Female Adolescent Immigrant Experiences in Young Adult Literature
Gail P. Gregg & Dyanne Knight
In past generations, teachers typically entered classrooms filled with students from homogenous middle class backgrounds. Students possessed many similarities --cultural, social, economic, and linguistic. This situation, however, is far from the case in today's classrooms. Currently, and in the future, public school classrooms are and will be filled (and sometimes overfilled) with students from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Although all students go through physical and emotional "growing pains" during adolescence, our concern in this article is female adolescent immigrant students who grapple with conflicts and pressures that oftentimes continue to be an integral -- though at times, unfortunate -- part of their American experience. It has been our experience as teachers of high school students that adolescent immigrant females, more so than their male counterparts, seem to experience more difficulty walking the fine line between the "old ways" and the "new ways." Studying personal issues relative to coming of age, in multicultural literature featuring adolescent female protagonists, is one way to help adolescent immigrant girls bridge the gap between the familiar old world and the strange new world. This kind of literary focus will allow female adolescent immigrant students to see some of their own experiences reflected and validated; at the same time, it will help them link their lives to issues essential to a forever fluid and dynamic society where assimilation and modernization often causes major tension between the older and the newer generation and at times, the disintegration of family traditions.
Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, and Memory (1994), Linda Crew's Children of the River (1989), and Esmeralda Santiago's When I Was Puerto Rican (1993) provide realistic and moving looks at the tension between traditional ways of living in three very different minority cultures versus the ways of the mainstream dominant culture. The female adolescent protagonists in these works are all confronted with the tensions inherent to living between two worlds and the adaptations necessary to succeed in both the old and new culture.
Danticat introduces the reader to twelve-year-old Sophie, who is uprooted from the warm familiarity of her Tante Atie's Haitian home and sent to New York to live with her biological mother. While coping with her mother's mental instability, Sophie is also forced to learn the unfamiliar ways and language of her new country while facing the negative perceptions her new peers hold regarding her background . Additionally, the traditions of her former culture clash forcefully with longings engendered by the new freedoms and opportunities Sophie is exposed to in America. Her attraction to a neighbor (Joseph) leads to the invocation of an ancient ritual, which drastically affects her self-perception and causes her to become estranged from her mother.
Sophie copes with the horror of her "testing" by mutilating her body and escaping to -- and through -- Joseph. She adjusts to the dichotomy of her world by discarding the old and embracing the new. Though her scars run deep, Sophie embarks upon a search for self-love and self-worth that leads her "home" to Tante Atie; it is there that she arrives at an understanding which enables her to unite the old with the new thus, making peace with herself, her culture, and her mother.
Teachers should be aware that the ancient ritual discussed in Danticat's novel consists of a painful and invasive test for virginity. The sensitive nature of this issue may cause discomfort among students if not addressed with great care. Rather than avoiding this issue, we suggest that teachers relate it to similar coming-of-age rituals found in other cultures. Examples include the scarring of flesh performed on young males as they approach manhood in selected African cultures, and the circumcision of young females as practiced by many Middle Eastern, South Pacific, and African cultures.
Much like Sophie, Sundara, in Linda Crew's novel, Children of the River, struggles with an attraction to someone outside of the acceptable realm of her culture. Torn between old traditions and the independence that America promotes, Sundara only wishes to fit in: "Things are different here," she is told by Jonathon, the American boy of whom she is enamored (70).
Her sincere attempts to be a "good" Cambodian girl are often in conflict with and sometimes defeated by her desire to follow her heart. She adapts to the conflict between the old and new by sneaking out to spend time with Jonathon. Rather than open defiance or repudiation of her culture's norms and mores, Sundara appropriates duplicity while striving to hold fast to the remaining vestiges of a tradition by which she in constrained. From the taboos as innocuous as wearing makeup to the severity of liking the "wrong" person, Sundara struggles to adhere to the dictates of her culture while reaching for acceptance and ultimate happiness in her culture. Ultimately, Sundara learns to trust herself and embrace happiness by being true to herself in her new surroundings.
Similarly, Santiago addresses like issues in her autobiography, When I was Puerto Rican. She, however, chose to manage the instability of her family life and the strangeness of a new culture by burying herself in books at the school library. Whether at home in Puerto Rico or in her new culture in New York, Esmeralda found solace and escape through literature.
Furthermore, just as Sophie and Sundara were faced with language difficulties, Esmeralda also encountered that particular barrier; she met it head-on. With iron resolve, she refused to be placed in the seventh grade due to her woeful lack of English-speaking skills; she negotiated her way into the eighth grade, where she unflinchingly proved her capabilities. Esmeralda's self-confidence enabled her to stand up for herself and overcome the very first obstacle all non-English speaking immigrants confront: learning the language. She also managed to circumvent the stringent demands of her culture by altering her appearance after leaving home by hiking up her skirt and applying makeup once away from the persistently watchful eye of her mother.
Teachers should note that there is a particularly sensitive issue portrayed in Santiago's novel. Specifically, a scene that graphically illustrates an older man masturbating in full view of the curious female adolescent protagonist. As with Danticat, we suggest addressing the issue of masturbation in a direct and open manner within the context of Santiago's text.
Although there are many worthwhile activities that one could use in conjunction with these novels, we suggest that students be asked to interview an older female member of their family. Questions should focus on the family member's memories of their own coming-of-age. Interview questions could be based on the following: (1) age at first date; (2) age when make-up began to be worn; and, (3) age when first left alone or trusted by parents. After the interview, students could compare/contrast, using a Venn Diagram, the experiences of the interviewee and characters in the book. Through this activity, immigrant and mainstream students will hopefully understand that the "coming-of-age" process occurs in all cultures and in all generations. It is not an immigrant thing; it is a human thing.
Each of these novels is aptly representative of its culture and offers a glimpse into the veritable realities of living between two worlds --- and the conflicts that are paramount to the female adolescent immigrant experience. Surreptitious behaviors and feelings of displacement or not fitting in are endemic to all three characters and are typical of most adolescents, immigrant or not. As with all teenagers, when authority (whether familial, cultural, or otherwise) and budding self-awareness become opposed, guile, rather than compromise, is oftentimes the result. The tension between traditional ways of living including strong family ties and the desire for a higher level of social and educational mobility within the immigrant communities, and the desire for the ways of mainstream culture including the desire for acceptance are characteristics found in all three novels. Providing female adolescent immigrant students a chance to transcend their own experiences through a variety of literary lenses will help them validate their coming-of-age experiences as they see the commonalties as well as the differences in this universally shared experience.
Gail P. Gregg has a Ph.D. in English Education (Florida State University) and is a professor of English Education at Florida International University, Miami, Florida. A former public high school teacher in Dade County (Miami), Florida, Dr. Gregg is the former multicultural editor of the Florida English Journal.
Dyanne Knight is from the island of Jamaica and immigrated to the United States as an adolescent. She is currently completing her secondary language arts student teaching internship at a high school in Dade County (Miami), Florida.
Reference Citation: Gregg, Gail P. and Dyanne Knight . (1999) "Female Adolescent Immigration Experiences in Young Adult Literature." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 16-17.