Digging to America

A Novel
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Anne Tyler’s richest, most deeply searching novel–a story about what it is to be an American, and about Iranian-born Maryam Yazdan, who, after 35 years in this country, must finally come to terms with her “outsiderness.”

Two families, who would otherwise never have come together, meet by chance at the Baltimore airport – the Donaldsons, a very American couple, and the Yazdans, Maryam’s fully assimilated son and his attractive Iranian wife. Each couple is awaiting the arrival of an adopted infant daughter from Korea. After the instant babies from distant Asia are delivered, Bitsy Donaldson impulsively invites the Yazdans to celebrate: an “arrival party” that from then on is repeated every year as the two families become more and more deeply intertwined. Even Maryam is drawn in – up to a point. When she finds herself being courted by Bitsy Donaldson’s recently widowed father, all the values she cherishes – her traditions, her privacy, her otherness–are suddenly threatened.

A luminous novel brimming with subtle, funny, and tender observations that immerse us in the challenges of both sides of the American story.


“The appearance of a new novel by Anne Tyler is like the arrival of an old friend . . . With her 17th novel, Tyler has delivered something startlingly fresh while retaining everything we love about her work . . . Her success at portraying culture clash and the complex longings and resentments of those new to America confirms what we knew, or should have known, all along: There’s nothing small about Tyler’s world, nothing precious about her attention to the hopes and fears of ordinary people.”–Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World“Ms. Tyler deserves her reputation as a master of the fine threads of human relationships. The barely registered slights, fleeting intuitions and shivers of pity that pass between these characters are a pleasure to behold.” –Tara Gallagher, The Wall Street Journal“Anne Tyler has written 17 novels and you only wish for more. Her newest, Digging to America, is wonderfully wry, yet intimately involving. There’s a definite sense of loss when it’s over and done.” –Sheryl Connelly, New York Daily News “Tyler encompasses the collision of cultures without losing her sharp focus on the daily dramas of modern family life in her 17th novel . . . [A] touching, humorous story.”–Publishers Weekly“Tyler creates many blissful moments of high emotion and keen humor while broaching hard truths about cultural differences, communication breakdowns, and family configurations. This deeply human tale of valiantly improvised lives is one of Tyler’s best.”–Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)“The veteran novelist extends her range without losing her essence in this tale of two families drawn together by their adopted daughters despite the friction created by their very different personalities and ethnicities . . . The ensuing culture clash enriches Tyler’s narrative without diminishing her skills as an engaging storyteller and delicate analyst of personality . . . Readers will hope that these flawed, lovable people will find happiness, but they won’t be sure until the final page, so deftly has the author balanced the forces that keep us apart against those that bring us together. Vintage Tyler, with enough fresh, new touches to earn her the next generation of fans.”–Kirkus Reviews“The author’s 17th novel exemplifies her skill at depicting seemingly quiet and unremarkable lives with sympathy and humor . . . A touching, well-crafted tale of friendship, families, and what it means to be an American.” –Library Journal (starred review)


At eight o'clock in the evening, the Baltimore airport was nearly deserted. The wide gray corridors were empty, and the newsstands were dark, and the coffee shops were closed. Most of the gates had admitted their last flights. Their signboards were blank and their rows of vinyl chairs unoccupied and ghostly.

But you could hear a distant hum, a murmur of anticipation, at the far end of Pier D. You could see an overexcited child spinning herself into dizziness in the center of the corridor, and then a grownup popping forth to scoop her up and carry her, giggling and squirming, back into the waiting area. And a latecomer, a woman in a yellow dress, was rushing toward the gate with an armful of long-stemmed roses.

Step around the bend, then, and you'd come upon what looked like a gigantic baby shower. The entire waiting area for the flight from San Francisco was packed with people bearing pink- and blue-wrapped gifts, or hanging on to flotillas of silvery balloons printed with IT'S A GIRL! and trailing spirals of pink ribbon. A man gripped the wicker handle of a wheeled and skirted bassinet as if he planned to roll it onto the plane, and a woman stood ready with a stroller so chrome-trimmed and bristling with levers that it seemed capable of entering the Indy 500. At least half a dozen people held video cameras, and many more had regular cameras slung around their necks. A woman spoke into a tape recorder in an urgent, secretive way. The man next to her clasped an infant's velour-upholstered car seat close to his chest.

MOM, the button on the woman's shoulder read--one of those man's read DAD. A nice-looking couple, not as young as you might expect--the woman in wide black pants and an arty black-and-white top of a geometric design, her short hair streaked with gray; the man a big, beaming, jovial type with a stubbly blond buzz cut, his bald knees poking bashfully from voluminous khaki Bermudas.

And not only were there MOM and DAD; there were GRANDMA and GRANDPA, twice over--two complete sets. One grandma was a rumpled, comfortable woman in a denim sundress and bandanna-print baseball cap; the other was thin and gilded and expertly made up, wearing an ecru linen pantsuit and dyed-to-match pumps. The grandpas were dyed to match as well--the rumpled woman's husband equally rumpled, his iron-gray curls overdue for a cutting, while the gilded woman's husband wore linen trousers and some sort of gauzy tropical shirt, and part of his bright yellow hair was possibly not his own.

It's true there were other people waiting, people clearly not included in the celebration. A weary-eyed woman in curlers; an older woman with a younger one who might have been her daughter; a father with two small children already dressed in pajamas. These outsiders stood around the edges, quiet and somehow dimmed, from time to time sneaking glances in the direction of MOM and DAD.

The plane was late. People grew restless. A child pointed out accusingly that the arrivals board still read ON TIME--a plain old lie. Several teenagers wandered off to the unlit waiting area just across the corridor. A little girl in pigtails fell asleep on a vinyl chair, the button on her green plaid blouse proclaiming COUSIN.

Then something changed. There wasn't any announcement--the PA system had been silent for some time--but people gradually stopped talking and pressed toward the jetway, craning their necks, standing on tiptoe. A woman in a uniform punched in a code and swung open the jetway door. A skycap arrived with a wheelchair. The teenagers reappeared. MOM and DAD, till now in the very center of the crowd, were nudged forward with encouraging pats, a path magically widening to let them approach the door.

First off was a very tall young man in jeans, wearing the confused look of someone who'd been flying too long. He spotted the mother and daughter and went over to them and bent to kiss the daughter, but only on the cheek because she was too busy peering past him, just briefly returning his hug while she kept her eyes on the new arrivals.

Two businessmen with briefcases, striding purposefully toward the terminal. A teenage boy with a backpack so huge that he resembled an ant with an oversized breadcrumb. Another businessman. Another teenage boy, this one claimed by the woman in curlers. A smiling, rosy-cheeked redhead instantly engulfed by the two children in pajamas.

Now a pause. A sort of gathering of focus.

A crisply dressed Asian woman stepped through the door with a baby. This baby was perhaps five or six months old--able to hold herself confidently upright. She had a cushiony face and a head of amazingly thick black hair, cut straight across her forehead and straight across the tops of her ears, and she wore a footed pink sleeper. "Ah!" everyone breathed--even the outsiders, even the mother and the grown daughter. (Although the daughter's young man still appeared confused.) The mother-to-be stretched out both arms, letting her tape recorder bounce at the end of its strap. But the Asian woman stopped short in an authoritative manner that warded off any approach. She drew herself up and said, "Donaldson?"

"Donaldson. That's us," the father-to-be said. His voice was shaking. He had somehow got rid of the car seat, passed it blindly to someone or other, but he stayed slightly to the rear of his wife and kept one hand on her back as if in need of support.

"Congratulations," the Asian woman said. "This is Jin-Ho." She transferred the baby to the mother's waiting arms, and then she unhitched a pink diaper bag from her shoulder and handed it to the father. The mother buried her face in the crook of the baby's neck. The baby stayed upright, gazing calmly out at the crowd. "Ah," people kept saying, and "Isn't she a cutie!" and "Did you ever see such a doll?"

Flashbulbs, insistent video cameras, everyone pressing too close. The father's eyes were wet. Lots of people's were; there were sniffing sounds all through the waiting area and noses being blown. And when the mother raised her face, finally, her cheeks were sheeted with tears. "Here," she told the father. "You hold her."

"Aw, no, I'm scared I might . . . You do it, honey. I'll watch."

The Asian woman started riffling through a sheaf of papers. People still disembarking had to step around her, step around the little family and the well-wishers and the tangle of baby equipment. Luckily, the flight hadn't been a full one. The passengers arrived in spurts: man with a cane, pause; retired couple, pause . . .

And then another Asian woman, younger than the first and plainer, with a tucked, apologetic way of looking about. She was lugging a bucket-shaped infant carrier by the handle, and you could tell that the baby inside must not weigh all that much. This baby, too, was a girl, if you could judge by the pink T-shirt, but she was smaller than the first one, sallow and pinched, with fragile wisps of black hair trailing down her forehead. Like the young woman transporting her, she showed a sort of anxious interest in the crowd. Her watchful black eyes moved too quickly from face to face.

The young woman said something that sounded like "Yaz-dun?"

"Yaz-dan," a woman called from the rear. It sounded like a correction. The crowd parted again, not certain which way to move but eager to be of help, and three people no one had noticed before approached in single file: a youngish couple, foreign-looking, olive-skinned and attractive, followed by a slim older woman with a chignon of sleek black hair knotted low on the nape of her neck. It must have been she who had called out their name, because now she called it again in the same clear, carrying voice. "Here we are. Yazdan." There was just the trace of an accent evident in the ruffled r's.

The young woman turned to face them, holding the carrier awkwardly in front of her. "Congratulations, this is Sooki," she said, but so softly and so breathlessly that people had to ask each other, "What?" "Who did she say?" "Sooki, I believe it was." "Sooki! Isn't that sweet!"

There was a problem unfastening the straps that held the baby in her carrier. The new parents had to do it because the Asian woman's hands were full, and the parents were flustered and unskilled--the mother laughing slightly and tossing back her explosive waterfall of hennaed curls, the father biting his lip and looking vexed with himself. He wore tiny, very clean rimless glasses that glittered as he angled first this way and then that, struggling with a plastic clasp. The grandmother, if that was who she was, made sympathetic tsk-tsking sounds.

But at last the baby was free. Such a little bit of a thing! The father plucked her out in a gingerly, arm's-length manner and handed her to the mother, who gathered her in and rocked her and pressed her cheek against the top of the baby's feathery black head. The baby quirked her eyebrows but offered no resistance. Onlookers were blowing their noses again, and the father had to take off his glasses and wipe the lenses, but the mother and the grandmother stayed dry-eyed, smiling and softly murmuring. They paid no attention to the crowd. When someone asked, "Is yours from Korea too?" neither woman answered, and it was the father, finally, who said, "Hmm? Oh. Yes, she is."

"Hear that, Bitsy and Brad? Here's another Korean baby!"

The first mother glanced around--she was allowing the two grandmas a closer inspection--and said, "Really?" Her husband echoed her: "Really!" He stepped over to the other parents and held out his hand. "Brad Donaldson. That's my wife, Bitsy, over there."

"How do you do," the second father said. "Sami Yazdan." He shook Brad's hand, but his lack of interest was almost comical; he couldn't keep his eyes off his baby. "Uh, my wife, Ziba," he added after a moment. "My mother, Maryam." He had a normal Baltimore accent, although he pronounced the two women's names as no American would have--Zee-bah and Mar-yam. His wife didn't even look up. She was cradling the baby and saying what sounded like "Soo-soo-soo." Brad Donaldson flapped a hand genially in her direction and returned to his own family.

By the time the transfers had been made official--both Asian women proving to be sticklers for detail--the Donaldson crowd had started to thin. Evidently some sort of gathering was planned for later, though, because people kept calling, "See you back at the house!" as they moved toward the terminal. And then the parents themselves were free to go, Bitsy leading the way while the woman with the stroller wheeled it just behind her like a lady-in-waiting. (Clearly nothing would persuade Bitsy to give up her hold on that baby.) Brad lumbered after her, followed by a few stragglers and, at the very tail end, the Yazdans. One of the Donaldson grandpas, the rumpled one, dropped back to ask the Yazdans, "So. Did you have a long wait for your baby? Lots of paperwork and cross-examinations?"

"Yes," Sami said, "a very long wait. A very long-drawn-out process." And he glanced toward his wife. "At times we thought it never would happen," he said.

The grandpa clucked and said, "Don't I know it! Lord, what Bitsy and Brad had to put themselves through!"

They passed to one side of Security, which was staffed by a lone employee sitting on a stool, and started down the escalator--all but the man with the bassinet. He had to take the elevator. The woman with the stroller, however, seemed undaunted. She tipped the front end of the stroller back smartly and stepped on without hesitation.

"Listen," Brad called up to the Yazdans from the lower level. "You-all feel like coming to our house? Joining the celebration?"

But Sami was absorbed in guiding his wife onto the escalator, and when he didn't answer, Brad flapped a hand again in that oh-well, affable way of his. "Maybe another time," he said to no one in particular. And he turned to catch up with the others.

The exit doors slid open and the Donaldsons streamed out. They headed toward the parking garage in twos and threes and fours, and shortly after that the Yazdans emerged to stand on the curb a moment, motionless, as if they needed time to adjust to the hot, humid, dimly lit, gasoline-smelling night.

Friday, August 15, 1997. The night the girls arrived.


Sometimes when Maryam Yazdan looked at her new little granddaughter she had an eerie, lightheaded feeling, as if she had stepped into some sort of alternate universe. Everything about the child was impossibly perfect. Her skin was a flawless ivory, and her hair was almost too soft to register on Maryam's fingertips. Her eyes were the shape of watermelon seeds, very black and cut very precisely into her small, solemn face. She weighed so little that Maryam often lifted her too high by mistake when she picked her up. And her hands! Tiny hands, with curling fingers. The wrinkles on her knuckles were halvah-colored (so amusing, that a baby had wrinkles!), and her nails were no bigger than dots.

Susan, they called her. They chose a name that resembled the name she had come with, Sooki, and also it was a comfortable sound for Iranians to pronounce.

"Su-san!" Maryam would sing when she went in to get her from her nap. "Su-Su-Su!" Susan would gaze out from behind the bars of her crib, sitting beautifully erect with one hand cupping each knee in a poised and self-possessed manner.

Maryam took care of her Tuesdays and Thursdays--the days her daughter-in-law worked and Maryam did not. She arrived at the house around eight-thirty, slightly later if the traffic was bad. (Sami and Ziba lived out in Hunt Valley, as much as a half-hour drive from the city during rush hour.) By that time Susan would be having breakfast in her high chair. She would light up and make a welcoming sound when Maryam walked into the kitchen. "Ah!" was what she most often said--nothing to do with "Mari-june," which was what they had decided she should call Maryam. "Ah!" she would say, and she would give her distinctive smile, with her lips pursed together demurely, and tilt her cheek for a kiss.

Well, not in the first few weeks, of course. Oh, those first weeks had been agony, the two parents trying their best, shrilling "Susie-june!" and shaking toys in her face and waltzing her about in their arms. All she did was stare at them, or--worse yet--stare away from them, twisting to get free, fixing her eyes stubbornly anywhere else. She wouldn't take more than a sip or two from her bottle, and when she woke crying in the night, as she did every few hours, her parents' attempts to comfort her only made her cry harder.

Q & A

A Conversation with Anne Tyler

Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives near Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Morgan Gray: Was there a particular character, image, or idea that inspired the writing of Digging to America?

Anne Tyler: In the summer of 1997, I drove my younger daughter to the Baltimore airport to pick up her husband-to-be, who was flying in from San Francisco for our annual beach trip. When we arrived, we found a gigantic, boisterous collection of strangers assembled, holding placards that made it clear they were waiting to welcome a baby. Of course we had to stay and watch what happened. (In fact, that’s the two of us on page four–the mother and grown daughter.) The baby turned out to be a tiny, very serious Korean boy about six or eight months old, and seeing his new parents reach out to take him from the attendant was one of the most moving moments imaginable. It hung on in my mind for several years, germinating in the dark the way seeds for novels often do.

JMG: I’ve actually had an “arrival day” experience myself: When my younger sister arrived from South Korea twenty-two years ago, my entire family gathered at the airport to welcome her (and we watch the video every year). You’ve captured the feeling of the day–anticipation and nervousness and joy–so perfectly. What prompted you to begin the book with this scene? How does the interaction of the two families give a good glimpse of what’s to come?

AT: I wish I could see that video! One of the thoughts that occurred to me while I was watching the family at the airport was that some people seem by nature so exuberant and outgoing and celebratory, larger than life almost. That’s why I came up with the idea of a second family whose style was the polar opposite–I’ve always been fascinated by inborn, dyed-in-the-wool character traits. And it was fun to set up that first scene as a microcosm of the two families’ future interactions.

JMG: The two families in the book are linked because of their experiences with adoption. Did you research adoptive families before reading the book, or did you have any personal experience with adoption?

AT: As with all my books, I relied on idle daydreams rather than research or personal experience. I thought for months and for years about that family I saw in the airport; I wondered how things were going with them; I entertained various “what-ifs” about how it must feel to take on a ready-made son or daughter. In time, I could almost believe I’d been through the experience myself.

JMG: How did you come up with the title Digging to America? What meaning did you hope readers would take from it–both when they lifted the book from the shelf and after they’d finished reading it? How does it reflect Jin-Ho’s question to her grandfather about children digging to America from her sister’s homeland of China?

AT: The title just drifted in on its own; I’m sure we’ve all had that childish notion of digging to the other side of the world. What surprised me in the writing of this book, though, is that my offhand decision to include Iranian characters (the result of many fond memories of my late husband’s gigantic family in Tehran) gradually turned it into a story about a different kind of digging: the immigrant’s attempt to break through the crust of a foreign culture.

JMG: Maryam thinks that her son and daughter-in-law have a crush on the Donaldsons. What about the family is so alluring to Sami and Ziba? How, in turn, do Sami and Ziba intrigue Bitsy and Brad? How does Sami’s “fight” with Brad bring the two families closer together?

AT: To me, the Donaldsons’ and the Yazdans’ relationship is a romance with the “Other.” It’s composed in equal parts of an attraction toward differentness, a concern that the differentness may be betterness, and the subtle resentment that such a concern calls forth. The families love each other, in their varying ways, but it’s a complicated and ambivalent love–as Brad’s and Sami’s half slugfest, half embrace suggests.

JMG: On page 49, Connie says, “Aren’t family gatherings wearing? They think they can just say anything.” How is Connie’s assessment correct, both in describing the workings of the Yazdans and of her own family? How would both families–the Yazdans in particular– benefit from more forthright dialogue?

AT: Dear Connie is just trying to be a comfort. Maryam’s observation is closer to the truth: The Yazdans, who practice the Iranian tradition of elaborate, formal politeness, would be better off exercising a little more bluntness. And that includes Maryam herself: Why didn’t she just say from the start that she didn’t want to host the party?

JMG: On page 111, Dave says of the Yazdans: “On the surface they seemed all primary colors, innocent and impressionable, but he’d had glimpses of more complicated interiors from time to time.” How do you think Maryam would comment on this assessment? Couldn’t Dave’s observation apply to some members of the Donaldson family as well?

AT: Maryam would be delighted by Dave’s statement, if only he knew. It allows the Yazdans the complexity and particularity that she thinks most Americans fail to acknowledge in foreigners.

JMG: While the book is told from many different points of view, Maryam opens and closes the novel. How does she evolve throughout the course of the book? What about her is so “intimidating” to others, and how is her façade a protective armor? Is she really unsocial?

AT: I was more and more drawn to Maryam as I was writing about her. I like her dignity. And while she does become more open and flexible by the end of the book, she remains quite firmly herself– not unsocial so much as reserved. I admired that.

JMG: It’s interesting that as the narrative focus of the book shifts, the reader sees the world through Jin-Ho’s eyes, but not through Susan’s. What made you decide to do this? How does Jin-Ho share Maryam’s feeling of not belonging?

AT: My main concern was not to have too much of either girl’s voice. A little of a child’s-eye view goes a long way, in my opinion– you don’t want to sound “cute,” and you certainly don’t want to force the reader to stay too long in the terrible country of childhood. So I limited my vantage point to just one of the girls, and because of where that fell in the alternating Yazdan/Donaldson chapters, it happened to be Jin-Ho. It could as easily have been Susan. I’ve been surprised, incidentally, by the number of readers who have asked why that chapter refers to “Jin-Ho’s mom” and “Jin-Ho’s dad” instead of “Bitsy” and “Brad,” as they’re called throughout the rest of the book. To me that seems obvious: most children don’t think of their parents by their first names. Certainly Jin-Ho doesn’t, and she’s the one whose head we’re inside in Chapter 9.

JMG: How is Xiu-Mei’s adoption a different experience for the Donaldsons than Jin-Ho’s? Does Bitsy’s attitude about parenting change during that time?

AT: There are clear differences in the Donaldsons’ experience with Xiu-Mei, but I see them as merely circumstantial. Xiu-Mei is physically frailer and therefore more taxing; Bitsy is a few years older and less resilient. And like most parents, Bitsy has lost a bit of her perfectionist zeal by the time her second child arrives.

JMG: You deftly weave issues of culture, class, and wealth throughout the book. Why did you choose to have the Donaldsons keep the Asian names of their children, while the Yazdans changed hers? How does each family feel threatened by the other?

AT: It made sense to me that the Donaldsons–so intent upon political correctness, so determinedly inclusive–would bend over backwards to encourage the foreignness of their child; while the Yazdans’ longing to fit in would lead them to Americanize their own child as much as possible.

JMG: “We all think the others belong more,” Dave tells Maryam on page 181. Would you say that this book is finding a place within the world? Ultimately, who in this book has the greatest chance of being successful in that quest?

AT: Absolutely that’s what this book is about, although I didn’t know that when I began it. (I thought it was about, maybe, the randomness of families.) But because I agree with Dave that we all feel the others belong more, I don’t think a single one of these characters will ever reach the point where he or she would say, “I’ve succeeded; I’m in. I can sit back and breathe easy now.”

JMG: Bitsy feels that Jin-Ho’s arrival is all part of a plan. Do you agree with her philosophy that things happen for a reason? How is her philosophy shaken by events later in the novel?

AT: Oh, well, Bitsy! She’s always going to say that her way is the best way, and so of course that means it’s part of some grand plan. But life has a tendency to wear people’s edges down over time, and I think Bitsy has lost much of her certitude by the end of the book.

JMG: Bitsy and her first husband are thrust together because their families felt they should be soulmates. Do you think Jin-Ho and “bossy Susan” are in danger of the same fate? How are the two girls similar, and how are they different?

AT: That’s an interesting point. I hadn’t thought of the parallel with Bitsy’s first marriage. I imagine that Jin-Ho and Susan will resist their association more and more as they grow older. I can picture the two of them in their teens, sulking in opposite corners of every Arrival Party, listening to totally different styles of music on their headphones and wearing clothes as unlike each other’s as possible. By the time they’re adults, though . . . well, who knows?

By the end of the book, Maryam realizes that she’s “winnowed out the people she’s not at ease with.” What about Dave makes her feel uneasy, and how does he make her feel comfortable? Do the two really love one another?

AT: In fact, Maryam is no less guilty of pigeonholing than other people are. Much of her uneasiness with Dave is based simply on his being “so American.” But, yes, I believe they love each other. A lot of misunderstandings may await them in the future, but I do think it’s real love.

JMG: Why does Maryam elect to join the Donaldsons when they knock at her door–although it would have been just as easy for her not to?

AT: That’s just one more step in the Immigration Tango–the pull toward assimilation warring with the fear of losing one’s true self.

JMG: Were there any special routines you followed or books you read while writing this book, to inspire creativity? What were they?

AT: By now I know not to expect “inspiration.” It’s more a matter of going into my writing room at the same time every day, sitting in the same chair, and trusting that mere routine will somehow see me through.

JMG: Is there any particular project that you’re working on right now? What can readers look forward to seeing from you next?

AT: I’m at the very faltering beginning of a book about a man who’s decided he has nothing more to expect from his life. But it’s going so badly that the beginning may be as far as it gets.

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