First-year seminar reflects upon and explores immigrant literature

by Lauren Segal | 4/9/19 2:00am

The first-year seminar ENGL 53.10: “Immigrant Women Writing in America” provides students with the opportunity to reflect on their own experiences through film, novels, short stories and poetry. English professor Melissa Zeiger offers the class to all students, but caters the literary content of the first-year seminar toward the goal of helping first-year students establish their skills as writers and find their bearings in their new college environment. The class studies a combination of media, including film and written work from immigrant women writers who recount their experiences in the United States. While the students study the stories of renowned writers, they are also encouraged to reflect upon their own experiences with immigration and how immigration has shaped their environments.“Immigrant Women Writing in America” consolidates written and visual works that touch upon themes of race, familial relations and sexuality. 

“The class deals with both practical issues and emotional issues, relationships between parents and children across the immigration divide and encounters with racism and sexuality in this new context,” Zeiger said. 

The modes of representation used to express the immigrant women’s experiences studied in this seminar further disclose the historical and literary contexts in which these works were created. Zeiger said she seeks to examine remarkable literature while providing students with a space in which they can begin to unpack their own experience coming to Dartmouth. According to Zeiger, she began teaching this class to expose students to writing from immigrant women and to encourage students to draw inferences and take inspiration from these writers. 

“A lot of the best literature coming down the pipe was by foreign-born writers,” Zeiger said. “[The class is] a way for students to have an intellectual form of processing what they were experiencing,” Zeiger said.

Ashley Sohn ’21 reiterated the relevance of the class, adding that she felt the need to explore her own experiences. 

“In light of the current political climate, I think it’s important to see how different people bring their own culture to this country and how that impacts the arts in the United States,” Sohn said. 

In their stories of immigration, women bear the responsibility of preserving culture. According to Zeiger, what makes the literary creations of immigrant women so fascinating is their hitsorically integral role in keeping culture alive. 

“So many particular burdens fall on the women in the context of immigration: doing all the housework, raising children, working outside the home,” Zeiger said. “Women are often expected to be the carriers of culture.”

According to Vivian Tran ’22, a student currently enrolled in the class, in the first week, the class focused on analyzing director Meredith Monk’s award-winning film “Ellis Island.” Students examined cinematic elements such as sound effects and coloring, and were pushed to deduce how they might represent the immigrant experience and the historical narrative of the film.

“It was a very enlightening experience, as I had never had the opportunity to examine films and have to pay such close attention to subtle details, such as how the camera moves and how scenes transition,” said Tran. 

According to Sohn, the class also emphasizes the subtle political themes present in the writing of immigrant women. Although certain narratives may at first seem superficial, class analyses reveal the struggles of immigrant women moving to the United States and what these women were forced to leave behind, according to Sohn.

Over the course of the term, the class plans to cover literary works including Julia Alvarez’s “The Other Side/El Otro Lado,” Jamaica Kincaid’s “Lucy,” Achy Obejas’s short story “Wrecks,” Edwidge Danticat’s “Krik? Krak!” and many of Grace Paley’s essays, short stories and poetry. Although “Immigrant Women Writing in America” delves into a technical analysis of these literary and cinematic works, the class ultimately maintains its aim to encourage reflection and introspection within students. Through the study of the artistic creations of immigrant women, students say they feel this class has allowed them to reflect upon how the immigrant experience has affected their personal lives and that of their families.