English 31AC

Literature of American Cultures: Immigrant Inscriptions

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2014 Ellis, Nadia
TTh 9:30-11 88 Dwinelle

Book List

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi: Americanah; Diaz, Junot: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Kincaid, Jamaica: Lucy; Lee, Chang-Rae: Native Speaker

Other Readings and Media

Short works by: Angel Island poets; Jhumpa Lahiri; Theresa Hak Kyung Cha; Jonathan Lethem; Edwidge Danticat.

Movies: The Jazz Singer (1927); Gentlemen's Agreement (1947); West Side Story (1961); and early short films by Steve McQueen (1993-1997).


A few miles from UC Berkeley’s campus, positioned in the San Francisco Bay near Alcatraz, sits Angel Island, site of a California State Park and one-time “processing center” (1910-1940) for migrants crossing the Pacific into the United States. In 1970 a California Parks Ranger discovered a series of stunning inscriptions on the center’s walls. As it transpires Angel Island had housed thousands of immigrants who, due to several race-based immigration laws (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 chief amongst them), were detained in a dormitory purgatory between citizenship and immigration. During their detention on Angel Island several of these inmates had carved into the walls poems expressing their rage, terror, boredom, and befuddlement at the turn of events in their travel plans.

If Ellis Island figures in the popular imagination as the symbolic portal through which diverse migrants “became American,” Angel Island is something else again. An equally crucial symbol of America’s fraught relationship to immigration and race, the Angel Island poetry inscriptions register migrants’ responses to the arbitrariness of racial discrimination and the underside of the American dream of a migrant melting pot. These inscriptions are potent metaphors: signs that migrants would not remain invisible, even as they were hidden away; testimonies to the powerful relationship between writing and migration.

To live between cultures, to experience confounding processes of racialization, to labor to translate one’s deepest interiority into a foreign language—all these aspects of migration are rich for literary exploration.

This course explores the relationship between literature and racial formation in the 20th- and 21st-century United States. Through close readings of a diverse set of writers—either themselves migrants to the United States or US-born who reflect on the processes and implications of migration—we will think through the meanings and experiences of race in America. One thing that the history of immigration to the United States makes very clear is that race is not a natural, stable, or fixed phenomenon. Instead, as laws changed to include, exclude, or diminish certain populations in the US, so too did ideas of who or what made up a “race.” 

Throughout the semester we will spend time thinking through the implications of the mutability of racial categories by focusing on how race is “inscribed” in narrative fiction, in social discourses, and onto actual human bodies. And we will examine the way literary form provides unique insight into these processes of racialization.

This course satisfies UC Berkeley's American Cultures requirement.

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