Many Americas

I n a 1782 description of life in the British Colonies of America, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur posed—and attempted to answer—the 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 difference—of "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 Rodriguez’s 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 America’s 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 Alexie’s 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, Alexie’s 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 Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca—Gang Days in L. A. (1993) recounts the poet’s 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, Rodriguez’s memoir asks us to consider the ultimate social price of a life-style he calls "collective suicide."

Doris Grumbach’s 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 Gaines’s 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 Gibbons’s 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, , Nobody’s Son: Notes From an American Life

Helena Maria Viramontes, Under the Feet of Jesus

          Wakako Yamauchi, Songs My Mother Taught Me

Retired Discussion Series

Debbie Sturman, Director
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