Manual American Immigration Aesthetics: Bernard Malamud and Bharati Mukherjee as Immigrants

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For them, the ideal was still latent: the artist had to bring it out from within or behind the shallow surface of the real. But in many representations of New York in the mid-twenties and after the discordant elements of the urban sublime could not be symbolically reconciled in that fashion. In Manhattan Transfer , surely the most brilliant American city novel, Dos Passos represents the city as an artificial world, as a closed and mechanized environment, as a giant machine processing its daily influx of human raw material into a standardized product.

To live in Manhattan meant either to submit to the economic, social and sensuous pressures of the city or to be discarded as part of its daily garbage. He is thus able to transform its destructive energies into the liberating energies of his aesthetic construct. On the ruins of the Bridge we see someone playing a harp—perhaps a deranged poet still caught in a mad celebration of the mythic Bridge and City that once was.

The protagonists of subsequent city novels are children of metropolis, marked by it, formed by it. They belong to that first New York according to E. White, that of the native born who take the city for granted. In painting, this can perhaps first be perceived in the pictures of Abstract Expressionism and of Pop Art where modernist abstractions of the dynamically sublime have become the play material for abstractions of a different kind Central alone is the formal abstraction of the design—which makes the title of the painting almost irrelevant.

Although we could, if we strained ourselves, still recognize certain representational elements. This combination of playful abstraction with the materiality of the discarded, together with the arbitrary collage of randomly collected waste material, is characteristic of Pop Art in general.

MUKHERJEE, Bharati 1940-

According to Peter Conrad, Robert Rauschenberg collected the material for his collages within strictly defined, yet always changing areas of the city While Stillman arbitrarily collects city waste, Quinn collects images of human waste—waste he himself turns into before finally and mysteriously disappearing from the novel completely.

It was not only that the representation of the city had become increasingly abstract by emphasizing its textual status or by staging itself explicitly as textual construction, e. When Underworld , in its last chapter, moves back into the s, it also makes clear what has replaced the city: systems of urban and trans-urban signs, networks of communication, electronic circuits with their massive flow of information—for all of these the city has become mere metaphor. The actual collapse of the highest of these towers on September 11, confirmed, on the one hand, their symbolic obsolescence.

White had expressed, in uncanny anticipation, as early as The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.

The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. Whether this new element has changed New York fiction once and for all remains to be seen, but it has certainly extended its range, added a new dimension to it. Next to variations of the urban sublime and the regionally or ethnically rooted model of New York writing there is the new fictional space of a metropolitan in-between: of the migratory and transitional that is experienced locally as well as globally Central is the perspective of Celia del Pino, the grandmother, rooted in Cuba and eventually dying there, whose story opens and closes the novel.

Of her three children, the oldest, Lourdes, emigrates with her husband and her two-year old daughter Pilar to Brooklyn where she opens a bakery in a neighborhood whose ethnic composure is in a constant process of change from Jewish to Black to Latino. Although, unlike her mother, Lourdes has become vehemently anti-Castro and patriotically American, she still dreams of Cuba; while Pilar—who, like her mother before her, turns against her mother—has left Brooklyn to study art at Barnard and lives on the Upper West Side. Living in some abject place in Harlem, he finds temporal work in dirty and rat-infested Indian restaurants between downtown and uptown Manhattan, between the financial district, the Upper West Side and Washington Heights As one of thousands of migrants—employed and exploited because of their illegal status—he desperately hopes to acquire an ever elusive green card.

When these hopes come to nothing, he begins dreaming of India until he finally returns home where he is robbed by a band of local insurgents and loses the little money he had managed to save during three long years of work in America. He refuses the virtuoso role-play of his flexible African friend Sayeed as well as the cultural confusion of his beef-eating Indian employers and their socially ambitious and fast adjusting families. Betrayed by a dream of America as much as by a dream of India, he suffers a double inheritance of loss.


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Lila Mae is an Intuitionist trying to stay aloof from a political game that serves essentially white interests and in which both sides attempt to use blacks for their own purpose. She also comes to question her own plot-bound imagination when she understands that the impossible freefall crash of Elevator Eleven was not part of a conspiracy against her but truly, and against all odds, an accident she had been unable to anticipate II of his theory where he sees elevators not as mechanized objects but as sentient subjects, as the Other of communication.

That simple. Sometimes in her room she thinks about the accident and its message. Much of what happened would have happened anyway, but it warms her to know that the perfect elevator reached out to her and told her she was of its world. That she was a citizen of the city to come and that the frail devices she had devoted her life to were weak and would all fall one day like Number Eleven.

She will make the necessary adjustments. It will come.

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She is never wrong. Through the conferring of a kind of canonical recognition, the story has reached all manner of readers. The use of temporal and narrative breaks and the absence of specificity — at the same time as an emotional and psychological realism born out of the direct knowledge and research which led to The Sorrow and the Terror — force the reader to engage and imagine more fully. That this Canadian story reappears in US anthologies sits at odds with the historical silence surrounding the Air India tragedy in North America as a whole.

Drawing on the power of fiction and the possibilities of an imaginative lens, it uses one protagonist, Shaila Bhave, as the focaliser for this tragedy. Whereas the tales collected in Darkness offer a bleaker portrayal of North America and focus almost exclusively upon Indian Canadians and Americans, the majority of the Middleman stories revel in the energy of a multicultural, late twentieth-century United States, speaking from a host of ethnic perspectives, including Filipina, Iraqi Jewish, Italian, Sri Lankan Tamil, Indo-Trinidadian, and white nativist.

Ostensibly at least, such stories celebrate the exciting, liberatory potential of a nation fundamentally transformed by waves of post immigrants from across Asia and the Caribbean. Yet the three stories discussed here all reproduce a particular gendered and racialised dynamic: the Indian woman apparently freed by North America from patriarchal tradition in the ancestral homeland.

Moreover, each story seems to reinforce an image of the United States and Canada as the site of possibility and reinvention for Indian-born women. They face an uncertain and possibly bleak future in the new nation. And in the case of Shaila Bhave, a white, paternalistic Canada is so ambivalent about its citizens of colour that it fails to respond adequately to the terrorist attack that took the lives of her husband and sons.

This factor may have made these stories more attractive to editors than those collected in Darkness , a volume Mukherjee struggled to publish even though individual stories from it were deemed important enough to reprint. Yet, as I have argued here, her attitude towards America was much more critical than this censure would imply, and across her fiction she is both subversive and questioning towards her adoptive country. That position is by no means assured.

She has, for example, never been included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. With the exception of Lahiri, these writers are all Chinese American. That is to say, Mukherjee was very often the sole writer of South Asian descent to appear, thus excluding a wealth of writing from the past thirty years. And there are often no other Asian American writers to be found in such collections. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford.

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Mukherjee, Bharati 1940-

Reviewer: David Schak. Reviewed book: Changing Taiwanese Identities. Reviewer: Anthony Rausch.

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