LITR 5731 Seminar in Multicultural Literature

American Immigrant Literature


Chitra Divakaruni

Tahira Naqvi


India maps




Asian immigrants are the "model immigrants" in the late 20th, early 21st centuries--especially South Asian immigrants

Comparable to Jewish immigrants in early 20th century

What makes these groups so outstanding or exemplary?

What are the qualities of a "model immigrant?"


What makes these groups so outstanding or exemplary?

Both groups immigrate from far away, across ocean--increases commitment (compared to New World immigrants, who may not lose connection to home country)

Both Jewish and South Asian immigrants to US often arrive with strong commitment to education and professional advancement.

South Asian immigrants are another "model immigrant group," a. k. a. "model minority"--compare East Asian groups (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans) from third class meeting.

Reprise: how do the stories exemplify the immigrant narrative?

Pay forward: how do these groups already resemble the dominant culture?

Indian-Americans (not American Indians) probably the most distinguished group of immigrant authors in our lifetime; compare Jewish-American writers a century ago.

Pulitzer Prize winners, considerable international prestige

Why? What history contributes to their prestige and quality?


Indian writers as outstanding figures in World Literature during recent generation: 

Salman Rushdie

Arundhati Roy

V. S. Naipaul

Bharati Mukherjee

Jhumpa Lahiri

Chitra Divakaruni

TV article: Why are Indian Americans so great?

language skills and literacy--compare to Jews, Puritans and Pilgrims--all highly literate peoples

Minority Literature objective: "literacy = path to empowerment"

Indian immigrant writers are extraordinary because it's not their children writing literature, but the immigrants themselves


British empire!

British empire influences or establishes Indian schools

English becomes language of convenience for multilingual India (14 major languages, 700+ dialects)

Not only do Indian writers often know English beforehand, but often with prestige of British accent.

Both Jewish and South Asian immigrants to US often arrive with strong commitment to education and professional advancement.

Divakaruni 76  imagination . . . Modern Novel class at the university


Compare to central American immigrants, who are often (not always) poor and lacking education traditions

Here's why South Asians show up in such good shape:

1. The trip is so far and long that only fairly well-off people can afford it.

2. Poor and uneducated workers of South Asia emigrate to nearer areas to sell their labor: especially oil-rich Arab countries. . . . "guest workers"



what is the dominant culture that they join?

Where did it come from? How did it start? What are its qualities?

"Thank God for the Jews"

229-30 Kamal at hospital, seeing patients [ > professional status] Model minority as math, music, medicine

232 A tall, handsome reporter, who, with his upturned coat collar and straw-colored, wind-swept hair, seemed to belong in an ad for Burberry's in The New Yorker, was saying something about "recent acts of terrorism" in a faraway voice. An Israeli School bus had been bombed. . . An Arab village in ruins. . . . An old woman cried without restraint . . . .

233 The handsome, roving reporter, unchanged in his appearance, disconnected still from his surroundings, was speaking in a crisp accent that wasn't anything like what she heard on the streets in New York or Westville . . . .

Qualities of dominant culture observable in this example:

"detached" quality--dominant culture always pulling away, heading into future

This "detached" quality can make the dominant culture elusive, hard to pin down or criticize

"Detached" can turn into a quality of "purity" or resistance to others' efforts at assimilation to it

The ethnic identity of the dominant culture is "unmarked." Compare to "Israeli school bus" and "Arab village."

What ethnicity is the reporter?

detached as unmarked?


If anything, Anglo-American or Northern European, but hard to say.

Divakaruni 70 stewardess so blond, so American

Dominant culture is "unmarked." Immigrant and minority cultures are "marked," but by assimilation they can become "unmarked."





"Thank God for the Jews"

230-1 Islamic women between tradition and modernity . . . "All this nonsense about bleeding the animal . . . It's ridiculous!"

232 "They've already forgotten their ways."

232 custom and habit gone awry in Westchester County

235 "what's kosher is okay with us"--in America, ancient rivalries (as between Muslims and Jews) get starved, washed out--everyone's thrown together as "Americans" in the great American marketplace



Chitra Divakaruni, “Silver Pavements, Golden Roofs” (70-83)

70 so blond, so American

71 Americans, I'd heard, like their privacy, x-relatives

72 so fair-skinned. [color code]

75 dark-skinned foreigners





Bharati Mukherjee, “A Wife’s Story” (IA 57-69)

60 left home, my husband, to get a Ph.D. in special ed.

60 We've made it. Patels must have made it.

64 more privacy than we ever had in India

64 another shopping scene! [compare "Thank God for the Jews"]

65 absolutely sure he doesn't want to see Harlem + 69 "I am not understanding these Nergo people's accents."

66 I've been trained to adapt

66 Statue of Liberty

67 We have spent our life's savings to see this skyline, this statue




Conclusions indicate immigrant narrative, American Dream


Chitra Divakaruni, “Silver Pavements, Golden Roofs” (70-83)

75 But I know the sky outside is filled with strange and beautiful stars, and I am suddenly angry with him for trying to ruin it for me

77 The skyscrapers of downtown Chicago float glimmering in the distance,, enchanted towers out of an old storybook . . . makes me suddenly happy, full of hope [cf. heaven]

83 I step outside onto the balcony, drawing my breath in at the silver marvel of it. . . . now it makes sense that the beauty and the pain should be part of each other.



Bharati Mukherjee, “A Wife’s Story” (IA 57-69)

67 We have spent our life's savings to see this skyline, this statue

69 In the mirror . . . . the body's beauty amazes me

compare Whitman