Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

A few months ago I said that I would try to put together a reading list of the best books and articles I could find about American people and communities abroad.  This is what I have so far.  Please feel free to add to the list.  

The first part of the list has general books - the larger view.  Some talk about specific issues, like citizenship, others are studies, portraits or serious research about Americans abroad.  One is a book about diasporas that mentions American communities in the world as part of the larger topic of diasporas in general.  

The second part of the list has books I've read that are the accounts of Americans in different countries.  These are not books that tell a potential American migrant how to live in Mexico, for example.  These are books that delve into why that migrant left, what happened to him or her, and his or her reasons for staying abroad or returning to the U.S.  These are personal accounts that talk about what happens to American identity when it gets transplanted somewhere else for a year or two or for a lifetime.  

Americans Abroad: A Comparative Study of Emigrants from the United States by A. Dashefsky et al.
Published in 1992 this is a study of Americans migrants in Australia and Israel (Canada is briefly mentioned as well).  It asks provocative questions about motives for leaving, adaptation in these countries, and why the migrants stayed, returned to the US, or decided to move on to a third country.  In the final chapter are some interesting conclusions and proposals for policies around this emigration one of which is:

" Deter efforts to force migrants to change citizenship or otherwise make a permanent, formal commitment to one society or another."

Published in 2007 a very interesting book that re-examines the "American Dream" in the light of American emigration.  Talks about Americans in Canada, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.  It's one of the few I've found that includes African-American emigration and women.  Some good statistics (or at least estimates) at the end of the book.

The Unknown Ambassadors: A Saga of Citizenship by Phyllis Michaux.
Published in 1996 this is the story of how Americans abroad organized around issues of particular importance to Americans living outside the US:  citizenship for the children of Americans who were born abroad, voting rights and many other issues like Medicare from the 1970's to the 1990's.  This is the diaspora going to the homeland government for recognition as a distinct group with particular interests.  It's a battle that is still ongoing but this book is important because it's the only one I know of that gives the the history and the context behind today's efforts.

Americans Abroad, How Can We Count Them? This book which came out in 2010  is the transcript of a hearing held in 2001 by the U.S. Congress House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Sub-committee on the Census,  on the feasibility of including Americans civilians abroad in the census.  This is the diaspora meeting the homeland government directly and the interplay between homeland interests and the interests of Americans abroad is fascinating.  In particular the testimony of the representative from the U.S. State Department shines a light on the relationship between the US Embassies/Consulates and the American communities in the host countries.  I found it very interesting that Mr. Betancourt said this over 10 years ago:

"There are thousands of persons around the globe who are in fact U.S. citizens, but have never chosen to make that fact of record by applying for documentation as a U.S. citizen. Yet a person's status as a U.S. citizen is determined by the laws enacted by Congress regardless of whether a person has come forward to confirm that status."

Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad by Gabriel Sheffer
This is a general book about diaspora politics but I include it here for two reasons: 1.  It will put the efforts for recognition in the three previous books on this list in a much larger context.  There are patterns, general strategies that all diasporas use or try to use as they attempt to manage the relationship with the homeland over different issues and 2.  He examines the question of whether or not the American communities abroad (some of which have a history that goes back to the American Revolution in the 18th century) constitute a true diaspora. 

"The inclusion of those overseas Americans in this category raises some interesting theoretical questions:  Can the Americans, who themselves are of diverse ethnic origins and are citizens of a civic state rather than an ethnic state, be regarded as belonging in the category of ethno-national diasporas, or do they constitute yet another borderline case?"

 His conclusion is interesting:  they have all the elements to become one but for the moment they remain a dormant "proto-diaspora".

This book focuses on one of the largest and most visible group of Americans who live and work abroad: teachers. Zimmerman talks about the distinct differences between those who went abroad in the first half of the 20th century and those who left in the latter half. Though the social, historical and political frameworks changed over time, he notes that there has always been a diversity of opinion and a debate about just what these Americans were doing (or supposed to be doing) abroad. There are things in here that will make Americans wince - not just how some Americans viewed the countries where they worked (especially those that were a part of the American empire like Puerto Rico or the Philippines) in the first part of the 20th century, but also how this continued with a different twist in the second half of the century.

Beyond Borders: Portraits Of American Women From Around The World by My-Linh Kunst
A beautiful book about American women abroad - the photography is stunning.  These are ordinary women who have done (and are still doing) extraordinary things outside the US: Jean Darling (Ireland), Yuzana Khin (Thailand), Gillian McGuire (Italy), Kim Powell, (France), Lucy Laederich (France), Marcia Brittain (Uruguay), and Jane Cabanyes (Spain) to name just a few. The book came out of a FAWCO (Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas) project and is the work of two members: My-Linh Kunst (photography) and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.  A longer Flophouse review of the book can be found here.

The Transplanted Woman by Gabrielle Varro
I read this one many years ago and will read it again and do a longer review. Gabrielle Varro is a CNRS researcher in anthropology and sociology who has studied bi-lingualism, immigration and the sociology of mixed-marriages. This book came out of a study that she conducted with AAWE of French-American marriages and families over generations.  Some of it is about the dynamics of cross-cultural marriages but it also looks at American identity as it is transmitted through the American wives of French men.  What is retained by the second generation and what is lost?  There were some fascinating articles that came out of this research and Arun Kapil and Gabrielle Varro were kind enough to pass some along to me.  A Flophouse discussion of Varro's work can be found here.

**************************************

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich
All about the trauma of losing identity and forming a new one in a new language and country.  Very honest account of how she felt during the process.  A longer Flophouse review of the book is here.

The musings of a "redneck socialist" which are mostly about homeland politics but there are some excellent essays in this book about his time in Belize. His political views are pretty clear:  "Capitalism is dead," he said, "but we still dance with the corpse." Really engaging writer and his expat perspective is one you don't come across everyday.  Just have a look at his bio.  

Tales of Mogadiscio by Iris Kapil
I just finished this book and am still thinking about it.  It's a series of essays written by an American woman in a cross-cultural marriage (her husband is Indian and they got married in the 1950's) as a serial expat and the two years the family spent "on the economy" in the capital city of Somalia in the 1960's.  Very nicely written and beautiful descriptions of what that city was like before the country descended into chaos and became the epitome of a "failed state."  

Kapil retired with her husband in the US and she is now going back over the years she spent abroad and writing about her experiences.  Some beautiful essays there and if you are in a cross-cultural marriage I urge you to read them.  Some of what she says will surely resonate with you and I think she has some insights that are quite brilliant.  For those of you in France she also has essays about their sojourn in that city and the American community there at that time.  Her blog is called Iris sans frontières.

No comments: