Narratives of migration extend from the halls of Ellis Island at the turn of the last century to the globalized transit depots of the twenty-first century. In narratives of immigration, first-generation immigrants are often driven to these shores by the blight of poverty or the sting of religious or political persecution; hope to make for themselves a fabled but often factitious “better life”; and are riven between the desire to retain old-world customs and language and the appeal of new-world comforts and technological advances. Second-generation immigrants face the duality of a national identity—striving to become recognized as “real Americans”—and an ethnic heritage that they wish to honor and sustain but which marks them as always an “other.” Here we encounter the hyphenated status of the preponderance of “natural born” American citizens. The third-generation descendent will have only indirect or acquired familiarity with his or her ethnic heritage; the loss of bilingualism or at best a second language acquired in school; and frequently a multiethnic identity resulting from the complex scrabble of American life in a mobile, suburban, and professionalized surrounding.
Mount Allegro (1989), Jerre Mangione’s memoir of growing up in the Sicilian enclave of Rochester, NY, portrays ethnicity that is insular, protective of its “imported from Italy” values, and yet desperate to find recognition as an authentic version of “Americanness.” Colm Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn (2009), introduces us to the postwar generation of Irish immigrants in the borough of Brooklyn in the 1950s. Although it may not strike us as radical now, Eilis Lacey’s interethnic marriage to an Italian immigrant, and the conflicting draws of remigration and family ties, bring her to the crossroads of dilemma. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short stories in The Refugees (2017) show the exacting toll that forced migration can take as, after the American war in Vietnam, families are broken between the homeland that has expelled them and the country that only reluctantly receives them. Dave Eggers’ fictionalized What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006) tracks the exodus of a Lost Boy of Sudan, whose tragedy and loss in the midst of genocidal warfare is framed by his assault in an American city that is supposed to give him refuge.
The narratives of immigration to America impress the assimilation of the foreign body into the dominant imaginary of a white, Rockwellian Protestantism; the naturalization not only of the “resident alien” but also of the exceptionalism on which those cultural values stand; and a tribalism that is irreconcilable with a blended, pluripotential society. The narratives of remigration from America express a transversal politics of differentiation, a transnational identity that bricolages self and other, and the cosmopolitanism of an open, borderless world. This transnationalism, however, isn’t the pure product of a postmodern or post-9/11 condition. One hundred years ago the radical progressive intellectual, Randolph Bourne, issued a call in 1916 for a “Trans-national America” as the first World War engulfed the countries in Europe from which much of America’s immigrant stock was derived. Bourne was among the first to declare “the failure of the ‘melting-pot,’” a rejection of the assimilationist metaphor in which the “impurities” of an alien ethnicity are annealed in the blast furnace of American industrial capitalism; an Americanization that was indeed touted in such immigrant narratives as the widely-read autobiography of Mary Antin, The Promised Land (1912).
Novels of remigration include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013), whose protagonists Ifemelu and Obinze encounter a dream deferred in the West before their return to Nigeria; Amy Waldman’s The Submission (2011), which imagines a controversy arising from the juried architectural competition for the 9/11 Memorial, whose apparent winner is a young architect named Mohammad Khan; and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), a dramatic monologue delivered by a Princeton-educated Pakistani émigré who returns to Lahore after 9/11 to lecture in the classroom against American imperialism.
Other literary and critical readings will be available through UB Learns or on graduate course reserve. Course requirements will include a twenty-minute seminar presentation by all enrolled students and a twenty-page research paper from those students registered intensively.