So, close to the top of my things to do during my spring non-break is to write an article for the Mid-Atlantic Conference of Latin American Studies, MACLAS. I proposed a paper that will include Esmeralda Santiago’s work When I Was Puerto Rican, Cuando yo era puertorriqueña, and Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent.
What was I thinking? I actually chose to write about someone who is living, who writes about events experienced by contemporary living people. Furthermore, I write about authors who have written other opinion pieces and books on topics related to those on which I want to focus. This is almost as stressful as writing about Vladimir Nabokov, who had an opinion about pretty much everything under the Sun, and left behind writings about his opinions about pretty much everything under the Sun. He is also the one who inspired me to write this paper. In his autobiography, Speak, Memory, he talks about childhood memories and the effect of severe change on those memories.
“I would moreover submit that, in regard to the power of hoarding up impressions, Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known. Genius disappeared when everything had been stored, just as it does with those other, more specialized child prodigies – pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters. But even so, the individual mystery remains to tantalize the memoirist… [i]”
What Nabokov would attribute to the power of the Russian Revolution to displace a whole generation of young people – the ability to hoard up impressions – is actually reflected time and time again in the autobiographical narratives of émigrés. I have been looking at autobiographies mostly from Slavic and Latino immigrants into the United States. They provide an interesting pint of contrast due to what I call the “permeability factor.” By permeability, I mean the ability of the person to hope for an opportunity to return, or at the minimum visit, their homeland. Most Slavic immigrants were denied this opportunity, due to the laws government immigration during the Soviet period – the result of the “cataclysmic” take over by the Soviets in 1917, which led to Nabokov’s exile, and their expansion throughout Eastern Europe, which led to the exile of many others. Once exiled, these immigrants into the United States had no hope to return to their homelands.
One particularly interesting memoir from the Soviet period is Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation.[ii] Eva Hoffman is a Polish born writer who immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1959, at the age of fourteen. She later came to the United States to study in college in Houston, and she then continued graduate studies at Harvard University. She basically matches Nabokov in the area of demonstrable erudition, down to her studies in music in Cracow before she was forced to flee Poland. In her memoir, she contemplates the effects of the adjustment to her new language, English, on her view of the world around her.
“I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom; I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it’s a terrible knowledge, without any of the consolations that wisdom usually brings. It does not mean that I’m free to play with words at my wont; anyways, words in their naked state are surely among the least satisfactory play objects. No, this radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection. [iii]”
It is the experience of “living avatar of structuralist wisdom” that all of these writers seem to share, whether Slavic or Latino. Particularly, when looking at Santiago’s memoir and Alvarez’s novel, what strikes one the most is their shared hyperawareness of the role of language in their performance as women in a new environment. Esmeralda Santiago ends up attending a high school for the performing arts, as if to publically display the challenges of communicating in her new world. And a common fear among all of these women is the concern with staying jamona, the pejorative term for an old maid. Fictionalized, autobiographical, or based on interviews, they all share the fear and challenge of mastering he rituals of adolescent womanhood, which implies mastering the female rituals of courtship.
Thus, I get to write about living writers, who write about living people and living topics. And at the same time try to say something original, clever and hopefully insightful about the challenges of facing the period of the quinceañera in a new land.