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Becoming Americans

Selections from 85 immigrants tell what it means to become an American.

By Geoff Wisner / October 27, 2009

In 1979, the Library of America began its great task: making the works of America’s essential writers available in compact, durable, uniform editions that would remain in print. This would seem to be enough for one press to handle, but in 1998 the LOA went on to publish “Writing New York,” the first in a separate series of special anthologies.

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The latest of these anthologies is not just by American writers. It is about what it is like to become an American writer – or at least, since many of the authors here were not primarily writers – what it is like to become an American.

The 85 selections in Becoming Americans include memoirs, essays, fiction, and poetry. Eighty-four are written by a single author, while the 85th is an assortment of anonymous poems by Chinese immigrants interned on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Except for the final selection in the book, each work is by someone who came to America, and many of them focus on the first days or weeks after their arrival. (That last selection, a melancholy excerpt from “Hunger of Memory” by Richard Rodriguez, points the way toward the experiences of the second generation.)

The selections in “Becoming Americans” are arranged according to the date when the author arrived here. Ilan Stavans, the editor of this volume, appears on page 629. In the short introduction to his essay – perceptive and gracefully written, like his introductions to the other contributors – Stavans explains that he was born in Mexico City into a Jewish family with roots in Poland and Ukraine. He came to the United States as a teenager, in 1985, and developed an “interest in language as a prism for understanding identity.”

Many of the selections describe the obstacles, and sometimes opportunities, of learning to use American English. To be an exiled writer, says Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize–winning poet, “is like being a dog or a man hurtled into outer space in a capsule (more like a dog, of course, than a man, because they will never retrieve you). And your capsule is your language.”

Of course, the contributors to this book have more to worry about than just language. Some are indentured servants. Some are slaves. Others struggle with lack of money, poorly paid and degrading work, and lack of support from compatriots who have come before. The fact that these authors survived and wrote well about their experiences makes them among the most successful immigrants. But whatever successes they may have had in the Old World, and whatever successes may come in the New, the memory of being scared and vulnerable and out of their element lends their work a refreshing humility.


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