Gather ‘Round, Padawans: ‘American Gods’ and the Immigrant Experience

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GeekDad Jamie Greene played nerdy godfather for me last week, and thus did I find myself at the press roundtable event for the long-awaited American Gods television adaptation, set to premiere on STARZ April 30th. And so too did the great-granddaughter of an immigrant find herself at a table with her favorite author, himself an immigrant.

American Gods is very much an immigration story. Hell, without immigration, it very likely wouldn’t exist (see previous paragraph). At the roundtable, Gaiman, who has lived in the United States for many years but is originally from the UK (on the off chance you were unaware of the fact), reminded us the idea for the novel first bloomed and grew while he was exploring his then-new home and happening upon such bizarre things as the world’s largest block of fake cheese and the House on the Rock (to which my husband and I once made pilgrimage because of its appearance in American Gods and which truly is one of the weirdest, most incredible places I’ve ever been). As he discovered more of America, more of this remarkable, massive, incomparable, problematic place Gaiman began to wonder, “if people took their gods with them (when they came to the New World)? Did the gods go home with them?” What happened to those gods when they were abandoned by Norwegians, Egyptians, Ashanti, Spaniards, Mexicans, Russians, and all of the other peoples who became Americans?

He had thoughts. He told their story.

Those people, those cultures, came together here, in this place, actor Orlando Jones, who plays Mr. Nancy (Anansi) continued, and all of them contributed to the “fabric of America.”

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And the fabric of America, he pointed out, is not free of tangles and knots, of “dastardly” incidents and people. Not all of the threads were placed willingly and some have since pulled free. In contentious times, many people would rather forget that which was, and has been, so ugly to better control their anxiety in the present. To believe the current state is temporary and easily resolved.

In contentious times, it is even more important that we remember. It’s more important that we remember because to fight, to reclaim our nation, we have to know the truth of what we’re fighting for. We must acknowledge that, despite making a bit of progress, we still have a long way left to go. So many still struggle. Very little has been resolved.

We can’t, and won’t, make progress if we forget, or worse, remain willfully ignorant of, where it all began.

Jones expanded, for example, on the fact the experience of slavery isn’t even close to the experience of immigration. “Captives,” he pointed out, “are not immigrants.” They didn’t come to America; they were kidnapped, tortured, and dragged here by cruel men with terrible intentions. While all people coming to a land have fears and doubts, those who were transported as slaves weren’t even permitted to see the ocean and sky, but were kept in the literal dark of ship holds, denied even a faint glimpse of their futures. They learned quickly that “someone will always stand up for you in the fight for survival but one can also be certain someone will stab you in the back.” “It’s a different way to enter the fabric of the country.”

A way that echoes to this day. A way the dastardly believe validates their hate.

It doesn’t.

It validates the fight for survival.

The fight for America.

Like Jones himself, who grew up with stories of Anansi and other figures from Ashanti legend, the Anansi we see in this new incarnation of American Gods, despite using words as his primary weapon, is fed up with conversations unchanged over last several centuries. Part of Jones’ interpretation of the character is a shift he himself has made from talk to action. Anansi uses the blade of his voice, his accents, his cadences to compel people to open their eyes to the realities around them, to chose to fight, to get angry, because, as both Jones and Bryan Fuller commented at various points during the event, “Anger gets s&*^ done.”

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While Fuller has a deft way of making violence visually stunning, there is no making large swaths of our history pretty, even with his immense talent. I mean, you could, but you’d be telling massive lies and the only place that gets us is… well, here. Having to march to protect women’s rights and the validity of science, the treatment of people based on sexuality or the color of their skin, on their religion rather than who they are as people.

As Americans.

Are there moments in the show which may make viewers uncomfortable? There are moments, Fuller said, which should, one of them as early as the end of episode one. “If looking at (spoilers) upsets you,” he said (that “you” being the general “you”), “good. You should be upset. Look at it and remember it’s happening for real.”

As I mentioned in my previous article, the novel American Gods was written almost twenty years ago and the show has been in the works for several but seems, somehow, more timely now through an accident of fate or, perhaps, an odd sort of prescience on the part of the author and show runners. All things, Gaiman pointed out when someone asked him about the show’s timing, are cyclical; the New Gods will eventually age and decay, to be replaced by something new as they have replaced the Old Gods. We can’t replace American history, though there are certainly those who have tried. We can’t erase our past, nor should we. What we can do, is use it. Use it to get angry, use it to turn the cycle, to make something new.

Watch. Learn. Act.

American Gods premieres April 30th on STARZ (US) and on Amazon Prime (everywhere else).