Utopian and Dystopian Citizenships: Visions and Revisions of the “Promised Land”
I have chosen to read the story of ’76 as a chapter in sacred history; to set Thomas Jefferson in a class with Moses, and Washington with Joshua; to regard the American nation as the custodian of a scared trust, and American citizenship as a holy order, with laws and duties derived from the Declaration.
A postethnic perspective denies neither history nor biology—nor the need for affiliations—but it does deny that history and biology provide a set of clear orders for the affiliations we are to make.
As the 1912 presidential campaign moved into full swing, the “party of Lincoln” faced a crisis of divisive proportions. On the national stage, the conservative probusiness agenda of Republican incumbent William Howard Taft was pitted against the reform-minded antitrust philosophy of former president Theodore Roosevelt, also a Republican. In an election typified by bitter political discord, a failed assassination attempt, and a melodramatic nomination at the Republican National Convention, campaign debates were admittedly less spectacular.1 Marked not so much by fireworks as by differences of administrative opinion, such party-line disagreements—forged on the “crucible” of what role government would take in the coming decade—converged on the terrain of immigration policy.
In particular, Republican and Democratic Party candidates actively sought constituencies of both native and foreign-born. After all, between 1881 and 1920, an estimated 23.5 million immigrants (particularly from eastern and southern Europe) migrated to the United States, making it the largest immigration wave until the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.2 As urban spaces became more crowded, as industrialization moved at breakneck speed, and as demands for cheap labor rose, those seeking the nation’s highest office were necessarily obliged to opine about the “making of new Americans” through law, practice, and custom.
Correspondingly, the sitting Republican president vowed to veto any legislation that carried literacy requirements for new immigrants. Former president and well-known Zangwill supporter Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican Party “Bull Moose” candidate, followed suit. Relying on Progressive-era connections to Hull House founder Jane Addams, a staunch advocate of immigrant resettlement and open-door immigration policies, Roosevelt reiterated time and again his commitment to amalgamated immigrant selves and melting pots.3 Even Democratic Party candidate Woodrow Wilson, a former Princeton University president and current New Jersey governor, was forced to revise past nativist ruminations to meet the demands of a voting immigrant populace.
Indeed, a decade prior, Wilson had ruefully proclaimed that masses of southern and eastern European immigrants threatened to overrun superior northern European stock.4 However, by 1912, Wilson assured his audience that:
Some people have expressed a fear that there is too much immigration. I have the least uneasiness as to the new arrivals all being gripped as we have been gripped. The vast majority who come to our shores come on their own initiative and have some understanding as to what they want and a definite object in view. . . . The country should be divested of all prejudices. . . . We are all Americans when we vote.5
Explicitly addressing the question of citizenship—that “we are all Americans when we vote”—Wilson’s amended immigration outlook purposefully echoed that of his Republican counterparts. Unintentionally, Wilson also brought to light the naturalized legal treatment of eastern and southern European immigrants. Unlike their Asian counterparts, such subjects were (in spite of racial stereotype) considered “white” under naturalization law, hence eligible to cast a ballot.
This is not to suggest that eastern and southern European immigrants were universally welcomed into the U.S. body politic. The rise of the Immigration Restriction League, an anti-immigrant lobby begun in 1894, increased congressional demands for literacy requirements, and public calls for immigration quotas undermine characterizations of a progressive era in immigration politics. That same year, Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs chose a decidedly different answer to the “immigrant question” from those of the major party presidential contenders. Conscious of his constituency of domestic, native-born, working-class laborers, Debs publicly and vociferously opposed unrestricted immigration.6 As historian Matthew Frye Jacobson observes, the perennial Socialist candidate was a long-standing nativist who pejoratively declared in 1891 that “the Dago works for small pay and lives far more like a savage or wild beast than the Chinese.”7
Given that the “Chinese problem” was resolved through exclusionary legislation, the Socialist candidate’s comparative statement gestures toward a need for similar policies against other “less desirable” groups. Consequently, Debs (despite his own political marginalization as a socialist) was in step with contemporaneous scholars and conservative politicians who advocated “closed-door” answers to the “immigration problem.” Such solutions would be implemented in the latter part of the 1910s and into the 1920s, as seen in the successful passage of three restrictive immigration acts: the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act, the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, and 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. Nonetheless, as Israel Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot makes clear, such nativist calls and exclusionary politics did not go culturally unanswered.
Besides, Zangwill was certainly not alone in his pro-immigrant stance. Almost a decade before the 1908 The Melting-Pot premiere, the British author wrote the foreword to Mary Antin’s From Plotzk to Boston (1899). A collection of letters authored by an eleven-year-old Antin (1881–1949), From Plotzk to Boston was originally written in Yiddish and later translated, in the published version, into English. In the foreword, Zangwill averred: “Mary Antin’s vivid description of all she and her dear ones went through enables us to see with our own eyes how the invasion of America appears to the impecunious invader. It is thus ‘a human document’ of considerable value, as well as a promissory note of future performance.”8 Given Antin’s later literary success, Zangwill’s early praise proved prophetic. Notable for its autobiographical, first-person immigrant perspective, From Plotzk to Boston would lay the narrative groundwork for Antin’s most famous memoir, the bestselling The Promised Land (1912).
Like Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot, Mary Antin’s The Promised Land (and, to a lesser extent, From Plotzk to Boston) confronted characterizations of immigrant inferiority founded on perceived inassimilability. Specifically, The Promised Land’s foci on faith, individual success, and Americanization struck the same chord hit by Zangwill’s play. Conflating Old Testament stories of exodus with U.S. master narratives of equality and naturalized American acceptances, Antin’s well-received bildungsroman strategically situated the immigrant as a viable candidate for citizenship, like The Melting-Pot’s David Quixano and Vera Revendal. What is more, whereas Zangwill’s multicharacter “comedy of Americanization” relied on naturalized monologues, Antin’s memoir deployed a decidedly narrower, protagonist-driven focus.
Set in Russia and the United States, The Promised Land is composed of episodes that reinforce the protagonist’s allegiance to dominant U.S. values. In so doing, the immigrant memoir makes full use of uninterrupted naturalized performances emblematized in literary declarations of renunciation and acceptance. Paradoxically, such performances are temporarily threatened by a dialectical tension between the Old World immigrant and New World citizen, and between family and self. In the end, however, Antin’s memoir chiefly settles on an ideal vision of U.S. citizenship. Correspondingly, The Promised Land imagines a utopian turn-of-the-twentieth-century citizenship reminiscent of The Melting-Pot. On another level, the memoir is both productive and reproductive in scope. Expressly, Antin produces U.S. citizenship through naturalized acts; in the process, Antin reproduces (for the reader) the naturalization process.
In contrast, The Promised Land’s intertextual successor, Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land (1994) closely corresponds to the dystopian content to C. Y. Lee’s The Flower Drum Song.9 With titular and plot allusions to Antin’s narrative, Jen’s fictional bildungsroman nevertheless diverges from Antin’s “hopeful” memoir. Rather than stressing promise, Mona in the Promised Land emphasizes the racialized limitations of U.S. citizenship. Set within a volatile mid-century backdrop, Jen places her protagonist in a problematic “promised land.” Revising Antin’s journey from Russian Jewish subject to American citizen, Jen’s fictional “sequel” features a Chinese American citizen who wants to convert to Judaism. The protagonist’s desire to “switch” sets in motion a dystopian story of denaturalization. Undermining the “voluntary” mythos of American exceptionalism, Jen’s protagonist Mona must contend with rigid U.S. logics of race, gender, and nation.
Rising Tides and Immigration Problems: Pathological Ethnicities
The racial and gendered logics that circumscribe Mona and the Promised Land were most forcefully articulated in the first two decades of the twentieth century.10 Concomitantly, such logics necessarily impacted Antin’s contemporaneous In the Promised Land. For example, Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs’s 1912 nativist platform reverberated with the restrictionist treatise of Jeremiah W. Jenks and W. Jett Lauck, The Immigration Problem (1911). Jenks in particular was very much politically connected to the “immigrant question.” The Cornell professor of economics was an influential member of the congressional Commission on Immigration (the Dillingham Commission).11 Formed in 1907, the Commission on Immigration was charged with the task of policy planning and data collection. By 1911, the commission concluded that eastern and southern European immigrants posed an inassimilable national threat. For that alleged reason, the Dillingham Commission encouraged a two-pronged approach to stem the tide of undesirable immigration: quota-based restrictions (to bar would-be immigrants) and literacy requirements (for those foreign-born living in the United States).
The commission’s findings are revealed in The Immigration Problem.12 Armed with the prefatory claim that they “were not advocates but interpreters of fact,” The Immigration Problem’s authors introduced an “objective” matrix to evaluate immigrant citizenship viability. Different immigrant groups were analyzed in the following categories: degrees of mental defect, assimilability, poverty statistics, and literacy rates. Notwithstanding “factual interpretation,” The Immigration Problem incontrovertibly anticipated more expansive racist (and eugenicist) arguments at play in Madison Grant’s influential The Passing of the Great Race (1916).13 Taken together, The Immigration Problem and Grant’s subsequent sounding of the Anglo-Saxon alarm highlight the centrality of immigration in public discourse.
The primacy of immigration debate in U.S. sociopolitical imaginary was confirmed in a 1912 New York Times review of The Immigration Problem. Titled “Does the Pot Melt It?”, the article carried the equally interrogative byline, “Can the Immigration into this Country Be Assimilated?—It Could Be Once, but Can It Now?” According to the review’s unnamed critic, “there is probably no question of domestic policy that has been more debated or less understood than that of immigration.”14 Without a doubt, the New York Times reviewer corroborated pessimistic immigration forecasts. Simultaneously, he confronted claims of long-standing “melting-pot” nationhood. Regardless of the review’s avowed purpose (to evaluate the text’s strengths and weaknesses), “Does the Pot Melt It?” echoed and expanded The Immigration Problem’s cautionary argument against the continued importation of adulterated American “stock.”
Explicitly, “Does the Pot Melt It?” begins with an immigration concession of a priori assimilation success. To that end, the review begrudgingly acknowledges that the United States had been an immigrant (albeit “Anglo-Saxon”) nation. Still, the critic commends Jenks and Lauck for their “convincing” derailment of an immigrant-focused teleology. The Immigration Problem and the New York Times review deconstruct this misguided “melting pot” nationhood. In so doing, both authors and critic alike rely on a “past is not present” understanding of immigration. Accordingly, past immigration patterns are characterized by easily naturalized bodies. In contrast, the present tide of immigration consists of “probationary white” subjects who defy facile naturalization because of non-Anglo-Saxon diversity. Surely, as the review’s title and content suggest, these “too-foreign” ingredients threaten to “melt” the very foundation of U.S. nationhood.
Extending the “melted pot” metaphor further, a question of resources is integral to this pro-restriction review. The Immigration Problem’s authors—the aforementioned Jenks and Lauck, “an expert upon industrial and economic questions”—argue for restriction through a “scientific” consideration of labor competition, supply management, and education. At the same time, The Immigration Problem’s authors and New York Times critic alike repeatedly return to ethnicity and race. Critical to The Immigration Problem’s nativist accusations of “resource depletion” is a restriction justified through the “diseased” delineation of social, racial, and ethnic valences. In turn, such “ethnic pathologies” (as gleaned from Jenks and Lauck) precipitate a potential national calamity.
Asserting that newly arrived immigrants are largely illiterate, “acquire English very slowly—often not at all,” and chiefly consist of “nomadic” males, the critic’s recapitulation of The Immigration Problem’s main points explicitly evaluates citizenship promise through naturalization prerequisites (such as the ability to read and write English, and residency requirements).15 Implicitly, a central anxiety about U.S. selfhood materializes. Distinctively, the New York Times critic admits that though past immigration “has laid the foundations of our National greatness,” the “new and alien flood” effectively reduces these previous contributions “to an almost negligible quantity.”16 This “immigrant question”—or threat —is articulated through a pathologized critical questioning of present open-door policies that inadequately address the “condition” (or disease) at hand. To be sure, the questioning of immigrant policy necessarily relies on the newly interpolated turn-of-the-century immigrant subject. Consequently, the altered, interpolated immigrant is a corrosive body that threatens to melt the very “pot” of U.S. nationhood.
Inassimilable and “deficient,” this pathogenic immigrant body is the source of U.S. contamination and potential pandemic (or national) obliteration. The nation’s health, discernible in the reproduction of citizens, thus depends on naturalization processes that distinguish the “nomad” from the permanent settler, delineate the educated over the illiterate, and establish the racially welcome from the racial other.17 Reduced to an “alien flood,” the reviewer’s characterization of the turn-of-the-century immigration wave strategically attaches the recently arrived immigrant to national disaster.
Regarding Jewish immigration, Jenkins and Lauck initially take to task anti-Semitism abroad with the eugenicist declaration of Jewish “mental superiority.” Nevertheless, Jenkins and Lauck stress that unfettered access to the United States by Jewish immigrants carries the likely potential of introducing another “race problem” and will inevitably foment further ethno-racial tension (416). This pessimistic future vision is indubitably built on multiple contagions. Concurrently, the immigrant is the embodiment of an “American nightmare” inclusive of ethnoracial inferiority and further racial strife. It is this dystopian projection that necessitates and anticipates restrictionist policy and ruling. From nation-state quotas to barred zones, from whiteness cases and Supreme Court rulings, the opening decades of the twentieth century fused dominant understandings of U.S. selfhood to immigration discourse and practice.
Situated within this dystopian backdrop, Mary Antin’s The Promised Land provides a significant textual counterpoint to fears of an impending “alien flood.” Within this politicized context, Antin’s memoir insists that immigrants are not only viable citizens but—most important—are willing and able to assimilate. Emphasizing sameness and dismissing religious affiliation in favor of patriotic devotion, The Promised Land begins and concludes with “promise,” connotative of both rhetorical act (that is, a pledge of allegiance) and an optimistic future. Indeed, the pronouncement of utopian selfhood, wherein the United States is cast as an idealized and transcendent citizenship space, the rehabilitation of immigrants as healthy U.S. bodies, and the recuperative power of naturalization principally dictate Antin’s principally hopeful autobiographical project.
Articulating “My Country”: Mary Antin’s The Promised Land
No reverberatory effect of the great war has caused American public opinion more solicitude than the failure of the “melting-pot.” The discovery of diverse nationalistic feelings among our great alien population has come to most people as an intense shock. It has brought out the unpleasant inconsistencies of our traditional beliefs. We have had to watch hard-hearted old Brahmins virtuously indignant at the spectacle of the immigrant refusing to be melted, while they jeer at patriots like Mary Antin who write about our “forefathers.”
If Israel Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot successfully recuperated amalgamation as a catchall metaphor for early-century immigrant experiences, then Mary Antin’s The Promised Land performed an analogous but more specific function through memoir. The “comedy of Americanization” that characterizes Zangwill’s play, which partially accessed a Romeo and Juliet storyline to imagine an immigrant-centric sameness in the United States, is missing from Antin’s project. Instead, the “journey to Americanization” dominates The Promised Land’s plot. Correspondingly, The Promised Land’s protagonist is an immigrant author willfully made into an American. Equally divided between narratives about the country of origin (Russia) and stories set in the country of settlement (the United States), Antin’s girlhood narrative of “becoming American” formalistically echoes the naturalization process.
The Promised Land opens with Antin’s declaration that “I was born” and “I have lived,” calling to mind the a priori dimensions of naturalization repudiation.18 To be sure, Antin’s birth location in Russia foregrounds the legal need to naturalize. Simultaneously, this opening proclamation reflects and anticipates Antin’s naturalization. In this vein, the proclamation of being “made over” implicitly signals the completion of the naturalization process. Concomitantly, The Promised Land’s initial projections foreshadow what follows: Antin recounts the experiences in the Russian pale (under threat of pogrom) that justify her family’s flight to America; she then enumerates her journey from Polotsk, Russia, to the United States. The Promised Land concludes with Antin’s pronouncement of “true arrival” via acculturation and naturalization in her newfound Boston home.
Notwithstanding the literary seamlessness of Antin’s naturalization, the author’s declaration of U.S. selfhood was unquestionably contested in the public sphere. Irrespective of the author’s declaration of a Boston “homecoming,” as Randolph Bourne makes clear in the opening paragraph of “Trans-National America” (1916), “old Brahmins” (like Jeremiah W. Jenks and W. Jett Lauck) nonetheless “jeer at patriots like Mary Antin who write about our “‘forefathers.’”19 Bourne brings to light the contradictory dimensions of nativism with his observation that these same individuals remain “virtuously indignant at the spectacle of the immigrant refusing to be melted.”20 Positioned between these two poles of nativist thought, Antin’s The Promised Land tactically opts to highlight a recognizable naturalization process. Through such a trajectory, Antin as immigrant subject voluntarily selects U.S. citizenship over less defined transnational affiliation. The protagonist repudiates Russian practices in favor of U.S. politics. In similar fashion, Antin consistently privileges secular faith over orthodox Jewish practice, therefore engendering a de facto cultural naturalization that matches her newfound political selfhood.
A Progressive-era immigrant rights activist, Antin purposefully structures the immigrant experience as an intimately “American experience” rooted in an overt naturalization agenda. Drawing on dominant notions of exceptionalism and past conceptualizations of the United States as an e pluribus unum place of possibility and space of religious freedom, Antin manipulates her coming-of-age narrative to address nativist concerns of inassimilability and unpatriotic affiliation. As such, Antin as a character is an ideal would-be U.S. citizen who skillfully negotiates the terrain of American personhood and enthusiastically embraces cultural practices in “her country.” The exuberance of Antin’s national pledge is unmistakable in exclamatory remarks about the possibilities at hand in the United States.
Tellingly, the pogroms that threatened familial dynamics in Antin’s native Russia are juxtaposed with tolerant classroom spaces that afford the newly arrived Antin and her family equal access to public space and education. The superstitions constitutive of family practice in her native Russia give way to more “rational” capitalistic exchanges involving hard work and eventual reward. And, in the face of her initial location in Russia as a disenfranchised peasant, Antin ends her memoir with the empowered assertion that in America she is an “heir . . . awaiting maturity. I was a princess waiting to be led to the throne.”21 The reliance on regal characterizations reinforces a reading of the memoir through utopian frames, wherein a priori class affiliations are rendered meaningless in a space of unbounded socioeconomic opportunity.
Formalistically reminiscent of Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot, The Promised Land is composed of public oaths to the United States. As the memoir progresses, each declaration brings to light Antin’s evolving “American character.” This identity, revealed through acts of learning, is largely forged in institutional places like the classroom. It is here where the first-generation immigrant Antin encounters U.S. history, studies English, and, most important, articulates (through writing) her patriotic connection to the nation. Like Benjamin Franklin, Antin uses memoir as a means to map her self-made Americanness. In so doing, she in effect composes a readily intelligible nation-state affiliation that underscores Antin’s seriousness as a “student of American letters.”
What is more, Antin’s naturalized self-revision is most evident in her negotiation of language and acquisition of dominant U.S. narratives. The evolution of Antin’s legibility via the nation becomes clear in an episode involving a school assignment. Assigned to write a piece celebrating George Washington’s birthday, Antin composes a prize-winning poem. Asked by her teacher to publicly recite it, Antin admits, “My pronunciation was faulty, my declamation flat.” Still, the protagonist quickly interjects: “But I had the courage of my convictions. I was face to face with twoscore Fellow Citizens, in clean blouses and extra frills. I must tell them what George Washington had done for their country—for our country—for me” (194). The inclusion of “fellow citizens,” the mention of Washington (a founding father), and the rhetorical conflation of “their country” and “our country” reinforce Antin’s declaration that she too is a citizen. The recitation, “repeated by request” on the part of the teacher and received by students with “applause [that] was equally prolonged at each repetition,” cements a successful reading of Antin’s poetic patriotism, which resembles in form and function a partial naturalization oath.
Central to Antin’s citizenship process is literacy, entrenched in her ability to read U.S. sociocultural cues; understand official, historical U.S. narratives; and write to American citizens. Reflective of such citizenship epiphanies, Antin professes:
What more could America give a child? . . . As I read how the patriots planned the Revolution, and the women gave their sons to die in battle, and the heroes led them to victory, and the rejoicing people set up the Republic, it dawned on me gradually what was meant by my country. . . . For the Country was for all the Citizens, and I was a Citizen. And when we stood up to sing “America,” I shouted the words with all my might. I was in very earnest proclaiming to the world my love for my newfound country. (190–191)
Included in a chapter entitled, “My Country,” Antin’s connection to national identity commences with an act of literacy (reading) and concludes with the patriotic vocalization of “America the Beautiful.” The use of an ownership pronoun (my) and the deployment of affective allegiance (apparent in Antin’s declaration of “love”) confirm her previous avowal of citizenship. In so doing, Antin’s fuses affect to patriotic performance. This fused performance, staged in the public space of a classroom, enables a de facto naturalization oath. Correspondingly, the first-generation child immigrant claims “her newfound country” through an allegiance to American history (that is, Washington) and the U.S. nation. On another level, Antin’s articulation of U.S. nationhood occurs through sequential means (from “Revolution” to “Republic,” from colonial subject to citizen of the United States). Taken together, the “poem episode” calls forth analogous immigrant teleologies wherein the foreign-born eventually becomes an “American.”
The chapters that precede “My Country” furnish the necessary repudiation of the country of origin required for naturalization. The characterization of Russia as a totalitarian, discriminatory dystopia (placed in stark utopian contrast to “America”) provides the compulsory binaried repudiation/declaration grammar. In the same chapter, Antin challenges the belief that immigrant bodies cannot be made into “American” stock. Militating against pathogenic immigrant discourses, Antin contends, “The public school has done its best for us foreigners, and for the country, when it has made us into good Americans” (224). The repetition of “constructed” language—observable in the use of “made” in the memoir—makes clear Antin’s conviction that immigrants can in fact be molded into good Americans despite their beginning location as foreigners. Indeed, the public school becomes an important site of “making,” for it not only engenders the production of good Americans but manufactures citizens for the good (or health) of the country.
Antin as a legitimate and legitimated American subject is strengthened in the concluding moments of the memoir. The author maintains:
Having traced the way an immigrant child may take from the ship through the public schools, passed on from hand to hand by the ready teachers; through free libraries and lecture halls, inspired by every occasion of civic consciousness; dragging through the slums the weight of private disadvantage, but heartened for the effort by public opportunity; welcomed at a hundred open doors of instruction, initiated with pomp and splendor and flags unfurled; seeking, in American minds, the American way, and finding it in the thoughts of the noble,—striving against the odds of foreign birth and poverty, and winning. . . . I lived very much as my American schoolmates lived, having overcome my foreign idiosyncrasies. (360)
Antin carefully lists the educational means that enable her journey from immigrant child to assimilated U.S. subject. From the ship to public schools, from free libraries to lecture halls, Antin has (up to this point in the memoir) benefited from “a hundred open doors of instruction.” Intentionally, Antin’s motif of open doors within The Promised Land speaks directly to the author’s desired vision of a comparable open immigration policy. Celebrating the “American way,” Antin has “won” against the “odds of foreign birth.” Regardless of odds (a term indicative of a relationship to chance), Antin stresses that her success occurs as a result of purposeful action. Having taken full advantage of “free” U.S. resources, Antin has, in good faith, overcome “foreign idiosyncrasies” in the service of wholesale citizenship.
This faith, constitutive of Antin’s repudiation of the foreign in favor of the domestic, resembles a mode of civic consciousness that potentially overcomes foreign affect and poverty. In this regard, Antin is not only a triumphant American citizen but also the embodiment of capitalistic virtue, reflected in individual gain and profit. Less explicit, but just as important, is Antin’s calculated and qualified dismissal of family frames. Within The Promised Land’s imaginary, Antin’s mother and father must work to sustain the family. This need to work extends to her oldest sister Frieda, who must drop out of school to supplement the household income. Antin briefly acknowledges the realities of working-class, first-generation immigrant subjectivity, yet does not offer much in terms of an analysis of sociopolitical dynamics such as discrimination and potentially disruptive class politics. A sustained reading of uneven, exploitative labor politics would force a less noble U.S. narrative.
In its place, Antin articulates a stark dichotomy between her father’s socioeconomic agendas and her politicized project of “self-making.” Whereas her “father had come to America to make a living,” Antin “had come to America to see a new world, and I followed my own ends with the utmost assiduity; only, as I ran out to explore, I would look back to see if my house were in order behind me—if my family still kept its head above water” (197). Positioned within a larger history of American letters, Antin’s desire to see a new world intersects with recognizable, idealized U.S. tropes of adventure, individual discovery, and revision through education. In opposition, Antin’s father is interested in an alternative form of “making.” Unable to affectively divorce himself from the country of origin, Antin’s father speaks “imperfect English” and is marked by a “Jewish appearance” (201). Antin’s father, a “marked” character, is invested in a decidedly different U.S. promise, primarily one of economic gain.
Nonetheless, what connects father to daughter, individual to community, and self to family is the issue of citizenship affiliation. Written decades before the geopolitical formation of Israel in 1948, the Jewish immigrant Antin is effectually stateless. This statelessness alternatively informs Antin’s characterization of the United States as the promised land—a geographically specific location of religious tolerance that grants the author (and by extension, her family) a heretofore elusive nation-state affiliation. Hence, Antin’s aforementioned pledge of allegiance relies on both the “discovery” of her country and her newfound status as a viable citizen. As Antin declares,
I strained to hear, through closed doors, some neighboring class rehearsing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If the doors happened to open, and the chorus broke out . . . delicious tremors ran up and down my spine, and I was faint with suppressed enthusiasm. . . . Where had been my country until now? What flag had I loved? What heroes had worshipped? . . . Well I knew that Polotzk was not my country. It was goluth—exile. (226)
Emblematic of a Jewish diasporic condition, Antin’s repeated questions about location—“where” and “what”—bring to light concerns over geographic certainty and nation-state affiliation. To Antin, Polotzk is not a homeland place but rather a banishment site (goluth). Lost without a flag, bereft of heroes, and lacking access to a national past, Antin’s statelessness is most apparent through the absence of civic participation and state-recognized belonging. The United States allows Antin to be a citizen and becomes a space that makes available a definite cultural, political, and historical location. At the same time, the multifaceted opportunities afforded to Antin and her family in the United States enable multiple points of access to “utopian promise.” Therefore, “America” as an identifiable promised land affords the protagonist a heretofore untenable citizenship. For Antin’s family, “America” offers economic gain without anti-Semitic impediment.
Still, the use of “exile” to instantiate Antin’s political statelessness deliberately calls into question the “homeland.” After all, Antin and her family (as discriminated subjects) are economically and politically forced out of the country of their birth to settle in the United States. Antin leaves what initially seems to be a homeland space (the place of birth) for “the promised land.” Consequently, the mention of exile paradoxically highlights and destabilizes a traditional understanding of countries of origin and settlement. Antin reverses this trajectory so that the United States, as a promised land, ultimately becomes (analogously to Israel Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot) a viable homeland for Jewish subjects.
Accordingly, Polotzk as configured location is a “land of exile,” a “non-homeland.” Antin’s discursive subversion of homeland dynamics implicitly counters anti-immigration advocates who argue that immigrants are perpetually bound by country of origin affiliations, prejudices, and politics. Instead, Antin emphasizes the lack of such allegiances due to intolerable and stateless politics in the assumed homeland. Though Russia is Antin’s country of origin, it is characterized largely through an “anti-home” discourse. Hence, without sanctuary from nation-state persecution and without access to religious freedom, Antin accesses a useable, American Puritanical past. Antin situates the Jewish immigrant alongside the Puritan forefather, the archetypical model immigrant subject, who (according to the tenets of national myth) faced similar persecution.
At the same time, mindful of New World anti-Semitic prejudices, Antin distances herself from a solely religious affiliation and opts instead to privilege a secular citizenship. Antin writes that “the story of the Exodus was not history to me in the sense that the story of the American Revolution was. It was like a glorious myth, a belief in which had the effect of cutting me off from the actual world, by linking me with a world of phantoms” (226). In this instance, Antin eschews a foundational Jewish narrative in favor of a complementary U.S. script, forging an identifiable disconnect between the “actual world” of U.S. politics and the biblical “phantom world.” Correspondingly, in the coming-of-age narrative that principally marks The Promised Land, revised religious metaphors of selfhood accommodate a secular conversion to U.S. citizenship. As literary critic Evelyn Salz compellingly observes, “the biblical title of the autobiography sets the stage for the chapter headings: ‘The Tree of Knowledge,’ ‘The Exodus,’ ‘Manna,’ and ‘The Burning Bush.’”22
Yet the secularist, naturalized focus of Antin’s text uneasily coexists with the author’s own conflicted imagining of the immigrant past alongside a seemingly inevitable American present. From the start, Antin confesses, “It is painful to be consciously of two worlds. The Wandering Jew in me seeks forgetfulness. I am not afraid to live on and on, if only I do not have to remember too much. A long past vividly remembered is like a garment that clings to your limbs when you would run. And I have thought of a charm that should release me from the folds of my clinging past” (6). Reminiscent of Abraham Cahan’s authorial articulation of “ill comport,” Antin’s admission that it is “painful to be consciously of two worlds” is initially constructed through a tension between remembrance and forgetfulness. Predicated on a duality, Antin briefly interrupts her celebratory account of Americanization with an affective nod toward the painful. And, “a long past vividly remembered” takes the form of a restrictive garment. The raiment metaphor fittingly illustrates Antin’s larger project of shedding past identities in favor of new affiliations.
In addition, the “charm” that should release the author from the fold of a clinging past carries a double meaning. Connotative of liberation and freedom, “release” can be read as an ulterior authorial motive conditionally reliant on the successful deliverance from Russian pogroms and anti-Semitism. Alternatively, writing functions as a cathartic act for Antin, who effectively renders her life story in the language of her country of adoption. In so doing, the memoir as completed text becomes a charm or emblem of Antin’s successful journey to and acculturation within a utopian promised land. In this manner, Antin’s larger political project (wherein she implicitly and explicitly advocates for the unimpeded and unrestricted inclusion of immigrants through autobiographical claims of assimilation) supplants the Plymouth Rock narrative of citizenship. As important, such naturalized strategies attempt to answer the “immigrant question” that marked turn-of-the-century domestic discourse and foreign policy.
Still, even with Antin’s activist literary agenda (indicative of utopian nationhood), the dystopian tone and argument apparent in “Does the Pot Melt It?” would forcefully resurface a dozen years later during congressional immigration policy deliberations. Reminiscent of previous anti-immigrant arguments about resources, “melted pots,” and citizenship stock, South Carolina Senator Ellison DuRant Smith, influenced by Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, declared on April 9, 1924, that:
the time has arrived when we should shut the door. We have been called the melting pot of the world. We had an experience just a few years ago, during the great World War, when it looked as though we had allowed influences to enter our borders that were about to melt the pot in place of us being the melting pot. I think that we have sufficient stock in America now for us to shut the door, Americanize what we have, and save the resources of America for the natural increase of our population.23
In the shadow of Jeremiah W. Jenks and W. Jett Lauck’s The Immigration Problem, Smith’s 1924 insistent appeal to “shut the door” and “Americanize what we have” was not so much new as it was congressionally forceful. Indeed, Smith’s “closed door” order was part of a much longer anti-immigrant discourse built on the exclusion of undesirable subjects, the regulation of foreign bodies, and the maintenance of Anglo-Saxon whiteness.
And, like The Immigration Problem, central to Smith’s demand for closed-door immigration policies is a belief in the fragility of U.S. nationhood in the face of immigrant threat. A little more than a decade in the making, the turn-of-the-century solution to the “immigrant problem” would favor nativist politics. In particular, such a vision for U.S. immigration policy met restrictive fruition in 1924 with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act. Reducing the number of immigrants through a quota system based on 2 percent of that nationality in 1890, the act had a profound impact on southern European and eastern European immigration. Because most southern and eastern European immigrants arrived after this date, the number of individuals from these locations was greatly reduced.24 Despite Mary Antin’s autobiographical interpellation, pro-immigrant politics would largely be erased in the 1920s. In a decade that witnessed the passage of the Emergency Quota Act, Ozawa, and Thind, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act was incontrovertibly in line with an increasingly narrow ethnoracial vision of U.S. selfhood, which would persist until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
Open Door Polices, Civil Rights Agendas, and Cold War Logics: The Hart-Cellar Immigration Act
Four decades after the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, immigration policy would once again find a national audience. Amid the rise of the civil rights movement, with Supreme Court rulings, marches, and sit-ins on the domestic political stage, the racialized dimensions of immigration became an undeniable impediment to U.S. superpower claims of tolerance, equality, and democracy. As Democratic California Representative and immigration policy reformer Philip Burton opined on August 25, 1965, “Just as we sought to eliminate discrimination in our land through the Civil Rights Act, today we seek by phasing out the national origins quota system to eliminate discrimination in immigration to this nation composed of the descendents of immigrants.”25 If, as Burton argues, the Civil Rights Act eliminated “discrimination in our land” for American subjects, then a concomitant immigration reform—without racial requirements and nation-state quotas—would potentially perform an analogous function on would-be American subjects: immigrants.
Beside the undeniable impact of the civil rights movement on contemporaneous immigration reform, equally important was the ever-increasing military role of the U.S. on the world stage. To be sure, the heating up of cold war foreign policies at mid-century (in Korea, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia) further substantiated the need to reconcile notions of democratic virtue domestically and abroad. If the United States as democratic superpower was worth its weight in ideological gold, then state-authorized discrimination policies, evident in Jim Crow segregation, publically sanctioned biases, and ethnically based immigration restrictions, could neither be sustained nor tolerated. Therefore, understood through increasingly “common sense” civil rights, the political language around mid-1960s immigration policy intersected with cold war initiatives abroad.
Moreover, this “common sense” was constructed through a liberal reading of human rights through universal means. For example, overt discriminatory policies made glaringly apparent asymmetrical power relations that impeded not only basic rights but capitalistic enterprise. It therefore made “common sense” that such abuses of power potentially threatened—through state-authorized hypocrisy—cold war claims of U.S. superiority over Soviet Union totalitarian abuses of human rights. This interrelated reading of civil rights and immigration policy is evident in President Johnson’s vehement assertion in 1966 that previous immigration restrictions violated “the basic principle of American democracy—the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores before we were a country.”26 Appropriately, Johnson’s vociferous disavowal of past policy occurred in the most iconic immigration venue—at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Further, the setting for Johnson’s “declaration of immigration” makes more noticeable the implied revival of immigrant activist Mary Antin’s turn-of-the-century open-door claims that the United States was, at heart, a nation founded by immigrants and through immigration.
In the face of coherences between civil rights, cold war logics, and immigration policy, supporters of the bill—including Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy—found it necessary to assuage fears that such legislation would “flood our cities with immigrants” nor would it “upset the ethnic mix of our society.”27 At stake in debates over the impact of the reform was the ever-present “Asian question.” For instance, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, when questioned specifically by reporters about Indian immigration, averred: “Based on the best information we can get . . . there might be, say, 8,000 immigrants from India in the next five years.”28 Republican Senator Hiram Fong of Hawaii, answering a similar query, maintained that “Asians represent six-tenths of 1 percent of the population of the United States. . . . The people from that part of the world will never reach 1 percent of the population.”29 Within the context of contemporaneous U.S. foreign policy, which was increasingly entrenched in cold war excursions in Asia, and in light of past immigration policy that explicitly excluded Asian bodies, declarations against the rise of a “yellow peril” bespeak the continued currency of anti-Asian sentiment. In turn, this anti-Asian sentiment underscores the ongoing immigration preference for white bodies within the larger U.S. body politic.
Despite such anxieties, roughly two months after the Voting Rights Act became a legislative reality, on October 3, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Hart-Cellar Immigration Bill into law. Known widely as the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Hart-Cellar Act eliminated the restrictionist nation-state quotas that had haunted immigration policy for more than half of the twentieth century. Legislatively linked to the removal of racial requirements in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act would introduce a new era of U.S. immigration policy. Eschewing national origin quotas in favor of hemispheric designations (170,000 from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere), the law abolished the final governmental vestige of ethnoracial bias from codified U.S. immigration policy. In addition, the act included seven preferences that categorically organized would-be immigrants to the United States:
1) Unmarried children under 21 years of age of U.S. citizens; 2) Spouses and unmarried children of permanent residents; 3) Professionals, scientists, and artists “of exceptional ability”; 4) Married children over 21 years of age and their spouses and children of U.S. citizens; 5) Siblings and their spouses and children of U.S. citizens; 6) Workers in occupations with labor shortages; and 7) Political refugees.30
Privileging open-door access over closed-door prohibition, the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act signaled a paradigmatic shift in national thinking about the immigrant body with regard to family frames. Contrary to previous nativist anti-family agendas, the Immigration and Nationality Act implicitly characterized newly arrived immigrants as family members (parents, spouses, and children). Correspondingly, middle-class heteronormative familial structures became a prominent basis for legitimate and legitimated access to the United States.
Couched by the executive and legislative branches simply as an initiative that reconciled U.S. democratic virtue and U.S. immigration policy, the Hart-Cellar Act was, at its inception, symbolically envisioned. The symbolic intent of the immigration act is apparent in President Johnson’s pronouncement on October 3 that “This bill we sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not structure the shape of daily lives.”31
Notwithstanding symbolic intent and presidential declaration, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act would enable the mass migration of Asian and Latin American immigrants to the United States.32 As such, the bill engendered a revolutionary demographic shift. According to sociologist Pyong Gap Min, between 1965 and 2002, 8.3 million Asian immigrants became permanent residents, a number that represents 34 percent of total immigrants.33 As demographic scholar C. N. Le notes, between 1971 and 2002, an estimated 7,331,500 Asian immigrants came to the United States.34 In fact, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act heralded the second largest, most racially diverse tide of immigration in the twentieth century. Between 1901 and 1920, 88 percent of immigrants were from European nation-states, 4 percent were from Asian nation-states, and 3 percent were from Latin America. However, as the twentieth century came to a close, the ethnic affiliations that marked the opening decades were overturned. Between 1980 and 1993, 39 percent of immigrants came from Asia, 43 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean, and only 13 percent hailed from Europe.35
For these reasons, irrespective of the seemingly apropos location of Johnson’s immigration declaration at the Statue of Liberty (which was in sight of Ellis Island), a more suitable place for such presidential cogitation would have been San Francisco’s Angel Island. The question of Asian bodies within the U.S. body politic carried the potential to derail immigration reform, yet contradictorily Asian Americans (and by extension, Asian immigrants) were cast as “model minorities.” Read as a group that both overcame discrimination and achieved socioeconomic success, Asians and Asian Americans became at mid-century promissory subjects in “the promised land.” Such utopian tropes, reflective of “promise” and inclusive of these subjects, necessarily undergird Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land, a second-generation bildungsroman that follows the eponymous Asian American protagonist’s journey from adolescence to adulthood.
Whereas Mary Antin’s The Promised Land directly spoke to the contemporary calls for closed immigration and the policing of immigrant Jewish bodies, Gish Jen’s intertextual response retrospectively addresses the legacy of the civil rights movement, the assimilation of Jewish Americans within the larger body politic, and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. In tandem, the removal of ethnic markers and the inclusion of political refugees suggest a nascent, civil rights-era inspired colorblindness at the level of immigration policy. If, as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. so famously argued, Americans should be judged by the “content of their character” and not the “color of their skin,” then the Hart-Cellar Act assumed a similar logic in judging immigrants not by the “nation of origin” but instead by the “content of their labor” and familial capital. The dichotomy between “skin” and “character” (alongside the growing emergence of Asian bodies on the U.S. demographic scene) foreground considerations of ethnicity, religion, and race in Mona in the Promised Land, a novel that makes apparent the limitations of U.S. selfhood vis-à-vis claims of unbounded possibility.
Returning to the “Promised Land”: Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land
Mona in the Promised Land is a sequel to Gish Jen’s first novel, Typical American (1991), which thematically and intertextually anticipates its successor.36 Typical American opens with the unidentified narrator’s declaration that what follows is “an American story: Before he was a thinker, or a doer, or an engineer, much less an imagineer like his self-made-millionaire friend Grover Ding, Ralph Chang was just a small boy in China, struggling to grow up his father’s son.”37 The unidentified narrator’s insistence that the ensuing tale is an American story is corroborated through a tongue-in-check enumeration of U.S. myths. Such myths—apparent in assertions of self-made-millionaires, doers, and Disney-inspired “imagineers”—are deconstructed through failure and folly. Ralph, an engineering graduate student who eventually becomes a tenured professor, fails in his attempt to access a legibly capitalistic American dream through restaurant ownership.
Opting to abandon the stability of academe in favor of running a fried chicken establishment, Ralph’s food venture structurally fails. Built on an unstable foundation, the restaurant literally collapses like a house of cards (or, given concomitant familial disintegration, like Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”). Ralph’s willingness to seek less stable economic futures is predicated on Grover Ding, a con artist whose guidance Ralph mistakenly follows. The failure of economic success is matched by the dissolution of the familial, marked by his wife Helen’s affair with Grover and his sister Theresa’s decision to leave Ralph and Helen’s home. Hence, the novel’s “hopeful” opening gives way to a pessimistic conclusion, wherein utopian tropes of success are displaced by dystopian plots of failure. The revelation and exploration of dystopian, undesirable elements within the terrain of U.S. sociopolitics is intimately tied to a decidedly “anti-Antin” immigrant narrative that in turn foreshadows Jen’s later novel.
Central to Typical American’s plot and characterization is the first-generation Chinese immigrant who, on the one hand, struggles with U.S. cultural practices and politics. On the other hand, as the narrator observes, the same immigrant subject must also struggle to “grow up his [Chinese] father’s son,” implicitly reminding the reader of the country of origin (China). The emphasis on first-generation dynamics is evident in Typical American’s preoccupation with adaptation to life in the United States. Ralph and Helen (along with Ralph’s sister Theresa) negotiate the New World through Old World frames, and naturalize, to varying degrees, through consumption and capitalist enterprise into dominant 1950s “American” values.38 To the first-generation protagonists in Typical American, being American becomes an unstable identity constitutive of equal parts frustrated economic desire and cultural loss. The term “typical American” is at first deployed by Ralph, Helen, and Theresa as a catch-all phrase for unwanted “country-of-settlement” traits (e.g., laziness, ignorance, lack of clear conviction). As the novel progresses, each character, to varying degrees becomes a “typical American” disconnected from filial loyalty and Chinese tradition.
In Mona in the Promised Land, Jen’s protagonist remains even more distant (generationally, historically, and geographically) from filial obligation and Chinese tradition. However, even with coherences apparent in conflicts between and among characters, the focus on the country of origin is largely eschewed in favor of a contemplation of second-generation Americanness in the country of settlement, the United States. Vital to Jen’s second novel is the issue of not only arriving in the “promised land” but living within its social, cultural, and political borders. At the same time, the typicality afforded American existence in Jen’s first novel is expanded to encompass other U.S. myths of individual freedom, agency, and choice. As such, Mona in the Promised Land displaces an outsider, first-generation immigrant perspective in relation to the possibilities embedded in U.S. nationhood in favor of a contemplation of the limitations that inevitably accompany racially circumscribed U.S. selfhood. In Mona in the Promised Land, the reader is given a protagonist who is perpetually becoming American. To use Antin’s language, Mona is “made over and over.” The second-generation Chinese American Mona attempts to incorporate identities that are not (drawing on cultural critic David Hollinger’s observations in the epigraph above) biologically determined. Mona’s “identity performances” as a Jewish Chinese American subject are frustrated by ancillary characters, who make “unnatural” and “illegible” Mona’s ethnoreligious shift.
In Mona in the Promised Land’s opening pages, the Changs are reintroduced to the reader as a “nice Chinese family—father, mother, two born-here girls.”39 The unidentified narrator establishes from the outset an intergenerational immigrant dynamic. The two “born-here girls”—Mona and her older sister Callie—are described as second-generation Chinese Americans with Americanized birth names who speak English as their first language. In contrast, the parental Changs—Ralph and Helen—are first-generation immigrants with Americanized “adult” names.40 Ralph and Helen speak Chinese in a Shanghai dialect, remind their children of the way things “were in China,” and embody values that emphasize family affiliations over all other associations. Unlike their American progeny, the parental Changs are characterized by their declarative adherence to “old country” Chinese roots.
Additionally, the first-generation Chineseness that permeates the opening chapters of the novel operates as a necessary basis for Mona’s eventual ethno-religious shift. In Mona in the Promised Land, the protagonist replaces this Chinese affiliation in favor of a Jewish subject position. This switch in turn foregrounds intergenerational, parental, and ethnic conflicts that constitute the bulk of the narrative. The “remaking” of Mona is embedded in the negotiation of past identity modifiers as a second-generation Chinese American. The resultant grammar—replete with revision, deletion, and addition—further speaks to the protagonist’s being “born again and again.” The fluidity afforded Mona’s identity is matched by the unstable politics at the novel’s forefront. The unidentified omniscient narrator supplements prefatory comments about the familial Chang unit with the evocative declaration that “it’s only 1968; the blushing dawn of ethnic awareness has yet to pink up their inky suburban night” (3). The temporal setting of the novel, which begins in 1968 and ends “some years later” in the early 1980s, encompasses a period that witnessed both the rise of the ethnic revival and the emergence of multiculturalism in American discourse.
Accordingly, notwithstanding the novel’s preoccupation with U.S. ethnoracial frameworks and “promised land” dimensions, as significant are the accompanying geopolitical imaginaries which circumscribe the novel’s temporal frame. The year the novel begins (1968) is made more meaningful in light of U.S. foreign policy, the establishment of ethnic studies, and the rise of the Asian American movement. Within the realm of U.S. geopolitics, the success of the 1968 North Vietnamese Tet offensive and the public outcry over the My Lai massacre effectively undermined hawk-oriented political avowals that the United States was winning in the cold war Southeast Asian front. Protests over the war became increasingly vociferous, evident in the late-summer riots that overwhelmed headlines about the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Shifting from the antiwar movement to the civil rights movement, the largest student strike in U.S. history was staged in 1968 at San Francisco State College, wherein students of color and community activists (via the Third World Liberation Front) sought substantial representation in higher education curricula and hiring. This strike, along with similar initiatives at University of California-Berkeley, is credited with the development and institutionalization of ethnic studies.41 In hindsight, the strike represents a foundational moment for the Asian American movement, committed to deconstructing traditional hierarchies of racial power and U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
Moving from the historical to the literary, in Mona in the Promised Land, the protagonist’s sister Callie (appropriately named to recall the West Coast student strikes) becomes the standard bearer for this movement in the sense that she becomes increasingly more invested in ethnic studies and ethnic pride as the novel progresses. The rise of “ethnicity” in public discourse belies the unidentified narrator’s initial claim that the ensuing story of the Changs commences before “the blushing dawn of ethnic awareness.” Instead, ethnic awareness, inclusive of solidarities among third-world peoples and people of color, had given way in 1968 to less timid (or “blushing”) politics. Therefore, the novel is firmly situated within the fabric of largely monolithic ethnic awareness. At the same time, the monolithic dimension of ethnic consciousness is made unstable by Mona’s insistence on taking on multiple forms of ethnic awareness. The implicit negotiation of politics through the narrator’s omission establishes an implicit template for the rest of the novel, which is manifest to varying degrees in Mona in the Promised Land’s plot, further deconstructing the claim of a “blushing dawn” via its preoccupation with ethnic (inclusive of Jewish) consciousness.
What is more, Jen anachronistically (with regard to the 1960s and 1970s setting for the novel) and contradictorily brings to the fore a 1990s postethnic awareness mediated through late twentieth-century colorblindness. David Hollinger’s notion of “postethnic,” suggestive of a mode or time after ethnicity, signals a philosophical turn toward the voluntary over the socially or biologically determined. Mona’s ethnoreligious shift is further construed (and to some extent made possible) through the protagonist’s understanding of American identity as inherently flexible and performative in scope. When asked whether she is American, Mona responds, “Sure I’m American. . . . Everybody who’s born here is American, and also people who convert from what they were before. You could become American. . . . You only have to learn some rules and speeches” (14). Mona’s inclusive answer—that not only “everybody who’s born here is American” but also “people who convert from what they were before”—characterizes citizenship through natural-born subjectivities and naturalized performances. The learning of some rules and speeches is a direct nod toward basic requirements of naturalized citizenship. In addition, the deployment of conversion (as a legible citizenship frame) echoes Antin’s literary “remaking” project and foreshadows Mona’s religious conversion to Judaism.
In the face of Mona’s confident citizenship assertion, the novel fails to fully engender a liberating postethnic affiliation. As is evident from the parental Changs’ at times tenuous relationship with country-of-origin practices (coupled with the unwillingness of other characters to acknowledge the viability of the protagonist’s “shift”), Mona in the Promised Land underscores the ongoing rigidity of ethnicity as a marker of citizenship. Consequently, the thematic outcome of Mona’s journey from Chinese American to Chinese Jewish American is that identities are never fully deconstructed, negotiated, or dismissed. The “natural” elements of citizenship give way to “denaturalized” discussions of legibility. On another level, the multisited dimensions of identity deconstruction, coupled with the illegibility of the protagonist’s identity via other characters in Mona in the Promised Land, makes less available a utopian reading of the novel wherein absolute freedom, equality, and choice are universally afforded “American” subjects. In doing so, Jen constructs a dystopian imaginary in which the United States is a place not of gain but of loss, a location marked not by possibility but by limitation, and a country still invested in monolithic articulations of identity regardless of the passage of open-door immigration laws and civil rights legislation.
The unstable nature of citizenship is apparent in symbolic ethnic moments which come to typify the parental Changs.42 These symbolic ethnic episodes are obscured by the introduction of transnational adaptation, wherein Chinese traditions are revised according to “American” palates. Such transnational revision fails to articulate a lasting multicultural coexistence between the country of origin and the country of settlement. In an early Thanksgiving scene, the unidentified narrator divulges the fact that Helen stuffs the turkey with “stir-fried rice stuffing.” The narrator buttresses this observation with the acknowledgment of a peculiar culinary practice: Ralph carves it with “a knife and chopsticks.” When asked by a non-Chinese American friend if carving a turkey in this manner corresponds to a “Chinese tradition,” Ralph “nods gravely.” The Chang patriarch replies, “This is the Chinese tradition when we cannot find the big fork” (41). The joke relies on the inflexible ethnoracial assumption that chopsticks are for the “Chinese” Ralph more “natural” than forks, notwithstanding his status as a first-generation Chinese American. His alleged admission that chopsticks are used when “we cannot find the big fork” inadvertently speaks to a “state of nature” to which Ralph returns. Ralph’s response, reliant on an ethnically inspired punch line, acknowledges the assumption and subverts it to comic effect.
Taken together, the question about “Chinese tradition” and Ralph’s joke highlight a stereotypical economy wherein commodities and food practices corroborate dominant understandings of citizenship. Regardless of Ralph’s humorous retort, the scene bespeaks a perpetual foreigner characterization. Accordingly, the fork embodies U.S. affiliation and the chopsticks signify Chinese nationality. Similarly, Helen’s stir-fried rice stuffing makes foreign the “American” turkey. The ensuing culinary mixture does not engender a “melting pot” amalgamation of flavors or practices.43 Rather, the stir-fried rice stuffing remains a distinct ingredient that can be named and isolated, in a manner reminiscent of a cold war policy of containment. Ironically and perhaps intentionally, the holiday setting for the meal—Thanksgiving—brings to mind a legible immigrant-centric moment. After all, Thanksgiving ostensibly celebrates the arrival of the “first” immigrants—Pilgrims—to what would become the United States. Within this context, the first-generation Changs are historically relevant U.S. immigrant subjects. Still, Ralph and Helen attempt to manipulate the Thanksgiving tradition so that it becomes a “Chinese American tradition,” which superficially symbolizes a bicultural layering. This bicultural layering dissolves via the non-Chinese/American character’s response, which militates against a successful reading of the Chang Thanksgiving as unproblematically “American.” In turn, the failure of comprehensibility by an outside viewer brings to light the failure of seamless amalgamation.
In another culinary instance, Helen’s duck recipe, “Peking duck, Westchester style,” involves “soaking the duck overnight in Pepsi Cola” (186). The secret American ingredient (Pepsi Cola) from the outset recalls a traditional immigrant narrative of assimilation. The duck, a food commodity that (within the novel) embodies Chineseness, is invaded by an American product. This invasion, akin to U.S. foreign policy, metaphorically complements the previous Thanksgiving example. The juxtaposition of two geographic locales, Peking and Westchester, seemingly signals a transnational sensibility that embodies the country of origin and the country of settlement. The division of locales into East and West addresses not only existing immigration policy (the partitioning of Eastern and Western hemispheres) but gestures toward a disaggregated citizenship status. In spite of the “Westchester” ingredient, the dish still maintains its Chineseness. Collectively, each culinary instance underscores the persistence of Chineseness, which necessarily militates against a reading of wholesale assimilation. Further, the doggedness of previous affiliations makes plain a specific citizenship economy wherein identities are fluid and fixed.
The interplay between cultures—embodied by the mixture and manipulation of ingredients—does not lead to amalgamation or fusion. Instead, such interplay concludes without a “melting pot” utopian resolution. Hence, the parental Changs remain as ethnically marked as their food practices. Further, they are bifurcated according to a transnational frame that delineates the country of origin from the country of settlement. This bifurcation extends into the realm of child rearing, and a constant parental refrain is “in China, children listen to parents.” Despite the paradoxical literary fact that “everywhere else is America,” the unidentified narrator and protagonist both note that in the Chang house “it’s China.” As literary critic Begona Simal Gonzalez maintains, “Helen and Ralph can make concessions and adapt, but they cannot stop being Chinese, or let that happen to their daughters.”44 At first glance, Ralph and Helen seem to voluntarily affiliate themselves with this Chinese sensibility, to the extent that their speech acts and culinary performances make visible this location. However, this reading of voluntary ethnicity is made less certain because it is increasingly less accessible due to temporal and geographic distance from China.
The failure to access a “usable” cultural past converges at the level of memory. In particular, Helen’s maternal role in the intergenerational transmission of cultural memory is obfuscated because she can no longer recall specific details or practices from the country of origin. Helen admits to her daughter Mona “that China was such a long time ago, a lot of things she can hardly remember. She said sometimes she has trouble remembering her characters, that sometimes she’ll be writing along, and all of a sudden she won’t be sure how the strokes go” (7). Emphasizing time alongside geographic distance (“China was such a long time ago”), Helen underscores the historical and geographic challenges that impede immigrant memory. As a result of this memory failure, Helen is unable to model her Chinese citizenship through the act of writing in the face of voluntary desire. Jen offers an unclear resolution to this cultural dilemma. When Mona asks what she does when this happens, Helen replies, “Oh, I just make a little sloppy” (7). Helen confesses to a “sloppiness” that potentially undermines her authority as a Chinese subject and confirms her position as a liminal Chinese American subject. The improvised writing performance echoes culinary slippages that occur in the kitchen. Additionally, the instability of identity at the maternal level foreshadows the protagonist’s subsequent attempt to revise her own affiliations (to shift from a Chinese American to a Jewish Chinese American), with varying degrees of success and failure.
Returning to the opening pages of Mona in the Promised Land, the unidentified narrator maintains that the Changs are “the New Jews, after all, a model minority and Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land” (3). The mention of their status as New Jews, along with their location in the promised land, reinforces an intertextual reading of Jen’s novel alongside Antin’s memoir. The characterization of the Changs as the New Jews occurs alongside the narrator’s assertion that they are both a “model minority and a Great American Success,” highlighting their model minoritization through a dominant U.S. ethnoracial and capitalistic schema. Cast as the New Jews, the Changs implicitly share an immigrant consciousness analogous to probationary Jewish whiteness. Yet, as the New Jews (and not the new Italians, new Irish, or new Germans), the Changs are situated within a longer history of discrimination, contested assimilation, and middleman classification. Though a Great American Success as New Jews, the Changs potentially occupy a “stranger” status in the promised land.
Furthermore, the characterization of the Changs as Asian American model minority subjects who are in effect the New Jews is immediately undermined by the narrator’s interrogative aside. What follows the observation that the Changs “know they belong in the promised land” is the evocative question, “Or do they?” (3). The concomitant uncertainty (afforded by the question) pushes an alternative reading of self-determinism concerning the Changs. Their classification as the New Jews or as a model minority may not, as the omniscient narrator suggests, necessarily reflect a Chang-centric classification. Instead, such a characterization is predicated on a dominant reading of Asian Americans as “model minority” immigrant subjects who are read according to U.S. ethnoracial logics.
Still, Ralph and Helen consider themselves Chinese, making little or no mention of their position in the American sociopolitical imaginary as either the New Jews or as a model minority. Therefore, the narrator’s articulation of the Changs’ political position relies on a dominant-driven reading divorced from a self-determined voluntary affiliation. Reflective of a sociological group framework, the casting of the Changs as New Jews contradicts individual familial interactions, which stress Chineseness over Americanness and privilege a reading of Jewishness not as a voluntary but racial category of difference.
The narrator’s discussion of New Jews anticipates the major plotline in the novel, which involves the titular protagonist’s conversion to and subsequent experiences as a Jewish subject. At stake in Mona’s desire to “become Jewish” is the issue of legibility. If Mona’s switch is to be deemed fully successful, her conversion to Judaism must engender legitimate readings of her identity outside the biological rubric of racial categorization. Such a reading, suggestive of identity literacy, relies on a two-part performance wherein Mona is a convincing Jewish American subject who is also able to transcend her Chinese Americanness. Nevertheless, impeding her wholesale identity revision is the inability of those around her to forget or dismiss dominant readings of ethnicity and race. As the omniscient narrator relates, “Mona tries to imagine what it would be like to forget she’s Chinese, which is easy and hard. It is easy because by her lonesome she in fact often does. Out in the world of other people, though, Mona has people like Miss Feeble to keep the subject shiny. So here’s the question: Does the fact that Mona remembers all too well who she is make her more Jewish than, say, Barbara Gugelstein?” (32). Mona’s ability to forget she’s Chinese is easy “by her lonesome” in part because she considers herself American, especially when juxtaposed with her parents’ practices and values. Further, Mona’s focus on remembering is attached to her understanding of Judaism as a religion focused on cultural and historical memory. All the same, “out in the world of other people,” Mona’s Chineseness overwhelms her Americanness, and remains a “shiny” unavoidable subject.
The “shininess” of the protagonist’s ethnicity is brought into focus via Mona’s best friend, Barbara Gugelstein, a Jewish American, who is not forced to contend with a sociobiological reading of her identity. Mona’s comparison of “selves” (with regard to Barbara) signals a reading of whiteness through voluntary affiliation that is available to some and not all. As a category of power, a social construct, and racial mode, whiteness offers a flexible citizenship inaccessible to individuals of color, including Mona. Whereas Barbara can seemingly travel back and forth from Jewish to non-Jewish, Mona is not provided similar movement between Chinese and non-Chinese. As Andrew Furman argues, the liminality of Jewish identity (apparent in the characterization of Mona’s friends, who are predominantly Jewish) makes necessary a reading of probationary whiteness. On the one hand, the ability to “switch” from Jew to WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) and back again at their convenience affords a flexible affiliation largely unavailable to Mona as a Chinese American.45 On the other hand, this flexibility is not fully afforded the racialized Chinese American protagonist, who is able to convert but must contend with those who doubt her “true conversion.”
Racially read, Mona must also deal with her ethnic status as second-generation immigrant subject. As the narrator reveals:
one day she [Miss Feeble] asks Mona if she is really Chinese. This is while Miss Feeble pushes desks around, arranging them in a horseshoe. . . . “Of course I’m Chinese,” Mona says, helping out. “I’m Chinese American.” . . . ”And your parents?” continues Miss Feeble, pushing. “They’re Chinese too?” “Of course,” Mona says. “They’re immigrants.” She knows as she says this, they naturally never use that word on themselves. They think it means people who try to bring live chickens on buses and don’t own real suitcases. . . . All the same, it works on Miss Feeble. . . . “Ah.” she repeats the holy word. “Immigrants.” It is as if Mona has cut a little window into the fence of a construction site. Sure enough, there it is, the big crane. (27–28)
At first, what prompts Miss Feeble’s ethnic question is the protagonist’s active class participation. In contrast to a stereotyped Asian American femininity through submissive frames, Mona repeatedly raises her hand, to the point Miss Feeble tells her “to give someone else a chance to talk” (27). Though seemingly minor, Miss Feeble’s inquiry makes obvious an economy of stereotype that casts Asian American female subject as shy and silent. Hence, Mona’s ethnoracial “authenticity” as Chinese is predicated on a dominant reading of Asian American difference.
Additionally, Mona’s response—that she is Chinese and Chinese American—subverts another stereotypical notion that Asian Americans are not truly citizens of the U.S. nation-state but instead perpetual foreigners. Notwithstanding Mona’s intervention, Miss Feeble willfully ignores Mona’s Americanness and instead privileges her Chinese ethnicity. Miss Feeble’s racial reading echoes analogous but divergent interpretations of the parental Changs. Moreover, Miss Feeble’s subsequent inquiries about Mona’s parents fit neatly into a larger discussion of immigrant subjectivity apropos established U.S. myths and tropes. The mythologizing of the immigrant body is most manifest in the understanding of “immigrants” as a “holy word.” Reflective of the conceptualization that United States is a “nation of immigrants,” the utopian and hopeful foregrounds Miss Feeble’s response. The implied emphasis on the “utopian” strategically dismisses the very real dystopian history of nativism which effectively turned “the promised land” into a space of regulation, discrimination, and limitation for immigrants, Chinese and otherwise.
Whereas Mary Antin likened her literary naturalization to conversion, Mona Chang draws upon her American citizenship to justify her subsequent religious conversion to Judaism. Even with the revision, Mona’s conversion takes on the repuditive and declarative processes of nation-state naturalization. As the omniscient narrator conveys,
Rabbi Horowitz assigns so many books that Mona feels like she started on a mud bath, only to end up on a mud swim. . . . Still, she slogs through. A lot she knows already. All about the holidays, for example, and what is a mitzvah—namely a good deed. Also what is rachmones, namely a type of mercy every human should extend to others but sometimes doesn’t. That part is easy and fun. . . . Then there are the new parts Mona likes—all the big ancient stories of blood and gore and guile. Rabbi Horowitz makes her glad she never had to put up with those stiffs the Egyptians—what do you expect from people who wore so much eye makeup—or wander around the desert for forty years. She feels concerned for those ten lost tribes of Israel. She wishes she’d been around for the liberation by the Persians and the era of the Great Prophets. . . . What a down-to-earth religion this is! It’s not like Catholicism, with people electing to get crucified upside down, as if right side up wasn’t bad enough. (35)
The acquisition of a new vocabulary (or grammar), allegiance to the Jewish faith, and the renunciation of her past religious affiliation in favor of Judaism hearken back to the primary tenets of state-authorized naturalization. Mona denounces Catholicism, dismissing it as a not “down-to-earth” religion marked by “people electing to get crucified upside down.”
What is more, the gerund form of “elect,” suggestive of an ongoing process of choice, unintentionally emphasizes Mona’s voluntary decision to eschew Catholicism (and by extension, Chineseness) in favor of Judaism and its “ancient stories of blood and gore and guile.” Requiring historical and cultural immersion, Mona’s conversion is, at the level of practice, embedded in naturalization. The naturalizing impulse is attributable to the predominantly Jewish American Scarshill neighborhood Mona calls “home,” wherein the Chinese Catholic Changs are an ethnic and religious minority. Thus, Mona’s conversion into the dominant ethno-religious community of Scarshill gestures toward a naturalized analysis.
At first, Mona’s desire to convert is predicated on the aforementioned best friend, Barbara Gugelstein. Barbara’s mother, a second-generation Jewish American, rediscovers her Jewish heritage, which influences her daughter’s “return” to ethnicity. The impulsive, sudden nature of Barbara’s rediscovery (in no doubt influenced by the civil rights movement) is apparent in her pronouncement of ethnic awareness to the protagonist and her family. Barbara marches into the Chang family restaurant, a pancake house, and abruptly “announces that she’s Jewish.” Mona’s response is tellingly underwhelmed: “Now, this is news. And what were you before?” (30). Mona’s question is partially rooted in a comprehension of identity via natural-born affiliation. As such, she initially cannot understand the gravity or scope of Barbara’s declaration. Mona further attributes logics of biological determinism to Barbara’s announcement in her sardonic reminder of what she was “before.” Therefore, to Mona, Barbara’s reclamation of this identity is rendered unremarkable given her best friend’s ethno-racial background. Barbara doesn’t answer Mona’s question, but begins to play a ram’s horn, which is “for making new beginnings. Which I am now doing and which you should do too” (31). Mona eventually takes up Barbara’s challenge to be “remade,” and embarks on what she calls “a new chapter of their [Barbara’s and Mona’s] lives.”
As the novel progresses, both characters undergo an identity rebirth. Ironically, Barbara is “reborn” a Jewish American, an identity she already had “biologically” but not culturally. In contrast, Mona remakes herself in more revolutionary fashion. She commences her conversion by attending the neighborhood temple and discussing the possibility of her conversion with Rabbi Horowitz, an unorthodox, nontraditional Jewish leader who “looks like a Hasid turned rock star . . . and he doesn’t mind being called Rabbi H., or the Big R.H., or even Rabbit H. He is young enough to sit cross-legged; he listens to Crosby, Stills and Nash; he plays the harmonica. He doesn’t insist that anyone learn Hebrew, much as he’d like to encourage it” (33). Even though a relatively liberal figure politically (he is “anti-Vietnam, and also pro things like letting the kids wear what they want at confirmation, including bare feet”), Rabbi Horowitz is initially unwilling to accept Mona’s desire to convert, wary about “a sixteen year old choosing her own faith” (33). Irrespective of Rabbi Horowitz’s eventual “conversion” to Mona’s decision, his initial reluctance foreshadows similar doubts about the efficacy of the protagonist’s “switch.”
Historically, culturally, and politically rooted in Judaism as a practiced religion, Mona’s allegiance to faith is built on a legible conversion process, reliant on acts of literacy (reading, writing, and comprehending) and convincing performances. Within Mona in the Promised Land’s imaginary, conversion underscores the unidirectional nature of naturalization. With a rhetorical rigidity mirrored in practice, conversion as naturalization engenders movement away from one modality to another. However, conversion (and by proxy, naturalization) does not accommodate a reverse trajectory. As Mona ponders, “it’s okay to turn into a Jew, but not turn out of one?” (35). Mona’s question acknowledges that Jewish subjects are both born and made, yet once one converts, one cannot “turn out.” Similarly, for the naturalized subject, once “made” American, that same subject cannot necessarily—after repudiation—return to a pre-American subject position.
In spite of such fixity, the cultural, political, and social dimensions that foreground Mona’s repudiation via conversion are initially unclear. Specifically, rather than Mona’s apriori religious affiliation (which is Catholic), what primarily dominates the narrative is a repudiation of the protagonist’s Chineseness. Indeed, Mona’s conversion, which mirrors the affective political dynamics of naturalization, muddles the boundaries between religion and ethnicity. Additionally, the uncertainty of boundaries reinforces the historic racialization of Jewish immigrants and Jewish Americans. Alternatively, Mona’s lack of substantive awareness about Chinese history is situated adjacent to her ever-growing knowledge of Jewish history.
To Mona, the Chinese, and by extension Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans, have not “always been the oppressed. They used to be oppressors, and that makes them, as a minority, rank amateurs” (36). Missing is a sustained consideration of colonialism, Chinese history, and contestations over Chinese immigration, with regard to prohibition and exclusion. Mona’s unawareness of her ethnic lineage highlights an intergenerational conflict between parent and child that converges on cultural memory. The absence of knowledge makes more legible Mona’s “Americanness,” which in turn can be read through a “blank slate” sensibility.
Conflict and this blank slate characterization foreground Mona’s relationship with a Japanese exchange student Sherman, whom she invites to her house. While there, Sherman draws a Japanese flag, prompting an angry reaction in Mona’s mother Helen. Helen tells Mona that “World War II was in China too,” stressing the Nanking Massacre, wherein an estimated 369,366 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war were slaughtered by the invading troops. Between December 1937 and March 1938, approximately 80,000 women and girls were raped, many of whom were then mutilated or murdered.46 Though the narrator largely omits the specific exchange between mother and daughter, the discussion is forcefully implied via Mona’s confused response: “What Napkin Massacre?” (15).
Mona fails to hear her mother’s historical intervention, which quickly transforms into a further refusal to believe her mother’s account. Mona asks, “Are you sure? In school, they said the War was about putting the Jews in ovens” (15). Even in this instance, Mona privileges Jewish victimhood, betraying a specific historic solidarity with regard to Jewish, and not Chinese, Americans. To Mona, being Jewish is a more concretized identity, with an expansive history and a clearly defined religious doctrine. In Mona in the Promised Land, Jewishness within a U.S. context affords Mona an elusive probationary American identity that ostensibly is liberated from racial expectation. As the narrator observes: “The Changs don’t have their friends’ instincts, or reflexes. They don’t have their ready alert. They don’t have their friends’ institutions, or their ways of reminding themselves who they are, that they may not be lulled by a day in the sun. Prescriptions and rituals, holidays and recipes, songs. The Jews have books, they have games, they have tchotchkes. They have catalogs. And soon, G-d willing, so will [she]” (38). Without ways of reminding themselves who they are, the Changs as Chinese/Chinese Americans lack a legible, distinct, or instinctual culture. The Changs’ lack of ways of reminding themselves who they are recalls Helen’s inability to remember Chinese characters. Mona conflates cultural practice and commodity, for the Changs lack books, games, and tchotchkes, and catalogs. The appearance of legible “Jewish” commodities is juxtaposed with the absence of Chinese cultural artifacts, which speaks to the relative assimilation of Jewish Americans versus that of Chinese Americans in the larger U.S. body politic, despite model minority classifications.
Evident in the improvisation of Chinese customs and practices, the Changs (at least according to Mona) lack prescriptions and rituals, holidays and recipes, songs. As illustrated by Helen and Mona’s discussion of Nanking, Mona’s refusal to hear her mother’s history contributes to this lack. The isolation Mona feels as a Chinese American occurs because Asian Americans, despite model minoritization, are still largely absent within the larger U.S. body politic. Regardless of the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which would undeniably make more real Asian immigration, the novel’s focus on the second-generation immigrant subject necessarily brings to the fore the experiences of a native-born American subject who remains alienated. Divorced from Chinese history, language, and culture, Mona is thus an unformed citizen notwithstanding a clear U.S. nation-state affiliation.
The definite perimeters of U.S. citizenship are discussed, negotiated, and challenged within the novel. Despite Mona’s strategic deployment of personhood, apparent in her assertion that to be “American means being whatever you want” and that she “happened to pick being Jewish,” family members, friends, and acquaintances fail to accept this articulation of selfhood. For example, Mona’s mother Helen disputes this claim, stressing that “American [is] not Jewish.” After Mona asserts her ethno-religious shift and her “American right” to do so, Helen asks, “Who knows? Tomorrow you’ll come home and tell me you want to be black” (49). Unlike her second-generation daughter, Helen reads Jewishness not as voluntary but as biologically determined, underlining in the process past racial categories. Mona counters, stating, “How can I turn black? That’s a race, not a religion” (49). In the face of Mona’s intervention, Helen’s initial reaction draws attention to what will become the most potent impediment to Mona’s utopian—or liberated—sense of voluntary selfhood. Within this more dystopian setting, postethnic frames are rendered nonviable, for they are illegible due to racial categories.
At the same time, the mother/daughter discussion reconfirms the restrictive valences of racial categorization. Mona’s response—that “black” is a race—makes apparent the limitations of voluntary affiliation. Though Mona attempts to “correct” her mother’s racialized assumption about Jewishness, she still conforms to U.S. ethnoracial logics that characterize blackness as a race and is thus involuntary. Appropriately, then, the most vehement criticism of Mona’s switch emerges from Alfred, an African American cook at the Chang family restaurant. Jen deliberately uses Alfred’s ethnoracial identity to test Mona’s assertion that as an American one can switch. A follower of Black Nationalism, Alfred is close friends with “Luther the Race Man, Big Benson, Ray, and Professor Estimator” (197). True to the novel’s temporal form, each character (to varying degrees) reflects the emergent Black Nationalist and Black Power movements of the later 1960s and early 1970s. For example, Alfred’s colleague Luther is characterized as a “race man” whose theme “goes race, race, race. Luther attends rallies, and returns blowing black” (198). Invested in black pride, Luther, Big Benson, Ray, Professor Estimator, and Alfred occupy a spectrum of civil rights–era ethnic awareness and racial consciousness. The setting for this multiracial conglomeration—Camp Gugelstein—initially resembles a utopian hippie commune, replete with acoustic guitars and all the trappings of communal living.
Regardless of the possibility of kindred ethnic moments between Alfred and Mona, Alfred frustrates Mona’s attempt at self-determination. When Barbara states that Mona is Jewish, Alfred incredulously replies, “Jewish? . . . You expect me to believe that? Uh uh. Not until you grow your nose, baby” (136). Alfred, like Mona’s mother, phenotypically deconstructs Mona’s ethnoreligious shift. The signifier of both Jewishness and Mona’s non-Jewishness (and by proxy her Chineseness) centers on the nose. The “nose” as a site of racial signification becomes more meaningful in its contrast to Barbara’s story. Prior to Barbara’s reclamation of Jewishness, Mona’s best friend undergoes rhinoplasty because of her mother’s then disidentification with her Jewish identity. The initial phenotypic dimensions behind Alfred’s disbelieving response underscore a biological racial determination. In turn, such biologically informed racial readings give way to a more cogent critique of voluntary affiliation. Alfred proclaims: “We’re never going to be Jewish, see, even if we grow our nose like Miss Mona here is planning to do. . . . And, nobody is calling us Wasp, man, and nobody is forgetting we’re a minority, and if we don’t mind our manners, we’re like as not to end up doing time in a concrete hotel. We’re black, see. We’re Negroes” (136). Alfred’s declaration that “we’re never going to be Jewish” occurs through a reading of Jewishness via whiteness. Whiteness, initially evident through “noses,” is reinforced at the semantic level through the use of term WASP. Concurrently, Alfred’s blackness is antithetically situated. Stressing to Mona that “nobody is forgetting we’re a minority,” Alfred directly accesses Mona’s Asian American position as a “model minority.” Like Jewish Americans, Asian Americans occupy a probationary white status, which affords a “forgetting” of a dominant negative reading of difference.
The asymmetrical power relations that undergird racial formation in the United States ultimately undermine a utopian postethnic consideration of voluntary affiliation.47 At stake in Alfred’s claim that “we’re Negroes” is a lengthy history of oppression that continues to persist in the face of civil rights–oriented legislation and claims. In turn, Alfred’s declaration necessarily forces a decidedly dystopian reading of the United States through rubrics of discrimination, limitation, and intolerance. Consequently, the citizenship foundation for Mona’s “switch” is effectively deconstructed through Alfred, who is not afforded the opportunity of identity shift irrespective of his American affiliation.48 Unwilling to read Mona as Jewish, prohibited from accessing democratic virtue on the basis of race, and unable to engage in U.S. “promised land” nation building, Alfred destabilizes notions of U.S. exceptionalism.
Additionally, Albert’s interpellation of Mona’s “switch” potently brings to light the rigidity of racial and class-oriented formations. Albert’s class position—as a working-class subject—calls to mind the paternal Antin’s situatedness within a larger U.S. socioeconomic frame. Mona’s upper-middle-class socioeconomic position affords her the necessary leisure time to convert. And, notwithstanding moments of frustration, made visible through incidents of doubt involving ancillary characters, Mona’s conversion is eventually accepted. In the final moments of the novel, which take place well after the discussion between Albert and Mona, readers are introduced to the protagonist’s daughter. Racially Caucasian and Asian, ethnically Jewish and Chinese, with a last name of “Changowitz,” Mona’s progeny embodies her mother’s desire toward multiplicity. In a moment that leaves the door open for more postethnic switches, the narrator asks, “For what else would be the favorite cuisine of a child part Jewish, part Chinese, barely off breast milk? But of course, Italian” (303).
All the same, even with the “open door” nature of Mona in the Promised Land’s ending, the threshold remains closed to Albert. Unlike Mona, Albert must contend with economic forces, which in the novel are made more perilous with the loss of his job at the Chang restaurant following unsubstantiated claims of theft. Such claims are racially motivated, making Albert the victim of stereotyped racial profiling. Hence, his ability to “purchase” whiteness—which in turn leads to access to identity flexibility—is thus doubly prohibited on the grounds of race and class.
As the only character not able to “switch,” Alfred most pointedly highlights the failure of a postethnic schema. In Postethnic America (1995), David Hollinger argues that one ought to be able to make “Haley’s choice,” which is predicated on author Alex Haley’s ethnoracial background as Irish and African American. Accordingly, Hollinger maintains that Haley, and other individuals of color, should be granted the voluntary opportunity to affiliate with one identity over another. Nonetheless, what Hollinger argues as a “should” or “ought” is made unfeasible in a novel circumscribed by sociopolitical racial binaries and classed delineations.
If Mary Antin’s literary intent was to “write herself” into the larger U.S. narrative, Jen attempts, through Mona, to fictionally imagine an alternative U.S. narrative wherein “switches” are in the end recognized. And, central to the ethnic, racial, and religious discussions that dominate the novel’s imaginary is the issue of “literacy.” The multiple literacy tests that Mona must endure highlight the precarious nature of a narrative concerned with experiences in the promised land. In Mona in the Promised Land, following the accusation of Alfred’s theft, Camp Gugelstein falls into dissolution, an experiment that largely fails when confronted by race. Similarly, Mona’s “switch”—in the face of its eventual legibility—faces constant threat of dissolution precisely because of the protagonist’s racial identity. What begins as a novel invested in the possibilities offered in the promised land ends with the unavoidable confirmation of limitation. In this regard, Mona in the Promised Land’s dystopian structure addresses the failure of the civil rights movement to engender systemic racial change and acknowledges the problematic model minoritization of Asian Americans within a proscribed hierarchy.