Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Struggling to feel American & Jhumpa Lahiri

[MRM Classic -- from Wednesday, November 26, 2008--if you want to read the original comments, click here, I get attacked for saying something about Abu Gharaib]

"Struggling to feel American"

I've just finished teaching Jhumpa Lahiri's first published work--her collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. I've been teaching this work consistently over the last five years, and I must say that each time I teach this collection I see something different, largely because I'm blessed to have wonderfully bright students who bring different insights and observations into their interpretations of the stories.

And just yesterday morning, Lahiri was interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition about "struggling to feel American," describing her parents' disconnection from feeling "American" and Lahiri's own ambivalence with connecting to a sense of American identity.

Although I can understand a bit of what she means, to be honest, I haven't ever really felt that way. And I've been thinking about why that is. Why I actually DO feel very American and why my definition of "American" has always allowed me to feel connected to this phrase and this amorphous ideal while rejecting the standard symbols of what it means to identify as American.

I've never felt patriotic, not really. Nor have I ever really felt "pride" in being American. Not that I've necessarily felt undue shame (although the words "Abu Ghraib" make me feel distinctly embarrassed, saddened, and horrified), it's more like I feel ambivalent. Because on the one hand, America does seem to offer up a lot of promise and hope--it inspires one to "dream" as in to reach the "American" dream. On the other hand, at an early age I immersed myself in learning about the history of race in the U.S., which means I understood the darker underbelly of America and realized that unexamined proclamations of nationalism weren't something I would ever be comfortable with.

And yet.

I've never not identified as American. I have gone through the different iterations of Chinese/Jamaican/Asian but always appended "American" to the end of those. I don't know that I've ever identified as an un-hyphenated American--somehow I've never been comfortable not qualifying my national affiliations. And somehow I always felt like even if others didn't always see the American in me, it was my absolute right to claim America for myself.

So I'm just curious about everyone else out there--do you now or have you ever struggled to feel "American" and/or have you simply taken this for granted--and for the non-Americans in the blogosphere, what is your impression of "Americans" (and I'd love some push-back from our North American neighbors to the north and south as well as our South American counterparts on this issue).

[Side Note: For anyone looking for a good read, I do recommend Lahiri's latest collection Unaccustomed Earth--especially the last three stories that comprise a short story cycle/novella. Of course, of all her works, Interpreter of Maladies remains my favorite; I just find her stories heart wrenching and in some cases even heart breaking. Plus, she's a master prose stylist, and it's just all a good read. Head out to your local library or independent bookstore and pick up a copy--you won't be disappointed.]

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