- Barbarous Tongues: Immigrant Fiction and Ethnic Voices in Contemporary American Literature
David Cowart’s Trailing Clouds and Martha J. Cutter’s Lost and Found in Translation both contribute to the diverse and sometimes maligned field known as multi-ethnic literatures of the United States. Both books are heirs of foundational cross-cultural projects such as Houston Baker’s edited Three American Literatures, Werner Sollors’s Beyond Ethnicity, and Bonnie TuSmith’s All My Relatives and are also akin to the transethnic cultural criticism boom embodied in Arturo J. Aldama’s Disrupting Savagism, Alfred Arteaga’s edited An Other Tongue, and Frederick Luis Aldama’s Postethnic Narrative Criticism. [End Page 398] From the start, multicultural literary studies worked to recover ethnic voices and understand their ambivalent place within and against US literary and national histories, and along the way it has weathered the heady debates between assimilation and marginalization; essentialism and constructivism; aesthetics and politics; English and an other tongue; and, to recall Sollers and Frederick Aldama, ethnicity and fluidity. Probably, though, the most enduring dichotomy to trouble US multicultural studies is the distinction between immigrant and ethnic American literature and the related taxonomies between immigrant and émigré writings and the split between first and second generation.
The books under review similarly reiterate the ostensible difference between immigrants and their subsequent generation counterparts. Cowart deals with immigrant fiction; Cutter considers ethnic American writing. Despite whatever similar experiences immigrants and US minorities might share, both books distinguish between the two groups. Cowart is the more emphatic in his definition of generational borders: “I reserve the term ‘first generation’ for those born in the United States to immigrant parents. I mean, however, to emphasize immigrant writers here, to determine whether their vision differs from that of their already canonized ‘first-generation’ cousins. . . . [W]e shall find the perceptions of immigrant writers ever so slightly more pristine than those of writers always already American” (2). Cutter is more fluid in hers, understanding that linguistic and cultural translation challenge both the “melting pot” and “salad bowl” immigration metaphors because “Translation also demonstrates that the concepts of the American and the ethnic can be renovated and transcoded through a creative, interlingual tension between these categories and the tongues they habitually employ” (215).
While the dichotomy between immigrant and ethnic American has always fueled tenuous social and cultural relations within and across ethnic groups, as well between specific ethnic groups and dominant US culture, the emergence of border studies throughout the 1990s encouraged scholars and writers to embrace the connections across—rather than the divisions between—immigrant, exile, and ethnic American experiences in ways that productively understood culture and identity as fluid rather than fixed categories that traverse national borders. The September 11, 2001 bombings of the World Trade Centers, and the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed, however, abruptly ended the celebrations of transethnic border crossing, as national hysteria deemed immigrants and ethnic others—no matter the status of their green cards or birth certificates— foreign threats to the national security of the US’s natural and legal citizens. 9/11 thus forced the reappearance of the ethnic-immigrant [End Page 399] fissure in multiethnic studies by pressuring ethnic-American subjects across the country to overemphasize their US citizenship status at the expense of their immigrant counterparts. At the same time, the debates over legal and illegal immigration continue to foster English-only legislation, restrict the human rights of immigrants in the land of immigrants, and even legitimate armed militia patrols along the US-Mexico border. In our times, immigrants and ethnic Americans alike are barbarians at best in the eyes of mainstream political and popular culture—perceived literally as aliens or foreigners who pose a threat to the nation’s real citizenry. It is this historical dilemma that hinders Cowart’s otherwise interesting project and makes Cutter’s focus on translation an especially...