Tag Archives: immigration
“Unaccustomed Earth” by Jhumpa Lahiri
I got this book from a Little Free Library. I planned to leave five books and take one. Nice try. I ended up with three.
Jhumpa Lahiri introduces this collection of eight short stories with a two-sentence quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne:
“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”
Never mind the stories. Lahiri could have stopped right here and I would have had plenty to think about. I was unable to determine what book contained this statement. Doesn’t sound like The Scarlett Letter. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations didn’t help me.
Last weekend, I attended the funeral of a neighbor. His family has been in this area for around five generations. I could see and even envy the value, strength and warmth of strong family ties. Sometimes I wish I had relatives in this town, this county, this STATE, for goodness sake! It’s hard work to keep in touch with a geographically dispersed family. To my children, cousins and aunts and uncles were a treat, not their daily bread. I wish they had been able to spend more time with their grandparents.
On the other hand, the world is changing. For better or worse, globalization is here. Parents (especially upper middle class parents) may choose to nudge their children towards out-ot-state colleges or international work and study experiences.
I’ve seen all kinds of family patterns. One is “up and out”. My family took this approach, sending my sister and me away to college, telling us we had four years to get ready for life “on our own”. Return to our hometown was barely mentioned. We thought it likely to be “too expensive”. When I had the option spend summers in Europe, it was encouraged, even though, financially, it was only a “break even” proposition. But I think my parents would have felt hurt and sad if I had settled down overseas.
I only read two stories from Lahiri’s book. Each ending surprised me. Her characters are compelling and their lives seem difficult. I can’t decide whether to continue with the stories or try one of Lahiri’s novels. She has published books in Italian and Marathi. The international approach to life is plainly here choice.
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
This book surprised and intrigued me! I’d never heard of Nella Larsen (1891-1964). The title Passing refers to racial identity and presentation. Some people with African blood look “white”, and hence can choose to “pass” and live as white in America.
Larsen was a multiracial child raised in a Danish immigrant family in Chicago. Her mother was born in Denmark and emigrated to the US. Larsen’s father was a mixed race immigrant from the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands) who died (or disappeared) soon after his daughter’s birth. Her mother then married another Danish immigrant and had a second daughter. From 1895 to 1898, the family lived in Denmark, then they returned to Chicago.
Nella Larsen had no conventional “place” in American society. White people considered her a Negro (hence of low class), but she had little in common with the African Americans (mostly descendants of the formerly enslaved) who began moving North around 1915. Larsen attended Fisk University briefly. At age 23, she took up nursing. Later, she participated in the Harlem Renaissance (aka the Negro Awakening) which emerged in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to working as a nurse and a librarian, Larsen published two novels. The first, Quicksand, was largely autobiographical.
Passing features three African American women who look white, who can “pass” as white if they choose. Irene marries a successful (but discontented) Black medical doctor. In contemporary terms, Irene identifies as African American. (Larsen says Negro.) Clare hides her racial background, opportunistically marries a (racist) white man and lives simultaneously in material splendor, fear and ambivalence. Gertrude, a minor character, marries a white man who knew her from childhood, and accepted her background without question.
For these women, “passing” is a freighted decision. Children are a big issue. Who will a child resemble? Clare has one daughter, who looks white. She declares she could not possibly risk another pregnancy. Irene calmly announces to her friends that one of her two sons is “dark”. The ideas of “tainted” blood and genetic unpredictability are strong. Gertrude has twins, but refuses to consider the idea of conceiving another child, despite her husband’s total acceptance of her identity.
What about the men? Irene’s husband wants to move to Brazil, to get away from American racism. Irene wants “security” above all and argues against leaving New York. Clare’s husband is a sketchily drawn stereotype, hateful and extremely angry. We don’t meet Gertrude’s husband. He is described as the successful owner of a grocery store.
Another big issue for these three women is the idea of “going back”. If you pass as white, must you surrender all ties to your black family and friends and culture?
Clare is savagely ambivalent, repeatedly asking Irene and her husband to take her with them to Harlem when her husband is out of town. Irene considers this incredibly reckless and dangerous, and, indeed, Clare’s bigoted husband learns of her background and tragedy ensues. I did not foresee the ending.
Much more is explored in this book. Highly recommended!
“Rain of Gold” by Victor E. Villasenor
Copyright 1991, 562 pages, including photos, map, family trees, author’s notes and acknowledgments. Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and the Texas Commission on the Arts. Publisher Laurel/Dell/Bantam Doubleday. (Go figure that out.)
Here’s a NEW reason to buy a book! A late colleague of ours, Alphonso Corpus, Stockton University Associate Professor of Art, painted the picture used on this paperback edition of the book. We bought a used copy.
This book is the saga of Villasenor’s ancestors. His parents came as children, with their families, to the United States around 1910 to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. I quickly realized I know almost nothing about the Mexican Revolution. Wikipedia describes it as triggered by failure of the regime to manage the issue of presidential succession, with agrarian insurrection as an opportunistic reaction to the social unrest. I don’t think Villasenor’s family would agree! The Revolution was presented in Rain of Gold as struggle of the poor against the wealthy. The violence and suffering were immense, which sometimes makes for harsh reading.
This history of two families is packed with energy and love. They were among 200,000 refugees who entered the United States in the course of the conflict (Wikipedia again).
Both of Villasenor’s parents were considered exceptional within their families. His father was the last child of 14. His mother, also a youngest child, was conceived when a meteor strike caused her terrified parents to assume the world was ending. One of his grandmothers was an indigenous child (Yaqai tribe) adopted into a Hispanic family.
Villasenor dedicates his book to his two grandmothers. They and many others in the extended family were powerful storytellers. Villasenor initially thought much of what they said was exaggerated or fanciful, but as he investigated, he realized most of what they recounted was true.
One thread through this account is the evolution of gender roles in a variety of settings, from remote Mexico to the tumultuous border region and into the Prohibition era in the southwestern United States. Now I want to learn more about the impact of Prohibition on American society.
Another thread in this book is the role of religious belief among “marginalized” families.
I certainly recommend this book highly, and suggest you check out Victor Villasenor to learn about his current activities and interests.
Note! A very interesting feature of this used book is the presence of an embossed seal on the front page. The occasional “Ex Libris” sticker is to be expected, but a high-quality seal? It says “Library of Catherine A Brazil – CAB”. Who was this unknown bibliophile? The “usual sources” do not provide any hint. Rest in peace, unknown friend.
“Empty Planet – The Shock of Global Population Decline” by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
Published 2019 by Crown Publishing, 240 pages plus footnotes and index.
This book (found at my public library) took me entirely by surprise, and caused me to look on climate change (and certain other social problems) differently, and with somewhat more optimism.
The authors discuss a future drop in human population, NOT (as has often been predicted) due to climate related calamity, but due to changes in human reproductive behavior. These changes comprise the “demographic transition”, defined in Chapter One, entitled “A Brief History of Population”. For eons, the human race simply struggled to survive. Following the retreat of the last Ice Age, agriculture allowed population to increase through a series of stages, beginning with high birth rate coupled with high death rate, moving through periods of imbalance and ending (in “developed” societies) with low birth rate, long life and low death rate. Bricker and Ibbitson believe the entire global population will arrive at the latter pattern within the next two or three generations. Hence, human population with stabilize relatively soon, and then continue to fall slowly.
Having grown up reading The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth, I was startled by this book and read it very carefully. I’ve asked the opinion of friends and even my favorite demographer (a relative), and I eagerly await their responses.
Actually, I heard the warning call of this change a few years ago. In 2015, China reversed its “one child policy”. I was VERY surprised, and failed to recognize the significance of the change. Come to think of it, 25 years ago I heard a Russian woman described as a “hero mother” because she had TWO children. I didn’t understand what was behind this.
What do demographers measure, in addition to absolute population? Birth rate is crucial. How many babies does each woman have? “Replacement” is pegged at 2.1, to allow for the fact that not all children survive to become parents. At this point, it all starts to feel personal. I had two babies. So did my parents. But their parents had a total of 10 surviving children! What changed? American families left the farm. (The post World War II baby boom, in case you are wondering, was an aberration.)
Bricker and Ibbitson attribute falling birth rates to the education and subsequent increased employment of women, and to urbanization. They consider these changes unlikely to be reversed.
I think Empty Planet went to press just before the flareup of immigration as a “hot button” topic in the US. It would help if people on both sides of the issue would settle down and read this book! Immigrants and refugees are not identical. Most people, most of the time, prefer to live where they were born.
What do Bricker and Ibbitson project for the future? Both are Canadian, and their other collaborative publication (The Big Shift, 2013) deals with Canadian politics and culture. They expect the future big winners (nations able to maintain their populations and to innovate) to be Canada, the African states and (maybe) the United States. “WHAT?!” you squawk. Better read the book!
At some point, an entirely new concept is introduced – the post national state. I’m still trying to get a grip on it.
Celebrating the Solstice
My dear friend “D” entertains annually on the Winter solstice. The party includes many people who don’t know one another, because they come from different parts of D’s life. My original connection was the playgroup that supported D and I though our children’s preschool years. Those kids are over age 30 now, and most of the playgroup mothers are now grandparents.
Not satisfied with food and drink and general conversation (all wonderful!), D always organizes some kind of “sharing”. This year, her topic was simply inspired. IMMIGRATION has been all over the news and dominates many conversations.
We were offered a chance to discuss our family histories, and share about holiday customs that came from our forebears! Seriously, we could have talked all night. There were 16 of us. Do the math. Thirty two parents, sixty four grandparents, and on it goes! Each life is a story.
What did I learn? The most common country of origin for South Jersey families is Italy! (Had you asked me, I might have suggested Germany, but that’s just my neighborhood.) Those with Italian roots reported large families and many variations on the “Feast of Seven Fishes” on Christmas Eve.
Next most common was the Irish/German/Miscellaneous cohort. I belong there – German mother, Irish father, maybe some English blood.
Many people like me report data gaps. Family members were adopted (often informally), and their backgrounds remain unknown. Going back only four generations, my family tree includes two adoptions.
Two people reported Native American ancestry. Each could name a tribe, but neither holds tribal membership. Only two in our group reported on ancestors from before 1776, and no one reported membership in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).
Some of us discussed genealogy and/or genetic testing. One woman hired a specialized tour guide to help her find family records along the Rhine in Germany! Several people had done or planned to use commercially available genetic testing.
I spoke early in the discussion, and managed to be brief, but things continued to occur to me. Did anyone else know how to make the German treat called “elephant ears”? Did anyone speak a language that was NOT lost during immigration? Each of my grandmothers said she had forgotten her first language, but my German grandmother remembered a little vocabulary and snatches of song. My mother studied German in high school, and I learned it in college. Gaelic, regrettably, has been lost to us.
The Christmas season is a wonderful time for these types of reflection! Thanks, D, for a great evening.
The Frost Place – Museum and Poetry Center, Franconia NH
Growing up, I practiced piano under the sharp eyes of my great grandparents. Their picture hung just to the left of my piano. John and Margaret Lynch were born in the mid-19thcentury and arrived as part of the big wave of migration of the Irish to the United States. I don’t know how old they were when photographed – perhaps in their 50s? John smiled a bit for the camera, but Margaret is serious to the point of looking rather grim.
My sister and I decided to donate the photo to The Frost Place, a small museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, because Frost and his family boarded with the Lynches. John and Margaret are mentioned in Jeffrey Meyers biography of Frost published in 1996. After a few preliminary phone calls and preparation of a gift letter, we drove up to Franconia.
The Frost Place is off the beaten track! My GPS faded. The road is less traveled. Eventually we found a few signs to follow.
The Center consists of the house, a barn fixed for educational use, a trail and (best of all!) a porch. What a view! Part of the house is occupied by an invited “poet in residence” every summer. The public part of the house is beautifully restored.
Frost has been described as America’s most widely read and most loved poet, said to symbolize “the rough-hewn individuality of the American creative spirit more than any other man”. NYT, announcing Frost’s death, Jan 29, 1963
I love small museums! This is a delightful example of that genre, and well worth a drive off the beaten trail.
Intersectionality – a personal essay
“Intersectionality” is getting lots of buzz. (See Chronicle of Higher Education, for example. Google it, for more than you ever want to know.)
I stepped into an intersection yesterday. Not in a street, but at my usual place-of-yoga, the local Hindu Temple. I have a long, comfortable relationship with the Temple. They offer yoga in return for a $5 donation. I speak well of them in the community.
Yesterday the regular yoga space looked different. The amount of artwork on the walls had been doubled, and two beautiful “altars” had been arranged, decked with candles and floral arrangements. What?! I had never seen this degree of formality at the Temple. We learned that a Vietnamese group was holding a meeting or celebration. Preparations had been made. Are there Hindus in Vietnam? I don’t think so. My guess is that the group is Buddhist.
Wikipedia tells me that Buddhism is the dominant religion in Vietnam, carrying with it strong veins of Taoism and Confucianism originating in China. I’m not sure what script I was seeing on the new posters in the Temple. Possibly a version of Sanskrit, but it didn’t match the flowing script seen around the Temple.
The Vietnamese event was not set up in the sacred part of the Temple, with the God images. I couldn’t tell if the human figures on the Vietnamese posters correspond in any way to the Hindu deities, or whether they are intended to be divine. I have so many questions!
So many stories waiting to be told. The world comes to my neighborhood!
“Waiting for Snow in Havana – Confessions of a Cuban Boy” by Carlos Eire
This book falls into two of my favorite reading categories – memoirs, and history I “lived through” but may not understand well. The history in question is the Cuban Revolution, which Wikipedia dates to January 1, 1959. Of course, what I remember best is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. I expected nuclear war.
Carlos Eire is about one year younger than me. His childhood ended at age 11, when he was put on a plane from Havana to Miami, accompanied only by his 15 year old brother.
Waiting for Snow in Havana is an amalgam of memories, highlighting Eire’s parents, brothers, friends, teachers and neighbors. His father was a judge, hence a member of the “establishment”, but not so close to the old regime as to have been immediately targeted for execution by the Revolutionaries. Eire lived a life of privilege and received a good education. Catholicism dominated the culture in many ways.
The decision to send Carlos and his brother to the US on their own was made by his mother, who eventually followed them. His father never left Cuba.
Eire’s childhood memories are dominated by danger and death. Danger, because many of the pastimes and activities would put at contemporary parent into shock – rock throwing as a socially sanctioned game, surfing in rough seas… Death, because so many actions were thought to be deadly – going from a warm room to a cold room, etc.
The book is also permeated by anger, especially at the Revolution, at Castro and Guevara and the changes they imposed on Cuba. Eire is still angry. A quick Goggle search makes it easy to find out the details. Eire knows that his own adult voice permeates the book, although it is intended to express his childhood in its own terms.
If you like memoirs about childhood, read this book. It also sheds (some) light on the immigration and foreign policy issues we now face.
“American Ghost – A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest” by Hannah Nordhaus
This book didn’t work for me. It should have – I like memoirs and family histories, and I like the American Southwest, having spent the summer of 1987 in Santa Fe. While I was there, I made a special effort to read “southwestern” authors, like Tony Hillerman and Oliver LaFarge.
Two things interfered with Nordhaus’s effectiveness. One is that the story she had to tell just wasn’t all that compelling. The deep, dark secret at which she persistently hinted didn’t exist, or couldn’t be uncovered. The other problem was her decision to consult a variety of supernaturalists (mediums, spiritualists, “readers” etc.) and included these efforts in the book. Too silly for words!
The good aspect of this book is that it documents the experiences of German Jews in the American Southwest. Santa Fe is an old, old city and it’s good to have this part of its past clarified. I would say this book is of interest to historians and sociologists, not the general reader like me.