Book review: ‘Becoming Americans’
November 22, 2009
Source: The Dallas Morning News

This ambitious anthology brings together 85 writings by American immigrants from 45 countries. Arranged chronologically, the letters, stories, articles and poems extend from 1623 to the present.

The earliest ones, by Phyllis Wheatley, John James Audubon and St. John Crèvecoeur, often have a schoolbook feel, like a reading assignment for an American history class from primary sources. Later pieces, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Frank McCourt, Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz showcase some of the liveliest writing of our time.

Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and a frequent editor of anthologies, made the selections for this hefty volume. They include a revealing autobiographical essay by Stavans, a Polish-Ukrainian Jew born in Mexico City. He describes the moment when he first knew his identity: “I would perfect my English and thus become a New York Jew, an intellectual animal … In just a single moment I understood who I could be.”

Many of the writers deal with issues of identity, too. Not so many see the answer as clearly as Stavans or pursue it as effectively.

The Norwegian novelist O.E. Rolvaag (1876-1931) describes the alienation that sets in when one loses his Fatherland, “for it can never be regained,” and “neither can you get another in its place, no matter what you do.”

Julia Alvarez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, writes in “Something to Declare” about this pain of loss of place. “For weeks that soon became months and years, I would think … What was going on right this moment back home?”

Other immigrant writers repeatedly address the need to reinvent one’s self, so as to fit the new land. In a selection from Henry Roth’s classic 1934 novel Call It Sleep, a husband from Ukraine finds his wife and child an embarrassment when they finally join him in New York. Life here for him had been a disappointment – and he was angry at everyone.

A much earlier writer, Gottlieb Mittelberger (1715-79), a German, had suggested that his countrymen who came to America believing that “roasted pigeons are going to fly into their mouths without their having to work for them” were fools.

Anzia Yezierska (1885-1970) from Belarus shows in a short story from Children of Loneliness how the younger generation assimilates more readily than its progenitors, producing terrible tensions within a family. In the end, the daughter slams the door in her mother’s face and tells herself: “I owe them nothing, nothing, nothing.” (Sound familiar? Clearly she has assimilated as an American teenager.)

Sometimes children assimilate, but parents cannot follow. In “Dying in a Strange Country,” Tahira Naqvi, a Pakistani-American born in 1952, tells the touching story of an aged mother who reluctantly visits her grown son in Connecticut but desperately fears she will die while outside her native land.

Eva Hoffman, who emigrated from Poland to Canada with her parents and earned a scholarship to Rice University, discusses in an essay how language shapes her perceptions and enlarges her identity.

Becoming Americans leaves out American Indians, who were already here, and gives only moderate attention to Mexican-Americans, despite their growing role in this country. The book is not an attempt to represent evenly every immigrant group. Rather, Stavans showcases good writing that shows how individuals, famous or obscure, felt coming to America, working to fit in.


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