.

I remember very specifically a kid asking me in the cafeteria in fifth grade, what are you, not, who are you, and not what race are you, but what are you? And what she meant was, are you black or white?

I asked my dad, my white father, who’s a psychologist. He said: “You’re a citizen of the world. You are human.”

And that answer was very unsatisfactory. It was only in college that I really started to say I’m black, because, in America, I’m black, and that’s how I’m recognized.

I went back for a year to Zambia during high school, which was very difficult. Everyone was like, why do you wear your hair curly and natural? They didn’t like the punk rock T-shirts I was wearing or the big sweats and sneaks. I thought I was a skater chick.

People often want to say, you’re African. And I’m like, Africa is a huge continent. It’s not a country. I feel Zambian, and then I feel American. Those are my identities, even though, technically, I am an alien in this country, and, when I go back to Zambia, I don’t exactly fit in there either.

And I realized that I could use this to my advantage, that you can actually leverage being an outsider in order to be the most unique and be the biggest voice in the room, and bring a new perspective to things that everybody else takes for granted.

My name is Namwali Serpell, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on being an alien.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can find more of our Brief But Spectacular videos online at pbs.org/newshour/brief.

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