Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Immigrant Writing: Changing the Contours of a National Literature


The following article was recently published on the Oxford Journal's American Literary History site. Read the full article here.
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I will take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God.

-Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America

The naturalization oath administered in a court of law makes the acts of immigration and naturalization seem simple enough: swear absolute renunciation of your former national allegiance, promise readiness to defend the US Constitution and to assume military posture when required, and you, foreign-born petitioner, too can be a legal American. But how exactly does the immigrant absolutely renounce her earlier self, her fidelity to family history and language “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion?”

Once upon a time, when the majority of immigrants were Europeans fleeing poverty or religious and political oppression, deliberate erasure may have been possible, and even desirable. Philip Roth spoke with Terry Gross in 2009 of not knowing where exactly his grandparents had come from because they had wanted to forget it and they could never return anyway. Roth explained that his grandparents never felt they belonged in that pocket of Galicia, that they were never welcomed or even tolerated in their homeland, so they had lost nothing in leaving it. They embraced America as they understood it, totally, without reservation or evasion. European immigrants who arrived in the early decades of the twentieth century—as economic, political, religious refugees—were grateful to the US for asylum and opportunities for self-betterment. There was no going back to the homeland that had failed them. And though the majority of these immigrants lived in ethnic ghettoes, assimilation into America was the goal they desired for their US-born offspring. The oath of citizenship could have been written explicitly for them.

But what of those immigrants who were profoundly rooted in their countries of origin, whose bond to the land was sealed in blood through generations? How do such immigrants, especially those destined to be writers, erase memory of the land from which they had emigrated without mental reservation or purpose of evasion? After all, writers are creatures of mental reservation and evasion.

And what of the body of contemporary immigrant American literature written by recent arrivals like Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz, Aleksandar Hemon and Gary Shteyngart, for whom English is not the mother tongue, and who have no intention of willfully erasing their premigration linguistic and historical inheritance? Some erosion of homeland legacy is inevitable. Edwidge Danticat, inCreate Dangerously: The Immigrant Writer at Work (2010), a compilation of brilliant lectures on the inspirational sources for her writing (delivered as the 2008 Toni Morrison Lecture Series at Princeton), offers this insight: “One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forcedto merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there”

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