STANDARDS' MULTICULTURAL BOOK REVIEWS

 
 

 Thomas KingColleen McElroyPico IyerIshmael ReedVictor Hernández CruzNash CandelariaLawson Fusao InadaChitra Banerjee DivakaruniJoseph GehaShirley Geok-lin LimLaura KalpakianLawrence DiStasiRussel LeongSandra ScofieldNaomi Shihab NyeRobin HemleyFrank Chin
 
     

 

     
 

HOMEGROUND
Edited by Kathryn Trueblood and Linda Stovall


A joint venture of the Before Columbus Foundation and Blue Heron Publishing, Homeground is an effortlessly topical and widely topographical addition to the American Literature Series. Writers already known, and some who are just widening their audiences, appear here in splendid form.

Thomas King's proud and wry short story, "Borders," begins the anthology with an air of simple determination that sets the tone for the book, as a whole. A young boy tells the story of travelling from his native land in what is now called Canada, along with his mother and sister, to visit an older sister in the United States. Having established that the family is not transporting firearms, liquor, fruits, or vegetables, the border guard asks the mother to claim her citizenship. "Blackfoot," is her simple reply. Further authorities are brought out to the car, to question the woman, whose answer never sways. Yet, the family is not permitted to cross the border. For three days they wait, spending time in the duty-free store and sleeping in the car, until at last press arrives, and the young narrator must consider "how it felt to be an Indian without a country." In the end, the question is answered in terms beyond the bounds of "borders," as in so many works collected here.

Everything here is good; no exceptions.

Colleen McElroy's "Going Home: A Poetic Memoir" gives new life to the prose poetry stylings popularized by writers like Michelle Cliff and Audre Lorde. Here, McElroy's prose gives a rapture to the genre.

For Pico Iyer, in his essay "Home is Every Place," transatlantic travel and culture waves are represented by icons of the fast-food, music, and sports entertainment industries, in an off-the-cuff homage to being a legal alien: "I have learned, in fact, to love foreignness. In any place I visit, I have the privileges of an outsider: I am an object of interest, and even fascination; I am a person set apart, able to enjoy the benefits of the place without paying the taxes. And the places themselves seem glamorous to me, romantic, as seen through foreign eyes: distance on both sides lends enchantment. Policemen let me off speeding tickets, girls want to hear the story of my life, pedestrians will gladly point me to the nearest Golden Arches."

There are voices of dissonances to that view expressed by Iyer, of course; for many, home is a navigable strip of land or concrete. Perhaps Ishmael Reed will seem an unlikely candidate for nostalgia, for readers familiar with the writer's prolific canon, but in this anthology, an edgy tenderness moves Reed's essay "My Oakland, There is a There There": "In a time when dour thinkers view alienation and insensitivity toward the plight of others as characteristics of the modern condition, I think I'm lucky to live in a neighborhood where people look out for one another. A human neighborhood."

Puerto Rico's rich flourish of urbanity and mountain regions fills most every work by Victor Hernández Cruz; in his "Home is Where the Music Is," the politics of fabric, language, and song are equally rooted in Puerto Rican soil. A similar politic of idenity and land infuses Nash Candelaria's, "Memoirs of a Bourgeios Chicano Writer" -- and yes, the author works to untangle the apparent oxymoron in his title throughout the essay.

The glaring beauty of Lawson Fusao Inada's poem cycle "Hiroshi from Hiroshima" is in the cadence of fishes, machinery, and the exceptional vehicles of immigration, including language and labor. Love of self and selflessness is the quandary here, as in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's "Leaving Yuba City," a micro-short story of an adolescent girl's longing for place and worth.

In this vein also appears "Homesickness," touching short fiction by Joseph Geha that begins, "They are second- and third-generation, and maybe they have watched too many TV documentaries. They envision some gaunt greenhorn in an Ellis Island overcoat, but this is 1975, and what they find is a little fellow, dressed as if he's just stepped out of a Disco club -- platform shoes, Flamenco snug trousers, a glossy shirt, electric blue with enormous collar points. ...His cousins trade glances. Stylish in Beirut, maybe, but this is America, Toledo, Ohio." The insistent tone of acculturation grows weary, but Geha maintains the underlying piquant humor of this story to its end: "Always, one can find a sports program in America, in the middle of the night, even. Thre is an all-night radio station in Detriot that rebroadcasts entire games all week long. It is the American way, this, the cheering of great crowds in the middle of the night."

Shirley Geok-lin Lim, one of the leading American writers of the decade, asks the central question of the anthology straight up: "How does one make a home?" Her answer: "Sometimes I think too much is made of homes, as if because we equate having nothing with being nothing, we burrow deeper into the stuffing of sofas and beds. Too much can be made of homeland. Stories we tell often take their identity from a piece of soil, and the strongest stories may leave us still standing in the scene of our powerlessness." Lim's "Immigrant Mother" exercises this cautionary and compelling logic throughout the personal narrative and, true to form, the author does not commission cultural clichés.

One of the most heated terms in recent memory, "Ethnic Cleansing" is also the title of Laura Kalpakian's exceptional narrative, which poses a striking call-and-response at its close: "Can the past be cherished if it is not preserved? Can it be preserved if it is not cherished? Can it be either, if no words are fastened to it for shape and texture? I would say probably yes to all these questions. I would say for my family, the notion of homeground was not at all solid like the real estate they bought in Los Angeles, but home ground up, carried like sand or lint or ash, something gritty and secret, caught in your clothes, in the cache-corsets of your mind, the undeclared regions of the heart, clinging there indelibly, no matter how much hot water you use to wash it off."

The voices of ancestors echo immediatly, too, in "Home, Not Home," by Lawrence DiStasi. "'what the hell are we going to do,' i could hear my mother wail each night. 'don't worry about it, damn it, i'll take care of it,' he roared. and he did." Living in an extended family situation with his aunt, the narrator here evokes the conflict of class distinctions: while studying Latin, a young boy faces, too, another knowledge, "the italian kind that understands shame." Stylistically, the story is presented in all lower-case, in a manner that defies any hint of laziness or whimsy; rather, DiStasi's work travels the diminutive and the diminished, drawing a thematic conclusion more final than formal grammar and punctuation.

Defiance borne of culturally-specific resentments are the focus, too, of Russel Leong's "Paper Houses" and Sandra Scofield's "Grudges: A Memoir." Each embraces separate conflicts of faith: Leong's acerbic sarcasm opens his narrative of finding Vietnamese Buddhism "on a whim" at a "fabled Malibu retreat," where the participants are mostly White or mixed White-Asian couples: "average age, thirty-eight," the narrator reports. "The men were mostly blonde Nordic types"; with Asian American females who showed no hint of "obvious make-up over their glowing New Age complexions." This sulking introduction is followed, in marvelous, simple turns, by the narrator's disclosures of his own youthful prostitutions, and of desires, need, loss. It is fair to say that this work can literally be read as an eye-opening experience. In similar vein, Scofield's contribution to the anthology traces the web of religion, family, competition, exile, and redemption, in stunning form. "I knew someone had to die," she relates, "ever to resolve the differences that boxed in my life. It was a question of who, and when. I knew it would not be me."

Leaving the intricate network of family tradition to find home also bears on Naomi Shihab Nye's "My Brother's House" and Robin Hemley's "Family Legends: It's Impossible to Please the Gods and Relatives." Reconciliation is at work here, too, as in the memoirs by Leong and Scofield.

These penultimate selections give testament to the craft of ordering an anthology -- a challenge to which the editors of Homeground have risen mightily. For what else besides the contemplative tones of Nye and the grounded seriousness of Hemley could prepare the reader for this volume's final entry, Frank Chin's "Bulletproof Buddhist"? A sharply stylized series of vignettes about the urban condition for folks of color in San Diego, "Bulletproof Buddhist" does justice to the hometown of this homegirl. What else have we come to expect from Chin? Now, we are pleased to expect the same from Blue Heron Publishing. Any questions? Buy the book.

 

Canéla A. Jaramillo

Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo
Editor-in-Chief
STANDARDS

 
     
     

 

 

PHOTO CREDITS
Photos copyright to the authors, except as follows: photo of Sandra Scofield © Mary Economidy; photo of Frank Chin © Connie Hwang Photo; photo of Pico Iyer © Tu Ying Ming; photo of Laura Kalapakian © Jeanne McGee; photo of Colleen McElroy © Randy Rowland; photo of Naomi Shihab Nye © Amy Arbus; photo of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni © Dru Banerjee; photo of Lawson Inada © Paul Schraub.

Used by permission.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 
 
     
 

 Review © 1997 by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo
 

 

 

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