Immigrant Narratives

What is an immigrant novel? As I read And China Has Hands I was constantly struck by the idea that I was reading two immigrant novels that were reflected through a great deal of irony. One story was  Wong Wan-Lee’s and the other story was Pearl Chang’s, yet both immigrant stories were very different. Wong Wan-Lee’s immigrant story was one of someone who had just arrived to the United States. He came with the hopes of striking rich; however, his inability to assimilate to American culture and his overall marginalization as a Chinese man ultimately led to his demise. As I read And China Has Hands I felt as though some information about Wan-Lee’s experience was getting lost in translation. With further reflection, I thought this may be the point. Throughout the book Wan-Lee never gets a full understanding of the situations he is faced with. These situations range from personal (his relationship with Pearl-Chang) to business (his relationships with the loan sharks and possible mafia related men.) Wan-Lee took on the form of a traditional immigrant novel, talking about the strife and struggle he faced.

Although Pearl Chang is an American citizen, seeing that she was born in the South, I still read her story as though it were an immigrant novel. Even though she was biracial she felt a closer connection with her Chinese heritage due to her ability to speak the language. In fact, Pearl Chang tried to appear Chinese rather than Black to her community. This may be due to a variety of reasons, but one of them may have to do with the assimilation of Chinese people into white culture (as narrated by the novel.) Pearl Chang’s story was ironic because she was obsessed with fame and in the end of the novel the spotlight is on her, as Wan-Lee says in his final words. I find it ironic that movies are at the root of Pearl Chang’s story. The only things she knew about China and Chinese culture was through the cinema and she assumed these things to be true. Throughout the novel she makes references to the movies and she is shocked when Wan-Lee explains to her that her knowledge is not how Chinese life works. I still consider Pearl Chang’s story to be an immigrant narrative even though she is a US citizen, because she still suffers from the plight that immigrants faced at that.

My Antonia: Whose immigrant narrative?

One might suspect that in an immigrant novel, it is clear who the immigrant is and which immigrant experience is being narrated. In My Antonia, these lines are blurred as multiple experiences of relocation are conveyed and ideas of what constitutes an immigrant, and by extension an immigrant novel, are explored. Jimmy states, “She often reminded me, when she was preparing for the return of the hungry men, that this country was not like Virginia,” (pg. 85) effectively referring to Nebraska as a different country than Virginia, and entering into conventions of what is typically considered immigration. Furthermore he says, “I read ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ aloud…and I felt that the Swiss family had no advantages over us in the way of an adventurous life. I was convinced that man’s strongest antagonist is the cold” (pg. 85). In this passage, the author is pulling from common themes of struggle and hardship that immigrants encounter when settling in a new land. On the other hand, the narrator acknowledges that in addition to the aforementioned hardship that Jimmy and the Shimerdas alike are exposed to, they must also cope with other challenges of cultural and linguistic assimilation. Jimmy states, “We were willing to believe that Mrs. Shimerda was a good housewife in her own country, but she managed poorly under new conditions” (pg. 66).

Based on this seemingly double-layered immigrant narrative, to what extent can My Antonia be considered a first person immigrant novel and to what extent does it qualify as a third person immigrant novel? Although Jimmy considers himself an arrival to a “new country,” he also refers to many of the other characters, including the Shimerdas and the Russians, as foreigners. Can Jimmy refer to others as foreigners (in contrast to himself) while also making genuine claims of being an immigrant?