Reading and Writing America: Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine and Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation
At ten in the morning on a Monday I arrived in New York City. There were scores of policemen swinging heavy nightsticks, but none of them pounced on me at the bottom of the escalator. They were, indeed, watching. A black man in shredded pants asked me for a handout. Beggars in New York! I felt I’d come to America too late. I felt cheated.
—BHARATI MUKHERJEE, JASMINE
The America of [Mary Antin’s] time gave her certain categories within which to see herself—a belief in self-improvement, in perfectability of the species, in moral uplift. . . . And what is the shape of my story, the story my time tells me to tell? A hundred years ago, I might have written a success story, without much self-doubt or equivocation. A hundred years ago, I might have felt the benefits of a steady, self-assured ego, the sturdy energy of forward movement, and the excitement of being swept up into a greater national purpose. But I have come to a different America.
—EVA HOFFMAN, LOST IN TRANSLATION
At 9:28 p.m. on July 3, 1986, President Ronald Reagan addressed an exuberant crowd assembled on New York’s Governors Island. At the president’s side was First Lady Nancy Reagan (an Empire State native), festively clothed in red and white. Standing behind a podium emblazoned with the presidential seal, the former California governor wore subdued navy blue. A glitzy blue-white backdrop completed the American flag tableau. Irrefutably, the president and the First Lady were executive actors in a televised event, held in honor of the Statue of Liberty. Aptly named Liberty Weekend (and labeled “The Party of the Century” by New York mayor Ed Koch), the ABC-produced spectacle was meant to observe Lady Liberty’s one hundredth birthday and unveil her recent $86 million makeover. Part patriotic celebration, part opportunistic profit, the celebration was indubitably marked by commodified commemoration.1
From Lady Liberty-themed tobacco and charcoal briquettes to beach towels and dry-roasted peanuts, the statue’s symbolic function as immigrant shrine at times spoke more to free markets than democratic freedom. But despite such commodity-driven fanfare, the statue’s symbolic function as immigrant emblem remained front and center. Fittingly, Lady Liberty had, a century earlier, traveled 3,600 trans-Atlantic miles from her native France to the United States. Incontrovertibly, as the telegenic fortieth president averred: “Miss Liberty, like the many millions she’s welcomed to these shores, is of foreign birth, the gift of workers, farmers, and shopkeepers and children who donated hundreds of thousands of francs to send her here.”2
The statue’s journey mirrored the contemporaneous exodus of almost twelve million European immigrants, including the likes of Abraham Cahan and Mary Antin. “Miss Liberty” would also bear symbolic witness to multiple mid- and late-century migrations, as East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian immigrants arrived en masse to U.S. shores. Their journeys to the “promised land” were chiefly enabled by legislative routes. In particular, the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act, the 1975 Indochinese Migration/Refugee Assistance Act, and the 1980 Refugee Act facilitated a profound demographic shift, comprised of Koreans, Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians seeking economic opportunity, educational access, and cold war “asylum” due to failed U.S. foreign policy.
Such immigrant bodies—joined by migrants from Latin America, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and refugees from eastern Europe—would constitute the majority of New York City’s population growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Following a decade of deindustrialization, stagflation, and white flight, the “Crossroads of the World” had suffered a 13.8 percent drop in population.3 However, by 1990, The New York Times noted that “immigration remade much of the city. . . . New Yorkers born abroad constituted a majority of residents in the five [boroughs].”4 In 2000, 35.9 percent of the city’s population would be foreign-born, speaking 170 different languages. By century’s end, English was not the primary language in almost half of all New York City households, linguistically confirming the city’s status as a global hub.5
Amid this post-1965 multiethnic, polyvocal, multicultural imaginary, Reagan’s “Lady Liberty” comments anachronistically call attention to a late-century transnational current of bodies and capital. Concentrated on foreign-born benevolence and foreign-dollar kindness (manifest in diplomatic declarations of “welcome,” acknowledgments of “gifts,” and recognition of “donations”), Reagan’s remarks nonetheless engender an affective, immigrant narrative. Such oft-accessed sentimentality is emblematized by Miss Liberty who—in true beacon fashion—projects an idealized, open-door America. Simultaneously, Reagan’s mention of “hundreds of thousands of francs,” recalling the statue’s past and mindful of its recent multimillion dollar restoration, locates the “mother of exiles” within the confines of a two-sided economy.
In particular, Reagan’s Statue of Liberty is both “immigrant” and “commodity,” a foreign-funded body deployed in the exceptional service of U.S. nationhood. Such labor is forged through the strategic omission of exclusionary immigration politics, built on a narrative of nostalgic timelessness. Correspondingly, Lady Liberty—and by extension immigrant writers—are cast as two sides of the same coin. To that end, the Statue of Liberty, as conceived by the fortieth president, is an eternal reminder of a maudlin immigrant past, carrying in the process the same “then and now” symbolic currency. Within this “foreign-born” triumphalism, Indian American Bharati Mukherjee and Polish Canadian/American Eva Hoffman seem ideal open-door subjects. A self-described “immigrant living in a continent of immigrants,” Mukherjee as writer at once embraces her foreign-born past; analogously, Hoffman celebrates immigration as “a sort of location in itself.”6 As a matter of fact, Reagan makes no distinction between various waves of immigrants, representing them instead via quantity (“millions”). Therefore, Mukherjee and Hoffman become two out of “millions” ostensibly welcomed to U.S. shores.
Nonetheless, as the opening epigraphs make clear, Mukherjee and Hoffman write decidedly pessimistic narratives about the United States. On the one hand, such critical considerations reinscribe a temporal dimension to immigration. Mukherjee’s protagonist Jasmine, an undocumented worker, laments that she has “come to America too late.” Hoffman rues that she has “come to a different America” from that of her turn-of-the-twentieth-century Antin counterpart. Despite affective coherences, the cause for discontent varies between fictional protagonist and autobiographer. Jasmine’s declaration of “lateness” is constructed through the policing of undocumented foreign bodies and dissolution of capitalist promise. Hoffman’s anxiety is fixed to the elusive nature of self-definition in a hyphenated American landscape.
On the other hand, Jasmine and Lost in Translation register the tenor and outcome of contemporaneous immigration debates, which largely focused on illegality and bilingualism. A prime example can be found in an April 18, 1986, New York Times “Letter to the Editor” authored by Chief Border Patrol Agent Alan E. Eliason of San Diego County. The agent warned readers of an unprecedented escalation in illegal migration, claiming that “apprehensions [of undocumented workers] have risen by an incredible 48 percent over the same period a year ago.” Even more extreme, Eliason alleged that San Diego County was “encountering an average of one illegal alien every 35 seconds” and “we know that we’re locating, at best, about half the flow of illegal entrants.” Asking “Do we truly have to absorb the world’s surplus populations until we become like the third-world countries from which they come: overpopulated, with our resources depleted and with massive unemployment?” Eliason then concluded with an all-too-familiar assertion of “a swelling [immigrant] flood.”7 Focused on resources, employment, and potential overpopulation, Eliason accesses a supply-side vocabulary wherein the United States’ status as first-world country is threatened by third-world poverty and need.
A multicultural nativist, Eliason later “reported” in a April 21, 1986, New York Times article that “the number of would be immigrants from Central and South America, Korea, Hong Kong, the Middle East and other parts of the world was increasing even faster.”8 Eliason’s admonition of an inevitable “brown” and “yellow” flood—or peril—was echoed by fellow San Diego County lawman John Duffy. In the same New York Times “exposé,” Sheriff Duffy (in equally alarmist fashion) contended that “a third of the men arrested for rape in the county last year were illegal aliens” and that “aliens were involved in a third of the murders, either as killers or victims.”9 Focusing principally on criminality, Eliason and Duffy produce a reading of an uncontrolled alien flood that threatens the very foundations of family, community, and nation.
Nonetheless, Sheriff Duffy was not limited to the dystopic “alien” present. Indeed, the sheriff further opined: “Illegal aliens are gradually affecting the quality of life as we know it. Now we have to admit illegal aliens into our colleges, which means my grandchildren may not be granted entry because of an illegal alien, and they’ll probably require her to be bilingual.”10 In so doing, Duffy wages an attack on post-1965 multiculturalism, which threatens “native-born” (and by implication “white”) opportunity. Concomitantly, Duffy casts “illegal aliens” as both intergenerational menace and multivalent pollutants who “have to be admitted” to colleges (because of affirmative action) at the expense of Duffy’s grandchildren. Further adding fuel to the nativist fire, “legitimate and legal” child bodies will “undeniably” be contaminated through forced multicultural bilingual education.
Duffy’s focus on literacy and language make visible the means through which Bharati Mukherjee and Eva Hoffman read and write “America” through late 1980s immigration politics and conservative culture wars. Published in the aftermath of heated debates over undocumented workers, thousand-mile border fences, and bilingual education, Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989) and Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation (1989) imagine (or write) two different “Americas.” Each makes legible (or reads) an uncertain sociopolitical terrain that forcefully naturalizes foreign bodies. Concurrently, U.S. “promise” gives way to disappointment. Rather than “open arms,” Mukherjee’s protagonist is greeted by surveillance (e.g., the “scores of policemen” who “watch”) and racialized poverty (emblematized by the African American beggar). Noting that a “black man in shredded pants” asks for a handout, Jasmine problematically recuperates Reagan’s language vis-à-vis “welfare mothers” and anti-affirmative action claims. For Hoffman, immigrant success stories necessarily dissolve into narratives of self-doubt and equivocation.
If Mukherjee and Hoffman read a divisive politics in their writings about contestations over U.S. selfhood, Jasmine and Lost in Translation also call attention to a still unresolved immigrant imaginary in the face of recent immigration reform. Deemed a late twentieth-century solution to the “immigration problem,” the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was the legislative culmination of a five-year struggle. Sponsored by Wyoming Senator Alan K. Simpson (Republican) and Kentucky Representative Romano L. Mazzoli (Democrat), the bipartisan IRCA was touted by President Ronald Reagan. The fortieth president purposefully accessed the more “progressive” dimensions of the McCarran-Walter Act in his declaration that the IRCA was “the most comprehensive reform of our immigration laws since 1952.”
Promising to curb undocumented immigration through employer sanctions and increased surveillance of work authorization forms (including the introduction of the I-9 form), the Simpson-Mazzoli Act also included concessions to agribusiness via temporary work visas. Through citizenship provisions, the 1986 Immigration Reform Act carried what proponents like Reagan repeatedly termed a “humanitarian” response to the impending citizenship crisis. Though not an open-door policy, the Immigration Reform and Control Act offered a hybrid “closed door/naturalization” solution. With economic penalties of $250 to $10,000 levied against employers who hired undocumented workers, the congressional sponsors of the act averred that the primary incentive for illegal immigration—job opportunities—would be eliminated.11
After five years as permanent residents, those individuals could apply for U.S. citizenship. Further, the law afforded immigrants who had resided “in an unlawful status” before January 1, 1982, legality or “amnesty.” Defined as an act of pardon, this amnesty provision drew the most ire from antireform advocates, who claimed that immigrants who entered the country illegally were rewarded with U.S. citizenship. As per the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, undocumented immigrants would have one year to seek legal status. First, such individuals would become lawful temporary residents. After eighteen months, those temporary residents could become permanent residents, provided they demonstrate “a minimal understanding” of the English language and “some knowledge of the history and government of the United States.”12 On another level, the act was fixed to an alleged humanitarian understanding of the “immigration problem” which necessitated intervention, bureaucratization, and asylum.
Such humanitarianism is fundamentally founded on capitalist enterprise and alienation in Jasmine and Lost in Translation. To reiterate, Mukherjee and Hoffman construct immigrant stories set not in a promised land but within a “false promised” nation. Correspondingly, if Jasmine’s eponymous protagonist feels cheated, then Hoffman is analogously left wondering “what shape her story will take.” Central to Jasmine and Lost in Translation is the means through which capitalist desire produces alienated identities vis-à-vis immigrant bodies. As Mukherjee’s protagonist proclaims, “On the streets I saw only more greed, more people like myself. New York was an archipelago of ghettos seething with aliens.”13 Though Hoffman notes that “America. . . . has for us the old fabulous associations: streets paved with gold, the goose that laid the golden egg,” she nonetheless is still “a Jew, an immigrant, half-Pole, half-American” who “suffer[s] from certain syndromes because she was fed on stories of war.”14
Situated in the midst of U.S. exceptionalism and amnesty, Jasmine and Lost in Translation make visible a set of politicized exchanges that take economic form. And, in so doing, Mukherjee and Hoffman take on the economics of naturalization, which hinge on labor, cultural currency, and political cachet. For Mukherjee’s Jasmine, the protagonist’s labor as a dutiful spouse and caregiver determines her access to naturalized U.S. selfhood. In contrast, Hoffman’s failure to adequately translate (despite her position as a writer) produces a composite, denaturalized identity. Not incidentally, such literary exchanges reflect a contemporaneous shift in immigration law that married together politics and economics. Indeed, the Simpson-Mazzoli Act—which ostensibly granted asylum to undocumented workers and strengthened extant border patrol provisions—transformed U.S. citizenship into commodity at the level of rhetoric and practice. As President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in response to the 1986 immigration reform, “Future generations will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people, American citizenship.”15
Regulation and Naturalization: Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine
Last week on our favorite cable channel, Du and I saw twenty INS agents raid a lawn furniture factory in Texas. The man in charge of the raid called it a factory, but all it was a windowless shed the size of a two-car garage. . . . .A woman in a flowered dress said, “I don’t think they’re bad people, you know. It’s just that there’s too many of them. Yesterday I opened the front door to get the morning papers and there were three of them using my yard as a personal toilet.”
In a September 10, 1989, New York Times review, Smith College professor Michael Gorra affirmed, “Jasmine stands as one of the most suggestive novels we have about what it is to become an American.” Further, Gorra observed that Mukherjee’s protagonist is an exile who “chooses to redefine [her experience through] immigration as the Indian-born Mukherjee herself has recently done in choosing to become an American citizen.”16 Gorra was not alone in his selfhood-oriented praise of Mukherjee’s Jasmine. An unnamed USA Today critic concurred with Gorra’s “national” reading, insisting that “Mukherjee forces us to see our country anew.”17 The most assimilationist evaluation of Mukherjee’s novel came from the Baltimore Sun, which likewise contended that Jasmine, “the story of the transformation of an Indian girl, whose grandmother wants to marry her off at 11,” turns out to be a triumphant narrative of “an American woman who finally thinks for herself.”18 A fantastical story about an Indian widow who comes to the United States, makes her way from Florida to New York to Iowa, and eventually (or “finally”) becomes “American,” Jasmine evocatively and troublingly uncovers asymmetrical global politics, second-wave feminisms, and established U.S. expansionist narratives.
To be sure, the unproblematic story of a “third world” subject made “first world” American—recurrent in mainstream appraisals of the novel—drew justified postcolonial critique. For example, Aijaz Ahmad and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak deconstruct Mukherjee’s past and present deployment of essentialized South Asian subjectivity in the service of a North American hegemonic nationalism and exaltation of assimilative American-ness.19 Postcolonial critics take issue with the novel’s largely uncontextualized conflict between Punjab Hindus and Sikhs, traditional gender roles, and superstitious scenes of all-too-familiar “third world backwardness.” The regressive politics and practices of the country of origin operate in direct contrast to the novel’s depictions of U.S. modernity and capitalist practices. Such modernity, constructed through scenes of urbanization and the protagonist’s declarations of ordered (and often unimpeded) progress, set the problematic stage for Jasmine’s exceptionalist transformation from a grief-stricken suicidal widow to an American “greedy with wants and reckless from hope” (214).
Such an exceptionalist transformation is rooted in Jasmine’s naturalization in the novel. Though the novel is set in India and the United States, Jasmine begins with an Americanized Indian protagonist who tells the story of her journey from Indian peasant to middle-class U.S. subject. Retrospectively imagined, Jasmine’s achronological narrative structure mirrors the frenzied nature of the protagonist’s multisited migrations, foreshadowed in the novel’s opening epigraph on chaos theory.20 Jasmine’s penultimate identity as “Jane Ripplemeyer”—the twenty-four-year-old expectant mother and live-in partner of wheel chair–bound Iowan banker Bud Ripplemeyer (who was shot by a disgruntled bank customer upset about impending foreclosure)—frames the protagonist’s past identities, Jyoti, Jasmine, Jazzy, and Jase. Admittedly the most “assimilated” name in the novel, “Jane Ripplemeyer” nonetheless structurally coheres with the protagonist’s other identities. Taken together, the names make visible cartographies of geographic location and citizenship as an Indian, an American, and an Indian American.
Moreover, the novel’s “name motif” draws attention to Jasmine’s fixation on identity. This preoccupation—manifest in protagonist declarations of being American—marries filial desire with coming-of-age adulthood, which produces a revised nation-state affiliation. Though it is in many ways a prototypical American immigrant story, focused on rebirth and remaking, literary critic Patricia Chu rightly notes that Mukherjee draws from the genre power of the British bildungsroman, replete with negotiations of class and race. This reading is certainly apparent in the novel’s plot and the protagonist’s own allusions to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.21 Mukherjee employs a colonial British frame that in turn gives way to an individualistic American story of freedom and self-actualization. Like Brontë’s Jane, Mukherjee’s Jasmine is a live-in governess (or “caretaker”) for an American family; she looks after Taylor and Wylie Hayes’s child, Duff, and she also cares for Bud Ripplemeyer after he is shot and paralyzed. As part of this Iowan “family unit,” she also cares for Du, a Vietnamese male adolescent Bud sponsors.
Alternatively, the designation Jane Ripplemeyer and its very quotidian nature attest to the protagonist’s initial location as a twenty-four-year-old narrator in America’s heartland—Iowa. In contrast, the protagonist’s concluding reclamation of the given name Jasmine underscores the protagonist’s reconciliation of her past widowhood (in India) and her blossoming romantic present with Taylor (in the United States). A designation in both the country of origin and the country of settlement, the name Jasmine makes legible the movement of an Indian immigrant body into the United States. At the same time, the forename Jasmine concretizes the protagonist’s newfound citizenship status as an “Indian American.” All the same, Jasmine’s seemingly name-driven embrace of transnational multiplicity is destablized by her actions in the novel.
Specifically, even if the name Jasmine indicates a transnational history, the character Jasmine is decidedly more invested in a national—and not transnational—citizenship project. Although she is a transnational due to immigration, Jane/Jasmine begins and ends the novel a transplanted American. Indeed, the name Jasmine—redolent of a plant native in tropical Old World locales—promulgates a reconsideration of the novel’s closing moments. In particular, the protagonist’s reclamation of this name underscores a successful U.S. transplantation through a fitting horticultural metaphor. It is through transplantation (born out of the uprooted experience of involuntary exile) that Jasmine paradoxically finds rootedness. Following suit, Jasmine equally engages the naturalization process, wherein she repudiates her former Indian identity in favor of Americanness.
Even so, a major impediment to Jasmine’s “coming of age” as an immigrant-turned-American is her illegal immigrant status, which limits the protagonist’s unimpeded access to the nation as state-authorized citizen. Jasmine’s early admission that she was not only a “caretaker” but an “undocumented ‘caregiver’ during [her] years in Manhattan” underscores this obstructed subject position (34). Jasmine as undocumented worker faces possible regulation in a post-1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act state, a point made clear by the opening epigraph. Consequently, Jasmine’s coming-of-age American story carries with it an added weight of illegitimacy. This illegitimacy is ultimately resolved through immigrant-focused (and naturalized) speech acts inherent in the rhetoric of naming. Therefore, insofar Mukherjee’s novel is about “names,” Jasmine is dominated by the act of naming, which offers agency through state-authorized complicity. Jasmine’s illegality unfolds via a narrative of “amnesty” consistent with extant U.S. immigration law.
Born “Jyoti,” the protagonist spends her childhood in the rural Indian village Hasnapur. Jyoti/Jasmine’s future is foretold “lifetimes ago . . . under a banyan tree.” The national tree of India, the banyan image reinforces not only Jyoti’s birth location but her citizenship status. In the face of de jure citizenship, Jyoti/Jasmine will nevertheless encounter statelessness. According to the astrologer’s vision which opens the novel, the seven-year-old Jyoti will live in “widowhood and exile” (1). From the outset, the protagonist is situated between spousal and national loss (“widowhood” and “exile”). It is Jyoti/Jasmine’s foretold (and actualized) widowhood that prompts her exile. Further, the declaration of “lifetimes ago” presages the protagonist’s many lives and names to come.
The first of these “adult” lives commences in India, when at fourteen Jyoti marries Prakash Vijh. Jyoti is renamed “Jasmine,” signaling her heteronormative identity as wife. Simultaneously, Prakash’s insistence that his wife have a name is presented within the novel as a progressive, nontraditional act. Prakash’s articulation of a proper spousal name contradicts the more traditional practice of pronoun usage between husband and wife. Concomitantly, the protagonist’s renaming coincides with her development into a resourceful woman who happily works alongside her husband. An electronics repairman, Prakash initially aspires to own a shop. Ostensibly interested in a spousal economic partnership (which speaks to a second-wave feminist concern about equality in the workplace), Prakash envisions the husband/wife owned and operated “Vijh and Vijh.” This entrepreneurial desire is supplanted by Prakash’s plan to study in the United States. Accepted by a university in Tampa, Florida, Prakash intends (as a student) to pursue the “American dream.” This educational desire coincides with the post-1965 dreams of countless numbers of Asian immigrants, who came specifically to study in American universities.
Jasmine’s prophesized widowhood begins at nineteen when Prakash is killed by a terrorist bomb, the victim of a militant Sikh attack. Now an Indian widow, Jasmine is forced to return to her childhood home and live with her mother. Electing to abandon this existence, Jasmine decides to travel to Tampa the aforementioned site of Prakash’s “American dream.” In Tampa Jasmine intends to honor her husband and commit sati (ritual suicide). In order to leave India, Jasmine must obtain forged citizenship papers. Therefore, her journey to the United States begins illegally, anticipating the undocumented subject position she will hold for the remainder of the novel.
As the protagonist “phantoms” her way “through three continents,” the last leg of Jasmine’s trip to the United States is aboard the Gulf Shuttle, a smuggling vessel that operates under the less illicit guise of a shrimper. The unlawful enterprise of the Gulf Shuttle reconfirms the “illegality” of Jasmine’s journey to the United States. This undocumented status (configured through her own location as a transnational, border-crossing subject) connects Jasmine to a larger flow of “outcasts and deportees, strange pilgrims visiting outlandish shrines, landing at the end of tarmacs, ferried in old army trucks where we are roughly handled and taken to roped-off corners of waiting rooms where surly, barely wakened customs guards await their bribe” (90–91). Initially treated as an “outcast” because of her widow status and forged citizenship papers, Jasmine inhabits the same stateless space of “refugees and mercenaries and guest workers” who take “out for the hundredth time an aerogram promising a job or space to sleep” (90). Reliant on an underground economy wherein “barely wakened customs guards await their bribe,” Jasmine is a citizenship outlaw. Outside the perimeters of the law and nation-state, Jasmine contemplates her own selfhood, provocatively asking, “What country? What continent?” (91).
Though an illegitimate subject, Jasmine reminds readers that such statelessness occurs for a reason. As the protagonist asserts, she and the other “deportees” are forced to seek transnational routes as a result of war and plague. Be that as it may, this illicit noncitizenship makes Jasmine an “unnatural” body within an imaginary of world borders and nation-state contours. Relegated to living “undercover,” Jasmine, like the millions of immigrants, enters the country without the cover of law. However, unlike other immigrants and refugees, Jasmine’s intended U.S. mission—to commemorate her husband through sati—unintentionally ameliorates such illegality. Contrasted with those who seek their fortunes and asylum in the U.S., Jasmine initially has no designs on the American dream. Instead, Jasmine yearns “to breathe free” through death and permanent closure.
Jasmine’s search for sacred reconciliation through sati is made profanely untenable by Half Face, the Gulf Shuttle’s captain. Half Face is aptly named, for he “lost an eye and ear and most of his cheek in a paddy field in Vietnam” (93). His service in the war—which comes at great physical and emotional cost—substantiates his status as a loyal U.S. subject. His literal “loss of face” echoes a national loss via the shame of the Vietnam War. He is thus the “monstrous” product of a disastrous U.S. foreign policy. However, his actions after the war—as a smuggler of immigrant bodies—make him a “traitor” vis-à-vis an increasingly regulated U.S. immigrant economy. If Half-Face’s physicality bespeaks the failure of foreign policy, his current self-employment attests to a breakdown in U.S. domestic policy. After all, Half-Face makes a successful living smuggling human cargo. His ability to bring “undercover bodies” is in part predicated on the absence of adequate border controls. Half-Face highlights the inefficacy of contemporary immigration law. And Jasmine’s successful migration to the United States confirms the porosity of U.S. borders.
Armed only with a suitcase filled with her husband’s clothes and a university brochure, with no connections and with little means, Jasmine is forced to travel with Half-Face, who takes her to a remote motel. Half-Face’s criminality as an immigrant smuggler is exacerbated by his subsequent rape of the young widow. In the motel bathroom, Jasmine contemplates the involuntary removal of her subjectivity as a traditional Indian woman and seizure of female agency. With knife in hand, Jasmine relates, “I extended my tongue, and sliced it. Hot blood dripped immediately in the sink” (105). This act of self-violence prefigures Jasmine’s revenge killing of Half-Face.
Afterward, Jasmine reveals:
I had not given even a day’s survival in America a single thought. This was the place I had chosen to die, on the first day if possible. I would land, find Tampah, walking there if necessary, find the college grounds and check it against the brochure photo. . . . I had dreamed of arranging the suit and twigs. . . . I had protected this sari, and Prakash’s suit, through it all. Then he [Half Face] touched it. He had put on the suit, touched my sari, my photographs, and Ganpati. (107–108)
The slicing of her tongue initially renders Jasmine speechless, yet her next action—the violent stabbing of Half-Face—speaks to a newfound sense of self (and renewed sense of survival) forged through sexual violence. Following the murder of her assailant, Jasmine decides not only to live but “live in America” (emphasis added)” (108).
As such, the protagonist elects to fulfill one of the requirements for naturalization via residency. This sets the stage for Jasmine’s preoccupation with American mythos through immigrant-turned-citizen revision. Jasmine further relates, “My body was merely the shell, soon to be discarded. Then I could be reborn, debts and sins all paid for. . . . With the first streaks of dawn, my first full American day, I walked out the front drive of the motel to the highway and began my journey, traveling light” (108). The protagonist’s articulation of “rebirth” and reconciliation (“debts and sins all paid for”) at once motions to the realization Jasmine no longer has to commit sati because the rape and subsequent revenge murder have effectively killed her former self. The double death that occurs—Half-Face and the former Indian widow Jasmine—buttresses the protagonist’s claim that her past life is in fact a shel” that will soon be discarded.
Another reading surfaces when the enunciation of debt repayment is placed alongside extant U.S. immigration policy. Jasmine not only pays back the “debt and sin” of her previous life through the revenge killing of Half-Face. She also pays forward on the “sin” of immigrant illegality. A smuggler of human cargo, Half-Face is in direct violation of immigration law. As a sexual predator and smuggler, Half-Face endangers the moral sanctity of the nation and the political borders. If Jasmine initially arrives to the States an illegal immigrant, then the killing of Half-Face makes her a de facto border patrol guard, an unintentional “model” enforcer of INS policy. Within this immigrant-focused milieu, Jasmine’s revenge is personally justifiable and sanctioned by the U.S. nation-state. In the process, Mukherjee naturalizes Jasmine’s actions for a dominant U.S. readership.
For those reasons, Jasmine makes apparent a different type of “model minority” reading. Situated as Jasmine is “within a historical moment marked by popular apprehensions of a crisis in American identity attributed to the changes caused by the new immigration and ethnic separatism indentified with multiculturalism,” Susan Koshy convincingly argues that Jasmine’s relationships with American men in the novel make visible her sexual model minority status.22 Maintaining that Jasmine is a “sexual model minority,” Koshy observes that such an “affirmative discourse” masks “the psychological costs of assimilation that the text dare not name, but which erupts periodically in episodes of seemingly agentless violence.”23 Acknowledging Koshy’s analysis of Jasmine through rubrics of sexual model minoritization and sexual naturalization, Jasmine’s rape—a potent “episode of seemingly agentless violence”—nonetheless engenders a complementary examination of model minoritiziation.
In particular, this multivalent model minoritization is evident when fixed to a contemporary immigration policy increasingly focused on the regulation of employers and smugglers. Though Jasmine is denied agency through sexual violence, she nonetheless becomes an accidental agent of the state through her capital punishment of Half Face. This is not to suggest that Jasmine consistently assumes a border patrol agent position. Indeed, what follows destabilizes a uniform application of Jasmine as constant border patrol actor. Jasmine is rescued by Lillian Gordon, a sympathetic figure who provides undocumented immigrants refuge. Still, what separates Half-Face from Lillian is the question of exploitation. If the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act intended to fine employers for exploiting undocumented labor, then Half-Face’s sexual exploitation and immigrant profiteering make him the ultimate state villain.
In contrast, Lillian’s status as a “mother of exiles” occurs without any money-making agenda. Still, as later revealed, Lillian Gordon is eventually “busted . . . for harboring undocumenteds, exploiting them (the prosecution said) for free cooking cleaning and yard work” (121). Therefore, the state has in effect “taken care of” Lillian Gordon and need not rely on outside actors like Jasmine. Unable to testify because of her “own delicate status,” Jasmine writes a letter of support wherein she asserts that Lillian “represented to me the best in the American experience and the American character” (121). Hence, Lillian not only provides Jasmine asylum; like the statuary “mother of exiles,” she emblematizes for the immigrant protagonist an idealized “America.” What is more, Lillian is responsible for Jasmine’s initiation into assimilation. Renamed “Jazzy,” the protagonist learns from Lillian how to walk and dress “American” (118–119).
An assimilated subject (via “walk” and “dress”), Jazzy/Jasmine eventually journeys north to Queens, New York, where for five months she stays with her husband’s acquaintance Professorji and his extended family. Within the confines of a predominantly Punjabi Flushing neighborhood, Jasmine confronts the borders of a “traditional” Indian community existence, which offer little access to employment outside the home. Jasmine again takes flight, this time to Manhattan, where she finds work as a live-in nanny for the abovementioned Taylor and Wylie. It is on the Upper West Side, away from the Indian affects of the Flushing neighborhood and the country of origin, where Jasmine declares: “I became an American in an apartment on Claremont Avenue across the street from Barnard College Dormitory” (145). Renamed Jase, the increasingly Americanized Jasmine discovers a heretofore unknown rootedness. According to Jase/Jasmine, “America may be fluid and built on flimsy, invisible lines of weak gravity, but I was a dense object. I had landed and was getting rooted” (159).
Central to Jase/Jasmine’s newfound “rootedness” is her ability to “responsibly” negotiate a capitalist economy. At first, Jasmine’s enthusiastic and excessive consumption of mail-order goods threatens her economic well-being. Spending her money on meaningless commodities, Jasmine initially succumbs to the lure of U.S. consumer culture. Nonetheless, with the help of her American “family,” Jasmine regains control of her finances, which in turn gives rise to claims of being “landed and getting rooted.” Jasmine proudly asserts, “I had controlled my spending and now sat on an account that was rapidly growing. Every day I was being paid for something new” (159). In the face of her illegal worker status, Jasmine is still committed to a conservative capitalistic ethic. Jasmine’s model minority subjectivity is reified through “hard work” and “perseverance” in the face of adversity.
Furthermore, Jasmine’s (unintentional but still legible) willingness to enact justice against an illegal alien smuggler makes her a border-conscious “model minority.” This model minoritization is apparent in a scene with Taylor and Duff in Central Park. The idyllic and romantic tenor of the moment is interrupted by Jasmine’s sighting of an Indian hot dog vendor. Jasmine tells Taylor, “That was the man who killed my husband. . . . He knows . . . he knows me. He knows I’m here” (167–168). When Taylor asks why she cannot go to the state authorities, Jasmine replies, “Don’t you see that’s impossible? I’m illegal here, he knows that. I can’t come out and challenge him. I’m very exposed” (168). Notwithstanding Jasmine’s initial unwillingness to confront the man responsible for her husband’s death, the protagonist all the same enacts her revenge via immigration policy.
Expressly, after fleeing to Iowa, Jasmine confesses:
Sukkhi, the New York vendor, pushes his hot dog cart through my head. I do not seek to forgive, and I have long let go of my plans for revenge. I can live with both impulses. I have even written an anonymous letter to the INS, suggesting they look into the status of a certain Sukhwinder Singh, who pushes a hot-dog cart in New York City. . . . I dream only of neutralizing harm, not absolute and permanent conquest. (180–181)
In reporting Sukkhi to the INS, Jasmine once again assumes the performative role of a border patrol agent. As an undocumented immigrant-turned-INS informant, Jasmine’s desire to “neutralize” her husband’s murderer is negotiated through state-authorized means. Jasmine’s letter reveals not the crime Sukkhi has committed but rather pushes the authorities to evaluate his citizenship status. Therefore, it is through the state—and its deportation apparatus—that Jasmine attempts to avenge her husband’s death. On another level, the Jasmine/Sukkhi episode links terrorism to illegal immigration. In so doing, Jasmine makes visible a transnational reconciliation to a particular Indian conflict. If Jasmine’s first husband dies as a result of domestic Indian terrorism, the protagonist is able to avenge his death through domestic U.S. immigration policy, via INS notification. This reading confirms Jasmine’s naturalization vis-à-vis amnesty. Though an undocumented worker, Jasmine is nonetheless a subject seeking asylum from country-of-origin politics emblematized by Sukkhi.
Taken together, Jasmine’s journey northward and westward, her pioneering spirit in the face of uncertainty, and her rise from child bride to woman and mother (or coming-of-age story) make visible a “typical immigrant American” narrative. Simultaneously, the “typicality” of the South Asian immigrant-turned-American is complicated by Jasmine’s transformation from rural Indian subject to transnational body to American citizen. It is her ability to perform a naturalized foreignness that makes Jasmine a true 1980s American heroine. After all, she successfully repudiates an undocumented sensibility and gains (through proxy) a de facto documented selfhood. Correspondingly, Jasmine’s “naturalization” intersects with late twentieth-century politics. As Susan Koshy argues, Jasmine reflects “social and political changes within the United States [that] contributed toward the rearticulation of the meanings of Asian American femininity. The breakdown of overt racial barriers following civil rights struggles, the positioning of Asian Americans as model minorities, the valorization of multiculturalism, and the celebration of ethnic difference created a more varied terrain within which racial, sexual, and class differences produce the possibilities of Americanization.”23 Hence, Jasmine speaks to both the social rise of multiculturalism and the political changes inherent in a post-1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act immigration imaginary. With heightened awareness of illegality and regulation, Jasmine’s American identity is principally in conflict with her illegal subjectivity. Nevertheless, this illegal subjectivity—which positions her on the “wrong side” of immigration policy—is subverted by Jasmine’s willingness to police other illicit bodies. In doing so, Jasmine as character (and Jasmine as narrative) draws attention to an alternate model minorityhood/citizenship born out of immigration regulation.
Denaturalizing English: U.S. English and Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation
Who, among my peers, is sure of what is success and what is failure? Who would want to be sure? Who is sure of purposes, meanings, national goals? Perhaps a successful immigrant is an exaggerated version of the native. From now on, I’ll be made, like a mosaic, of fragments—and my consciousness of them. It is only in that observing consciousness that I remain, after all, an immigrant.
—HOFFMAN, LOST IN TRANSLATION
If the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act employed a “humanitarian” response to the impending immigration crisis, it necessarily deployed (as Jasmine illustrates) a regulatory agenda via border patrols and workplace surveillance. Simultaneously, the act reinscribed tenets of U.S. naturalization through its requirement of residency and a “minimal understanding of English.” In particular, the legibility of immigrants as U.S. subjects is principally charted through the ability to “understand” (or translate) English. In contrast, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language disrupts dominant, naturalized readings of “successful immigration.” Rather than distinguish the “foreigner” from the “native,” in the above passage Hoffman collapses the two categories. In line with Hoffman’s interpellation, the immigrant becomes an exaggerated version of the native who nevertheless remains fragmented.
In this manner, Hoffman introduces an alternative reading of the immigrant body through multiplicity and paradox. Eschewing claims of multicultural nationhood such as U.S. melting-pot or Canadian mosaic, Hoffman instead lays linguistically bare the polyvocal routes through which citizenship is “made.” As Lost in Translation repeatedly avows, the dominant rubric for immigrant “success,” monoculturalism, is largely uncertain (“who is sure?”) and ideologically driven (“purposes, meanings, national goals?”). Indeed, such rubrics for success undergird the foundations of a particular late-century culture war.
As the likes of Sheriff Duffy make plain, turn-of-the-twenty-first-century nativism concentrates on criminality or illegality and multilingualism. Explicitly, the anxiety over multilingualism (and multiculturalism) pits native speakers against the foreign-born. Articulating patriotism through “common language” proclamations, English-only movements relied, and continue to rely, on an “us” versus “them” binary.24 To be sure, the rise of such English-only movements in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s reveal an unquestionably racialized politics. Correspondingly, those “lost in translation” are cast as the primary antagonists in a national cultural narrative.
The most politically empowered organization in the movement was U.S. English, founded in 1983 by Dr. John Tanton, former director of the Sierra Club’s population committee and Zero Population Growth, and Senator S. I. Hayakawa of California, who was also the president of San Francisco State College during the 1967–1968 student strikes. An advocacy group committed to making English the “official” national language, U.S. English initially seemed a valid, albeit conservative political group, with support from the likes of Walter Cronkite, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Saul Below, and Gore Vidal.25 Its executive director, Linda Chavez, was a leading Republican who would eventually gain notoriety as a failed George W. Bush Secretary of Labor nominee. Ironically, within the context of 1980s “immigration illegality,” Chavez at the time employed Guatemalan Marta Mercado, an undocumented domestic worker.
Even so, the organization’s legitimacy was irrevocably undermined not by Chavez’s employment practices, which were revealed in 2001, but by the publication of an internal memorandum. The memo, dated October 10, 1986, surfaced in 1988, just as Arizona voters were to decide on an English-only state referendum. In the memo, U.S. English cofounder John Tanton wrote:
Gobernar es poblar translates “to govern is to populate.” . . . In this society where the majority rules, does this hold? Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile? . . . Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught with those with their pants down! . . . As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?26
A self-described Malthusian, Tanton begins his argument with Argentine political philosopher Juan Bautista Alberdi, who celebrates the role immigrants play in politics and nation building.27 Alberdi’s decidedly pro-immigrant stance through Tanton’s cooptation turns sinister and morally corrupt, with allusions to uncontrolled sexuality and reproduction. Couched as a struggle between the “majority White” population and the unregulated, inferior “minority,” Tanton’s call to action makes visible the same reactionary politics as the abovementioned San Diego County officials. Accordingly, whiteness becomes a site of victimhood (that is, immigration has led to a decline in “power and control over their lives”). Analogously, “Whites” are cast as an essential political bloc to be mobilized via anti-immigrant, English-only action.
Incontrovertibly, Tanton’s anxiety over immigrant bodies and reproduction accesses a century-long nativism, redolent of past and present racialized “peril” discourses. To that end, Tanton’s appeal to “democratic virtue”—evident in his observation that the United States is a society in which the “majority rules”—is all the same constructed against a threatening minority presence. Despite the anti-immigrant currency of such pronouncements, the overtly racist nature of the Tanton memo did not sit well in a post-civil rights moment. The publication of the memo led to resignations by Cronkite and executive director Linda Chavez. Tanton himself resigned following the scandal, though he would resurface in 1994 as a founder of ProEnglish, which carried an identical English-only agenda.
Similarly, the cultural aims of U.S. English would also resurface. In February 1989, New York’s Suffolk County was faced with an “official English” bill. The proposed initiative would eliminate bilingual county publications such as brochures and pamphlets. Additionally, the bill would reduce bilingual country jobs and prohibit the local Human Rights Commission from investigating English-only discrimination cases. The bill’s supporters claimed the initiative would “speed the assimilation of immigrants into American society and curb a growing number of bilingual programs in county government.”28 Though the Suffolk County bill did not pass, it nonetheless illustrates a potent English-only trend. That same year, English-only initiatives were put on the ballot in seventeen states, including Florida, Arizona, and Colorado.
The English-only goal of “speedy assimilation” is incontestably undermined in Hoffman’s Lost in Translation. As Katarzyna Marciniak maintains, though Lost in Translation “ends on a note of immigrant success, Eva’s story questions conventional immigrant narratives of complete assimilation.”29 Significantly, Hoffman’s linguistic interrogation opposes the very foundations of the U.S. English movement. As Lost in Translation elucidates, English acquisition does not lead to wholesale assimilation. Nor does linguistic naturalization resolve alien subjectivities and concomitant feelings of alienation. Taken together, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation situates the immigrant body within a conflicted cultural terrain, and maps, through migration and translation, the affective toll of relocation.
The child of Jewish Holocaust survivors, Hoffman is a postwar product born in 1946. From the outset, Hoffman examines her citizenship via Jewishness. As Hoffman insists, “being Jewish is something definite; it is something that I am.” Still, this location is circumscribed by a lingering anti-Semitism, which is a “subject . . . [that] now [in the mid-1950s] comes up frequently” and represents “a darkness of the mind, a prejudice—rather than a deviation from moral principles” (32). Because of such virulent anti-Semitism, Hoffman’s Jewishness (the site of her original citizenship) threatens her and her family’s Polish selfhood. Consequently, Hoffman’s family leaves Poland in 1959, when Hoffman is thirteen years old.30 Such anti-Semitism foregrounds a reading of Lost in Translation through amnesty frames in a manner reminiscent of Mukherjee’s Jasmine. Both Hoffman and Jasmine are victims of home country violence, potential and actualized.
This “immigration/refugee story” foregrounds Lost in Translation, and Hoffman reads her forced relocation primarily through language (as indicated by the memoir’s title). Divided into three sections (“Paradise,” “Exile,” and “The New World”), Lost in Translation begins in Poland, which the author configures (or writes) as a “paradise” location. The family’s relocation to Vancouver comprises the “exile” section, wherein Hoffman must learn to articulate selfhood through a non-native language, English. The final section—“The New World”—takes place in the United States (in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York City). Situated in the fabric of social, political, and personal change, Hoffman’s memoir cartographically reproduces the emotional contours of the immigrant landscape.
Moreover, Lost in Translation brings to light the affective and linguistic dimensions of citizenship. Responding to fellow immigrant claims of “success” through assimilation, Hoffman observes:
Theirs is an immigrant story, and that’s the story of their lives that they accept. But perhaps, if they had the words to say just what they feel, something different might pour out, an elusive complaint of an elusive ailment. For insofar as meaning is interhuman and comes from the thickness of human connections and how richly you are known, these successful immigrants have lost some of their meaning. In their separateness and silence, their wisdom—what they used to know in an intimate way, on their skin—is stifled and dries up a little. (143)
Hoffman’s analysis of “an immigrant story” connects citizenship, language, and affect. Indeed, such a stock immigrant story nevertheless fails to encompass elusive complaints and elusive ailments. This breakdown is due to the paucity of adequate language (“words to say just what they feel”). The “successful” immigrant falls short because intimate meaning is lost in dominant discourse, which for the most part is overdetermined to fit a naturalization end.
Equally, the ensuing assimilationist narrative is, above all, an essentialized tale that “stifles,” lacking individual complexity and connection. The absence of difference speaks to the naturalization of “successful immigrant” narratives, which privilege e pluribus unum citizenships. In contrast, Hoffman’s “immigrant story” reproduces an ex uno plures (out of one, many) selfhood. Despite her status as a Polish Jewish Canadian turned Polish Jewish Canadian American, Hoffman does not lose identities so much as she accretes affiliations and citizenships. Correspondingly, Hoffman becomes a self-inscribed transnational national. This reading of multiplicity is at once geographically configured. From Cracow to Vancouver, from Houston to Cambridge, from Boston to New York City, Hoffman’s memoir undeniably crosses multiple national and state borders. In the process, Lost in Translation principally becomes a narrative of statelessness and unbounded selfhoods.
Repeatedly at stake in Lost in Translation is the inadequacy of language to concretize citizenship. Illustratively, Hoffman avers, “You can’t transport human meanings whole from one culture to another any more than you can transliterate a text” (175). This failure to translate consumes Hoffman’s memoir, which is likewise filled with moments of “linguistic inadequacy.” Simultaneously, the critique of transliteration—to represent letters from one language directly into another—highlights the incomplete processes of cultural exchange. Focused on the failure of translation and transliteration, Lost in Translation necessarily challenges English-only movements that evaluate citizenship viability on the basis of monoculturalism. Hoffman further weakens claims of English superiority with the assertion that “English words don’t hook on to anything” and that they “float in an uncertain space” (108). On one level, the lack of English “situatedness” mirrors Hoffman’s immigrant identity, which analogously “floats in an uncertain space.”
On another level, such linguistic instability (embodied by the claim that “English doesn’t hook on to anything”) denaturalizes the dominant language’s position to mimetically and unilaterally inscribe nation-state affiliation. Though Hoffman can speak and write English, the physical act is unmatched by abstract meaning, which renders language an incomplete signifier of citizenship. Her negotiation with translation necessarily forces her “to write in the language of the present, even if it’s not the language of self” (121). In Lost in Translation, such presentist language—necessarily fixed to a specific temporality—does not address the dynamic development of the immigrant body (or self) over time and space. For that reason, Hoffman’s assertion that one cannot “transport human meanings” gestures toward a fluid, transnational selfhood.
What is more, the affective inertia of past immigrant selves is foreshadowed in the memoir’s opening pages. As Hoffman recollects:
We can’t be leaving all this behind—but we are: I am thirteen years old, and we are emigrating. It’s a notion of such crushing, definitive finality that to me might as well mean the end of the world. . . . I desperately want time to stop, to hold the ship still with the force of my will. I am suffering my first, severe attack of nostalgia, or tesknota—a word that adds to nostalgia the tonalities of sadness and longing. It is a feeling whose shades and degrees I’m destined to know intimately. (3)
From the outset, Hoffman subverts the expected immigrant narrative. Rather than embracing the New World, the thirteen-year-old Hoffman desperately wants to stop and hold the ship still. With affective mention of desperation, sadness, and longing, Hoffman’s preemigrant account introduces an emotional intimacy that promptly establishes cost and loss. Though Hoffman’s family leaves Poland “voluntarily,” the introductory description produces a refugee discourse, evident in “desperate” acts to remain “in country.” Besides, this intimacy is marked by “shades and degrees” and is best understand through sad nostalgia (tesknota), which lacks absolute definition in English. All things considered, Hoffman’s account of departure militates against literal translation. Instead, this “parting” anecdote is figured through approximation of words and emotion.
Like the linguistic difficulties she encounters, Hoffman’s transnational affect (embodied in tesknota) refuses complete naturalization. Despite the memoir’s titular assertion that Hoffman is living a new life in a new language, the untranslatable is a palpable source of distress, trauma, and denaturalization. This particular failure of language conversion is immediately apparent in the memoir’s “Exile” section. Spefically, Hoffman details a classroom interaction in which her Canadian teacher struggles with the protagonist’s name. Unable to properly pronounce Hoffman’s first name “Ewa” as “Eva,” her teacher (a de facto representative of nation via public education) renames her “EH-vah.” Similarly, Hoffman’s sister Alina is renamed “Elaine.” This “renaming” episode is an undeniable source of alienation for the autobiographical protagonist, who writes: “we walk to our seats, into a room of unknown faces, with names that make us strangers to ourselves” (105). Denaturalized through naming, Hoffman’s assertions of “strangeness” therefore reinforce a reading of the “foreign” in the face of assimilative speech act.
Ironically, the classroom as denaturalization site is briefly revised later in the memoir. As Hoffman learns to “live in a new language,” she nevertheless sees herself as a distinct protagonist in a larger “Americanization” performance (that is, the naturalization ceremony). Following the completion of her Harvard doctorate, Hoffman notes that “Like characters in a climactic scene of a comic opera summoned to deliver a furiously paced summation, the main figures of my personal mythology have all gathered in one place at the very point when, in effect, I receive the certificate of full Americanization. . . . Everything comes together, everything I love, as in the fantasies of my childhood; I am the sum of my parts” (226). Supplanting a “drama of Americanization” with a “comic opera” (calling to mind Gilbert and Sullivan light comedies), Hoffman relies on the main figures of her personal mythology. The episode’s crowning moment—the receipt of a diploma that resembles a certificate of full Americanization—brings everything together. The oldest university in the United States, Harvard as symbolic institution is imbued with “first immigrant” meaning embodied in Puritan emigrants from England. Established in 1636, Harvard predates U.S. nationhood, yet its connection to a Puritanical past makes it a national emblem of “city upon a hill” progress. Following suit, as a graduate whose institution was accepting of her, Hoffman is (at least for the moment) naturalized (226).
Nonetheless, this naturalization feeling is fleeting. In the end, Hoffman’s immigrant selfhood, the source of her inability to adequately translate, becomes her principal anchor in the New World. Hoffman’s story, overtly reminiscent of Mary Antin’s The Promised Land, takes a different direction via selfhood claims. If upon arriving at and assimilating in the United States, Antin was “born, remade, and born again,” Hoffman is not so much remade as she is amended. As the memoir progresses, Hoffman’s old identities ebb and flow, largely remaining fluid. The “back and forth” nature of Hoffman’s many selfhoods is deliberately suggestive of translation as an identifiable practice, which is similarly unfixed. Correspondingly, Hoffman repeatedly returns to the meaning of translation (the carrying across of meaning through language) as an ever incomplete process that still offers agency within the U.S. cultural landscape.
Moreover, instead of naturalization, Hoffman (unlike her Jasmine counterpart) privileges a priori and composite citizenships. Specifically, Hoffman’s past identity as the daughter of Polish refugees affords her first-person access to citizenship rupture and selfhood eruption. Compelled to listen in order to learn to speak, Hoffman eschews one-sided forms of literacy. In their place, Hoffman offers the following observation: “It’s difficult to tell the truth to another person. The self is a complicated mechanism, and to speak it forth honestly requires not only sincerity but the agility to catch insight on the wing and the artistry to give it accurate words. It also requires a listener who can catch our nuances as they fly by. Spoken truth shrivels when it falls on a tin ear” (279). To understand the self, and by extension selfhood, Hoffman stresses the need for multiple literacies. In order to understand the American (and, in the grander scheme, the human) experience, one must be willing to speak with sincerity but have the necessary agility to carefully render meaning. Thus, Hoffman advocates an in-depth practice that also requires a listener attuned to nuances. Such a position produces a reading of selves focused not on essentialized economies of understanding but two-sided literacy acts that involve both reading and listening.
Alternatively, emphasizing complexity in the face of immigration debates that privilege “English only” and strict regulation, Hoffman resists compartmentalization, classification, and containment. In the process, as Katarzyna Marciniak observes, Hoffman is chiefly invested not so much in state-sanctioned selfhood as self-determined “alienhood.” This alienhood makes visible Hoffman’s “textualization of the in-between space of resistance: resistance to a traditional notion of assmiliation that works to accept, but also absorb and flatten the exile; resistance to smoothing out the foreigner’s otherness, and a defiance against the creation of a new proper subject that erases her past so that she can successfully function in a new community” (79). As well, Hoffman’s assertion of an immigrant location is predicated on multiple citizenships. This composite selfhood is determined by history (that is, a forced relocation as a result of the Holocaust and its aftermath), by her religious affiliation as a Jew, her political Polish selfhood, and her linguistic acquisition of English. A multivalent cultural citizen, Hoffman simultaneously inhabits multiple linguistic spaces. In articulating her location vis-à-vis her immigrant identity, Hoffman declares allegiance to the many selfhoods contained within it. She is thus a denaturalized subject through Canada and the United States but nonetheless a world citizen (albeit bifurcated).
Finally, Hoffman’s phenomenological explorations of English enable her to rethink not how Americans are “made” but instead how they are “unmade.” In other words, Hoffman’s unique location—reflecting a sense of not only living in two worlds but within multiple words and languages—produces a deconstructive reading of U.S. citizenship. Indeed, Hoffman remarks that her American friends:
share so many assumptions that are quite invisible to them, precisely because they are shared. These are assumptions about the most fundamental human transactions, subcutaneous beliefs, which lie just below the stratum of political opinion or overt ideology: how much “space,” physical or psychological, we need to give each other, how much “control” is desirable, about what is private and what is public. (210–211)
Configuring her American friends as a “readable” text, Hoffman enacts (to all intents and purposes) a translation of citizenship. Noting that their selfhood is constructed not on tangible characteristics but more abstract assumptions and “subcutaneous beliefs,” Hoffman deconstructs the very tenets of naturalization as a learned process. When it is all said and done, Hoffman undercuts the communal power of naturalization, which does not necessarily lead to a shared citizenship or political kinship. To be sure, if naturalization is a state-authorized process, then the question of who can or cannot naturalize is determined not by sentimental declarations of faith but by constructed political opinion and overt ideology.
Indeed, it is between poles of public opinion, politics, and debates over immigration that Jasmine and Lost in Translation are largely circumscribed and contained. Correspondingly, U.S. citizenship thematically undergirds Bharati Mukherjee’s novel and Eva Hoffman’s memoir, which are structurally determined through the shifting terrain of present-day immigration policy. Accordingly situated within a space of mixed immigrant feelings, declarations of race and racism, and delimited by the ever-pressing state need to regulate immigration, Jasmine and Lost in Translation underscore a late twentieth-century unresolved tension. Such anxiety foregrounds, influences, and shapes 1980s and early 1990s characterizations of the nation through and against immigrant bodies.
Haunted by politics in the country of origin and marked by multiple border crossings, Jasmine’s protagonist and Hoffman’s narrator self attempt to settle—through affect and naturalization—the pressing matter of U.S. selfhood. On another level, connotative of deciphering acts, comprehension moves, and strategies that foment readability, the question of citizenship legibility in Jasmine and Lost in Translation is negotiated through history, memory, speech, and grammar. Such an analysis provokes a reading of Jasmine as a text consumed with an unstable form of “remarkable Americanness” principally forged through the regulation of immigrant bodies. In Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, at stake is an unachievable “Americanness” that thematically undermines melting-pot utopianism. In related fashion, if Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine highlights a national focus on illegality and immigrant bodies at the turn of the twenty-first century, then Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language examines the role of language in the making (and unmaking) of Americans.
In so doing, Hoffman’s memoir further addresses contemporary immigrant-oriented debates that dominated late twentieth-century public discourse. As a result, Jasmine and Lost in Translation engender a totalizing reading of the cultural and political dimensions of late 1980s immigration policy. Illustratively, African American writer Alice Walker notes: “Jasmine begins to answer some of the questions I have had about the emotional landscape of recent immigrants to this country. This is a novel of great importance to any contemporary insight into ourselves as Americans in the midst of enormous social, political, and personal changes.”31 Walker’s reading of Jasmine speaks not only to the shifting terrain of Americanness in the midst of enormous social, political, and personal changes, but to the question of the emotional landscape of recent immigrants. In turn, Walker concretizes the affective dimensions of U.S. selfhood, which are forged through the contested crucible of politics and culture.
Such affective dimensions were more than apparent in Reagan’s Liberty Weekend remarks, which structure a patriotic love of country through immigrant emblem (the Statue of Liberty). However, such “structures of nationalistic feeling” were most embodied in a citizenship spectacle that followed Reagan’s address. To be sure, this moment—which exists in the shadow of Lady Liberty’s centennial celebration—brings into focus a late twentieth-century understanding of citizenship through repudiation and reclamation. Meant to recognize twelve “remarkable naturalized Americans,” the subsequent Medal of Liberty ceremony worked in media-oriented conjunction with the statue’s anniversary celebration. If the initial focus of Liberty Weekend was the reconstructed celebration of the statue’s iconic immigrant status, then the recognition of “remarkable” naturalized bodies offers further proof that Americans are not only made but also fashioned into nation-building laborers. Conjured up by Liberty Weekend producer David L. Wolper, the Medal of Liberty was an award created specifically for the statue’s centennial. Notwithstanding the medal’s mass-media roots, the award was without a doubt state-authorized and state-sanctioned, with the Reagan administration responsible for the selection of recipients from the realm of politics and the fields of art, science, and culture.
Among those “remarkably recognized” was cold war/Nixon administration fixture Henry Kissinger, a Jewish subject whose family escaped Nazi Germany in 1938. Similarly, fellow German American Hanna Holborn Gray, the nation’s first female university president, fled her country of origin when confronted with assured fascist persecution.32 The legacy of Nazi rule is abundantly plain in the case of Medal of Liberty recipient Elie Wiesel, a Romanian Jewish Holocaust survivor and, like Kissinger, a Nobel Prize winner.33 Kissinger, Gray, and Wiesel were joined by Jewish Americans Dr. Albert B. Sabin, inventor of the oral polio vaccine, who emigrated from Poland, and Itzhak Perlman, renowned Israeli American violin virtuoso. Panama-born Kenneth B. Clark, an African American psychologist most known for his role in conducting the doll tests used to dismantle “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), was another Medal of Liberty beneficiary. Also present was Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, the first Hispanic astronaut, who originally hailed from Costa Rica. Two first-generation Chinese Americans and one former British subject were also recognized as “remarkable naturalized Americans”: I. M Pei, respected architect; famed computer engineer/entrepreneur An Wang; and USO tour stalwart Bob Hope, a comedian/entertainer born in London, England.34 The final recipient, Russian Jewish American composer Irving Berlin, who wrote “God Bless America,” was unable to make it to the ceremony due to illness and was awarded his medal in absentia.35
The ethnic backgrounds of the twelve recipients did not go unnoticed by the always opinionated New York City Mayor Koch. As Time magazine reporter Richard Stengel sardonically notes, the mayor, “ever ready to leap to the defense of ethnicity,” took issue with the absence of particular hyphenated Americans. Decrying the dearth of Irish and Italian recipients, Koch “denounced the awards as ‘idiotic’ and promptly decided to give out 87 medals of his own.”36 Despite Koch’s tongue-in-cheek response to the Medal of Liberty award list, the selection of specific naturalized subjects makes more seriously discernible the conservative multicultural, model minority politics that characterized the Reagan administration and the 1980s. Tellingly missing from the roster of remarkable naturalized Americans were civil rights protestors, revolutionary activists, and 1960s radicals. Instead, what united the group of Medal of Liberty honorees was their presidentially legible faith in the nation, which implicitly precluded dramatic calls for systemic change. Certainly, their very naturalization—dependent on the state-authorized fulfillment of patriotic and residency requirements—politically signaled the voluntary repudiation by each “remarkable American” of past affiliations and their state-sanctioned commitment to U.S. principles.
In this regard, the Medal of Liberty recipients adhered to the president’s consistent appeal to individual responsibility, undying belief in teleologies of racial progress, and dismissal of social welfare programs. The emphasis on individualism and discipline, a trademark position for the former New Deal advocate-turned-supply-side economist, was clear in a February 23, 1984, address to Asian and Pacific American leaders. President Reagan credited Asian Americans with helping to “preserve [the American] dream by living up to the bedrock values that make us a good and a worthy people.” The president then clarified, averring, “I’m talking about principles that begin with the sacred worth of human life, religious faith, community spirit . . . tolerance, hard work, fiscal responsibility, cooperation, and love.”37
In contrast to the model minoritization of Asian Americans, the fortieth president (whose administration was openly anti–affirmative action, dismissive of social welfare programs, and unabashedly supportive of South Africa during apartheid) publicly questioned the objectives of African American civil rights leaders who continued to push for social justice. In an oft-quoted statement, Reagan reportedly inquired, “Sometimes I wonder if they [civil rights activists] really mean what they say, because some of those leaders are doing very well leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they’re victims of prejudice.”38 In this instance, the affective feeling of prejudice is rendered rhetorically invalid through Reagan’s question, which presupposes an uncertainty about “real” versus imagined meaning. In doing so, Reagan circulates a reading that civil rights leaders—and not actual systemic racism—are responsible for the perpetuation of victimhood. Reagan’s questioning of prejudice is reminiscent of the 1960s political foundation for the Asian American model minority myth. Consistent with established model minority logics disseminated in mass press venues like the New York Times and U.S. News and World Report, Reagan’s casting of “Asian American dream holders” versus histrionic African American activists makes irrefutably visible a divisive people-of-color politics and selective affirmations of probationary whiteness.
What is more, the inclusion of Jewish refugees and Asian immigrants in the Reagan administration-sanctioned Medal of Liberty ceremony equally highlights a conservative cold war model minoritization that reconfigures, revises, and celebrates narratives of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Accordingly, the preponderance of individuals connected to World War II confirms a dominant U.S. narrative of the war as “the good fight.” Additionally, the Medal of Liberty awardees from eastern Europe and Asia substantiate a correlative conservative narrative of the post–World War II era as “the good fight against communist totalitarianism.”39 With “remarkable Americans” from formerly fascist and communist nation-states (including China, Poland, and Romania), the Medal of Liberty ceremony implicitly underscores twentieth-century foreign policy triumphalism and simultaneously monumentalizes the “benevolent” success of cold war political conversion policies. Domestically, America’s Jim Crow past—exemplified by Kenneth B. Clark’s work and presence—is to varying degrees “reconciled” on stage, which presents an integrated body politic constitutive of naturalized citizens.
Most significant (given the focus on immigrants-turned-Americans), the problematic immigration policies of the twentieth century—with wide-ranging racialized immigration quotas, inclusive of nation-state preferences, and replete with racial citizenship requirements—were in “naturalized” fashion predictably omitted from the Liberty Weekend celebration.40 As a consequence, the Medal of Liberty ceremony offers for public consumption embodied “solutions” to the very questions (the “women’s question,” the “Chinese question,” the “great ethnic question,” and the “immigrant question”) that began and persisted throughout the twentieth century. And, for those reasons, the inclusion of Jewish and Asian American Medal of Liberty recipients publicly and politically instantiates an amended and euphemistic sense of U.S. nationhood reliant on a model minoritized tolerance. The Medal of Liberty beneficiaries are deemed remarkable because in large part they personified a nostalgic, open-door immigration past and a now unproblematic civil rights present.41