Writers and the Immigrant Experience: Latin America and the Caribbean
Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. Books about the immigrant experience act as a bridge between cultures. They carry readers across borders and help them experience the lives of people different from themselves.
This week, our program looks at the lives of four writers in the United States who have strong ties to Latin America and the Caribbean. They are Isabel Allende, Francisco Goldman, Jamaica Kincaid and Sandra Cisneros.
Isabel Allende is one of the most popular immigrant writers from South America. She has written many books for adults and children. One of her most successful was her first book, “The House of Spirits.” Mizz Allende based it on memories of her family and the political crises in Chile where she grew up.
Isabel Allende was born in nineteen forty-two in Lima, Peru. Her father was a Chilean diplomat there. But her parents ended their marriage when she was three years old.
After her school years, Isabel Allende got married and worked as a reporter for a magazine and for television. Then in nineteen seventy-three her uncle, the president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was murdered in a military overthrow.
In nineteen seventy-five Isabel Allende and her family fled to Venezuela. She based “The House of Spirits” on a letter that she wrote to her grandmother who was dying. The book shows the world from the view of women who suffer but survive the problems they face. Some of Mizz Allende’s other books also deal with this issue.
Isabel Allende has lived in a number of countries around the world. Her marriage ended in divorce. A year later, she married a man she had met while in the United States to talk about one of her books. That was in nineteen eighty-eight; they have lived in Northern California ever since.
After a few years in the United States, Mizz Allende wrote a book called “The Infinite Plan." The story is about an American man. It is set in the United States. "The Infinite Plan" was very different from her other books, which were mostly set in South America. At least one book critic noted with praise for Mizz Allende that not many immigrants write about natives of their new country. But she still writes in Spanish.
Isabel Allende says she always considered herself a Latin American. But, as she told the New York Times, the terrorist attacks on the United States on September eleventh, two thousand one, changed her feelings about her identity.
She describes these feelings in her two thousand three book, “My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey through Chile.” Although she is now an American citizen, Mizz Allende says, "My heart isn't divided; it has merely grown larger."
Another American writer with strong links to another country is Francisco Goldman. He was born in nineteen fifty-four. He grew up in Guatemala City and Massachusetts. His mother came from Guatemala to the United States by herself before the age of twenty. His father was from a family of Russian immigrants.
Now Francisco Goldman divides his time between Mexico City and New York City. He is an English professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
His first book, "The Long Night of White Chickens," was about a Guatemalan-American man. He travels to Central America to investigate the murder of a Guatemalan woman he knew as a child. The book received honors. Book critics praised the power with which Francisco Goldman dealt with both love and politics in "The Long Night of White Chickens."
His second book was “The Ordinary Seaman." Fifteen Central American men are brought to the United States illegally to repair an old ship. But they are tricked by the owners. The ship cannot sail from its port in Brooklyn, New York. The men must search for food and a way out of their situation. Critics again praised Mr. Goldman for his writing and storytelling.
For his third book, he wrote a story based on the relationship between Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti and a Guatemalan woman. The book is called “The Divine Husband: A Novel.”
Francisco Goldman has also written for magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine. He says reporting and storytelling are not very different for Latin American writers. He has written both ways about the same issues. These include the war in Guatemala in the nineteen eighties. Mr. Goldman says he writes to try to find the truth.
Jamaica Kincaid is another writer who sets most of her stories in another country. Her books are set on a Caribbean island nation similar to her native Antigua. Mizz Kincaid was born in nineteen forty-nine. Her parents named her Elaine Potter Richardson. She left Antigua when she was seventeen. She changed her name as an adult when she began writing in New York.
Jamaica Kincaid took care of other people's children in New York and went to school. Later, she wrote for magazines. She wrote for The New Yorker for twenty years.
Jamaica Kincaid published her first book, called “At the Bottom of the River,” in nineteen eighty-three. This collection of short stories is about a young girl growing up in the Caribbean. The book was praised for its musical writing style and intense emotion. Since then, Jamaica Kincaid's other books have had a similar strong style and subject matter. Most of her writing is based on her life and her difficult relationship with her mother.
The relationship she presents has been compared to that between Britain and its former colony, Antigua. Jamaica Kincaid dealt with the issue directly in her book “A Small Place.” She condemned Britain for its history of slave trade and colonialism, and the effects on her native land. Some book critics called “A Small Place” too angry. But Mizz Kincaid once said, “The first step in claiming yourself is anger.”
Jamaica Kincaid lives in the state of Vermont with her American-born husband and two children. She wrote about the immigrant experience in her book “Lucy.” Lucy, a Caribbean woman, tries to survive in a strange and difficult environment. She becomes very critical of American society. How does the writer herself feel about that society? Jamaica Kincaid says America has "given me a place to be myself – but myself as I was formed somewhere else.”
Unlike the other writers we have discussed, Sandra Cisneros was born in the United States. But she writes mainly about the immigrant experience. Sandra Cisneros is a daughter of Mexican-Americans. She was born in Chicago, Illinois, in nineteen fifty-four.
She studied at a writing program in another Midwestern state, Iowa. It was in that program, she says, that she recognized the importance of her ancestry and her experiences as a woman. She says this realization gave her writing its own voice. She has written books of poetry and fiction.
Her first book was “The House on Mango Street.” The book is about a young Mexican-American girl. She wants to leave the poor part of the city where she lives. Later, she accepts and welcomes her ethnic identity. The book was a huge success. It won many prizes. "The House on Mango Street" is widely read in schools. Other books by Sandra Cisneros have also been well-received.
"Caramelo," published in two thousand three, tells the story of a big Mexican-American family that travels to Mexico City. The book includes the history of modern Mexico and how it is closely linked to United States history.
"Caramelo" deals with cultural identity and women in society. It deals with lies and memories. And it deals with childhood and family. Sandra Cisneros says it is important that all people in the United States understand the lives of Mexican-Americans.
Our program was written by Doreen Baingana and produced by Caty Weaver. You can find an earlier program about Asian American writers on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. A future program will present immigrant writers from Africa, the Middle East and Europe. I'm Steve Ember.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English.
Correction: Sandra Cisneros is not the only one of the four writers who was born in the United States. Francisco Goldman was born in Boston, although, as the story notes, he also lived in Guatemala as a child.