What comes to mind when you’re asked to name the quintessential immigrant American novel? Perhaps it’s Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, which was published in 1918, or Saul Bellow’s breakout hit The Adventures of Augie March, from 1953.
Either way, works of immigrant literature from the early twentieth century tended to spotlight characters who overcame hardships in the “old country” in Europe and proudly assimilated into the great American melting pot.
But immigrant writers in the US have since become more open in how they address the languages and histories of their places of origin, argues Bharati Mukherjee.
In a 2011 essay on “the twenty-first-century American novel,” the award-winning author and literary scholar coins a new term—the Literature of New Arrival—that’s distinct from what she calls “traditional—canonical—U.S. immigrant literature.”
“The newly arrived immigrant-artist is likely to be less a petitioner for inclusion in America…and more an edgy critic,” writes Mukherjee. Their stories show the difficulties that lead immigrants to leave their birthplaces, yet they also don’t shy away from “the anguish of separation from family and homeland” and the injustices they encounter in America.
Mukherjee urges academics not to conflate immigrant literature—which “centers on the nuanced process of rehousement after the trauma of forced or voluntary unhousement”—with postcolonial, global, or diasporic literature. (That’s even as not all “newly arrived” authors produce art in this particular sub-genre: Mukherjee observes that Ha Jin, the Chinese émigré who calls his decision to write in English “a lifelong devotion,” instead “chooses to place himself in collegial relationship with prominent, and mostly European, displaced writers” while writing “within traditional, Western narrative conventions.”)
Rather, Mukherjee identifies features such as “broken narratives” and “language fusion” as characteristic of the literature of new arrival, with exemplars including Oscar Hijuelos’s Pulitzer-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker (2004), and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007).
Citing the census discovery that Asians and Hispanics have been driving population growth in the US, she also notes that the literature of new arrival mirrors “the new demographic reality” of America, adding that readers and scholars “will adjust to this loud emerging voice because politically we will adjust to our new demography.”
Despite the historical and cultural gulf between canonical and recent immigrant writing, one constant for Mukherjee is the mark that new immigrant artists will leave on American literature: “In the second half of the last century, all America became just a little Jewish, because of the movies, the comedians, and the literary outpouring,” she reflects of the contributions of writers like Bellow, Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud, and Cynthia Ozick.
“In the coming decades, we will all become just a little Asian and a little Hispanic, because that’s the way America works.”
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