ROSA: THE LIFE OF AN ITALIAN IMMIGRANT (ROSA CAVALLERI, 1970)
The complexities of Rosa's life are narrated in her autobiographical account of the immigrant experience, beginning with the unusual experiences of her birth in Italy, being placed soon after by her mother in the care of a hospital that takes in abandoned babies. Rosa claims to have been the last baby left anonymously in a hole in the hospital wall which contains a torno: “… like a cage that went round in the middle.” (p. 9) Mothers who have given birth illegitimately or those suffering extreme poverty would place the baby in the torno, and turn the contraption so that once the baby has passed inside, it could not be retrieved. The babies may have one distinguishing feature: a piece of torn cloth around their necks, signifying to the hospital that a record of the babies' future whereabouts must be recorded in case the mothers return one day (with the matching piece of cloth) to claim their children. Rosa is unsure of the year that she was delivered to the hospital in this way—it was either 1866 or 1867—but she does know that the name given to her first of all was “Inez Ignazius.” Rosa's first foster-mother is a poor woman from a village, who acts as a wet-nurse for pay until she gets pregnant and cannot continue; she passes Rosa on to her mother-in-law, Marietta, who bottle-feeds Rosa until she is about three years old. But Marietta is getting old and decides in her early seventies to pass Rosa on to Maddalena Cortesis, who has lost an adopted daughter, called Rosa, who at the age of eight was claimed by her real parents. Maddalena cares for Rosa, and gives her the name of the daughter she has lost instead of calling her Inez. It is Maddalena, called Mamma Lena by Rosa, who becomes like a real mother to Rosa, and even though she is later claimed by her birth-mother, a claim that is resisted, Mama Lena remains the strict but loved parent.
The second chapter of the autobiography tells of the naughty childish pranks that Rosa plays, and her friendship with one of the lodgers, called Beppo. Mamma Lena runs an osteria with her husband, selling wine and polenta, and through this social environment, Rosa begins to absorb the story-telling traditions of a primarily oral culture. Religion plays a key part throughout Rosa's life, and she tells the story of a religious festival that affected her profoundly at an early age:
In the afternoon everyone from Bugiarno and many people from other villages too were in the square to see the Madonna come out of the church. … I was so excited I couldn't stand still. Pretty soon a giant firecracker went off on the steps of the church and a skyrocket shot up to the sky. The women crossed themselves and the men took of their hats. Then there was silence. Everyone was waiting. And very soon, there coming out through the door was the big Madonna. A little boy and girl dressed like angels walked in front, and men with red ribbons across their chests walked at the side and in back. The Madonna swayed a little as the men carrying the platform came down the steps.
As the Madonna passes by, she turns her head slightly and looks directly at Rosa; perhaps she imagined this event as a child, Rosa suggests, while also repeating that she believes that it did happen. This incident neatly embodies Rosa's relationship towards religion and folklore later...
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in her life; in America she realizes that scepticism is a powerful method that allows people to take control of their lives, rather than being constantly afraid of natural phenomena that are interpreted through ignorance as supernatural in origin; but still, even given this more rational awareness, religion is a living and essential force.
Rosa's gift of story-telling, or public performance, begins at an early age. She falls in love with the sound of the Latin prayers that Mamma Lena says in public, and soon learns them herself. She goes to various “courts” to say the prayers aloud for the older women: “… just like an actress.” (p. 27) She is strongly aware of her audience, especially when she moves them to tears. While there is no reason to doubt Rosa's own religious beliefs, she clearly shapes how she acts in public with an audience in mind. Later in the book, when her birth-mother comes to claim her and train her for the stage, public performances are equated with a sinful, deviant lifestyle. Rosa perhaps distinguishes between two types of performance—her mother's acting and singing on the stage, and her own acting and singing for the community, through the issue of payment—Rosa performs for free.
Two central features of Rosa's life in Italy are narrated in some considerable detail: the strictness of her upbringing and the amount of hard work she endures. Both of these features relate to the poverty of the environment that Rosa grows up within, for example, death being a pervasive presence as so many friends and acquaintances die from consumption. Rosa is fascinated as a child by the silk industry, especially the rearing of the silk worm cocoons which in her time took place at home. Later she works in the silk industry performing a range of tasks in the factories.
From as early as the fifth chapter in the book, Rosa starts to retrospectively compare Italy with America; this is a sign that her reminiscences are being filtered through her adult knowledge. Comparisons may be fairly simple, such as when she says that the “electric storms” in Lombardy were far more “terrible” than those in America, but they also refer to cultural differences: “The men in the barns on cold winter nights used to tell a lot of laughing stories about the priests and the monks, but I don't tell those stories to the people in America very much—the people in America don't understand. They think we are not reverent to our priests if we tell those funny stories.” (p. 40) America teaches people to have a less superstitious outlook on life: “Papa Lur [Rosa's stepfather] was not so afraid because when he was a young man he was working on the ships going to America and he had learned a little more that way.” (pp. 41-42) But this rationalism also means that religion is less important: “In my time, in Italy, there used to be more miracles than now in America. That's because the American people have not the faith and the strong religion.” (p. 44)
One of the most striking episodes in the Italian section of the book occurs in chapter seven, when Rosa's birth-mother, Diodata, returns to claim her. Initially Diodata is shocked to see that her daughter looks like a peasant girl, but when she secretly observes Rosa's performance skills, she decides to take her to Milan, and then Rome to be trained for the stage. Diodata mistreats Rosa, who runs away unsuccessfully and then gets the police to arrest Diodata for kidnapping her; while the courts initially side with the rights of the birth-mother, Rosa is successfully adopted by Mamma Lena later, through the intervention of the authorities. Rosa's return to Mamma Lena is tempered by her new life in the silk factories, and, when puberty sets in, this work continues as part of her life in the convent; after three years at the convent she is sent home, where she falls in love with a local man called Remo; Mamma Lena disapproves of this relationship when she discovers that the couple have been deceiving her by sneaking out to dances. Rosa is forced to marry a slightly wealthier but physically abusive man called Santino, who goes to work in the iron mines in Missouri, eventually sending for Rosa so that she can cook at the mines and look after him.
Helen Barolini argues that “Rosa's story is not the usual success story of rags to riches, as are most male immigrant autobiographies; it is, rather, a story of spirit …”1 While this is undoubtedly true—since Rosa suffers extreme poverty in the New World—her initial journey to the States is a fairly typical experience. The conditions on board ship are primitive, and the journey involves three days of stormy conditions. But it is the fog-bound part of the journey that is the most evocative, since it ties in with the sense of possibilities that may lead to each immigrant building a new identity for themselves: “We were like floating on a cloud in the middle of nowhere and when I was dancing I forgot for a little while that I was the wife of Santino going to him in America.” (p. 164) The book describes the entry into New York Harbor, passing the Brooklyn Bridge and then the disembarking at Castle Garden. After being conned by a man called Bartini in New York, Rosa travels with her friends to Missouri; life in the mining camps is tough, and her abusive husband makes conditions even worse, especially after he has been drinking and seeing prostitutes. Rosa returns briefly to Italy to collect Santino's money, yet she is stunned by the discovery that he wishes to buy his own brothel and bar with the cash. She leaves him and is soon joined by a man called Gionin who has fallen in love with her; he helps her build a new life in Chicago where they are married.
WAIT UNTIL SPRING, BANDINI (JOHN FANTE, 1938)
As Svevo Bandini makes his way home in Colorado, in the opening pages of the novel, after gambling away most of his money, he struggles through the snows which remind him of his Italian homeland and the cold Abruzzi winters. Svevo is an Italian immigrant married with a family of three children, Federico, August and the oldest child at twelve years, Arturo Bandini, who is the protagonist of Fante's novel. Svevo's wife, Maria, is deeply religious, which alienates Svevo and Arturo who are both in search of a ‘better’ more secular way of living: for Svevo, the comforts he finds in having an affair outside of his marriage, for Arturo, simply becoming American: “His name was Arturo, but he hated it and wanted to be called John. His last name was Bandini, and he wanted it to be Jones. His mother and father were Italians, but he wanted to be an American. His father was a bricklayer, but he wanted to be a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.” (p. 20) The novel recounts Arturo's struggles with his Italian background, and how he forges a new identity as an Italian American: as such, it is a bildungsroman, a novel of education and personal development. Fred L. Gardaphé argues that the pattern or process of identity-formation developed in Wait until Spring, Bandini is central to Fante's short stories and novels:
Most of Fante's works concern the development of the social and aesthetic consciousness of a child of Italian immigrants and the contribution of that consciousness to the child's fantasy of assimilation into mainstream American culture. The subject of much of his writing is the relationship between the individual and his family and community, and the subsequent development of a single protagonist's American identity that requires both an understanding and a rejection of the immigrant past that the parents represent. Fante's early writings focus on the development of an American identity through attempts to distance his characters from their Italian and working-class roots. Because of this Fante focuses more on the personal, and thus ethnic, than on the political and class-based dimensions of his characters' lives.2
The second chapter of the novel reveals Arturo's lack of interest in his schoolwork, and his low self-esteem connected to his ethnicity: he thinks of himself as: “… the only freckle-faced Wop on earth.” (p. 31) Embarrassed because he has been caught daydreaming about a girl called Rosa, whom he has a crush on, Arturo's thoughts become even more derogatory and racist: “… this dago girl, daughter of a wop coal miner …” (p. 33) In chapter three, Arturo alternately resists organized religion and fears Divine retribution for his sins, exploring in his mind the arcane laws of what constitutes a sin in the first place, wondering for example whether killing a chicken is an act of murder. While Arturo struggle with religious rules, his mother finds comfort in her faith; Arturo steals a dime and spends the evening watching movies and fantasizing, whereas his mother stays at home and receives solace reflecting over her rosary beads. Arturo's diversions and his mother's religious beliefs cannot stave off their hunger as the family's food supplies are exhausted. Chapter four recounts the shame and the humiliation that Maria Bandini has to go through as she goes to the local store to get more credit. The store owner, Mr Craik, has hardened himself to the plight of the Bandini family: “Now that the Bandini account was so high—and it rose by leaps throughout each winter—he abused Maria, even insulted her. He knew that she herself was honest to the point of childish innocence, but that did not seem relevant when she came to the store to increase the account. Just like she owned the place! He was there to sell groceries, not give them away.” (p. 68) Maria enters the store and speaks several times to Mr Craik who ignores her as he goes about closing shop for the evening; Maria is not only humiliated by her need for more credit, but also by this behaviour: “Shamed, exhausted, her feet had tired …” (p. 73) Finally Mr Craik speaks to her and she orders her groceries; but in the ensuing conversation, Maria also discovers that Svevo has been seeing a wealthy widower called Effie Hildegarde, a fact that she cannot bring herself to believe.
The novel divides into two main perspectives with the absence of Svevo, who had left his home in disgust upon learning that his overly critical mother-in-law would be visiting the following day. Svevo's absence lengthens, leading to the increased poverty of the family as he is the only wage-earner. Arturo and his brother August catch a glimpse of their father in a car with Effie Hildegarde, and they realize that he is having an affair with her. The brothers react differently: August, insulted that his father could behave so sinfully promises to tell his mother what is going on, whereas Arturo is at first proud of his father's behaviour, seeing his relationship with a wealthy American woman as an elevation from his lowly position in society as a poor Italian immigrant. All of the brothers begin to realize the pain that their mother is in, and Arturo is angered by the confusing behaviour of his parents. Svevo returns on Christmas Eve, wearing new shoes, his pockets filled with money; Maria attacks him, scratching at his face, whereupon he returns to Effie Hildegarde and Maria burns the tainted money. From chapter eight, the novel switches to Svevo's perspective, going back in time to the moment when he left the family home to escape the impending visit of his mother-in-law. Svevo goes to mend Effie Hildegarde's fireplace and is amazed at her wealth and beauty which make him feel inferior to her. Gradually, an affair develops between them, and Svevo eventually returns to Effie after Maria has attacked him. Arturo begins to bring about a reconciliation between his parents by telling his mother that his father is living in a hotel, contrite and afraid to return home. Returning to school, Arturo eventually discovers that Rosa, the school-girl he was in love with, has died from pneumonia. After this experience, Arturo manages to bring his parents back together, the novel ending with a scene where Effie Hildegarde insults Arturo's new dog, and then Svevo and Arturo, calling them animals. Svevo responds by proudly saying that his son is an American, which is the greatest compliment he could have given him.
Fante's novel explores the tensions between the poverty associated with the lifestyle of an immigrant family and the riches that await them, once transformed into Americans. Yet, for the first-generation immigrants, their identity is torn between the social and religious codes and conventions from their Italian past, and the dangers or possibilities of a secular, Americanized future. It is the young Arturo who has to work out how to negotiate two competing sets of codes and conventions, how to make sense of them, observing and exploring both worlds. The novel ends in an affirmative way: the return to the family is also a forging of a new identity, where the immigrant can also assert the right to be called an American.
CHRIST IN CONCRETE (PIETRO DI DONATO, 1939)
The worlds of hard-work, religion, playful dialect, painful loss of life and extreme poverty are all brought together through the strongly-shaped language and style of Pietro Di Donato's first novel Christ in Concrete. The novel's protagonist is Paul, son of Geremio and Annunziata, but the novel opens from Geremio's perspective and the dehumanizing nature of hard manual labor, called in the novel ‘Job.’ ‘Job’ is described as a “symphony of struggle” (p. 17) transforming men into “… single, silent beasts.” (p. 19) Descriptions of ‘Job’ are powerfully written, words being cemented together like bricks or welded like steel girders rather than being mere parts of sentences: “Trowel rang through brick and slashed mortar rivets were machine-gunned fast … chisel point intoned stone thin steel whirred and wailed through wood liquid stone flowed with dull rasp through iron reins and hoist screamed through space …” (p. 17) Geremio dreams of his son's future, studying from books rather than becoming a bricklayer like himself. But ‘Job’ dominates the immigrant's life to such an extent that it finally devours him, as one of the buildings he is working on collapses (the bosses have insisted on violating construction codes). Geremio is buried alive in concrete: “The icy wet concrete reached his chin. His heart appalled. ‘In a few seconds I will be entombed. If I can only breathe, they will reach me. Surely they will!’ His face was quickly covered, its flesh yielding to the solid sharp-cut stones. ‘Air! Air!’ screamed his lungs as he was completely sealed.” (p. 28) The death of Geremio means that his son Paul must now support the family, even though he is only a child and should really be attending school.
Christ in Concrete is divided into five chapters: (1) Geremio, (II) Job, (III) Tenement, (IV) Fiesta and (V) Annunziata. The chapters also represent significant events, such as the death of Geremio in chapter one, and Paul's attempt to become a bricklayer like his father, instead of an educated young man, in chapter two. There is another structural layer to the text: that of Christianity. Geremio dies on Good Friday, Annunziata is portrayed as a Madonna figure, and Paul is initially in search of Christ as the Saviour, but loses faith, destroying a crucifix offered to him at the end of the novel.
The overcrowded and at times claustrophobic conditions of immigrant housing are described in the third chapter: “Tenement was a twelve-family house. There were two families on each floor with the flats running in box-car fashion from front to rear and with one toilet between them. Each flat had its distinctive powerful odor. There was the particular individual bouquet that aroused a repulsion followed by sympathetic human kinship …” (p. 137) An alternative to the harsh world of ‘Job’ and a possible better future is revealed when Paul makes friends with a Jewish neighbour, a young man called Louis who is stereotypically portrayed as a politicized intellectual—he is shown reading Thorstein Veblen's The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class. Louis argues that education is the real freedom, not religion or manual labor, but Paul returns to the world of bricklaying in chapter four, before deciding to become a steelworker, a job that he finds exciting: “This was steel Job where danger was ever present with falling planks and beams and bolts and white-hot molten steel from acetylene torch and breaking cable and unexpected drop of hoist—great dangerous Job who thrilled Paul.” (p. 237) With the final chapter, the novel narrates a strange dream sequence, where Paul loses his faith and argues that if there is salvation, it must be in life, not death. But there is a religious ending to the novel, as Fred L. Gardaphé argues:
… the final image of the novel suggests that the matriarchal powers still reign. The image we are left with is an inversion of the pietà [an image of the dead Christ supported by the Virgin Mary]; the son is holding a mother who is crooning a deathsong/lullaby that hails her son as a new Christ, one that her children should follow. But this haunting image can also suggest that the mother has become the new Christ, who in witnessing what America has done to her son, dies and through her death frees her son from the burden of his Catholic past. […] This figure of the dying mater dolorosa replaces Christ as the figure through which man can redeem himself. There is no redemption through the father; if Paul stays in the system, if he continues to interact with Job, he will share the destiny of his father, Geremio.3
Pietro di Donato does not just write about Italian-Americans, he writes through or with the dialects of an immigrant community. Critics have argued that “His word choice and word order recreate the rhythms and sonority [sounds] of the Italian language.”4 This means that di Donato is not trying to reproduce, word for word, Italian words or expressions, rather, he is revealing that Italian Americans at times use a language shaped by two cultures, creating something new. Robert Viscusi argues that: “This tongue—liturgical, patriarchal, heroic, diplomatic—belongs to a people whose expression arises in two countries, employing the mythical dignity of a mythical Italy as a consolation for, as an incantation over, a real America.”5 In the novel, nowhere is this new language expressed more than in the workers' rest-breaks, and the community events such as Geremio's funeral and when Annunziata gives birth. The representation of women in the novel is circumscribed by the patriarchal religious community that they are a part of; work outside of the home is for the men, although women do ‘piece work’ at home, and the main image of women is that of the mother, either giving birth or assisting in birth, or through the religious imagery of the ‘Virgin Mother’ from the New Testament. But this is a novel about restrictions, for men and women, and the passionate struggles to escape them in the new world of America.
THE PROMISED LAND (MARY ANTIN, 1912)
The processes of acculturation and assimilation are explored in Mary Antin's The Promised Land, where the restricted world of Russian Jewry is juxtaposed with the newfound freedoms of America. The book begins ‘Within The Pale’—a reference to the Pale of Settlement, “… the fifteen western provinces of European Russia, and the ten provinces of Russian held Poland.”6 As the historian Gerald Sorin argues:
The great bulk, more than 73 percent, of Jewish immigrants to the United States between 1880 and 1920 came from the Russian Empire, particularly from the Pale of Settlement … Nearly four million Jews, considered by the Russians a pariah people, were confined to the Pale and, for more than two centuries, to the ethnically homogeneous shtetlekh (small town) therein. Although Jews rarely constituted more than 5 percent of the population of the Russian Empire, they were often close to 15 percent of the population of the Pale; even more often, they constituted the majority, if not all, of the inhabitants of the shtetlekh.7
Antin reveals the claustrophobia of the Pale settlements with her descriptions of her hometown, Polotzk; such descriptions work on a number of levels because the autobiography is at times narrated from the perspective of a little girl, as she grows and becomes educated, and at other times, from the perspective of the mature Antin or narrator. The realization early on in The Promised Land that the world is bigger than the child's view of Polotzk foreshadows the later, more profound realization that a country such as America exists, where education and equality are rights, not privileges. In the process of reaching this expanded awareness and sensibility, Antin shows, again from a child's perspective, that the Jewish people are criminalized by the Russian peoples: “It seemed there were certain places in Russia—St. Petersburg, and Moscow, and Kiev—where my father or my uncle or my neighbor must never come at all … The police would seize them and send them back to Polotzk, like wicked criminals, although they had never done any wrong.” (pp. 6-7) As Antin grows, she realizes that the ‘Pale’—which originally meant a stake in a fence—is indeed a barrier, but not an obviously physical one. Rather, the ‘Pale’ is the religious and ideological division between Jewish and Gentile peoples, with the Jews kept quarantined away from the majority of the Gentile Russian population, even as they attempted to create trading and other links beyond isolated communities.
To understand the world of the shtetlekh is to understand some of the conflicting desires and feelings that manifested themselves in emigration. The Jewish communities followed a belief in future salvation through God, and regardless of poverty, scholarship, as Gerald Sorin notes, “… was one of the important pathways to God …”8 Scholarship was primarily the study of the Torah, but it could also include other elements. Importantly, for Antin, girls were in the main excluded from education: “A girl's real schoolroom was her mother's kitchen. […] … of course, every girl hoped to be a wife. A girl was born for no other purpose.” (p. 29) However, Antin's father has a more liberal notion of the value of education, and briefly, as long as he can afford it, Antin and her sister are allowed to study.
The first six chapters of The Promised Land weave childish recollection with adult knowledge, of Antin's family before she was born and of the wider changes in the Jewish world around her. There is much fear in her account the Gentile world, such as the pogroms and the forced service in the Russian military, but one of the most powerful forces to affect her life (eventually for the better) is poverty. The combined illnesses of her parents leads to a collapse in the family's fortunes, but this in turn leads Antin's father to consider emigration.
Chapter VII of The Promised Land, called ‘The Boundaries Stretch’ tells of the illnesses and shifting fortunes of Antin's family. An idyllic spell is spent when Antin's father becomes superintendent of a mill; he is soon replaced by the new mill owner's protégé. After the expulsion of Jews from Moscow, life in the Pale becomes even more competitive and difficult; eventually, as Antin narrates the promised land changes from being Jerusalem to America: “My father was carried away by the westward movement, glad of his own deliverance, but sore at heart for us whom he left behind.” (p. 113) When the family does eventually follow, powerful scenes of bewilderment and apprehension reveal the ups and downs of emigrating from one's homeland, especially with the feeling of always being in someone else's control: “… our things were taken away, our friends separated from us; a man came to inspect us, as if to ascertain our full value; strange-looking people driving us about like dumb animals, helpless and unresisting; children we could not see crying in a way that suggested terrible things”; (p. 138) Once in America, conditions are not much better, in the tenements and slums, but there is one huge difference: Antin has more control over her destiny. Once more, destiny is inextricably linked with education: this time of a secular kind, with room for all races, all religions, and even her newfound atheism (replaced eventually with a love of ‘Nature’). Education begins the moment all immigrants land on American shores; in chapter IX, Antin describes the “spontaneous” process of learning the manners of the new country. Antin, however, goes further than learning the outward manners: through an intimate love of her newfound nation, she becomes an America, in the process leaving behind Judaism. She comments on the differences between her parents' drift away from faith and her own rejection of it; for her parents, the loss of Judaism is also the loss of place and personal identity (even as new citizens), something that eventually needs to be recovered; for Antin, literacy and literature becomes her new faith, with other models from the world of the natural sciences as contenders. The important point is that America allows her to choose her faith, and this is the ultimate freedom.
JEWS WITHOUT MONEY (MICHAEL GOLD, 1930)
While being on the surface a classic vision of the Jewish immigrant experience, Michael Gold's Jews without Money is also a Marxist critique of capitalist society. The latter becomes more obvious as the narrative develops, ending as it does with a sudden idealistic vision of a socialist world. This final vision indicates that the autobiographical bildungsroman form may also include political education and development. In the book, twenty-two fairly fast-paced chapters develop the unforgettable East Side vision of a capitalist hell, where disaster and downfall also present entertainment for its inhabitants: “Always these faces at the tenement windows. The street never failed them. It was an immense excitement. It never slept. It roared like a sea. It exploded like fireworks.” (p. 13) The East Side is presented as both a haven from European persecution—the pogroms that had been partly responsible for the Jewish migration to the new Promised Land—and also another place of human corruption and misery: a red-light district “… under the business management of Tammany Hall.” (p. 14) The opening chapter sets the scene from the perspective of the narrator as a child who already knows about prostitution and violence; the children play in a gang, teasing other immigrants, such as a Chinese laundryman, and the prostitutes by calling out “Fifty Cents a night!” (p. 17) The mixture of old-world homeliness and new-world violence is contrasted on the narrator's fifth birthday: he is taken first to have a formal family portrait, followed by a party where the Jewish adults discuss myths and tales from Europe, such as the possession of humans by the Dybbuk. But the terrible suffering caused by the pogroms are also discussed and this may explain the indifference, at the end of the chapter, as the guests watch two men shoot each other in the tenement back yard.
The narrator, at an early age, learns about sex. In the second chapter, “How Babies Are Made,” he watches a prostitute at work, and is appalled that this act is also one of procreation, because then it must be something that his own mother has done; he says that it takes him many years to understand the role of love within sexuality. The rest of the chapter explores the harsh patriarchal sexuality of the streets, from a gang leader called ‘Kid Lewis’ who seduces girls and then arranged gang-rapes, to the pimps who find myriad ways of taking advantage of extreme poverty, to ensnare young women into the sex-working trade. The narrator is not completely immune to the harsh world of the East Side: at school he has his mouth washed out with soap for swearing. The soap is not made from kosher fat and his parents object to this “… crime against Mosaic law.” (p. 36) There is humor in this incident and an indication of the complexities of growing-up a Jew in this secular, urban circus. New York is portrayed as a dream-like city precisely because it is built from the hopes and dreams of myriad immigrants; but it is also a sinful city devoid of harmless nature: “New York is a devil's dream, the most urbanized city in the world. It is all geometry angles and stone. It is mythical, a city buried by a volcano. No grass is found in this petrified city, no big living trees, no flowers, no bird but the drab little lecherous sparrow, no soil, loam, earth.” (p. 40) When the children do find a vacant building lot, with torn open soil, gang warfare erupts for control of such an idyllic space.
The complexities of growing up within a secular and Jewish tradition are explored through the narrator's growing relationship with God, in part through his questioning of what such a powerful being actually is, and also because he is sent to the “Chaider” another name for a Jewish religious school, attended after public school. The narrator largely rejects his religious heritage, and regards his teacher as ignorant: “He was a foul smelling, emaciated beggar who had never read anything but this sterile memory course in dead Hebrew which he whipped into the heads and backsides of little boys.” (p. 67) Of more interest to the narrator than religion is the world around him: his father's stories from Europe, the favorite being ‘The Golden Bear,’ the Jewish love of learning and literature transposed into the love of the theatre, and the old customs and ways, such as childhood betrothal. His father says he came to America because he refused to sign an arranged marriage contract, but he also admits that he was envious of his cousin Sam Kravitz, who emigrated and claimed to make a great success of life. While America soon knocks the idealism out of the narrator's father, he still struggles to survive in a materialist sense, suffering from lead-poisoning (he is a painter) and then losing his chance to buy a house in an up-and-coming neighborhood when he falls from a scaffold and is laid up in bed for a year which his shattered bones mend.
The women in Jews without Money are not simply presented as passive subjects, even though they must survive the harsh world of the New York streets and environment. In chapter seventeen, ‘Aunt Leena’ goes on strike, much to the disgust of the menfolk at home, but her commitment is firm. In chapter eighteen, “The Soul of a Landlord,” the narrator's mother tries to start a rent strike against the landlord who refuses to keep the building adequately repaired. While she ends up being the only one who refuses to pay rent, she also battles on ethical grounds—a strong ethic which also leads her to reject a lawyer's representation after her daughter, Esther, is killed by an Adams Express truck. Due to this sequence of tragedies, the family is reduced to extreme poverty and father is forced to peddle bananas on the street, feeling that he has reached a new low.
Chapter twenty-two, “The Job Hunt,” focuses upon the narrator's decision not to go on to high school or college, even though he has been successful at school; instead, he decides to support his family. A number of jobs follow thick and fast, as he is fired from his first job as an errand boy in a silk house because of anti-Semitism, then leaves a factory making “incandescent gas mantles” after six months because it is “a chamber of hell, hot and poisoned by hundreds of gas flames … suffocating with the stink of chemicals.” (p. 314) He works for five months in a print shop, until he injures his hand, then: a matzoth bakery, an express company, a mail order house and a dry goods store. He falls into despair as he moves from one dead-end job to another, and he is tormented by his lifestyle of drink and promiscuity. Finally, in a hyperbolic ending, he is “saved” by a socialist redemptive visionary: “A man on an East Side soap-box, one night, proclaimed that out of the despair, melancholy and helpless rage of millions, a world movement had been born to abolish poverty.” (p. 319) This socialist vision is a new beginning, a revolutionary rejection of the capitalist dystopia represented by New York's East Side, offering in its place utopia, which of course translated literally means “no place.”
CALL IT SLEEP (HENRY ROTH, 1934)
David Schearl, the child protagonist of Call It Sleep arrives with his mother in the promised land to an unwelcome reception. The year is 1907, “the year that was destined to bring the greatest number of immigrants to the shores of the United States.” (p. 9) The cultural diversity of the great wave of immigrants, and their different ways of behaving upon arriving in America, are described by Roth by way of contrast to the unusual behaviour of David's family: “But these two stood silent, apart; the man staring with aloof, offended eyes grimly down at the water—or if he turned his face towards his wife at all, it was only to glare in harsh contempt at the blue straw hat worn by the child in her arms …” (p. 11) This negative reception foreshadows the mysteries of the new world for David, mysteries that he will have to unravel through the process of growing up. Call It Sleep is an immigrant bildungsroman, or, novel of development, in two main ways: first, by portraying the world from the perspective of a maturing Jewish child who attempts to discover the secrets of his parents' past, and second, by placing that child in an alien culture (America) whose differing ways (customs, etiquette, language, etc.) must also be learnt or at the least understood in some sense. The bildungsroman is thus doubled in the process, creating a complex, rich novel.
David's parents contrast dramatically in their behaviour: his mother is calm, quiet, conciliatory and deeply caring; his father is quick to offend, unpredictable, violent and incapable of expressing love or affection. Because he always assumes the worse of other people, Albert is always getting into arguments and fights, leading to continual family upheaval as he is frequently sacked from work. But there is also a connection with his European heritage that eventually calms him: his love of working with animals, and his final job in the novel, working as a milkman, delivering milk by horse and cart. Glimpses of the European past can also be seen in the portrayal of David's mother, Genya. David eavesdrops on her conversations with her sister to find out her big secret (which is that she had a previous relationship with a Gentile man who then abandoned her for another woman). But his eavesdropping is unsuccessful because of the way his mother and aunt switch from one language to another; nonetheless, David fills in the gaps in the story with his own creativity, such action being symbolic of the way the immigrant creates something new from his or her hybrid culture. The critic Hana Wirth-Nesher comments on the issue of language in the novel:
The internal struggle for self-definition is enacted in the novel as a kulturkampf, a battleground of languages. Although the book is written in English, it is experienced by the reader as if it were a translation, for David's main actions and thoughts are experienced in Yiddish. Yet this ‘original’ source language is almost entirely absent, occasionally reproduced in transliteration or alluded to as the language of dialogue. Throughout the work David is in the process of constructing a self out of the languages that make up his world.9
In his family, and deep in the slums of New York, David is continually battling with, and learning from, diverse languages. Yiddish is his home language and the language of the Lower East Side, but English is a powerful contestant in the linguistic battle: “… represented in the novel by the street lingo of immigrant dialects but also by the self-consciously literary passages that testify to the presence of a mind schooled in Anglo-American civilization.”10 When David goes to the Heder, or the Jewish religious school which took place outside of the public school hours, Hebrew and Aramaic become presences in his life. He doesn't always understand the words in front of him in a literal way, but they still have powerful spiritual and symbolic weight and force. Finally there is Polish, which David's mother and aunt occasionally lapse into as a ‘secret’ language that they can use in front of him, knowing that he can not understand it. Through the complex and competing linguistic worlds of the Lower East Side, the reader is given glimpses of street life, the Jewish religious school, the cultural misunderstandings that often occur on a daily basis between immigrants of different ethnic backgrounds, the world of low-paid jobs which nonetheless may represent great advancement or personal achievement, and, the creative world of David's imagination.
To try and cope with the fragmentary knowledge that he has of his parents' past, David combines a spiritual fervor (from listening to the texts of Isaiah) with a dangerous child's game of placing metal between the electric railroad tracks (to create an explosive electrical spark). David's imaginary past, where his father was a Gentile organist in a Christian church and his mother has died, moves into the real world as he almost kills himself through electrocution at the railroad tracks; in the process he is ‘reborn’ and, through a shake-up of his home life, comes to a new understanding with his family. The novel's final chapters are written in a hybrid form, David's experience being narrated as a stream-of-consciousness, interspersed with the comments of the people who rescue him; his epiphany as such is thus mediated by the everyday lives of working people. David doesn't transcend his world, but he does find a new, hybrid identity within it, which finally means that he has arrived in America.
OUT OF THIS FURNACE (THOMAS BELL, 1941)
Three generations of an immigrant family are explored in Thomas Bell's Out of This Furnace, represented by George Kracha, his daughter and son-in-law Mary and Mike Dobrejcak and finally Dobie Dobrejcak. The novel uses three main narrative styles to explore and portray the three generations. First, an episodic style to explore the world of George Kracha, with “… a summarizing narrative voice”11; next, a historical summary followed by a less-intrusive narrator, whereby a more intimate portrayal of Mike and Mary is achieved; and finally a documentary style for Dobie's experiences: “Dobie is a member of the generation that comes of age in America, that has achieved sufficient confidence and knowledge to act effectively on its own behalf. The reportorial style dramatizes this: Dobie's style is familiar; he is a contemporary American.”12
The novel opens with the first generation immigrant experience of George Kracha who “… came to America in the fall of 1881, by way of Budapest and Bremen.” (p. 3) George's passage to America is fuelled by the oppressive world he leaves behind:
He left behind him in a Hungarian village a young wife, a sister and a widowed mother; it may be that he hoped he was likewise leaving behind the endless poverty and oppression which were the birthrights of a Slovak peasant in Franz Josef's empire. He was bound for the hard-coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania, where his brother-in-law had a job on a railroad section gang.
On the journey to America, George falls in love with another Slovak, a married woman called Zuska; he fantasizes about her being unhappy in her marriage, spends all his money on alcohol to celebrate her birthday on board the ship, and arrives in New York with fifty-five cents in his pocket. After escaping the dangers of other gullible or disempowered immigrants who are conned out of their money on their way to America, the end, more comic result, is the same: George has to walk to Pennsylvania. The first section of the novel focuses on George Kracha's new life: how he sends for his wife, who comes to America quite ill, leading to marital problems, the birth of their daughters, and most of all hard work, first on the railroad and then in the steel mills. The mills are shown to be a dangerous place of unremitting hard labour. At this point in the history of the mills, union activity was actively discouraged, and the novel as a whole reveals the hard, intergenerational struggles that went in to raising pay and conditions through collective bargaining. One example of the struggles is given early on in the novel: Carnegie brings in the union smashing Frick to run the Homestead Mills, Frick promptly arranges new terms of employment that would destroy the Homestead union, as well as shutting down the mill. However, the ‘lockout’ turns into a strike, and a group of ‘Pinkertons’ (private security men) are brought in to take over the mill. A stand-off ensues, brought to a bloody end by soldiers: “The union's leaders were in jail or out on bail, the union itself shattered, and hunger and suffering were stalking the streets of Homestead.” (p. 43) Other painful events follow, such as George's friend Dubik being killed by burns from an exploding blast furnace. George sets up shop as a butcher, wanting to get away from the mills, and soon falls into debt and disrepute as he has an affair and invests his money unwisely.
Parts two and three of the novel explores the lives of Mike and Mary Dobrejcak. Mike's story is taken up from December 1900, on the verge of the twentieth-century. Mike is more assimilated than George; he attends English classes and learns key dates and figures of American history: “… Plymouth Rock, the Boston Tea Party and Gettysburg; George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—which his teachers assumed were most potently Americanizing.” (p. 120) But Mike's story also includes an awareness of the hierarchical structure of society in the steel towns, the ways in which the American and English workers were succeeded by the Irish, who in turn were succeeded by the Slovaks. The Slovaks have to put up with being at the bottom of the labor chain and the racism, which the first generation could learn to ignore, is now something that the second generation need to combat. Another issue for the second generation immigrants explored in this section of the novel is the fact that they are midway between the ‘American dream’ of self-sufficiency and riches, and the reality of low wages and unreliable working hours. Mike Dobrejcak marries Mary who works in a moderately wealthy household as a maid; through this job they both see the reality of what can be achieved. But the proximity to this reality is in some ways far more painful, because it is less of a dream or a fantasy. Mike and Mary struggle until Mike is killed in an accident in the Mill and Mary has to survive with a large family on her own. The painful struggle with poverty is narrated against the backdrop of war: “The war was raising prices to fantastic heights. Sugar rose to twenty-five cents a pound, potatoes to seventy-five cents a peck … rice immediately tripled in price.” (p. 226) The rest of Mary's section alternates between her meditations upon the point of her struggles and existence, and her children's lives, especially her son Johnny.
The final part of the novel follows the fortunes of Dobie, who has gained an engineering trade through an apprenticeship. He moves to Detroit for five years, working first at the Chrysler plant, but then at many other similar factories. These are boom years for Detroit: “Detroit was flooding the world with cars, Detroit was booming, Detroit was full of young men away from home for the first time.” (p. 263) After the high-life, spending money as fast as he earns it, Dobie returns to Pittsburgh on the verge of the depression; soon working conditions are poor and difficulties strike the town. Dobie marries and the rest of the section deals with his new life, as well as his politicization, rejecting company unions in favor of real representation through workers' organizations. Dobie and his colleagues realize that the only way they are going to get a union that really fights for them is to set themselves up in positions of power; the chapter narrates their experiences in Washington DC, where they go as witnesses to government investigations into working conditions and employment terms. The final part of the novel ends with Dobie musing upon the fact that while he has come to America with its Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, these laws need constant re-assertion to keep them alive: the immigrant needs to be as involved in their meaning as any other American citizen.
MY LIFE IN CHINA AND AMERICA (YUNG WING, 1909)
Yung Wing's lengthy autobiographical narrative is written in the genre of the Ambassadors of Goodwill, telling the story of a life spent travelling extensively in both China and the US. As with other works written in this genre, education is a key factor in the favorable attitudes held towards the west; in Yung Wing's case, he was born into a family of four children and, unusually, was placed in a mission school. He surmises that this had been done by his father with a prescient awareness of future foreign interest and overseas investment in China. Yung Wing describes how he eventually joins the Morrison School which moved to Hong Kong in 1842; the headmaster, a Reverend S. R. Brown, announces that he plans to take some of the older pupils back to America, where he is returning on health grounds. Yung Wing, along with the pupils Wong Shing and Wong Foon, decide to take this opportunity for travel and further education, embarking at Whompoa on the 4th January 1847 on the “Huntress,” a ship loaded with tea. After an uneventful passage, except for a storm at the Cape of Good Hope, the boys arrive in New York on the 12th April, 1847. Yung Wing writes how as a school child he had once written a composition on an imaginary voyage to New York: “This incident leads me to the reflection that sometimes our imagination foreshadows what lies uppermost in our minds and brings possibilities within the sphere of realities.” (p. 23) After some further travelling, the boys end up at Monsoon Academy in Massachusetts; while Wong Shing returns in the fall of 1848 to China, due to ill health, and Wong Foon travels to the University of Edinburgh, to become a doctor, Yung Wing stays in the U.S. and eventually attends Yale.
There is not a great deal of information concerning Yung Wing's time at Yale; he considers himself unprepared for college, and initially struggles to find funding, after turning down the “contingent fund” whereby he would have had to pledge himself to studying for the ministry. Instead, he is funded by an American “Ladies Association” as well as working as a steward in a boarding club and an assistant librarian to a debating society. Apart from success in English composition, Yung Wing struggled academically, but he did finally succeed in graduating in the class of 1854: “Being the first Chinaman who had ever been known to go through a first-class American college, I naturally attracted considerable attention.” (pp. 39-40) However, his enlarged “mental and moral” horizons now included the perceived deficiencies in his Chinese homeland: returning to China, Yung Wing decided to devote himself to “improving” various national situations. K. Scott Wong summarizes this profound change in perspective initiated by education:
Yung Wing and a number of the young Chinese who were educated in the United States underwent a cultural metamorphosis during their time in America. Those who returned to China with a Western education to serve their country aided China's entry into the modern family of nations, which underscores the fact that China's modern transformation was shaped in part by the Chinese experience in America. This process produced a new model of Chinese intellectuals and immigrants through hybridization.13
What Yung Wing explores, in the rest of My Life in China and America, is the way in which he is driven not just by the experiences of American liberalism, but also by the glimpses of a modern, industrialized nation that America was in the process of becoming. For example, in his “Scheme for Taipings,” Yung Wing argues for many modernizing principles, in terms of education, finance, industrial and military progress; he argues that China needs:
- To organize an army on scientific principles.
- To establish a military school …
- To establish a naval school …
- To organize a civil government …
- To establish a banking system, and to determine on a standard of weights and measures.
- To establish an educational system of graded schools for the people, making the Bible one of the text books.
- To organize a system of industrial schools. (p. 109)
The scheme is not adopted by the Taiping, but it neatly maps out Yung Wing's comprehensive modernizing vision. Among the many complex business and government schemes that Yung Wing became involved in throughout his life, one of the central programmes for the whole issue of Chinese-American relations, was the Chinese Educational Mission: “The Mission was to send 30 students between the ages of twelve and sixteen to the United States each year for four years. These 120 students would study in America for fifteen years and would be allowed to travel for another two years before returning to China. They would then report … for assignment to useful occupations in service to the country.”14 Run by Chen Lambin (a Chinese official) and Yung Wing, the Mission suffered from concerns that the students would not be adequately prepared for Chinese life, or, a Chinese world view. Eventually, after internal disagreement and withdrawal of support, the Mission closed in 1881.
Yung Wing's text should not be seen as detached from the later Chinese immigrant experience narratives; K. Scott Wong argues that not only is Yung Wing important for the study of Chinese American history, regardless of the fact that he worked primarily for the Chinese government, but that he also wrote on Chinese exclusion.15 Critical disagreements over the full extent of the role of the Ambassadors of Goodwill continue, but it must be borne in mind that ambassadorial work necessarily involves a great deal of subtle role-playing and gradual, rather than sudden, cultural change.
MRS. SPRING FRAGRANCE (SUI SIN FAR/EDITH EATON, 1912)
Although Sui Sin Far had been publishing short stories and journalism for nearly fifteen years, it was the publication in 1912 of her book-length collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance that made her name. The original edition of Mrs. Spring Fragrance was divided between two sections, “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” and “Tales of Chinese Children”; the 1995 reprint and updated version of this book, called Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings, draws more heavily from the original “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” section, as well as covering extensively journalistic pieces from papers and magazines as diverse as the Montreal Daily Witness, the Dominion Illustrated, the New York Independent, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Express and Good Housekeeping. The editors of the 1995 edition argue that “Mrs. Spring Fragrance is a seminal work, a foundation piece not only for Asian North American literature but also for a multicultural understanding of Canada and the United States.”16 As they also argue:
Many themes that Sui Sin Far's writings introduced a hundred years ago continue to be relevant today: the need for interracial understanding and self-affirmation; the balancing of individual and community needs; the clash between tradition and change in recent immigrant experience; and the between-worlds plight of the racially or culturally mixed person.17
The title story, for example, narrates how a Chinese woman who arrives in Seattle unable to speak a word of English is described five years later by her husband with the comment that “There are no more American words for her learning.” (p. 17) This dual-focus, having in-depth Chinese and American linguistic knowledge is put to use by Mrs. Spring Fragrance to try and resolve an unwanted arranged marriage between her next door neighbor's daughter and a young man. Through the gentle humour and irony of the story, misunderstandings are revealed to be indicative of cultural differences between the Chinese and the Americans, which are not necessarily resolved by becoming a hybrid “Chinese American”; Mrs. Spring Fragrance's husband misunderstands her secret scheming and her quoting of Tennyson, beginning to suspect her of having an affair: “If his wife was becoming as an American woman, would it not be possible for her to love as an American woman—a man to who she was not married?” (p. 24) Mrs. Spring Fragrance observes the contradictions in western society and its own notions of romance and class suitability in the story “The Inferior Woman.” But the dual or hybrid perspective is not always a positive experience. One of the most powerful stories in the entire collection is “Its Wavering Image,” a story about betrayal. A woman of mixed-race called Pan is befriended by a white journalist, who learns intimate details about her existence in the Chinese community and her innermost thoughts and feelings concerning cultural hybridity. The man starts an affair with Pan, but destroys their friendship, and her repose, by publishing all he has learnt in a newspaper article; she turns to her Chinese heritage and background for solace after this painful betrayal. Ironically, the man had tried to force her to choose a singular identity which Pan had resisted (he means that she should become “white”): “… you have got to decide what you will be—Chinese or white? You cannot be both.” (p. 63) In his “Connecting Links: The Anti-Progressivism of Sui Sin Far,” Sean McCann performs a useful socio-political analysis of the story:
… “Its Wavering Image” offers an indictment of the journalistic invention of the era's “yellow peril” phenomenon. In a larger sense … the story is a bitter satire on the whole logic of the contemporary drive for Americanization—the exemplary Progressive Era movement championed by reformers like Riis. As these reformers envisioned it, Americanization would make citizens out of immigrants, and sometimes of the native-born themselves, by leading them through a program of moral and cultural re-education. […] From Carson's perspective, Pan must commit to whiteness in order to be American, just as Chinatown's secrets must be published in order to protect democracy.18
The critically expanded contemporary version of Mrs. Spring Fragrance offers the reader the unique opportunity to read Sui Sin Far's journalistic pieces in juxtaposition with her more well-known short stories such as “Its Wavering Image.” Far's journalism occupies interior and exterior cultural perspectives, or doubled-edged descriptions of the Chinese Americans and their way of life. Far's work is thus deconstructive, in that it attempts to critique and dismantle stereotypes of Chinese peoples from various ideological positions. For example, in her piece “In Los Angeles' Chinatown” published in 1903 (Los Angeles Express), Far observes the Christian missionaries at work within Chinatown and their educational efforts among the community:
Attached to these missionaries are night schools for the Chinamen and a kindergarten for children. The brightest spot in Chinatown is this modest little hall of learning. It is run on philanthropic lines, the children being mostly gathered in from the streets by their teacher, but a few of the well-to-do Chinese merchants are glad to send their sons and daughters to learn to talk the white man's language.
The piece moves on to the differences between Chinese and American food, suggesting that while Chinese food may appear alienating at first, it is of interest and is “… good and nutritious.” (p. 199) This exemplary piece of journalism reveals that what might appear to modern sensibilities a quaint and slightly offensive perspective, e.g., the phrase “… talk the white man's language,” is in fact part of Far's bigger project of changing attitudes towards Chinese Americans: her writing aims to be efficacious, or, to get results.
ANGEL ISLAND POETRY (ANONYMOUS POETS, 1910-1940)
The best way of exploring the world of the Angel Island Poets, or, Poets of Exclusion, is visually: Lai, et. al., have created an open archive of photographs, poems in the original Cantonese script, translations, interpretations, immigrant recollections or oral history, explanatory, introductory and critical text, all in a single accessible volume. The poems are placed into sections which represent the main types of experience (or reaction to events) that the immigrants suffered: The Voyage; The Detainment; The Weak Shall Conquer; About Westerners; Deportees, Transients; and Imprisonment In The Wooden Building. Further, the poems (shown in Cantonese and English translation) are juxtaposed with anonymous interviews with Chinese immigrants who passed through Angel Island; these small narratives are an invaluable resource in themselves, and provide oral history side-by-side with poetic history; the poems are further supplemented by extensive appendices, and an English and Chinese bibliography. The editors discuss in some depth the educational and cultural contexts of the immigrant poetry, and the translation and interpretation processes involved in putting the collection together:
Most immigrants at that time did not have formal schooling beyond the primary grades. Also for obvious reasons, they were usually not equipped with rhyme books or dictionaries. Created under such conditions, many poems violate rules of rhyme and tone required in Chinese poetry. Incorrect characters and usages are common. (These have been corrected in the printed versions where possible). Some works have obscure meanings because of the frequent inclusion of Cantonese vernacular expressions as well as Chinese American colloquialisms. Such flaws, if such they are, are not evident in the English translations, because by the very act of translating from the original Chinese into English language, new literary works have been created which, while keeping the meaning of the original, hide some of the defects.19
The Angel Island poems express a wide range of emotions during the various stages of the immigrant experience as it relates to detainment and investigation of immigrant cases. What is unique about this body of literature, however, is that it is produced by detainees and those about to be deported. In other words, the entire body of literature focuses on what is usually the early stages of the immigrant experience as a whole. Some of the poems express the feelings specific to the Chinese immigrant community (in that the poems draw upon the Cantonese vernacular, and so on), while others share similar concerns to immigrants who were detained on Ellis Island, for example:
Because my house had bare walls, I began rushing all about. The waves are happy, laughing “Ha-ha!” When I arrived on Island, I heard I was forbidden to land. I could do nothing but frown and feel angry at heaven.
(poem 2, page 34)
Here, the frustration at being detained is compared with the delight of the “happy” waves at sea, in other words, the freedom of the sea-journey. The poet has gone from open spaces to imprisonment as soon as he has arrived in the US. However, the sea journey is not always seen in such a positive light either:
Everyone says travelling to North America is a pleasure. I suffered misery on the ship and sadness in the wooden building. After several interrogations, still I am not done. I sigh because my compatriots are being forcibly detained.
(poem 6, page 38)
This poet feels empathy for his fellow prisoners or compatriots; there is also a sense of wasted time, interrogations that have not gained him freedom to continue with his immigrant life, or, at least know that he is to be deported back to China. Deportation was a great fear; there were many reasons for this, from the fear of being regarded as a personal failure, the shame at not being passed for health or other reasons, and even the worry that those who had raised money for the trip were going to be angry:
Barred from landing, I really am to be pitied. My heart trembles at being deported back to China. I cannot face the elders east of the river. I came to seek wealth but instead reaped poverty.
(poem 61, page 126)
Some of the prisoners focused their anger, at being placed in such an intolerable situation, against government officials: “I thoroughly hate the barbarians because they do not respect justice. / They continually promulgate harsh laws … / They oppress the overseas Chinese and also violate treaties.” (poem 48, page 100) The prisoners began to fantasize a time in the future when this powerlessness would be over, and the tables would be turned: “Wait till the day I become successful and fulfill my wish! / I will not speak of love when I level the immigration station.” (poem 46, page 94) However, many more of these people simply wanted to get on with their lives, move in to their new jobs, see family and loved ones, and simply continue with their old lives or progress on with the American Dream.
A DAUGHTER OF THE SAMURAI (ETSU INAGAKI SUGIMOTO, 1925)
Autobiographical narratives written by the Ambassadors of Goodwill often reflect as much upon the country (or culture) of origin of the writer as the newfound culture of the United States. In Sugimoto's A Daughter of the Samurai, this dual-focus structures her autobiography allowing her to pose questions concerning both societies. Sugimoto shows how outside or overseas influences existed prior to the Japanese immigrant experience, and that, like the Ambassadors of Goodwill themselves, there is a fairly constant exchange of ideas and customs between different cultures, even when such an exchange is strongly resisted. Sugimoto's view is that Japan shut itself away from the western world behind a “wall of tradition” which is slowly being dismantled, for example, with the “… introduction of foreign food.” (p. 27) Stereotypes are seen by Sugimoto as something that inhibits modernization, and she regards stereotypes of the United States as well as those of Japan to be, ultimately, something that need dismantling. Such a project begins in her autobiography with the first chapter, “Winters in Echigo,” where she argues that the stereotype of Japan as a whole, regarded as “… a land of sunshine and cherry blossom” (p. 1) comes from tourists or other visitors who only visit the mild eastern and southern parts of the country. The dismantling of stereotypes is not a simple process, and Sugimoto narrates the ebb and flow of the construction and destruction of received notions; in other words, sometimes a stereotype will be destroyed, sometimes a new one will be born in the process, and overall the changes happen gradually. For example, her home province of Echigo is considered both a backwater and a site of radical thinking: “Echigo … is so shut off from the rest of Japan by the long Kesa range that during the early feudal days it was considered by the Government only a frozen outpost suitable as a place of exile for offenders too strong in position or influence to be treated as criminals. To this class belonged reformers.” (p. 2) Sugimoto argues that the Japanese government had little tolerance for political or religious reformers at the time. So the book's opening, delightful and seemingly stereotypical scenes, of snow-filled streets made accessible by tunnels cut from one side of the street to another, the statues and shrines wrapped “… in their winter clothing of straw” and the sidewalk boards “… with an occasional panel of oiled paper, which turned them into long halls” (p. 2) are in fact juxtaposed with the comments made about the ideological construction of place and local identity.
The nostalgia in A Daughter of the Samurai is constantly tempered by Sugimoto's interest in finding out information not freely available to her as a young woman. She knows the story of her father's demise as an official on the losing side of a civil dispute, and the fact that as a man of the Samurai, he has not been a success at business because his rank has kept him from commercial transactions; she notes that “… Father devoted his life to reading, to memories, and to introducing unwelcome ideas of progressive reform to his less advanced neighbours.” (p. 5) At first, Sugimoto narrates her childhood experiences, such as her sadness at not having straight hair in chapter two, and her education to become a ‘priestess’ in chapter three. Her teacher is a priest who is extremely scholarly and who teaches her the doctrine of Confucius rather than the proper forms of temple worship; her education is strict, but, as a reformer advocating a “… doctrine that united the beliefs of Buddhism and Christianity” (p. 18) her teacher is also extremely broad-minded. While Sugimoto argues that most of her childhood education went over her head, clearly this episode in her life prepares the way for her openness to the west, and the ideological approach of the Ambassadors of Goodwill, attempting to unite two or more often opposing world views.
A Daughter of the Samurai explores in some considerable death family life; one of the key events is Sugimoto's brother's refusal to go through with an arranged marriage in chapter seven, “The Wedding That Never Was.” Father declares that he has no son, and Sugimoto's brother goes to America; much later, after Father's death, the brother returns as the new head of the household, bringing a new perspective to life which is reinforced by the letters he receives from friends in America. The brother's own experiences of America have been poor, partly because he is defrauded by Japanese businessmen before he even gets there (the export company he invests in turning out to be, upon his arrival in the US, a small toy shop), and partly because he drifts socially downwards as he runs out of money, culminating in an accident which means he cannot work. Brother is saved in the US by a man called Matsuo, who eventually, through her brother's intervention, decides to marry Sugimoto; a family council is called in Japan, where the matter is decided, as well as Sugimoto being told she will need to learn English in a Tokyo school.
Education is one of the key experiences for the Ambassadors of Goodwill, and in a sense relates them quite closely to the more usual literature of the immigrant experience, the difference being that for a typical immigrant, education in an English speaking school occurs after arrival in America, whereas for the Ambassadors, it occurs before arrival, and continues at a higher level as one of the main reasons for visiting the US. Sugimoto's education in a Tokyo mission school is initially shocking, because she thinks her female teachers lack ceremony and decorum, but eventually she becomes not only more westernized herself, but also Christianized. However, Christianity is not a replacement for her Japanese identity, but one more layer of a more complex hybrid identity. The voyage to the US is a fairly civilized affair, which continues her education, as she grapples with open and free socializing among strangers on board ship; arriving in San Francisco she thinks she has come to a land of giants: “This sense of the enormous size of things—wide streets, tall buildings, great trees—was also pronounced inside the hotel.” (p. 155) Travelling East from San Francisco she meets Matsuo, whose first words on seeing her in traditional clothing are: “Why did you wear Japanese dress?” (p. 157)
Cultural hybridity and re-negotiation continue in Sugimoto's new home; she lives with her husband and a landlady who eventually becomes known as ‘Mother.’ The shock of cultural difference is tempered by the knowledge that an arranged marriage will always involve plunging into a new and potentially alien environment; as the narrative progresses, however, it becomes clear that while Sugimoto is learning about American codes and conventions, those around her are also learning about the Japanese way of life. Unlike the conventional narratives of the immigrant experience, Sugimoto's narrative tells of a life immersed in American suburbia with American friends, although the birth of her daughter creates a tight-knit family unit. Sugimoto compares many things during her time in the US, such as the different powers women have in America and Japan, and differences in religion. After her husband unexpectedly dies she returns to Japan, setting up eventually a fairly independent household, except now it is her own daughters who are receiving an education in an unfamiliar world, having spent their early years in America. Sugimoto does spend some more time back in America with her daughters for educational purposes, and the book ends with her meditating upon future relations between the two nations.
Sugimoto's A Daughter of the Samurai is a study in cultural hybridity that ultimately transcends the boundaries of the Ambassadors of Goodwill genre: it performs a subtle critique of stereotyping from an American and Japanese perspective, and suggests that there are negative and positive sides to the widening of cultural perspectives.
YOKOHAMA, CALIFORNIA (TOSHIO MORI, 1949)
The opening story in Toshio Mori's collection performs a complex task: it re-positions the book in history, the story being added after the Second World War, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the various forms of retaliation, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans in the camps. Added by the Caxton Printers, the opening story called “Tomorrow is Coming, Children” presents an account of the Japanese Immigrant experience, with Grandma's passage from Japan to San Francisco, her regrets while at sea in stormy weather and her desire for the ship to turn back, and then Grandpa's strange reception of her and his shame at seeing her in the traditional dress of her best Kimono (he tells her to never wear it again because she looks like a foreigner). After the racial tensions in San Francisco, Grandma is happier in Oakland, and even though the war and relocation are painful, she tries to explain to the children that her identity is Japanese American for all that: she says she wants to be buried in America and now identifies San Francisco as her true home. Lawson Inada argues that this ill-fitting story (in terms of the collection that follows) is actually to be read as a subversive oral narrative:
Grandma is actually teaching history, interpretation, survival tactics, strategy—in the guise of a bedtime story. Pro-Japanese American, or pro-American, is not necessarily pro-white, or anti-Japanese. … all her reminiscence has a double edge to it, and the ironies had to be bouncing off the barracks, in two languages, for grandma, without saying it, is really saying: “Remember.” Remember your uncle fighting overseas; remember this camp; remember me.20
Yokohama, California is composed of twenty-two stories in total, most of them appearing to be purely sentimental, but actually having immense power and subtle beauty. For example, the second story in the collection, “The Woman Who Makes Swell Doughnuts” is a celebration of an individual and her presence in the world, not for any exceptional material achievement, but simply because her being is such a positive influence on the narrator: “I sing gratefully that such a simple and common experience becomes an event, an event of necessity and growth. It is an event that is a part of me, in addition to the elements.” (p. 23) This celebration of being in the world calls into question the power of narrative, and its usual patterning: the narrator suggests that her being is more powerful than narrative, and that he wishes to describe her as she “is” not how she once was, after her death. In this story we have almost a template for Toshio Mori's other stories: they are vignettes, little portraits without strongly defined narrative borders or edges, without the need to necessarily look at beginnings or ends. These vignettes are a celebration, exploration or simply a meditation on human beings, their emotions, their dreams and desires. And even when the stories appear to be critical, they often reveal the poignancy and pain within life-situations generated by human foibles, such as the garrulous nature of “The Seventh Street Philosopher,” a widower called Motoji Tsunoda who lectures ceaselessly at his friends whenever he has the opportunity. Tsunoda is portrayed as a frustrated man whose passion for lecturing verges upon lunacy; he invites the Japanese philosopher Akegarasu to speak, and books a hall for the event even without a reply; of course Akegarasu never attends the non-event so Tsunoda lectures instead to an audience of eleven, including two babies. Tsunoda's strength of character transcends his ridiculousness: “No matter what his words might have meant, no matter what gestures and what provoking issues he might have spoken in the past, there was this man, standing up and talking to the world, and also talking to vindicate himself to the people, trying as hard as he could so he would not be misunderstood.” (p. 32)
Differing attitudes and relationships between first and second generation Japanese Americans are explored in Yokohama, California. In the sixth story, “The End of the Line,” Sasaki is leaving with his family for Japan, to look after the old family estate. Yamuda visits the narrator's parents to organize a farewell party, but it is also a time of sadness, as old friends and relatives are either leaving or passing away. For some first generation Japanese Americans, America has become home, so returning to Japan is not really an option, yet this leaves them in a lonely position as they move into old age. The elderly are also overtaken by the young, tensions arising within the Japanese American community as natural growth and progression occurs. In “The Chessmen” (the thirteenth story), the disruption of friendship occurs because of the demands of business and youth. At Hatayama Nursery, Hatayama-San and Nakagawa-San hire George Murai, a young man, strong and eager to learn the trade. The poised, balanced and from the outside, perfect relationship between Hatayama-San and Nakagawa-San is thrown off-balance as George's will-to-power overcomes Nakagawa-San's fading strength; there is sadness in the process, as George plays a strategy of outpacing Nakagawa-San and showing his superior strength and potential. The story does have a subtle, between-the-lines message: George's ambition to acquire his own nursery means that one day he will also outplay Hatayama-San. The major event of Japanese American history—the bombing of Pearl Harbor—also reveals differences in generational attitudes. In “Slant-Eyed Americans” (the seventeenth story), the narrator explores different reactions to Pearl Harbor, as Japanese American business collapse, and as a mixture of disbelief and fear begins to pervade his family. His mother, however, remains optimistic and patriotic: her son is fighting for America, and, even though she is aware that there will be a backlash against the Japanese in America, she argues that this is there new home. But the narrator is more pessimistic, knowing that his own “… parents of American citizens have become enemy aliens.” (p. 128)
At times, Toshio Mori presents women in an idealized light, even though they are shown to have vision and insight concerning the future lives of Japanese Americans. There is a self-awareness of this idealization of women, and it is one that relates to an aestheticizing attitude. In “The All-American Girl,” (the twelfth story), the narrator and his brother deify a beautiful young woman who passes there home each day. They decide not to speak to her, even though they are both smitten with her good looks, because they realize that this will break or destroy the romanticized vision of her that they are aware has been constructed by themselves. To have a romantic fantasy or utopia to retreat to is not necessarily a bad thing; in the final story called “Tomorrow and Today,” Hatsuye, who does not have the pretty looks of her sister Mineko, lives in her own domestic world of romantic, utopian hope as a survival strategy from the harsh treatment she receives in the real world. The intimate portrayal of her inner life reveals that hope often drives a person against adversity, just as the first generation immigrants hoped for, eventually, a better life.
CITIZEN 13660 (MINé OKUBO, 1946)
An autobiographical narrative, Citizen 13660 starts with the author recounting where she was when she first heard news of the outbreak of The Second World War in 1939; she reflects on the fact that she had a one-year art fellowship from the University of California, enabling her to travel in Europe. These simple facts have subtle significance: Miné Okubo is a citizen of the United States of America, with educational and artistic ability and talent, travelling as a free person in Europe. Returning to America (after also hearing some news concerning her mother's illness) the eventual bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese soon changes Okubo's status for the worse: “Then on December 7, 1941, while my brother and I were having late breakfast I turned on the radio and heard the flash—“Pearl Harbor bombed by the Japanese!” We were shocked. We wondered what this would mean to us and the other people of Japanese descent in the United States.” (p. 8)
Citizen 13660 is a book which combines historical information with the personal experiences of internment; it also combines narrative and visual images, with each page of the book divided horizontally between images and text, both produced by Okubo. The powerful emotions generated by the internment experience are revealed by Okubo through the gradual realization that for many American people, any person with a familial connection with the Japanese has become an “enemy alien” and will need locking up. At first the author's friends express concern with the post-Pearl Harbor situation in California, and suggest that she moves to the East; the author learns that her Father has been placed in an internment camp—and then she realizes what has happened: “The people looked at all of us, both citizens and aliens, with suspicion and mistrust.” (p. 12) The narrative recounts the passing of government executive orders and public proclamations that irrevocably change the lives of Japanese Americans: the “enemy alien problem” is transferred in 1942 from the Department of Justice to the War Department; Public Proclamations appear in newspapers whereby military areas are designated: “… including practically all of the coastal states of Washington, Oregon, and California, and the inland states of Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Utah.” (p. 12) Initially, Okubo recounts how evacuation was voluntary, but was soon placed under army control. Public Proclamation No. 3 establishes a curfew for all Japanese Americans who have to be home by eight o'clock in the evening: “I had to have a special permit to travel to Oakland where I was employed because it was outside a five-mile radius of my home.
Violation of any of the regulations meant fines and imprisonment.” (p. 14) After frantically preparing for evacuation, the author is finally moved to a “relocation center” after the posting of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 19, on April 24th, 1942. But as an American citizen, this is a baffling blow, and a strange state of affairs: “We had not believed at first that evacuation would affect the Nisei, American Citizens of Japanese ancestry, but thought perhaps the Issei, Japanese-born mothers and fathers who were denied naturalization by American law, would be interned in case of war between Japan and the United States. It was a real blow when everyone, regardless of citizenship, was ordered to evacuate.” (p. 17) After registering for evacuation, Okubo is given a family unit (her brother and herself) officially recognized as No. 13660, before being moved to Tanforan Assembly Center (Tanforan Race Track, San Bruno, South of San Francisco). (p. 17) Eventually, Okubo and her brother are sent to the Central Utah Relocation Project, more famously known as Topaz; most of Citizen 13660, deals with the experiences endured at these two concentration camps. In many respects the experiences of the two camps are doubly-dislocating: Okubo has just endured one set of hardships when she is taken from her prison to another one. The dislocation is shown by the fact that she has problems bringing her project—to draw scenes of camp life—coming to an end, because she has been free to go before she can actually bring herself to re-enter the outside world.
At Tanforan, there is an almost total lack of privacy: Okubo describes the inadequate accommodation and sanitary facilities, and the ways in which every human or private activity can be heard throughout the camp by all; she describes the cold and hostile conditions in the camp, as well as the spying that went on for illegal or suspicious activities amongst the inmates; confusion was the order of the day, as people accidentally wandered in and out of the hastily constructed washrooms, or struggled to improve their immediate surroundings in their rooms. Line-ups are the norm, for food, for the movies, for the washrooms. In the midst of relocation (or an enforced and humiliating dislocation), life goes on: Okubo depicts scenes of everyday life, such as gardening, landscaping, talent shows, pageants, dances, gambling, knitting and the Japanese games of Goh and Shogi.
The move to Topaz means starting all over again with a new room (unfinished) and the necessity of bedding and constructing walls out of blankets for some privacy (it is a three-person room, so a student-friend joins Okubo and her brother). The conditions in Topaz are slightly better than Tanforan, but there is no mistaking that this is a prison camp. The three get a job working on the camp newspaper called the Topaz Times, which is initially published three times a week until circulation improves and the paper becomes a daily. The paper has a Japanese section, and a comic section: the contents are all checked or censored by the camp administrators. (p. 134) Some sense of the sheer gigantic size of the Topaz camp is given by Okubo: “The entire Topaz project area occupied 17,500 acres. The center contained 42 city blocks, of which 36 comprised the residential area, one square mile in extent. At first we were not permitted beyond it, but later we could wander to the rest of the area.” (p. 135) The issues leading to, and keeping the Japanese Americans in the camps are discussed privately and more publicly via the politics of camp life; in Tanforan, a movement for self-government was started but later dissolved by the army; in Topaz, issues boil over when it comes to Roosevelt's announcement in 1943 that “… volunteers would be accepted in a Japanese American combat unit” (p. 175) but only if they affirmed loyalty via a long questionnaire. The final question, number 28, reads: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Empire or any other foreign power or organization?” (p. 175) Simultaneously, the War Relocation Authority used Question 28 to determine the loyalty of camp inmates in a registration survey. Such questioning brought confusion, anger and strong resentment at the assumption of “divided loyalty,” the latter being especially galling when it was the United States government that was blocking naturalization, or, when many of the younger people in the camps were United States citizens. The younger people were also angry as their loyalties were being questioned as they were signing up to fight for America. After further investigations by the FBI, those Japanese Americans who did not affirm their loyalty to the United States were segregated to another camp—Tule Lake segregation center—along with other family members who did not want to be split up. Eventually, conditions at Topaz were relaxed and “relocation programmes” to help Japanese Americans return to their normal life undertaken. Okubo's brother leaves for work in Chicago and eventually she decides to leave the camp: “I looked at the crowd at the gate. Only the very old or very young were left. Here I was, alone, with no family responsibilities, and yet fear had chained me to the camp. I thought, ‘My God! How do they expect those poor people to leave the one place they can call home.’” (p. 209) The book ends with many unanswered questions in the reader's mind: after all the camp experiences, how will the residents cope with returning to so-called “normal” life? And how will other Americans, who treated Japanese American people as enemies, receive the Japanese Americans back into the community? Miné Okubo has produced a powerful visual and narrative record of this crucial and transformative moment in the Japanese American immigrant experience.
Marie Hall Ets, Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970), p. xv.
Fred L. Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 58.
Ibid., pp. 71-72.
Ibid., p. 68.
Quoted in Gardaphé, Ibid., p. 69.
Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration 1880-1920 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1992), p. 12.
Ibid., p. 15.
Hana Wirth-Nesher, “Call It Sleep: Jewish, American, Modernist, Classic,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 1995, 44, 4: 388-398; p. 393.
David P. Demarest, “Afterword” to Thomas Bell, Out of This Furnace (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), p. 422.
K. Scott Wong, “Cultural Defenders and Brokers: Chinese Responses to the Anti-Chinese Movement,” in K. Scott Wong and Sucheng Chan, eds., Claiming America: Constructing Chinese American Identities During The Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), p. 20.
Ibid., p. 25.
Ibid., p. 28.
Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks, eds., Sui Sin Far, Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995; p. 5.
Ibid., p. 6.
From, Sean McCann, “Connecting Links: The Anti-Progressivism of Sui Sin Far,” The Yale Journal of Criticism, 12 (1, 1999): 73-88; p. 75.
Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung, eds., Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, p. 25.
Lawson Inada, “Introduction” to Toshio Mori, Yokohama, California (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1985), p. xxii.