Thursday, May 14, 2015

Poetry of immigration, and being in the middle-ground

I have been tutoring ESL and literacy since the beginning of this school year at an adult education center. Almost every student attending this awesome school is an immigrant, in various stages of education and English language acquisition. I have been working with a group of four inspiring women, from Brazil, China, Guyana, and Morocco. Each one has a different home language/s, a different journey, and a different story.

A couple of weeks ago, we read Deb Smith's insightful blogpost, "I am a triangle", which beautifully illustrates the process of moving to a different culture, acculturating to a certain extent, fitting in to a certain extent (but never fully), and then returning to your home culture to find that you don't quite fit in there, either.

Deb's metaphor is that you begin as a circle, growing up and living in a circle culture, where you fit in and are comfortable. You then move to a square culture. At first, you are still a circle, and so you feel lost in the square world. Eventually, with time, you adapt, but can never really be a square. So, instead, you approximate, and become a triangle. The challenge is, when you return to your home country, circle culture, you remain a triangle. Thus, you never really feel at home in either culture. Deb has great illustrations for this process.

I absolutely experienced this myself when I was living in Chile. I adapted so much I almost became a square. However, not having shared my childhood with the squares of Chile sometimes gave me pointy edges... I was really just a triangle. Coming back to the U.S. was always a challenge: I was still a triangle. Of course, this was many years ago, so now I am back to being a circle and living in a circle culture (for the most part). In contrast to my experience in Chile, during my brief stay (4 months) in Italy last year, I didn't become a triangle. I basically stayed a circle in a square culture, a challenge that I came to accept knowing my stay there was only temporary.

After analyzing and discussing Deb's metaphor, my students wrote their own reflections on this phenomenon. Two of them, who have been in the U.S. 8+ years, considered themselves triangles. Laughing at their early cultural-linguistic faux pas, they decided that they have changed over the years, but still have a lot to learn. They realized that, if they went "home" now, they would see things differently, and might not fit into the cultural practices that once simply felt like water to a fish.

Another student, who recently celebrated her one-year anniversary in the U.S., feels that she is still a circle in a world of squares... still on the outside, trying to figure things out. She is frustrated with the language and is not comfortable or happy here. However, she cannot go back. She has no choice but to wait it out, keep trying to adjust, and hope to eventually shift her shape.

All of this got me thinking about theory and literature. There is actually a lot of scholarship about border culture (Anzaldúa, 1999) and third-spaces (Bhabha, 1994), places of hybridity. Immigrants experience, perhaps necessarily, the identity crisis that arises from the tension of existing in the middle-ground, neither here nor there. I wrote about these theories and their embodiment in the story of "Manuel", in a recent article, The meaning of roots: How a migrant farmworker student developed a bilingual-bicultural identity through change.

So, our next project, in the tutoring group, is to explore these middle-groud spaces by writing our own immigration poetry. For inspiration, we learned about Angel Island and read some of the poems discovered there, written by detained immigrants from China in the early 1900's. I have found some good immigration poems on Power Poetry, which also offers tips for writing. Here's a great bilingual poem by Gustavo Perez Firmat.

Of course, I am reminded of my favorite poem, Gabriela Mistral's Desolation, which spoke so powerfully to me when I was living in Chile. In Desolación, Mistral is not in a foreign land, but in Patagonia, the extreme south of her own country, showing that differences in regional cultures and climates can shock a migrant, too.

Feeling triangular after about 5 years in Chile
I can't wait to hear my students' poems. Hopefully, I will be able to publish them here. Stay tuned, and feel free to post resources for immigration poetry.