115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Second Generation Immigrant Autobiography of the Late 20th Century: Family, Identity, and Assimilation    

Ashley Garver, University of Nevada, Reno

Through an examination of three second generation immigrant autobiographers (Robert Laxalt, Maxine Hong Kingston, and John Phillip Santos) this paper argues that the legacy of immigration shapes the second generation’s relationship with nature by calling into question who owns and can lay claim to the American landscape.   


Attention to issues of borders, displacement, and migration in the study of autobiography has opened up a promising space for critics to engage with immigrant authors and the immigration experience through texts that challenge and encroach on the question of what it means to be American. However, few studies have considered explicitly how second generation immigrant autobiography fits into this paradigm. Second generation immigrant authors tend to fall under the purview of “ethnic literature.” Accordingly, studies on memoir produced by the children of immigrants are often approached as considerations of how particular ethnic groups respond to the question of what it means to be American. Critics of ethnic autobiography use explorations of cultural heritage and the influence of this heritage on the autobiographical subject’s sense of self in order to observe themes and patterns specific to particular cultural groups. In this paper, I chose to move away from the tight categorization of specific ethnic and cultural groups in order to consider more broadly how autobiography produced by second generation immigrants tells the story of immigration and how these stories influence identity formation.
American born authors from different ethnic backgrounds are rarely brought into conversation with each other under the topic of immigration and as a consequence, second generation immigrant autobiography has not been adequately addressed as it relates to the studies of place. This paper looks at three texts produced by second generation immigrants: Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land, Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, and John Phillip Santos’ Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation. All three authors in this study write in and about the American West, but their texts focus on the influence of family and immigration history in shaping their sense of identity. Although the families of these authors come from different nations, settle in America for different reasons, and possess vastly different histories, the authors’ status as second generation immigrants unites them with the common goal of understanding their identity in relation to the family, in particular in how their family came to be American. This line of questioning draws attention to how second generation authors depart from the first generation, but most notably the dialogue between these texts reveals how second generation immigrant autobiography engages with the topics of place, belonging, and ownership in relation to the American landscape.