Exploring the American Immigrant Experience Through Literature
In “Amor de lejos: Latino (Im)migration Literatures,” B.V. Olguin writes, “Latino/a (im)migration narratives…often illustrate the traumatic aspects of displacement by focusing in part on how immigration, migration, exile, and colonization place people in a state of national limbo” (333). Similarly, in “The New Immigration and the Literature of Asian America,” Hye Suh and Robert Ji-Song Ku write, “Asian American literature bears the traces of global capitalism, technology, migration from south to north, new possibilities for national identity in immigrant communities, the reshaping of American culture, and the unifying power of music” (322). Both of these statements similarly generalize, somewhat specifically in their claims, about American immigrant literature. However, these arguments are missing key elements that make immigrant narratives much more complex: the generational battle that exists amongst their characters, and the cultural clash in terms of ancient superstitions versus logic-based modernity. These elements are evidenced in Edwidge Danticat’s “Caroline’s Wedding” and Lan Samantha Chang’s “The Eve of the Spirit Festival.”
“The Eve of the Spirit Festival” and “Caroline’s Wedding” are two different short stories but nonetheless carry common threads besides the overarching thematic concepts. Both stories surround the situation of immigrant families attempting assimilation in the United States (in Chang’s story, it is a Chinese family while in Danticat’s it is a Haitian family). Both stories have the vital and profound conflict of losing a parental figure (in Chang’s story it is the death of the mother while in Danticat’s story it is the death of the father). Both stories are told in the narrative voice of the “other sister,” who speaks of her sister’s conflict with the living parental figure. This conflict is not simply a product of loss (for instance, channeling sadness into anger towards the remaining adult) or a product of generational bickering (as seen in much American media forms depicting 90’s teenagers contrasted with their Baby Boomer parents) but rather a fusion of both with the extremely significant addition of the challenges of Americanization.
In “The Eve of the Spirit Festival,” the older sister Emily is in a state of war with her Buddhist father Baba. The problem in their relationship could be reduced to the mother’s death. In the second paragraph of the story, Emily says, “It’s Baba’s fault…The American doctors would have fixed her” (40). This may be the crux of the conflict; the traditional Buddhist parents decided against a potentially life-saving American operation. Why? According to the narrator, the Chinese believe that “our bodies are given to us from our ancestors, gifts that should not be tampered with” (49). Of course, the concept of American doctors “tearing a hole in [the mother’s] body” would indeed cross the line of tampering with this gift (40). The result? Death: a hard, cold fact that transcends any “national limbo” or “national identity” crisis (Olguin, 333, Suh and Ku, 322). Even given the Buddhist beliefs in spirits, no follower can deny the palpable loss of a human being, particularly a parent.
One interesting aspect of Chang’s story is Baba’s profession as a science lab instructor. Science, of course, is based in facts, reasoning, proof, and method—and has historically battled establishments or religious institutions for that reason. After mourning the loss of his wife (in the traditional 49-day period), Baba never returns to a Buddhist temple. “Instead,” the narrator tells us, “he focused on earthly ambitions, his research at the lab” (41). The widower “had eschewed all Chinese customs” since his wife’s death and went on to “scorn the traditional tales of unsatisfied spirits roaming the earth” (43). This provides an interesting contrast to Olguin’s initial claim: that some “immigration narratives…often illustrate the traumatic aspects of displacement” (333). Instead, it appears in Chang’s piece—and Danticat’s—that the immigration narrative may illustrate more of the traumatic aspects of parental or spousal loss, not necessarily geographical displacement.
Here one might argue that Baba’s Americanization and psychological and practical diversion from traditional Buddhist “old school” practices is purely a result of the loss of his wife and mother of his children. However, further details in Chang’s story prove this not to be the case; rather, it is a necessity in America’s culture of social Darwinism. He is made aware of his old age and possibly lack of successful assimilation when he tells his daughter that a man ten years his junior was promoted over him. Chang’s concept of competition in the workplace does, however, serve as evidence to Suh and Ku’s claim that “Asian American literature bears the traces of global capitalism” (322). This notion is further proven when Baba has his colleagues over for drinks and his daughter claims he watches the American men as if he is “studying to become one” (41).
The generational and cultural battles in “Caroline’s Wedding” is just as forceful a facet as that in Chang’s story. In Danticat’s piece, Caroline is the more “American” daughter and is introduced to the reader as she brushes aside her hair, which is “chemically straightened and streaked bright copper from a peroxide experiment” (160). The dialogue that follows this narration is Ma’s declaration that Caroline thinks she is “so American” (160). This could be seen as partly in accordance with a small facet of Suh and Ku’s claim—that many immigrant-related literature discuss the “reshaping of American culture”—seen here by the materialism and superficiality in the “Americanized” daughter (322).
In contrast to Caroline’s peroxide experiments and self-Americanization, Ma, who is not even an American citizen, has great woes about her daughter’s upcoming marriage. This is because Caroline is having a very American wedding: she is marrying someone of a different culture. Eric is Bahamian, not Haitian, which disappoints her widow mother to an intense degree throughout the story. This is exemplified through the Danticat’s metaphor of bone soup—a Haitian delicacy that the American daughters resist but their mother insists they consume. The narrator tells the reader that every single night since Caroline’s engagement announcement, Ma had cooked bone soup with supper, which the author makes clear is no coincidence. Rather, it is the mother’s petty attempt to enforce the old ways upon the new—to take part in the generational and cultural clash that is particularly hard for her without her husband by her side. This further proves the point that Olguin’s claim would have better fit these stories if she had stated some narratives focus on the “traumatic aspects” of death or loss as opposed to merely displacement (333).
An argument against superstition and magic being a purely Haitian or “old country” quality is presented at Caroline’s wedding day, when Caroline explains to her mother that it is “bad luck” for the groom to see the bride before the wedding (202). This is a very interesting complication, but this tradition is hardly comparable to the ways of their dead father’s, in a list that included the following: stuffing red hot peppers into his mother’s nose, look for a falling star to “signal his mother’s impending death,” stuffing live snakes into bottles “to imprison his anger” or piling rocks around the house to “keep the dead spirit in the ground” (178-179). Moreover, one could argue the American wedding tradition serves a somewhat practical, though not profound purpose: it may be less “bad luck” and simply more exciting or emotional to reveal the bride at the big moment, as opposed to prior to the ceremony.
Finally, the most intriguing component of both stories comes in the complication of the generational rift wherein both sides seem to switch attitudes in different areas. In “Caroline’s Wedding,” Caroline shows an odd reversal from the American girl to the Haitian traditionalist. Months before the wedding, Caroline takes a new spin on an old tradition by wearing black instead of red. In the narrative, Caroline raises her dress to the to reveal black panties, which would “tell [her father] that he would be welcome to visit” and the narrator speculates she may wear hers in the “hope that Papa would come to her and say that he approved of her” (172). Furthermore, it is revealed later in the story that both daughters dedicate their professional lives to teaching English as a Second Language to Haitian students. Ma once told Caroline, “You think you are so American” but there are few things American about awaiting the ghost of a being. On the other side of the spectrum, Ma buys Caroline a teddy bear and lingerie (quintessential American gifts) and declares, “I can’t live in this country twenty-five years and not have some of it rub off on me” (193).
Similarly, in “The Eve of the Spirit Festival,” the traditionalist Baba slowly begins to sound like the average American father figure—reading the New York Times, sending his daughters off to American universities, and making “simple meals or TV dinners” for his younger daughter (46). Further complicating the generational shift, the rebellious American daughter Emily concedes to her ancestors’ old ways. At the funeral of her father—which the narrator notes was not a traditional Buddhist ceremony—Emily dresses in black and white “according to Chinese mourning custom” (47).
What Olguin might refer to as the “national limbo” crisis in immigrant literature, or “national identity” problems for Suh and Ku, appear in these two cases to be the delicate generational balance of the ancient, traditional, superstitious—maybe magical—ways of the past and the hard cold facts of the new world. This national modernity “rubs off” on even the elders, yet both stories make the poignant observations that there are still remnants of this spirituality that has yet to “rub off” from the younger generation.
It is this nuance that challenges the notions of the simple new world/old world, magic/realism, parental generation/offspring generation binaries. Furthermore, the evidence suggests there is more to immigrant literature than Suh and Ku, or Olguin stated in their claims. In both stories, there are few mentions of the challenges presented by “migration, exile, and colonization,” as Olguin wrote (333). Moreover, Chang’s Asian American immigration tale does not carry components that fall neatly into Suh and Ku’s list: “technology, migration from south to north…and the unifying power of music” (322). What both stories do offer are poignant and multifaceted portrayals of the “national limbo” (Olguin, 333) and “new possibilities for national identity” (Suh and Ku, 322) in the immigrant experience in America, both generational and cultural.
Chang, Samantha Lan. "The Eve of the Spirit Festival". Best American Short Stories 1996 Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. 40-50.
Danticat, Edwidge. "Caroline's Wedding." Krik Krak. London: Vintage, 1996. 157-216.
Olguin, B.V. "Amor de lejos: Latino (Im)migration Literatures." Crossing into America: The New Literature of Immigration. New York: New Press, 2005. 327-342.
Suh, Sung Hye and Robert Ji-Song Ku. "The New Immigration and the Literature of Asian America." Crossing into America: The New Literature of Immigration. New indent York: New Press, 2005. 315-326.