from sea to shining sea

Power of Prose

Arab American &
South Asian Voices

American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways.  Christa Smith Anderson explains that Arab Americans and South Asians are speaking up in new American writing, reflecting changing waves of immigrants.

American literature, and the voices and languages it encompasses, expands as the United States becomes home to an ever-greater number of ethnic minorities. Hamod (Sam)[1]  and Lisa Suhair Majaj are (among others) bringing Arab-American voices to literature. Dying with the Wrong Name, a poem by Hamod (Sam), is dedicated to “all the immigrants who lost their names at Ellis Island.” The poem reclaims their original names:

Na'aim Jazeeny, Sine Hussein, Im’a Brahim, Hussein Hamode Subh’, all lost when “A man in a

dark blue suit at Ellis Island says, with

tiredness and authority, ‘You only need two

names in America’ and suddenly - as cleanly

as the air, you've lost

your name.”[2]

Latha Viswanathan is among a growing number of writers incorporating language from India into American literature. Viswanathan’s short story Cool Wedding appears in the 2003 edition of the anthology, New Stories from the South.

“Dear Lakshmi,” the story begins. “In the summer, this place is like India: Bombay, Madras, only fancy name Houston-Pouston, America,” Shoba writes in her letter. She goes on to tell Lakshmi of “putting kumkum tikka on forehead,”[3] an impressive festival lunch in a house with “real kolam design at the entrance,”[4] making “condensed milk payasam for desert,”[5] and telling Lakshmi's brother-in-law, “‘Arre baba, do some sit-ups, some exercise...’”[6]

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni offers historical perspective on Indian immigrants in America with her poem, “The Brides Come to Yuba City,” which includes the following description:

Behind us,

the black wedding trunks, sharp-edged

shiny, stenciled with strange men-names

our bodies do not fit into: Mrs. Baldev Johl, Mrs. Kanwal Bains[7]

A footnote explains the history behind the scene presented in the poem, which places, early in the 20th century, a young woman in Yuba City, an area “settled largely by Indian railroad workers” who were confined by immigration restrictions that prevented them from bringing families to the United States or from returning to India to marry.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Latha Viswanathan, An excerpt from the author's short story, Cool Wedding.
  • Gillan, Maria Mazziotti, and Jennifer Gillan, eds. Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Back to Essay

Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.

Back to Top

  1. Sam Hamod is a Lebanese American who was born in Indiana. He received a Ph.D. from the Writer’s Workshop of the University of Iowa, and is currently director of the National Communications Institute in Washington, D.C. He has published eight books of poetry, including Dying with the Wrong Name (1980), from which "Leaves" is selected
  2. Hamod (Sam). "Dying with the Wrong Name: Three parts of an unfinished poem." Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multi-Cultural Poetry.  New York: Penguin Books,1994.130.
  3. Viswanathan, Latha. New Stories from the South . Ed. Shannon Ravenel.  Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003.45
  4. Viswanathan, p.49
  5. Viswanathan, p.50
  6. Viswanathan, p.51
  7. Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multi-Cultural Poetry.  New York: Penguin Books,1994. 23-24.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett


Rosalind P.

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Corporation of New York