Out of Place? Migrant Stories and the Fiction of Belonging
The protagonist of one of the short stories in Viet Thanh Nguyen’scollection The Refugees reflects on her family’s position after they flee war-torn Vietnam for the US, “In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.” Since its beginnings, the United States has defined itself as a nation of immigrants. Yet we have also struggled to decide who “counts” as an American in cultural and legal terms. Stories told by and about migrants have played an important part in this struggle. Those who are “out of place” in the US have been subject to the fictions others tell about them. For immigrants themselves stories hold a double relation to place. On one hand, stories are a way of remembering and maintaining ties to a birthplace or native culture, while on the other hand, they provide a set of conventions for understanding experiences of alienation and assimilation in a new culture.
This class will examine the stories told by and about migrants in the US over the past two centuries, paying particular attention to how the forces of globalization—rapid developments in technology, trade, and travel--have changed these narratives. Surveying a range of fiction and nonfiction narratives by Valeria Luiselli, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mary Antin, Bienvenido N. Santos, Viet Thanh Nguyen and others will allow us to explore the extent to which we can talk about “the immigrant experience.” We will situate these narratives in the context of longstanding and often volatile political debates surrounding the regulation of immigration, including its effects on education, employment, and family life. We will also examine some online storytelling projects such as Refugee Tales and This Land is Your Land to ask how they confirm or contest dominant narratives about migration.