“Do You Not Like Me Here?”: On Agnieszka Dale’s “Fox Season: and Other Short Stories” and Immigration Anxiety in Britain

She has passed on her own little worry stones to her characters. Not much. We’ll just get on with it. He imagines women as girls. A little cleverer. They are sometimes titillating: “For sex with Manolo, Bianca went to the Vatican Gardens” (“One Less Button”); sometimes scatological: “Shit came by the house, unannounced, like a bomb” (“A Shit Story”); and sometimes troubling: “It was Christmas, which should have made it easier to do the killing” (“The Christmas Pig”). Very quickly, though, we begin to question what Jan’s reality is, for what at first seems familiar territory — our reality — quickly begins to reshape itself into something altogether more unsettling. If immigrants prove to be “that tiny bit” cleverer — as is often the case — then the natives would be forced to up their game, “to become greater than great,” or risk being superseded. By all accounts, she is fully assimilated and could easily, if she put on the accent, pass for British herself. We love you. Each woman as a girl in a pink coat. Of course, we soon come to feel that this seemingly benign regime, where every action is user-tested and -retested, and every reaction is analyzed, is every bit as authoritarian as Jaruzelski’s. Anxiety washes over Dale’s characters like a tsunami. “Of course, don’t be silly. Something dark seems to lurk beneath the shiny surface. By fleeing across the border into exile, he has failed to protect her these long years. His daughter is now this little stone, it seems, rotating in his stomach, around the orbit of the stomach’s lining. Dale’s perspective as an “Other” allows her to depict her adopted home in vivid and unfamiliar ways. Always have. “You can no longer tell me from the Others,” she challenges the officer, adding, “I could be White Other, or I could just be white.”
Along with the standard categories of “White” listed on job applications and census forms in the United Kingdom (English/Welsh/Northern Irish/Scottish), there is a tick box labelled “any other White background,” often shortened to “White Other.” It’s a box that seems specifically designed to minoritize those who choose it and to engender feelings of displacement. Funnier. But it is this ability to “pass,” she deduces, that is the real problem. With added vitamins and amino acids, even the cigarettes are healthy. “Do you not like me here?” I ask the shopkeepers, doctors, policemen, politicians, and friends. But there are only women here, just women. Just that tiny bit. Westron is an American writer, educator, and reviewer, living on the south coast of the United Kingdom. […] It’s just an inconvenience.”
“A Happy Nation” is a response to Brexit, Britain’s decision to take control of its borders and leave the EU, which has left many European immigrants feeling insecure about their future. As well as immigrants from former colonies, predominantly people of color, the country has had immigration from Europe for over a thousand years. Besides studying the posteriors of the women around him, Jan studies their faces. The unnamed narrator has lived in Britain for many years. And yet, despite the narrator’s repeated references to his healthy libido, Jan is not entirely lecherous. Like a country. ¤
Loree L. Jan is not the only character in Fox Season to be troubled by deep angst. She has talked almost non-stop, as nervous people often do, but now she is reconsidering her position. She has spotted the gun, poorly concealed beneath the immigration officer’s coat — which is, in turn, a sign of his anxiety, and also that of the nation. By the end of the story, the narrator’s anxiety has gotten the better of her. The guilt and the longing have never left him:
God, this feeling again, of panic, of anger, in his stomach and then deeper than the stomach, the black hole inside his stomach. Dale, whose formative years spanned Poland’s transition from communism under General Jaruzelski to democracy with Lech Wałęsa, immigrated to Britain in 2003, shortly before Poland joined the European Union. More organised. It’s just a crisis, you know, a little crisis. Again, the opening lines deftly hint at the narrator’s fears and at a larger, unspoken story: “I don’t believe this is an emergency for Great Britain, officer. We’ll get through this, you say. She is married to a Brit, and her children are also British. In fact, if there is one overriding sense that fills the pages of this book, it is this. A lost country, his lost girl. In “A Happy Nation,” written as a first-person monologue, a Polish immigrant to Britain receives a late-night visit from an immigration officer. In an ironic twist, she recognizes the Slavic origins of the officer’s name, and sees that he has become White British, a status that he is willing to protect. He always feels her. Jan’s anxiety, too, is made palpable as he considers what fate might have befallen his daughter. The story, like so many in this collection, is more serious than it first appears. The best, such as that from the wonderfully captivating story “Hello Poland,” combine character, imagery, and conflict in one tightly worded package: “On the way up the escalator, a Warsaw escalator, breathing Warsaw air, Jan sees women’s buttocks.” In that one sentence, we not only get a sense that Jan is slightly overwhelmed by his surroundings, but also a sense of his personal drivers. Always will.”
But the narrator, anxious to be accepted, is not so sure people are telling her the truth, imploring them to “[t]ell me how I’m like you.”
As in most of stories in this collection, there is a deep uncertainty about the future here, shown through others’ attempts to reassure the narrator she is welcome, and by the narrator’s claims that she is impervious to some unstated but troubling incident that has happened before the story begins: “We don’t feel love right now, but we shake hands. He has returned to his homeland after a lengthy absence, hoping to find his daughter, Poland, who went missing when she was still a child:
He wants to see her, he wants to find her, now. It is, above all, the anxiety she expresses about our shared future that makes the biggest impact on the reader and keeps her stories — which begin so strikingly — alive beyond their final lines. As both a Polish national during those turbulent early years and a Polish immigrant during these, it comes as no surprise that her art is one of tension. Like the United States, though, Britain has always been a nation of immigrants. In those few lines we start to develop what will be, by the end of the story, a deep sympathy for Jan, who has been exiled for half his life, yearning for the daughter he left behind. Not much, just a little. Prettier. Her work has appeared in publications including The London Magazine, Western American Literature, and Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. Returning home after many years’ absence, Jan views the changes that have taken place with a stranger’s eye. The narrator addresses the officer with wry humor and quickly turns the tables, interrogating him much more effectively than he interrogates her. The endless universe of his stomach which can’t get tense, it just can’t, because his stomach is not an organ anymore, it’s just this vast emptiness, with his daughter inside, like he’s devoured her over the past decades, with his endless worry about her, her absence, or her undefined presence, somewhere. There is anxiety of the domestic kind, concerning children and parents and partners; anxiety about war and the possibility of war; anxiety about immigrants; and anxiety about deportation. A girl called Poland. With that one discovery, tensions begin to rise. At barely a page in length, “What We Should Feel Now” is by far the shortest story in the collection, but the unease it exudes is not lessened by its brevity. I say it too.”
The stories in this impressive debut collection are often quite odd — generally in a good way — with peculiar and perplexing endings that demand a second reading. You are like us, you are part of us, you know. By the second generation, it is almost impossible to distinguish these paler-hued immigrants from “indigenous Brits.” Having found the true reason for the nation’s concern, the narrator continues probing the officer:
[W]hat if I am actually a little better than you? NOVEMBER 29, 2017
IN FOX SEASON: AND OTHER SHORT STORIES, her debut collection, Agnieszka Dale exhibits a knack for opening lines. This new Warsaw is far cleaner than he remembers and, thanks to the User Experience regime that governs every aspect of life, it is far safer, too. While her voice remains subdued, however, her concerns are clear. We learn that Jan, who has been exiled since the final days of General Jaruzelski’s rule in the 1980s, is 180 years old. At times, they are both humorous and poignant; at others, as wars and rumors of wars ride the darker undercurrents, they seem disturbingly portentous. Yes, it must feel like I am keeping you on your toes.