American Odysseys: Writing By New Americans

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

This new anthology features the work of twenty-two writers and poets who are recent immigrants to the United States. The remarkable thing about them is how well they write in their second language, English.

The work that Dalkey Archive has culled from the 2011 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature--restricted to non-native writers under forty--includes novel excerpts, short stories and poetry.

One of the writers, the novelist Laleh Khadivi, an Iranian Kurd, believes that immigrant writers will change the face of American literature. "The twenty-first century will see an unprecedented movement of individuals, families, lifestyles, religions, currency, ideas, and dreams, and as I too am one of those nearly 250 million people who will die far from where they were born, my author's eye is drawn to the human mosaic forever shifting in and around me," Khadivi writes.

Khadivi is represented with a poem and three stories, one of which, The Initiate, deals powerfully and evocatively with a Kurdish rite-of-passage, the circumcision of a young man.

Among other personal favorites of mine were the poet Ilya Kaminsky, who left Odessa in 1993 and published his first American collection eleven years later, and Dinaw Mengetsu, who fled the Ethiopian police state in 1980 and ended up in Peoria, Illinois, where he soon began writing fiction and journalism. An excerpt from his second novel, How to Read the Air, is carried in AMERICAN ODYSSEYS (Mengetsu won the Vilcek Prize for this work).

In his foreword to AMERICAN ODYSSEYS, Charles Simic quotes Mengetsu: "Refugees. How could you not love them? Who else has it worse?"

(Dalkey Archive, 600 pages, ppbk; $16.)