January 12, 2004
The conference actually ended today, but I will continue with some comments from Friday morning and see how far I get. One of the panelists in the "What do immigrant writers know about American and the world that non-immigrants don't" panel wasCristina Garcia, a novelist who came from Cuba to New York at the age of two. She says your relationship to your country of origin and language--your immigrantness--might depend on the age you left. She says she has cousins who came from Cuba at age 10 and left behind their childhoods. She became very curious about writing about the Cuba she did not really remember and followed Grace Paley who said, "Write about what you don't know that you know--what you barely know and dimly perceive."
Various banners hang over the stage at the historic San Carlos Institute where the conference takes place. These banners change every day. Friday's banner was a large map of 1772 colonial America. According to this map, North America consisted of California to the west, New Spain to the south where Mexico is, above that New Mexico, and above that a territory called Vice Royalty. Above the Gulf of Mexio was Louisiana and East Florida to the east. North of East Florida was Indian Territory. Above the Indian Territory was an area comprising all the Great Lakes and all the territory north and east of the Great Lakes. Written across the lakes, across southern Ontario, and up the St. Lawrence River, In big black letters, bigger and blacker than any of the other lettering on the map, was the word QUEBEC. When Clark Blaise came out to give his speech he noted that finally someone had drawn the map correctly.
In the panel mentioned above, one of the speakers said that when people meet someone different they try to simplify you at the speed of light so that they could feel comfortable around you. He said, our job is to complicate their view of us at the speed of light.
After lunch Jeanne Watasuki Houston gave a very emotional talk on her experience as the first Japanese-American writer to write about the internment. Her family were taken away from their home and put behind the barbed wires of the camp when she was eight years old. From this arose an incredible feeling of shame. When she asked her mother why they were in jail, her mother said simply, "because we are Japanese." Being Japanese, being who she was, was being criminal. From the shame came a silence about the interment that pervaded the Japanese community. Many years later--in the 60s--one of her nephews who was born in the camp asked Houston what camp life was like, really like, and how did itfeel being there. She said she began to cry. No one had ever asked before. Thus her writing project began. As Houston talked on stage about the feelings of shame and pain, she choked up and had to stop her speech several times. (The half-life of indiscriminate misuse of power is forever.)
Alaksandar (Sasha) Hemon, a writer from Sarajevo, Bosnia, came to Chicago with tourist English in 1992. Writing in English allowed him to became separated from his native language and develop a new sense of self. He says the Ellis Island image of the immigrant is dead. The Ellis Island immigrant left their homeland forever. "They had to melt into the damn pot," he said, "because there was no where else to go." The Ellis Island immigrant idealized the homeland into a fantasy. He said exiles returning to Bosnia forty years after World War II expected to find "the sweetest apples in the world." But now he says an immigrant can read his homeland's press every day on the internet and send e-mail back home. They can maintain contact with the homeland and can see it change.
Lan Cao came to the US from Viet Nam at the age of 13. She wanted to hide that she was from Viet Nam because the topic of Viet Nam was highly charged for many years. She says she used English to camoflage her true identity.
Eva Hoffman was born after the war to Holocaust survivor parents and emigrated to Canada at the age of 13. She says immigration creates a polarized individual. Her Polish became irrelevant and she had to put it in "coffers out of foreground consciousness." She says, "Language lives within us and is a psychic home. Language constructs the self. I had to transpose into English the sense that language inhabited me."