" . . . 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?