- Migrant Sites: America, Place, and Diaspora Literatures
From Huck Finn escaping civilization by lighting out to the territory to Jay Gatsby leaving the Midwest to pursue dreams in the big city, myths about place have played a key role in American literature. In Migrant Sites: America, Place, and Diaspora Literatures, Dalia Kandiyoti views purportedly all-American spaces from a diaspora perspective, demonstrating the limits of the mythologies that surround them. The frontier, for instance, has been conceived as an unpopulated space that symbolizes national expansion and freedom of movement. Such mobility, however, has not been the case for immigrant and ethnic groups, whose movements have been constrained by restrictive laws. Kandiyoti's book offers fresh perspectives on American literature and diaspora literature alike. Whereas theorizations of diaspora have primarily emphasized movement, Kandiyoti shifts the emphasis to place, demonstrating the significance of and relationship between places of departure and arrival. In the works Kandiyoti examines, ethnic and immigrant spaces are understood in the context of other places their residents have known; such places, she argues, represent not only exclusion, but also everyday life and even hope for the future.
Migrant Sites offers examinations of both urban and rural settings. The book is divided into two sections, the first addressing literature of European immigration at the turn of the twentieth century and the second focusing on Latina/o works of the post-Civil Rights era. This juxtaposition allows Kandiyoti to highlight the significance of place as an evolving concept through various historical and ethnic contexts. Kandiyoti begins by arguing that Abraham Cahan's immigrant perspective put a new spin on the genre of regionalism. Whereas regionalists tended to sing the praises of the rural, the static, and the homogeneous, Cahan, by contrast, presented a diverse urban environment that is constantly in flux. Encouraged by William Dean Howells, Cahan focused on the unique voices and scenes of a particular location, New York's Lower East Side. While writers such as Jacob Riis sometimes treated poverty as picturesque, Cahan refrained from romanticizing the Lower East Side. Furthermore, in his 1896 novella Yekl, Cahan depicted this predominantly Jewish neighborhood as a place of diversity rather than uniformity—a place made up of individuals of different national origins, languages, and social status, where their [End Page 225] pre-immigration lives continued to inflect their post-immigration experiences.
Kandiyoti moves on to the work of Willa Cather, who, like Cahan, shows the diversity of a seemingly homogeneous setting. The immigrants who populate Cather's novel My Ántonia (1918) become rooted in the land, and it is their maintenance of European traditions that makes Ántonia and the others worthy founders of the new territory. But Cather's accommodating attitudes toward immigration—though they contrasted with the nativism typical of the period—also proved problematic in her depictions of other ethnic groups, particularly in concerns about the claims of place. In order to posit Ántonia as the mother of a new land, Cather must erase any traces of the American Indians whose presence belied the notion that the West remained unsettled.
Rather than coming to the United States, the groups considered in the second section of Migrant Sites saw the US come to them. Following the 1848 cession of Mexican land, the significance of place in the legendary ancestral homeland of Aztlán has gathered particular resonance for Chicana/o writers. In the Chicana texts Kandiyoti examines, however, the writers demythologize the concept of an idealized homeland and the hope that comes with migration. In Estela Portillo Trambley's "Rain of Scorpions" (1975), the characters rise to the challenge of empowerment and pride in the face of impending eviction from their polluted industrial village, Smeltertown. Like "Rain of Scorpions," Sandra Cisneros's "Woman Hollering Creek" (1991) challenges the romance of the idyllic small town and depicts the limits of migration. Though the protagonist, Cleófilas, crosses the border, her life in a small town in the US is scarcely different from that in her Mexican hometown. Travel, Cisneros cautions, is not always a remedy for...