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  • Looking for Home in the New World
  • Susan Strehle (bio)
Sarah Phillips Casteel , Second Arrivals: Landscape and Belonging in Contemporary Writing of the Americas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007. 256 pp. $59.00; $22.50 paper.
David Cowart , Trailing Clouds: Immigrant Fiction in Contemporary America. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2006. xii + 249 pp. $57.95; $19.95 paper.

In different ways, both books under review trace similar yearnings among the world's uprooted for a renewed ability to belong—to reestablish home and to claim citizenship in a second homeland. Edward W. Said believes that these uprooted constitute both a mandate and a dynamo for thought today. "[S]urely it is one of the unhappiest characteristics of the age to have produced more refugees, migrants, displaced persons, and exiles than ever before in history. . . . Yet it is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant."1 Responding to the traumatic dislocations of personal and public history, the authors and protagonists of the writing analyzed in these two recent books seek variations on the space to which Toni Morrison refers in Paradise: "the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home."2 [End Page 145]

From their kindred starting points in the migrant's quest, the two books diverge in more ways than they resemble each other. In David Cowart's Trailing Clouds: Immigrant Fiction in Contemporary America, the migrant author and protagonist have arrived in the United States; recognizing that the original homeland was "unlivable," "the immigrant must deal with prejudice and homesickness but eventually becomes empowered by a new American identity" (7). For Cowart, immigrants bring from their original homelands "an acute awareness . . . of social, political, and historical horrors on a much larger scale" than any problems they encounter in America, their chosen land (207). The "American myth or metanarrative remains valid" for the grateful immigrant, whose assimilation and "embrace of the dream" can demonstrate "how to value what is special about the great cultural experiment that is America. Indeed, a valuing of America's promise and ideals, imperiled by the extremes of identity politics, can be recuperated through the writings of those who have most recently" immigrated (12).

In Sarah Phillips Casteel's Second Arrivals: Landscape and Belonging in Contemporary Writing of the Americas, diasporic peoples of color cross transnational spaces without any definitive landing in a New World homeland. Instead, they consider landscape, looking to those "rural and wilderness spaces" which "are frequently imagined in national narratives as the essence or heart of the nation," and which therefore "remain off-limits to minority presences" (5). The texts Casteel considers focus their critique on such spaces: "Refusing to observe the carefully policed boundaries . . . and the exclusionary definitions of national belonging that they naturalize, these writers and artists intrude upon such landscapes and transform them into more inclusive and heterogeneous spaces" (6). After the first arrival in the city, the migrant achieves a second arrival in the countryside and more generally in a new way of seeing that overcomes the "binary opposition of home and away, native and tourist." Rather than migration, then, Casteel explores diaspora, which she sees as "an ongoing process of becoming."

While Cowart focuses on fiction, Casteel includes poetry and prose, garden writing, photography, and installation art. Cowart's study is clearly organized and bounded; he chooses a group of writers who have themselves immigrated to the United States. His book [End Page 146] contains ten chapters, each analyzing one or two contemporary fictions; these include Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker, Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, Junot Díaz's Drown, and many more. Though Cowart could have selected different or additional writers, his subject of inquiry is well-defined. Casteel, on the other hand, seems to choose the individual subjects for her chapters almost at random. She takes on the potentially boundless subject of writers and artists, working in...


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pp. 145-150
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