Immigrant stories


I’ve been interested in how immigrant narratives impact on other stories for a while… hence my interest in Emilia Brescani’s comment about the impact of immigrant stories on her own life (in her memoir):

“During our first days in the country, we were bombarded with information about the proper way to behave, and how to avoid hassles: never walk alone after dark; always carry your address in your bag, and always keep important documents safe in the hostel. At night, I tossed and turned in my narrow bed, snuggled under my llama-wool poncho, making plans and pushing melancholic thoughts away. At times, I was besieged by fear, unable to clarify in my mind the real reasons for my trip. Anxiety crept into my heart in the eerie emptiness of the night. It was then that I pictured familiar scenes – the large dining table, and my brothers arguing over soccer clubs as Mama poured ladles of steaming minestrone soup into our bowls. Sometimes I thought of the university cafeteria, where one day, a friend had shown me an ad calling for women to work in Australia. Now, I was here,and my priority was to work, sweat and make it. All work was good work, Mama had told me. And I was prepared for anything. The immigrant stories I had heard as a child were filled with romance, dramas, mishaps, and triumphs. Just like in the soap operas Mama and I listened to. Stories about women beating all the odds to achieve their dreams, help their families, their community and themselves. Mama had been one one of those women. She had not bowed down to tragedy. I would do the same, I thought during my sleepless nights. And, hopefully, one day I would find somebody like Papa, a person with whom to stay forever.” (pp.270-271)

Ref: (emphasis in blue bold, mine) Emilia Brescani (2000) The Raw Scent of Vanilla: A Memoir. Macmillan: Sydney

Violence and time in North America – some thoughts from Isabel Allende


Actually, as well as liking some of Isabel Allende’s ideas about Memoir and memory, I also found her comments on violence and time interesting. She wrote (and I hope I haven’t eliminated the context in which she writes this):

“I’ve been so thoroughly incorporated into the California culture that I practice mediation and go to a therapist…. I have adapted to the rhythm of this extraordinary place….”

“The North Americans’ sense of time is very special. They are short on patience. Everything must be quick, including food and sex, which the rest of the world treats ceremoniously. Gringos invented two terms that are untranslatable into most languages: ‘snack’ and ‘quickie,’ to refer to eating standing up and loving on the run … that, too, sometimes standing up. The most popular books are manuals: how to become a millionaire in ten easy lessons, how to lose fifteen pounds a week, how to recover from your divorce, and so on. People always go around looking for shortcuts and ways to [-p.189] escape anything they consider unpleasant: ugliness, old age, weight, illness, poverty, and failure in any of its aspects.
This country’s fascination with violence never ceases to shock me. It can be said that I have lived in interesting circumstances, I’ve seen revolutions, war, and urban crime, not to mention the brutalities of the military coup in Chile. Our home in Caracas was broken into seventeen times; almost everything we had was stolen, from a can opener to three cars, two from the street, and the third after the thieves completely ripped off our garage door. At least none of them had bad intentions; one even left a note of thanks stuck to the refrigerator door. Compared to other places on earth, where a child can step on a mine on his way to school and lose two legs, the United States is safe as a convent, but the culture is addicted to violence. Proof of that is to be found in its sports, its games, its art, and, certainly not least, its films, which are bloodcurdling. North Americans don’t want violence in their lives, but they need to experience it indirectly. They are enchanted by war, as long as it’s not on their turf.” (pp.188-189)

Ref: Isabel Allende (2003) My Invented Country: A Memoir. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. Flamingo: London

Memoir thoughts – Isabel Allende


I found Isabel Allende’s ‘memoir’, My Invented Country, very easy to read. There were also a couple of phrases and paragraphs in it that I found interesting from a critical perspective:

“I have been an outsider nearly all my life, a circumstance I accept because I have no alternative. Several times I have found it necessary to pull up stakes, sever all ties, and leave everything behind in order to begin life anew elsewhere; I have been a pilgrim along more roads than I care to remember. From saying good-bye so often my roots have dried up, and I have had to grow others, which, lacking a geography to sink into, have taken hold in my memory. But be careful! Minotaurs lie in wait in the labyrinths of memory.” (p.xi)

“I was born in Lima, where my father was one of the secretaries at the embassy. The reason i grew up in my grandfather’s house in Santiago is that my parents’ marriage was a disaster from the beginning. One day when I was four, my father went out to buy cigarettes and never came back. The truth is that he didn’t start out to buy cigarettes, as everyone always said, but instead went off on a wild spree disguised as a Peruvian Indian woman and wearing bright petticoats and a wig with long braids. He left my mother in Lima with a pile of unpaid bills and three children, the youngest a newborn baby. I suppose that that early abandonment made some dent in my psyche, because there are so many abandoned children in my books that I could found an orphanage. The fathers of my characters are dead, have disappeared, or are so distant and authoritarian they might as well live on another planet.” (p.28)

“How long I’ve lived, my God! Getting old is a drawn-out and sneaky process. Every so often, I forget that time is passing because inside I’m still not thirty, but inevitably my grandchildren confront me with the harsh truth when they ask me if ‘in your day’ we had electricity. These same grandchildren insist that there’s a country inside my head where the characters in my books live their lives. When I tell them stories about Chile, they think I’m referring to that invented place.” (p.33)

“Well, I’ve gone way off on a tangent, and I need to pick up the main thread of this account, if there is any thread in all this meandering. But that’s how nostalgia is: a slow dance in a large circle. Memories don’t organize themselves chronologically, they’re like smoke, changing, ephemeral, and if they’re not written down they fade into oblivion. I’ve tried to arrange my thoughts according to themes or periods of my life, but it’s seemed artificial to me because memory twists in and out, like an endless Moebius strip.” (p.141)

[On the topic of the Dirty War in Chile] “Crimes perpetrated in shadows during those years have, inevitably, been coming to light. Airing the truth is the beginning of reconciliation, although the wounds will take a long time to heal because those responsible for the repression have not admitted their guilt and are not disposed to ask forgiveness. The acts of the military regime will go unpunished, but they can no longer be hidden or ignored. Many, especially young people who grew up without political dialogue or without a critical spirit, believe that there’s been enough digging through the past, that we must look to the future, but victims and their families cannot forget. It’s possible that we will have to wait until the last witness to those times dies before we can close that chapter of our history.” (p.161)

“When we call up the past, we choose intense moments – good or bad – and omit the enormous gray area of daily life.” (p.179)

“If I had never traveled, if I had stayed on, safe and secure in the bosom of my family, if I had accepted my grandfather’s vision and his rules, it would have been impossible for me to recreate or embellish my own existence, because it would have been defined by others and I would merely be one link more in a long family chain. Moving about has forced me, time after time, to readjust my story, and I have done that in a daze, almost without noticing, because I have been too preoccupied with the task of surviving. Most of our lives are similar, and can be told in the tone used to [-p.180] read the telephone directory – unless we decide to give it a little oomph, a little color. In my case, I have tried to polish the details and create my private legend, so that when I am in a nursing home awaiting death I will have something to entertain the other senile old folks with.” (pp.179-180)

“I suppose there are people who do plan their lives, but I stopped doing that a [-p.184] long time ago because my blueprints never get used. About every ten years I take a look back and can see the map of my journey – well, that is if it can be called a map, it looks more like a plateful of noodles. If you live long enough to review the past, it’s obvious that all we do is walk in circles.” (p.184)

“…as soon as i got my residence papers I began the process of moving Paula and Nicolàs to California. I had quickly become enamored of San Francisco, a happy, tolerant, open, and cosmopolitan city – and so different from Santiago! My new home was founded by adventurers, prostitutes, merchants and preachers, all of whom flocked there in 1849, drawn by the Gold Rush. I wanted to write about that intriguing period of greed, violence, heroism, and conquest, perfect material for a novel.” p.186)

“I don’t know whether my home is the place where I [-p.193] live or simply Willie. We have been together a number of years, and it seems to me that he is the one territory I belong in, where I’m not a foreigner. Together we have survived many ups and downs, great successes and great losses.” (pp.192-193)

“This book has helped me understand that I am not obligated to make a decision: I can have one foot in Chile and another here, that’s why we have planes, and I am not among those who are afraid to fly because of terrorism. I have a fatalistic attitude: no one dies one minute before or one minute after the prescribed time. For the moment California is my home and Chile is the land of my nostalgia. My heart isn’t divided, it has merely grown larger. I can live and write anywhere. Every book contributes to the completion of that ‘country inside my head,’ as my grandchildren call it. In the slow practice of writing, I have fought with my demons and obsessions, I have explored the corners of memory, I have dredged up stories and people from oblivion, I have stolen others’ lives, and from all this raw material I have constructed a land that I call my country. That is where I come from.
I hope that this long commentary answers that stranger’s question about nostaliga. don’t believe everything I say: I tend to exaggerate and, as I warned at the beginning, I can’t be objective where Chile is concerned. Let’s just say, to be completely honest, that I can’t be objective, period. In any case, what’s most important doesn’t appear in my biography or my books, it happens in a nearly imperceptible [-p.198] way in the secret chambers of the heart. I am a writer because I was born with a good ear for stories, and I was lucky enough to have an eccentric family and the destiny of a wanderer. The profession of literature has defined me. Word by word I have created the person I am and the invented country in which I live.” (pp.197-198)

Ref: Isabel Allende (2003) My Invented Country: A Memoir. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. Flamingo: London

Incidentally, this puts me in mind of Pico Iyer’s talk on ‘home’ and belonging (

History as fiction and truth


The following words are from the prologue to Andersen’s Dossier Secreto:

“This book – like the work of those who documented the Holocaust is meant to ensure that the fictionalized account left by the military as their official record of events in the 1970s and 1980s will not be allowed, sometime in the future, to replace fact.” (p.6)

The texts narrating Argentina’s history of violence are interesting to me; with regards to ‘truth’/fiction; with regards to history and historicism; representations of violence; among other things…

Ref: Martin Edwin Andersen (1993) Dossier Secreto; Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the ‘Dirty War’ Boulder: Westview Press

Gift-giving in Interview with the Vampire; oral and textual promiscuity


Sara Wasson adopts the theory of gift-giving to analyse Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire – and presents an interesting discussion as a result. She writes:

Between 1976 and 2003 Anne Rice wrote twelve sprawling, interconnected vampire “autobiographies” which continue to be hugely influential for vampire fiction and other artifacts of popular culture. Rice’s vampires come together to set up house, produce offspring, tour the world, and form passionate attachments. Two tropes structure and enable the vampire communities throughout the twelve texts. Both are gifts: the “Dark Gift” of blood to be swallowed, and the gift of autobiography to be shared. Originally a field of anthropological inquiry, gift theory emerged as scholars sought to articulate how gift exchange creates and maintains communities, and gift scholarship is a fruitful tool for analyzing the way exchange functions in Rice’s texts. Rice’s vampires create communities by exchanging gifts of blood and gifts of words, joining mouths that swallow and mouths that speak.” (p.197)

From the nineteenth century through to the 1970s, a majority of popular fictions assumed that vampiric transformation was effected by a vampire biting a human. This approach shifted in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) became a bestseller. In Rice’s influential mythology, one [-p.198] cannot become a vampire merely by being bitten; one must be drained of blood and then swallow vampire blood. In her second vampire novel, The Vampire Lestat (1985), Rice coins the term the “Dark Gift” for this creation process (234, 246), and the language of gift returns throughout the subsequent ten books that comprise her Vampire Chronicles and the New Tales of the Vampires. Under Rice’s influence, other vampires have become increasingly inclined to procreate by giving in this way, and other authors similarly posit communities developing around the process.” (pp.197-198)

Wasson describes some of the history behind this shift in vampire creation – and discusses the authors who have adopted it since, then writes: “These vampires, then, are created by receiving a gift, and their vampiric communities are founded on gift-exchange. As such, their gift exchange invites comparison with gift theory that examines how gifts create and maintain community. Anthropological gift theory was pioneered in 1950 with Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, an anthropological investigation of the way gifts functioned in the society of Trobriand islanders.” (p.198)

This painfully yielded, inalienable gift does create community— but a far from Utopic one. Rice’s vampires are profoundly ambivalent about the value of community, simultaneously yearning for and rejecting it. The mere idea of vampires having any kind of fellowship [-p.201] with each other takes Lestat by surprise at first. After he becomes vampire, he muses: [‘]Do devils love each other? Do they walk arm in arm in hell saying, “Ah. You are my friend, how I love you” …? ….Well, now I know, whether I believe in hell or not, that vampires can love each other, that in being dedicated to evil, one does not cease to love.[‘] (Lestat 114)” (pp.200-201)

“…vampire ambivalence over community is reflected in the two political implications which Rice’s “Dark Gift” model has for the way her vampire communities are organized: on the one hand, the gift condemns the recipient to a kind of slavery, a brutal power relation; on the other hand, the gift frees the recipient into radically unconventional sensuality. In both cases, a focus on the gift brings fruitful attention to that which passes between.” (p.201)

“Post-structuralist distrust of the gift is echoed in the emotional choreographies that follow the Dark Gift in Rice’s novels. The cozy family of Lestat, Louis and Claudia, a child whom they jointly transform into a vampire, lasts for 60 years, but the domestic bliss is deceptive. Both Louis and Claudia experience Lestat’s control as implacable and cruel. Lestat himself tells Louis that the only relationship possible between vampires is slavery: “If you find one or more of them together it will be for safety only, and one will be the slave of the other, the way you are of me” (Interview 83), and he adds “That’s how vampires increase … through slavery. How else?” (Interview 84). Claudia ultimately slaughters Lestat and, with Louis’s help, dumps him in a Louisiana swamp. A similarly bleak disintegration befalls the family Lestat tries to form in later years with Louis and two other vampires (Merrick and David Talbot)….” (p.202)

Rice’s Dark Gift affects intimate relationships in another way, too: the second consequence of the blood gift in Rice’s texts is that it frees the receiver into transgressive sensuality, into unstable, radical, [-p.203] forms of sensual desire.” (pp.202-203)

“Rice’s vampire family has been extensively discussed in critical literature, with every critic noticing its dark mockery of a conventional bourgeois pairing (e.g., Keller 17, Gelder 113, Benefiel 263–64, 266–67), and Benefiel notes that Rice’s vampire family has influenced other vampire fiction since (264–66).” (p.204) [NB Wasson seems to take a slightly different approach to the way families are presented in Interview than Benefiel does]

Because vampires eroticize blood, they inevitably eroticise veins and skin surfaces. As such, they invite the reader to contemplate an erotics of the in-between: of skin surfaces and contacts.” (p.205) “[Elizabeth] Grosz and [Alphonso] Lingis see such attention to the surfaces of desire as a valuable alternative to the traditional psychodynamic approaches to sexuality, which define desire in terms of psychological interiority. Furthermore, when blood becomes the fulcrum of desire, it can begin to represent other intensities, other sexual delights: it draws the eye out to the limits of the human body, the place of connections. The characters in the vampiric encounter need not map onto neat identities in order for us to appreciate the suggestiveness of the blood that passes between them. Concentrating on the transactive gift, rather than the transgressive body offering the gift, moves beyond the essentializing idea that disruption is endemic within certain bodies.” (p.205)

Ever since Dracula, vampire fiction has been fascinated by multiple, fragmented text, and Rice’s vampire characters themselves share this fascination: her vampires write, speak, and film their stories compulsively.” (p.207)

Wasson explains that the vampire autobiographies that constitute Rice’s Chronicles, “themselves create community. They are filial texts and competitive texts: each narrator challenges and elaborates the tales of the previous, until the books themselves circulate as communication between the characters and as symbol of their relationships. Rice’s community of hunger is one of relentless words, and to enter the coven of their kinship, one must not merely accept the gift of blood, but must make a gift of text.” (p.208)

Like exchanging blood, writing is both transgressive and sensual. The act of writing anything about vampire existence flagrantly breaches the fifth “Rule of Darkness” which decrees that “No vampire must ever reveal his true nature to a mortal and allow that mortal to live…. No vampire must commit to writing the history of the vampires or any true knowledge of vampires lest such a history be found by mortals and believed” (Lestat 329). By definition the Articulate Coven defy the mores of the wider vampire community around them. As well as being transgressive, writing itself is a sensuous act for the Coven; each member relishes the materiality of writing. Armand, for example, relishes writing on “startlingly white paper scored with fine green lines” (Armand 31)….” (p.208)

“Rice wrote her vampire novels over 27 years, and her use of the Dark Gift does change over time. The language of gift accretes more positive meanings as Rice’s novels progress. The Coven of the Articulate begin referring to vampiric supernatural powers as gifts: the Fire Gift (incinerating others by the power of mind), Spell Gift (entrancing others), Mind Gift (telepathy), Cloud Gift (flying), and the Spirit Gift (astral projection). This litany of gift dilutes the ‘darkness’ of the Dark Gift by emphasizing what the vampire state adds to the receiver, rather than how the Dark Gift constrains her. In addition, the novels become a little more optimistic about the possibility of quality.” (p.210)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Sara Wasson (2012) “Coven of the Articulate”: Orality and Community in Anne Rice’s Vampire Fiction The Journal of Popular Culture, 45(1) February, pp.197-213

Reference is to: Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. 1950. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Norton, 1990. Print.

Routledge / Taylor and Francis – free articles: Shakespeare, Women’s Lit, Life Writing…


Taylor and Francis just sent out an email notifying us of some of the free article collections they have put together (on literary studies in a general sense, Shakespeare, Women’s lit, Life writing etc.) – pretty cool. They connect us to documents which organize these articles for consideration:


This review just caught my eye… I like the idea of someone playing with generic forms for critical purposes in this way… and I like the argument being proposed (it seems) by Huang. The review begins:

“Almost two decades after Charlie Chan was declared ‘dead’ by Jessica Hagedorn in the renowned anthology of contemporary Asian American fiction, Asian American scholar Yunte Huang brings him back to life as an icon of American multiculturalism. In this engrossing ‘biography’ divided into five parts, each covering a ‘life story’ of Charlie Chan’s origins, Huang deftly brings together intersecting histories – personal, national and trans-national – that participate in the making of the Charlie Chan legend, and re-examines his stories, both real and fictional, in the American literary tradition of trickster, minstrelsy and racial allegory.” (p.113)

Chih-ming Wang Charlie Chan: the untold story of the honorable detective and his rendezvous with American history Asian Ethnicity Volume 14, Issue 1, 2013 pages 113-117

testimony – a good question


“Why is the witness’s speech so uniquely, literally irreplaceable? What does it mean that the testimony cannot simply be reported or narrated by another in its role as testimony? What does it mean that a story – or a history – cannot be told by someone else without forfeiting its unique authenticity, the palpable nature of its reportage?” (p.52)

“…the testimonial narrative expresses the urgency of victims [-p.45] whose eyewitness accounts seek redress and justice and challenge official discourse.” (pp.44-45)

“The testimonial process is a dialogue with a willing listener wherein, apart from socio-political realities, the witness to the trauma, the listener of the tale and the ultimate reader/recipient are made to confront existential questions that tend to be displaced from day-to-day living.” (p.45)

“Repossessing one’s life story through giving testimony is itself a form of action, of change necessary to complete the process of survival after traumatic events have been experienced.” (p.45)

“It must be recalled, however, that the narrative voice in testimonial literature is a collective enterprise: The protagonist testifies as an autobiographical voice (a signatory first-person narration), representative of the experiences of a larger group unwilling or unable to find a public discourse. It is the interviewer (as solicitor and receiver of the testimonies) who provides a vehicle (the literary text) that presents the realities of the testimonial voice to a larger Western audience. Hence, the testimony is organized in such a way that it is raised to the level of inquiry of universal significance. The narrative voice becomes the subject of a quest concerning what the experiences testify to; the witness becomes a questioner, and the asker is perceived as not merely a factual investigator but as the bearer of the testimonial’s philosophical address and inquiry. In short, the testimonio‘s other voice is neither the last word of knowledge nor the ultimate authority on the historical events narrated, but one more topographical and cognitive position of yet another witness – the reader. Rigoberta Menchú, Esteban Montejo, and Jesusa Palancares (Josefina Bórquez) collaborate to ensure that the social questions raised in their texts will continue to be pondered by the reader. The inquirer, in other words, not merely raises these questions of enduring historical importance but is also the source that takes apart all previous answers of the oftentimes one-sided distorted official story of authoritarian regimes by offering an alternative version of a broken silence.

In recent decades reader response criticism has focused on the role of the reader. The reader is no longer a passive receiver of the meaning inherent in the narrative text but an active participant in the actualization – indeed, the production – of textual meaning as an interpretive accomplishment, much like members of an oral storytelling audience.” (italics in original, p.46)

Ref: Elena De Costa (c2002) Voices of Conscience: The power of language in the Latin American Testimonio. pp.41-57 in Eds. Irene Maria Blayer and Monica Sanchez Storytelling; Interdisciplinary & Intercultural Perspectives. Peter Lang: New York

Creative remembering – Michael Ross and Roger Buehler


More quotes:

“By fencing off past failures, people can maintain the belief that they are in command of their futures, that they have the power to produce success and happiness.

There is more to it than this, however.  Rather than simply ignore the past, decision makers often use it selectively to validate their choices. [eg of Bush administration likening Saddam Hussein to Hitler] …By forging a link between the present and the past, these leaders used history to support their position, much as we have suggested that the average person invokes personal recollections to satisfy his or her present concerns.” P223 Creative remembering – Michael Ross and Roger Buehler pp205-235 in the remembering self