Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Two Interesting Books at My Local Bookstore

Led Me to Think About Teenage and Immigration

We had three book readings this weekend at our local store — which, I might add, is one of the few independent bookstores that opened right in the midst of the recession: Words all around the theme of immigration. Most interesting for readers of this blog, I believe, were Vincent Cannato, whose American Passage is a fascinating history of Ellis Island. On the one hand he disproves many of the myths we are accustomed to reading — for example, no names were changed at Ellis Island. The names written down there were the the names the immigrants had supplied when they got on the boats, and were registered on the ship manifest. More broadly, while there were certainly people at Ellis Island who were eager to restrict immigration, or keep American as WASP as possible, or to convert immigrants — the location was really the site of all the conflicts over immigration, and the wide variety of points of view, that was America at the turn of the 20th Century. The book takes Ellis Island out of myth (made up out of family memory) and brings it into history.
          Then on Sunday we heard from Moustafa Bayoumi, whose What Does It Feel Like to Be a Problem, is based on interviews with young (18-30) Arab and Muslim Americans since 9-11. Marina was the moderator of both, and she’d read the books before the events, so I had a sense of what was coming. Moustafa’s book gives voice to the strains in Arab-Muslim Americans who went, in a day, from being largely invisible to being the Face Of The Enemy. Marina asked him about the juggle of listening to a narrative from the fervent POV of someone who has lived through an event, while being — as the author must — an outsider supplying context and perspective. That is the big challenge in books like this — which in one way serve as a validation and vehicle for the experience of a group subject to stereotyping and prejudice, while in the other speak to a wider community with a different set of beliefs and experiences. Professor Bayoumi visited us after the talk, and we had the most thoughtful, engaged conversation about the subject which immediately comes to mind — Israel. 
           The two readings left me with an insight I had not had before: before the 60’s most immigrants assumed that coming to America meant some form of assimilation. We have all heard the stories of parents who could not speak English and exptected their children to be both the translators and ambassadors to the new country — or parents who changed their names, or noses, in order to seem more "American" — and not stand out. But in the 60’s we as a nation began to embrace our Roots, our cultural differences. So just as a new wave of immigration began, assimilation was a more confused ideal. I wonder how a young person, a teenager, deals with the cross currents of wanting to fit in and be proud of her heritage, to remain apart while joining in? Maybe that is the challenge of teenage for everyone — but especially for new immigrants.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    Sorry to differ from Vincent Cannato’s version: What clerks read & heard were based on linquistic differences and political policies, so that names were altered, even within a family.Those of us who have the documents know that.

    When I read online what WORDS was offering, I ordered the books, which haven’t arrived as yet. However, as an Ancient Mariner, I’d like to add that though assimilation was the goal for children in public school (where I learned English), older family members often resisted “The American Way,” but their refusal to assimilate was behind closed doors.
    Now, much more is made public about religious, ethnic, & national differences, but there still are communities, certainly in NY with which I’m familiar, who claim “the old way” is the best way, creating much conflict within the home, something we older children of immigrants remember, as well.
    Also, I’m not sure whether many new young immigrant want to emulate their parents, especially daughters whose lives are more circumscribed than Americans’.

    Because I taught in a high school in Queens which had no majority and many immigrants (the first Afghans when the Russians invaded that country), I always included the theme of immigration to my English courses and encouraged students to share and write about their first experiences entering the US, as well as what they observed in their families and friends.We also read short stories, memoirs, and novels on the subject. Our discussions in classes often had a profound effect on Americanborn students with no known history of migration.

    In a Transitional English class, the students were asked to write a cookbook of family recipes, which they had to learn to cook, and they illustrated and wrote significant terms in their own languages which we discussed in terms of grammar & linguistics. I had the book xeroxed, and we sold it to faculty, friends, & community. Since foods are our earliest memories, we had much to learn from each other. Also, the assignment introduced a vocabulary rarely mentioned in other classes.

    But, adolescence is such a challenge for most, and for teenaged immigrants or children of immigrants, the choices and decisions have great impact on the family, as well as onthe individual.