7 October 2013
Resistance Versus Persistence: How Does Immigrant Literature Differ?
[N1] From coast to coast, “America the Beautiful” is a land rich in history, change, and most of all, diversity. For such a young country, America has much to show in its development and accomplishments. SheThe country ase, and most of all, diversity. The country'SheSge is a country of change; a land represented by the constant journeys and evolutions of her assorted peoples. However, sometimes the voices and the stories of some groups of Americans get lost, muted, or lumped together with others that do not relate to their own personal, cultural, or ethnic experiences and journeys. Often if your voice does not represent the majority, it is not heard, or not accurately appreciated for its own uniqueness of spirit and cultural identity. This phenomenon can be observed in the common perception of American immigrant literature and American minority literature being one and the same, when in fact, that could not be further from the truth. These two groups, so often lumped together into one mass of “different,” actually differ greatly in their respective experiences and subsequent narratives. In fact, though immigrant and minority literature have some similar features, they tell the stories of two very different groups of people: one striving to assimilate in the land they have chosen, and one striving to survive in a land chosen for them by a forceful hand or mere circumstance.
[N2] While immigrant and minority literature differ from each other in key, pivotal ways, they both do well in illustrating the feeling of “otherness” so often ignored by the dominant culture. Both kinds of literature grasp for understanding and some kind of success in a location or culture foreign to their own sensibilities, and use their unique voices to illustrate the journey that they take as outsiders, looking in. In Yezierska’s “Soap and Water” the sentiment is shared by the Russian immigrant shop-girl when reflecting on the way her teacher viewed her, “She never looked into my eyes. She never perceived that I had a soul.” These feelings shared in this immigrant narrative are not at all unique to the immigrant experience. The mix of invisibility and contempt that is applied to this young woman is mirrored in much minority literature, as well. In her poem, “Blonde White Women” Patricia Smith shares a similar experience with her own childhood teacher: “But when she pried/ me away, her cool blue eyes shining with/ righteousness and too much touch/ I saw how much she wanted to wash.” This shared experience, the disdain applied to these authors for not being part of the majority, seems to be a universal experience for both immigrant groups and minority groups. The narratives and poetry of both groups can be seen as a longing to fit in, as well as a declaration of individuality. Both groups want to find their niche. However, the niches they hope to find are inherently and profoundly different for a number of reasons.
[N3] Minority groups and immigrants obviously share similar struggles to find a place and thrive, but their differences are much more vast, and are characterized by intent and reaction by the aforementioned groups. As Objective 3 in the syllabus states, these two groups can be viewed as one living and working towards the “American Dream” while the other suffers through the “American Nightmare.” Immigrant literature focuses on the journey; the journey from another part of the world, the journey from outsider, to assimilation, to hopefully someday, full success and acceptance. The minority narrative differs in the intent. Minority groups did not seek this life, this stereotypical American dream is not theirs. The minority groups we have studied thus far, African Americans and Native Americans, are often the blameless victims of circumstance and a changing world. While immigrants chose this life, these struggles, these journeys, they were thrust upon those who did not choose that life, and that is where the persistence/resistance dichotomy of immigrant and minority literature asserts itself. One group persists in achieving goals made for them by a society that does not necessarily welcome them with open arms, while the other resists those same goals, resists assimilation because they never asked to have those goals applied to them.
[N4] Immigrant literature is a story or model that is ultimately representative of a journey (Objective 1). This journey may be difficult, there may be roadblocks and pain and suffering. It may not be a happy journey, an easy journey. However, it is almost always a journey of eventual triumph. Immigrant literature is representative of this journey through assimilation and the authors or narrators’ understanding of both their cultural roots and the place they have found for themselves as Americans. In the short story, “In the Land of the Free” by Sui Sin Far, I believe this journey of the immigrant is aptly illustrated in the description of how the baby that is taken from his parents deals with that ordeal. “White women were caring for him, and though for one full moon he had pined for his mother and refused to be comforted he was now apparently happy and contented” (7). While this is not a perfect example, maybe even an overly simplistic one, the parallels cannot be ignored. He came to America, pined for his roots, but ultimately assimilated to his surroundings and became a contented contributor to his environment. The dominant culture did what it is meant to do: it molded this child, and ultimately his family and other immigrants like themselves, into what was expected.
[N5] Another example of assimilation and the persistence of immigrants as represented in their narratives can be found in the poem by the Italian immigrant Joseph Papaleo, titled “American Dream – First Report.” In this poem the author illustrates the short, but distinct, assimilation process. This man refers to his family, how they were rejected for appearances and differences upon entering America and how quickly they adjusted their personal and cultural identities to fit to the specifications of the dominant culture that originally deemed them smelly and unfit. Papaleo marvels at his family’s transformation, comments on the harsh journey it took them to get there, but paints a picture of a family that has embraced their adopted culture to the point where they are so very far from the grandfather who preferred spitting on the floor. As is pointed out in the essay “Is America a Pot of Stew or a Melting Pot of Cheese?” their assimilation is so complete, it is almost as if they have entirely melted into mainstream American society, no longer representative of their own individual ethnic or cultural group. This poem, like the story about the Chinese immigrants, is representative of the persistence illustrated in American immigrant literature.
[N6] Minority literature, on the other hand, deals with resistance to forced assimilation by the dominant culture. These poems and prose do not beg for approval as it seems much of the immigrant literature does. Minority stories do not represent the journey to assimilation and acceptance, but addresses the flaws in that very system. In Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson,” this resistance to assimilation and the dominant culture is obvious. “… this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it?” (151). This glaring statement by a mere child questioning the system illustrates quite clearly the rejection of mainstream culture, points out its flaws and silliness. Unlike immigrant literature, where they would work to meet these undemocratic circumstances, minority literature exposes the dominant culture for exactly the reasons they do not wish to assimilate.
[N7] The Native American family in Louise Erdich’s “American Horse” also perpetuates the minority literature’s resistance to assimilation as it was never their choice to be a part of that society. A small boy is taken from his family because they were not what was accepted, or considered proper by the mainstream. The little boy is torn from the bosom of his flawed, but ultimately loving parent, by well-meaning, but small-minded members of the dominant culture. This theme of a child being forcefully taken is also seen in the “model minority” story of the Chinese immigrants, but the difference in their reaction is the key. The “model minorities” quietly accept their circumstances and work hard for their child’s kidnappers, the American bureaucracy, to get their baby back. In start contrast, the family in the minority narrative fights and rebels against the crime of removing their child; they show that it is not in their way of life that there is a flaw, but in the expectations applied to them that they never asked for.
[N8] When thinking of both immigrant and minority literature, it is not only helpful, but imperative, to understand that, though neither are part of the dominant culture, they are both coming from very different places and have very different messages for the masses. These powerful narratives show us all, in their own ways, that “America the Beautiful,” the melting pot, the salad bowl, all of the above analogies and metaphors are flawed. They are the ideas that are perpetuated by the dominant culture that overpowers what is different as it attempts to change those who do not fit into the mold. It is only in their acceptance or rejection of this molding that they show us as their audience how they truly feel about the American Dream, and that they ultimately should not be lumped together into one mass of “otherness” or “less than” but as distinct and extraordinary groups of people striving to meet personal goals and define their own dreams, whatever they may be.