An American Writer
When I left California it was warm. The plane headed east, against the grain of America, into the dark.
Nevada. Utah. Long shadows over Utah. Deep purple wells in the Rockies which seemed inverted
The Asian businessman on the airplane borrowed my newspaper for a time. The stewardess, a black
woman, brought us dinner. In Hartford, Connecticut, the blond lady at the Avis counter looked at me
through green eyes. From where? Poland? Scotland? "Patty" -- the label on her costume.
I end up here after a long journey talking about ethnicity and the American writer. Which is to say my
ethnicity and the way it figures in my work as a writer.
Utah. Colorado. Nebraska. . . . The country slipping into darkness as I rode the jet stream east. Looking at
the clouds far below, I remembered the Dutch sailors at the close of
The Great Gatsby
, staring west, their
Shall I use this American voice of mine to speak of my difference from you'? A few years ago, I published
an autobiography, called
Hunger of Memory
, describing what happened to me when I was a boy; how I
grew up Spanish-speaking (the son of Mexican immigrants); how Spanish remained my primary language
until I was seven years old; how I rarely ventured among the gringos, feared their voices; and how, when
the time came for school, I was terrified to find myself in a classroom, to hear my name pronounced in
American for the very first time.
I have written about my initial fear of English; how I clung to the skirts of Spanish. For six months the
problem student, unresponsive, watching the clock on the wall. High-strung. Downcast. ("Stand up," the
Irish nun said. "Speak up and don't just talk to me; say it to all the boys and girls.") I remained silent.
Midway in my second year, my teachers and my parents conspired. My mother and father began to use
English at home. At school the nuns insisted I use public English, language addressed to an audience of
"boys and girls."
I have written about the slow, consequent change; my emergence as a brat. I determined to learn English,
initially, as a way of hurting my parents, and I have written about how that determination led me out of my
own house and over to yours. We lay on the floor, watching television together. I watched you. I sang your
songs. I laughed at your jokes. I learned your games. I lingered until your mom invited me to stay for
dinner. One day I lost my accent.
In certain ways, mine is a conventional American story. For generations, this has been the pattern:
immigrants have arrived in the city, and the children of immigrant parents have gone off to school and
come home speaking an American English.
Colorado. Iowa. Illinois.