How We Found America: Reading Gender Through Eastern European Immigrant Narratives

How We Found America: Reading Gender Through Eastern European Immigrant Narratives
University of North Carolina Press, $18.95

“…a woman has no country, as she is already an outsider—the other—to the whole world.”

Quoting Virginia Woolf, author Magdalena Zaborowska explores the broad question of exile identity, and womanhood, as it is voiced by six Eastern European immigrant writers. In How We Found America, she first looks at her own experience as a Polish immigrant, and how it colors her identity as a woman and as a writer. “From my ‘resident alien’ vantage point in the United States, I see myself as suspended between Poland, where I was born but which I now know only through memories and the United States, where I live but which I cannot enter fully as a foreigner.” Zaborowska layers feminist theory, politics, and history, to understand the literary struggles for self-definition of these authors, who are “telling stories… because no simple answer is possible.”

Examining the alienation of these writers, Zaborowska compares the experiences of both Jews and non-Jews whose works span the twentieth century. Maiy Antin, Elizabeth Stern, Anzia Yezeirska, and Eva Hoffman are related and contrasted with Maria Kuncewicz and Vladimir Nabokov. The first three writers particularly express the issues of their era. Jewish immigrant women whose families fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, their work was controversial at a time of mass immigration and widespread xenophobia. Popular culture portrayed the immigrant woman as over-emotional, hyper sexual, and ignorant; even feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman denigrated the “immigrant whores” who threatened American “purity.” Because of their uneasy status in America, the literature of these women was also received ambiguously. Critics and readers have labeled their work “immigrant narrative,” ethnographic documents, autobiography, fiction—even propaganda.

Through writing, Antin, Stern, and Yezierska attempt to mediate their tainted “Old World” past with a future as the “American Women,” which they try to become. All three writers deal with their Jewish background seen at once as embarrassing, valuable, restrictive, and essential to their identity. Their ideal of America, the “Promised Land” of freedom and opportunity, is betrayed by their experience in the crowded poverty and constant straggle of the tenements. As immigrants fighting anti-Semitism, they also have to redefine what it means to be a woman. Zaborowska elaborates: “On the way to establishing a precarious identity in a new country, the immigrant woman’s gendered self is constantly threatened, because in order to succeed in her ambitions, she has to defy the traditional roles prescribed for females by her own ethnic group and dare to modify the ones defined by the host culture she longs to enter.” Even by writing, these women defy the traditional roles for women in both New and Old Worlds.

Like Maiy Antin, Elizabeth Stem sees her Jewish immigrant past as a “chain” which she cannot break, no matter how much she tries to escape into an acculturated “American womanhood.” Anzia Yezierska, the best-known of the three authors, also deals with a painful dual identity. Yezierska’s heroines burn with the desire to “make from myself a person.” Impassioned and agonized Jewish women, who long for education, interact with cool handsome WASP scholars who represent rescue from their squalid poverty and ignorance. Despite her use of Cinderella story lines, Yezierska “consciously ‘smuggled’ alternative subtexts into her tales beneath their commercial happy endings; in doing so, she challenged the dominant narrative and its reductionist depiction of immigrant women’s experience.”

 While writers like Antin, Stern and Yezierska conform in many ways to the expectations of publishers and readers of the time, they also subvert these expectations Their work challenges conflicting gender roles for women, explores the multiple identities and loyalties of the immigrant, and illuminates a struggle to survive in a world that left little room for nostalgia.