n a 1782 description of life in the British Colonies of
America, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur posedand attempted to answerthe
question "What is an American?" Crèvecoeur heads a long line of writers who
have struggled to articulate the beliefs, values, personal traits, and socioeconomic
conditions that are typically "American." While these attempts to create a
unifying description of America have provided certain familiar images, such images come
largely from "mainstream" culture and have omitted many Americans.
From the beginning, America has been a mosaic. In many
ways, ours is a culture of differenceof "other" cultures, languages,
ethnic groups, and economies. Frequently, those who inhabit "other" Americas
feel they are ignored by the larger culture; sometimes, in the words of Luis
Rodriguezs memoir Running Scared, they even feel "disposable."
The six works in this series record the experience of those
"invisible" and "disposable" Americas. Such authentically American
voices challenge readers to consider the interplay of the ideal and the real in
Americas self-image. Sometimes harsh, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes playful, these
books offer us the opportunity to shape an America that is more inclusive and accepting of
diversity. In this way, their vision is a deeply hopeful one.
By turns hilarious, astringent, and heartbreaking, the twenty-two
interwoven tales in Sherman Alexies The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in
Heaven (1994) depict life for modern Native Americans in and around the Spokane
Indian Reservation. Struggling against poverty, hunger, alcoholism, loss, and broken
dreams, Alexies characters fight difficult battles, often using humor as a weapon,
to achieve a hard-won, complex sense of self, integrity, and community.
In a briskly honest, witty, insightful memoir, Waist-High in the
World: A Life Among the Nondisabled (1998), Nancy Mairs, afflicted with MS,
teaches able-bodied readers how to re-envision "disability." As one reviewer
noted, this is "a chronicle of inspired adaptation, spiritual as well as physical, to
limits. The aim is the creation of joy" (Sallie Bingham, The New Mexican).
Luis Rodriguezs Always Running: La Vida LocaGang Days
in L. A. (1993) recounts the poets coming of age in the
Hispanic gang culture of East Los Angeles. Dedicated to twenty-five childhood friends who
died the victims of gang violence and written for his son, the book vividly captures the
desperation and brutality of gang culture, as well as exploring its roots. Alternately
sad, chilling, and hopeful, Rodriguezs memoir asks us to consider the ultimate
social price of a life-style he calls "collective suicide."
Doris Grumbachs journal of her seventy-fourth year, Extra
Innings (1995), like its predecessor, Coming Into the End Zone,
contains the sometimes poetic, sometimes tart observations of a writer during a relatively
ordinary, yet active, year of later life. Her accounts of diverse literary, family, and
personal matters occur in the context of a larger search for peace and "home" in
her permanent relocation to Maine during this time period.
Set in segregated Louisiana in the late 1940s, Ernest Gainess A
Lesson Before Dying (1993) tells the story of a young black man who is
condemned to death for his role in a robbery. His mother wants only that her son know,
before his death, that he is a man, worthy of dignity and self respect. To this end, she
enlists the local schoolteacher to visit her son in jail. Who learns what from whom is at
the heart of this story that speaks about race as well as issues of crime and punishment
in American society.
In Kaye Gibbonss first novel Ellen Foster (1987),
the young orphan girl, having heard that the Foster children have a stable, good home, has
named herself "Ellen Foster." Resilient, naïve, and intelligent, Ellen is in
the literary tradition of the precocious child narrator. Through Ellen, Kaye Gibbons
addresses the lives of "cast-off" children. As believers in the human ability to
transcend harm, both Ellen and her creator remain optimistic through great struggles.
Suggested Further Reading
For further exploration of the American mosaic, look for
these titles at your local library or bookseller. The Wyoming Council for the Humanities
cannot provide these titles for addition or substitution in this series.
Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina
Robert Olen Butler, Good Scent From a Strange Mountain
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arranged Marriage: Stories
John Gilgun, Music I Never Dreamed Of
Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land
Leonard Kriegel, Flying Solo: Reimagining Manhood, Courage, and Loss
Robert Laxalt, Sweet Promised Land
David Leavitt, The Lost Language of Cranes
Catherine Liu, Oriental Girls Desire Romance
Adrian C. Louis, Wild Indians and Other Creatures; Ceremonies of the Damned
Paule Marshall, Brownstones, Brown Girl
Toni Morrison, Paradise
Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine; Wife
Chaim Potek, The Chosen
Tomas Rivera, . . . and the Earth Did Not Devour Him
Danzy Senna, Caucasia
Luis Alberto Urrea, , Nobodys Son: Notes From an American Life
Helena Maria Viramontes, Under the Feet of Jesus
Wakako Yamauchi, Songs My
Mother Taught Me