Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lumps in the Melting Pot

" . . . Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

One of the ironies, not to say tragedies, of the 21st Century is that Americans have forgotten their immigrant past. We can read Emma Lazarus' inscription on the Statue of Liberty and think, even if we don't say, "We've got enough of those, thanks." We utterly forget that most of us have ancestors who were probably part of the "tired, poor, huddled masses."

Now, it is quite true that a number of these folks came and huddled over here, mostly as wretched as they were at home, only here they were free to starve in a democratic republic. Some of these, however, brought with them deep memories of their cultural tradtions (which were once ours), and fresh ways of expressing those memories. They wrote, published, failed to starve, and thus did what we call "enriching the local culture."

We can debate whether this is "American" literature, since it is written by people who didn't start out as "American." Interestingly enough, this forms the heart of the debate we had last fall when we started this adventure -- can we count people who aren't "American" by birth?

My answer, of course, is "yes!" I mean, Saul Bellow, for instance, came from Canada to Chicago when he was what? nine? He grew up in American culture. Even people who didn't grow up in the culture appreciated the freedom of expression that it gave, and continues to give, them. Consider the list that includes Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, Vladimir Nabokov, Isabel Allende, Ayn Rand, and newer writers like Elmaz Abinader, Chimamanda Adichie, Edwidge Danticat. A bunch of other writers are American by birth, but strongly identified with their parents' countries of origin. Amy Tan falls in this group, along with Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Luis Valdez and a host of others. Each one of them (and there are scores of others) not only brings his or her orignial national and ethnic heritage, but brings a writer's eye to look at America in new ways.

As we've said before, American literature is a real patchwork of different voices from different cultures. Today's question is, what constitutes an "American" voice?


  1. Aaron Pierett

    Different countries have established their own cultures and voices due to the fact that they have been in existance longer and have established a cliche citizen for that nation, (i.e., Swedes have blonde hair and blue eyes, Iranians are dark skinned and are typically Muslim). America, however, was formed by a persecuted people. Initially by the Western Europeans, then Africans, then Eastern Europeans, and finally other peoples of the world sort of filed in in an unorganized fashion. With that happening, there really isn't a cliche American in the sense of culture, religion, or language, but of hope; freedom of essentially everything (persecution, speech, religion, etc.,). So, what constitutes as an "American" voice? It is one found in a person who has freedom and can live without fear.

  2. I feel like an "American" voice is a work that shows the freedom of this country also has qualities from the pasts of the writers. Perhaps there is no true "American" voice, as none of us are truly "American" the only ones who can claim that are Native Americans. We're all just mutts of the people who traveled here in past times. However, I like to think each of us is American because we support the country we live in and try to better it all the time.

  3. I love the idea that an American voice comes from someone "who has freedom and can live without fear." I wish that were always true, even in America.

  4. An American voice is essentially one that has searched and found freedom. Whether that freedom is religious or spiritual, speech, equality, or what have you. The generalization of American culture is "Freedom for all" and that is why people from all over the world are drawn to it. I think in order to be considered an American writer, you must have experienced what its like to be an American. It doesnt matter whether or not you were born in America but rather what you have experienced while being here. By writing, people are able to express to the world what they have done and encountered in their life.

  5. Debbie Haines
    An "American Voice" is not determined by where you were born, but rather by what you are. This voice reflects the beliefs, the hopes and the struggles of American society. There is a difference between knowing what it's like to be an American and being an American. Our nation is a collection of differences. Some fear those differences and some celebrate them. The real American voice speaks for both sides of that spectrum and everywhere in between. This is the greatness of the freedom we have.

  6. In countires other than America peolpe have really an estblished voice because they are older and have been around longer. In America people are more free and have different tones of voices and show different attitudes. Writers in America show so many differnt styles of writing because of the differnt ways that different people view and read their works.

  7. The "American Voice," to me is someone who left everything they had to come struggle in America to better the lives of them and their families. No one is actually American, unless your native american, and that is something that we all tend to forget. The American voice is the movement of coming to a new place, with freedom, and knowing that you can make something for yourself.

  8. I think that the American voice comes from someone who wants to be all that they can be while living in this country. It can't be determined by freedom because there are too many people under self imposed or externally forced into an enclosed situation.
    Someone who is writing from an American prison or mental hospital has a voice that is as American as someone who's is protesting in the street for their freedoms. It all comes down to why they are writing, what makes them want to share their ideas.