Coming to America: Writers and the Immigrant Story

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.  Our subject this week -- writers and the immigrant experience, revisited.  Recently we talked about four writers and the influence of their ties to Latin America and the Caribbean.  This time it is the Middle East, Africa and Europe.


The author and poet Elmaz Abinader grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, in the northeastern United States.  Her parents came from Lebanon.  Her family spoke mostly Arabic at home.

At school, she says, other children insulted her for being different.  She looked for some connection between her two lives.

As she tells it, everything changed when she went to college.  She took control of her identity.  She began to cook Middle Eastern foods and to listen to Arabic music with her friends.  She also began to write about her grandmother.

In college in the nineteen seventies, Elmaz Abinader studied writing.  But she says most of the American writers she studied had European roots.  She felt that her culture was not welcome in American writing.

At some point, she read a book that, in her words, "made the difference."  The book was "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts."  It was written by the Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston.  In it, she tells stories about her Chinese grandmother, and about children considered too American for their immigrant family.

Reading "The Woman Warrior" led Elmaz Abinader to read works by others outside the center of American culture.  These included African-American and Latino writers.  She found a community of people like her.  People learning to live in two cultures.

Elmaz Abinader earned a doctorate in writing.  Her first book, in nineteen ninety-one, was "Children of the Roojme: A Family's Journey From Lebanon."  The family she based it on was her own.

She has also written a collection of poetry called "In the Country of My Dreams."  And Elmaz Abinader writes and performs plays.  Her play "Country of Origin" is about the struggles of three Arab-American women.  Music in the play mixes traditional Middle East sounds with present-day jazz.

Elmaz Abinader says she began to understand years ago that as a writer, she was also an activist.  Today she is a professor of creative writing at Mills College in Oakland, California.  She says a beautiful story or a good poem can affect a reader more than any speech.

Her aim, she says, is to make the story of Arab-Americans as important as that of any other group in the United States.


Many new immigrants to America are from Africa.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is from Nigeria.  She has written short stories and a book, "Purple Hibiscus."  She won the two thousand four Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for a first work of fiction.  This national award honors writers of African ancestry.  "Purple Hibiscus" has also been nominated for international honors, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Orange Prize.

Chimamanda Adichie grew up in the university town of Nsukka.  Her parents were professors.  She came to the United States in nineteen ninety-six to go to college.  She was nineteen years old.

She says Nigeria will always be her home, but she needs distance to be able to write about the country better.  In fact, she says that sometimes, when she is back in Nigeria, she writes about Nigerians in America.

"Purple Hibiscus" is set in Nigeria.  It is about a young woman growing up in a troubled family while the country faces political unrest.  There are some similarities to real-life events.  She says the stories of people who suffered must be told.

"Purple Hibiscus" also deals with modern religion in Nigeria and explores the clash with African tradition.

Another book about Nigeria by Chimamanda Adichie is "Half of a Yellow Sun."  This book is about the attempt to establish an independent republic of Biafra in Nigeria in the nineteen sixties.


In two thousand four, the writer Aleksandar Hemon received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.  These are known as "genius grants."  They go to individuals who show great creativity in their work.  MacArthur Fellows receive five hundred thousand dollars over five years to spend as they wish.

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of "The Question of Bruno" and "Nowhere Man."  Both books are about young men born in Sarajevo.  Their lives are changed by the war in the former Yugoslavia in the early nineteen nineties.

Like the men in his books, Aleksandar Hemon grew up in Sarajevo.  He became a reporter and writer.  He came to the United States in nineteen ninety-two as part of a cultural exchange program.  He was twenty-seven years old.  After the Bosnian war started, he could not return home.  So he stayed in America and settled in Chicago.

He also writes about displaced people who do not feel part of any community.  He says telling stories is one way to record the old life that is lost, perhaps in war.  He says stories should be told about wars and genocide so that the official version of history is not the only one that exists.

Aleksandar Hemon wrote his first book in English after three years in the United States.  Book critics have praised his expert and beautiful use of the language.  Yet he spoke only a little English when he arrived in the country.  With his limited English, he could only get low-paying work.  So he read books in English to improve his language skills.

He has said that one of the most difficult things for him as a new immigrant was this: Recognizing the difference between what he wanted to say and what he was really saying.  He says this changed the way he thought about the idea of self.  And it changed his writing.  He saw that a person was made up of many selves.


Andrei Codrescu has published many books of poetry.  He has also written about his life and his travels.  But he is best known for his commentaries on American culture on National Public Radio.  He lives in New Orleans and is a professor of writing at Louisiana State University.  He also heads the literary magazine Exquisite Corpse, now published on the Internet.

Andrei Codrescu was born in Sibu, Romania, in nineteen forty-six.  When he was nineteen years old, he and his mother left the country.  At that time, Israel was buying freedom for Jews in communist Romania.  The former West Germany was doing the same for ethnic Germans.

But instead of going to Israel, Andrei Codrescu and his mother came to the United States.  He says he now feels more American than anything else.  He became an American citizen in nineteen eighty-one.

Andrei Codrescu began to write poetry when he was sixteen.  He says Romanians have a strong love for poetry, and a language that expresses images well.  He also says writing poetry was a rebellious act because the communists banned a lot of writing.

Years later, as an American, he recorded the end of communist rule in Romania.  That happened in nineteen eighty-nine.  He wrote a book called "The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution."

Andrei Codrescu has also traveled around the United States and observed life.  His film "Road Scholar" is about unusual communities.  He wrote a book of the same name.  He says his travels taught him that people with differences can live together.

In two thousand six, Andrei Codrescu published a collection of essays about his adopted hometown in Louisiana -- New Orleans.  He wrote it with love, laughter and longing for the city after the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in August of two thousand five.  The book is called "New Orleans, Mon Amour."


Our program was written by Doreen Baingana and produced by Caty Weaver.  To find our earlier program about writers and the immigrant experience, go to  I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember.  Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


Editor's Note: Doreen Baingana, a part-time writer in Special English, is an award-winning author from Uganda.