chapter  3
13 Pages

Empowerment, YA Immigrant Literature, and Girls

ByRosemary Horowitz, Joanne Brown

In the last two decades, YAL has increasingly embraced narratives about adolescents immigrating to the United States. The stories of young people leaving their native lands and adjusting to a new country-with all the complexities that such changes involve-have proven compelling to young American readers, girls perhaps in particular. In her seminal text on American female adolescents, Mary Pipher uses the metaphor “a new land” to analyze the changes in young girls that leave their parents baffled, and the girls themselves susceptible to all kinds of pressures. Pipher is referring, of course, to a figurative new land, but the challenges of adolescence are heightened when the new land is a literal one. It can be argued that immigration to this country began when people crossed the

existing land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. One could also argue that immigration began with the pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic to arrive at Plymouth Rock, or perhaps with the settlers who established Jamestown.1 However, in his introduction to Immigrant Voices, Gordon Hutner argues that the initial newcomers to what would become the United States were more emigrants than immigrants. As Hutner defines the difference, the former are “best understood by where they are coming from,” motivated by a desire to depart their native lands rather than by a wish to settle in a specific country. In contrast, Hutner says that immigrants are “more fully characterized by where it is they are going. … Most [early newcomers] to America came out of [a] desire to leave home, not out of a desire, specifically, to be in America,” and “perhaps only when America could offer the benefits of being the United States does it make more useful cultural sense” to speak of immigration (x). This distinction is useful in identifying the beginning of immigration to the

United States. In Hutner’s definition, it began with the notion that people could agree to govern themselves under laws established for the common good, a belief that decisively established itself in the nineteenth century when the young

American states achieved a firm identity as the United States. It is important to note that Hutner excludes Africans who were brought to America as slaves. According to Louis Mendoza and S. Shankar in their introduction to Crossing into America: The New Literature of Immigration, mass immigration to America began more than half a century after the nation’s founding, more specifically in the 1840s when immigrants set off for “a new life in a new country with new laws,” these immigrants being “individuals with varying degrees of ability to choose to make the journey” (xvi). The momentous decision to emigrate severs the travelers from their traditional,

accustomed worlds and transplants them in a strange new world, strangers among strangers with strange customs. Given the difficulties of immigration, what would prompt people to pull up roots and cross a treacherous ocean to an uncertain destination? Their stories are stories of ordinary people made extraordinary by undertaking an extraordinary experience. Although the immigrants came in waves of groups with shared ethnicity, for example, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews of Eastern Europe, these groups consisted of individuals with distinct motives and coping skills. Roger Daniels puts the complexity clearly: “[W]e must remember that migration is carried on by individual immigrants who, although their actions may conform to larger patterns, are each acting on what, to them, is a unique combination of motives” (22). Daniels relies upon “a few special words to facilitate description of some of the

major factors in migration” (17). The chief factors are push, pull, and means. This push-pull theory has become a classic explanation of immigration theory, which has been discussed in works by scholars such as Ronald Takaki, L. Edward Purcell, Thomas Dublin, as well as Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco. Specifically, push refers to those circumstances in the immigrants’ native land that encourage or necessitate immigration, such as politics and economics. Pull refers to those attractive features in the migrants’ destination, such as improved standard of living, promises of political or religious freedom, and climate-or, as Ronald Takaki defines it, “America’s demand for labor as well as … their own dreams for a better life” (12). Although these terms seem to imply that immigrants are objects, acted upon rather than acting from their own sense of agency, in deciding to emigrate they control to some degree the shape of their voyage, for example, where, when, and how, and the various outcomes, dependent to a large degree upon the immigrants themselves. Daniels maintains that most push and pull forces are, in the final analysis, eco-

nomic, which means that the push and pull categories are not mutually exclusive. He contrasts the life in Europe that the immigrants have chosen to leave behindstructures that ensured ongoing, inherited poverty with little or no chance of upward mobility, and oppression that affected, to single out the most egregious examples, the Irish, Eastern European Jews, the Armenians, and the Poles-with the freedom and prosperity promised by the land across the sea. The third term, means, is less often cited in analyzing immigrant histories than

push and pull, but it, too, may yield valuable insights. Daniels defines it as “shorthand for the ability to migrate”: affordable transportation, minor or no restraints on

leaving the country of origin, and “the absence of effective barriers at the destination” (17). All of these terms are useful in considering perspectives in immigration literature for young adults. Journeys as quests have long provided literary plot structures whose central

conflicts involve a search for self-identity, a common theme in YAL. Certainly, such literature about immigrants and immigration portrays its young characters in some depth and allows readers to understand not only the motives that prompted those individuals to leave their native lands but also, often, the emotional ambivalence resulting from this rupture with an established way of life. Immigration narratives inevitably put special emphasis on this theme as the characters struggle to determine who they are as they adjust to new cultures and social expectations. Furthermore, YAL often strives to be optimistic, and YA tales of immigration are similar in that they almost always lead to increased maturity and self-awareness. The work of Robert Cormier is one important exception. Keeping in mind the basic considerations of immigration, this chapter examines

four novels that detail the situations that prompted girls and their families to leave their native lands and discusses how the girls coped with the departures, the difficulties of the journey to the United States, and the adjustment to life in the new country. It traces in two pairs of novels the development of the heroines as they grow increasingly empowered by their situations rather than disabled by them. The first set of novels comprises Nory Ryan’s Song and its sequel Maggie’s Door by Patricia Reilly Giff. This is the story of twelve-year-old Nory Ryan and her childhood years in the Irish village of Maiden Bay and her journey to America in the mid1880s. The potato famine and the resultant starvation in Ireland push the Ryan family’s move to America. The second set is Double Crossing and its sequel Cursing Columbus by Eve Tal. The books tell the story of Binyumin Balaban and his elevenyear-old daughter Raizel on their journey from Russia to America at the turn of the twentieth century and their eventual reunion with the rest of their immigrant family in New York. The members of the Balaban family leave their country as a result of the pogroms against the Jews; thus their immigrant story is also one of push. The development of the heroine in the immigration story may be seen as a through line by which American adolescent girls may reflect on their own circumstances as they embark on personal journeys to womanhood. The concept of empowerment is central to understanding the heroines of these

two novel sets. Although there are many theories of empowerment, this chapter relies on the work of the psychologists Lauren Benet Cattaneo and Aliya R. Chapman, who have developed a comprehensive model that has a great deal of explanatory value. Cattaneo and Chapman define empowerment as:

an iterative process by which a person who lacks power sets a personally meaningful goal toward increasing power, takes action toward that goal, and observes and reflects on the impact of this action, drawing on his or her evolving self-efficacy, knowledge and competence related to the goal. (647)

Of the three aspects of empowerment listed, Cattaneo and Chapman consider selfefficacy to be the central one. A working definition of self-efficacy is the belief in one’s abilities to achieve one’s goals. The goal may be in service of the individual or the collective. In either case, achieving goals requires action. With regard to the heroines in the novels discussed, the types of actions the girls exhibit include acting purposefully, thinking independently, exhibiting confidence, countering role expectations, questioning conventional wisdom, and taking charge. To Cattaneo and Chapman, the empowerment process is a dynamic one. Regarding the two protagonists Nory and Raizel, this means that sometimes they are proactive and sometimes they are reactive. Cattaneo and Chapman further define empowerment as an iterative action-reflective process, which is a process in which one acts and then considers one’s actions, and then acts again. This action-reflection relationship appears in all of the novels considered.