Sunday, November 28, 2010

November 28, 2010: The Heart Matters

As earlier entries in this blog have no doubt made abundantly clear, one of my bigger pet peeves in the dominant narratives of American history is the notion that multi-national and –ethnic immigration has been a relatively recent phenomenon, or at least that it has been most pronounced in the last few decades. It’s true that the 1965 Immigration Act, the first immigration law that opened up rather than closed down immigration for various groups and nationalities, led directly to certain significant waves, especially those from war-torn Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. And it is also true that certain ethnic groups represented particularly sizeable percentages of the immigrants in the last decades of the 20th century: Asian Americans, again, and also Hispanic and West Indian immigrants. None of those facts are insignificant, and our understanding of America in the 1970s and 80s (for example) needs to include them in a prominent place. But my issue is with the very different notion that America prior to 1965 didn’t include immigrants from these nations (an idea advanced in its most overt form, for example, by Pat Buchanan in an editorial after the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, which he blamed on the shooter’s status as the son of South Korean immigrants; another piece I’m most definitely not going to link).
Multicultural historian Ronald Takaki notes this belief in the introduction to his magisterial A Different Mirror, recounting a conversation when a cab-driver asks him how long he has been in the US, and he has to reply that his family has been here for over 100 years. While the most obvious and widespread problem with this belief is that it makes it much easier to define members of these groups as less American than others, I would argue that another very significant downside is that it enables us to more easily forget or ignore the stories of earlier such immigrants; that group would include a couple people about whom I’ve already written in this space, Yung Wing and Maria Ampara Ruiz de Burton, as well as two of the most interesting and unique writers of the first half of the 20th century: Sui Sin Far, about whom I’m sure I’ll blog here at some point; and my focus for today, the Filipino-American novelist, poet, and labor activist Carlos Bulosan. Bulosan came to the United States in 1930 at the age of 17 (or so, his birthdate is a bit fuzzy), and only lived another 26 years, but in that time he worked literally hundreds of different jobs up and down the West Coast, agitated on behalf of migrant and impoverished laborers and citizens during and after the Depression, published various poems and short stories (and wrote many others that remained unpublished upon his far too early death), and wrote the autobiographical, complex, and deeply moving novel, America is in the Heart (1946).
For the most part the book—which is certainly very autobiographical but apparently includes many fictionalized characters, hence my designation of it as a novel (in the vein of something like On the Road or The Bell-Jar)—paints an incredibly bleak picture of its multiple, interconnected worlds: of migrant laborers; of the lower and working classes in the Depression; and of Filipino-American immigrants. In the first two focal points, and especially in its tone, which mixes bleak psychological realism with strident social criticism, Bulosan’s book certainly echoes (or at least parallels, since it is difficult to know if Bulosan had read the earlier work) and importantly complements The Grapes of Wrath. But despite that tone, its ultimate trajectory is surprisingly and powerfully hopeful—that’s true partly because of the opening chapters, which are set in Bulosan’s native Philippines and make it much more difficult to see the book’s America as an entirely bleak place; but mostly because of the evocative concluding chapter, where Bulosan develops at length his title’s argument for the continuing and defining existence of a more ideal America, in the very hearts of all those seemingly least advantaged Americans on whom his book has focused. The idea might sound clich├ęd, but all I can say—and the echo of Reading Rainbow is conscious—is “Read the book”; it works, and works beautifully.
I wrote a few days ago, in concluding the Pequot/Sedgwick post, about American novels of hard-won hope, texts that paint realistic pictures of some of our nation’s darkest histories but come to almost utopian yet very fully earned optimistic conclusions. Bulosan’s definitely fits that bill on both counts; as, again, does Steinbeck’s, and pairing the two thus both captures the depths of the Depression and yet indicates how much hope could survive in the heart of that dark period. But Bulosan’s book is also a wonderful reminder that even in the years between the Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1965 Immigration Act, when immigration from Asian nations was at its most difficult and seemingly scarce, Asian-American immigrants remained a key part of our nation’s vital and evolving communities and identities. More tomorrow, on the 1988 rap album that belongs alongside Guthrie, Dylan, and Springsteen in the pantheon of popular yet deeply political American protest music.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The opening pages of America is in the Heart, on the “Look inside” feature:
2)      Info on a Carlos Bulosan exhibit in Seattle, including a couple interesting excerpts from his writings:

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