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uconn_reads_logo_newThe University of Connecticut’s UConn Reads program has been created to bring together the University community – from students, faculty, and staff to alumni and friends of UConn, as well as citizens of Connecticut – for a far-reaching and engaging dialogue centered on a book suggested by the community.

We invite you to join us in reading this year’s book of choice and, over the coming year, participating in the conversation through an exciting series of discussion groups and other events and activities hosted by the University. We look forward to what is sure to be a stimulating and fulfilling conversation.

 

 

UConn Reads Call: Sharing Your Immigrant Stories

The UConn Reads Selection Committee is launching a new initiative inviting members of the university community to submit short pieces (500 words) about their experiences with immigration and/or immigrant pasts. Following a brief review process, the selected pieces will be featured on the UConn Reads website. Please direct all submissions and queries to Cathy Schlund-Vials (cathy.schlund-vials@uconn.edu).

UConn Reads: An Immigrant’s Legacy

By Tom Breen (University Communications)

(Originally published in UConn Today on December 12, 2017: https://today.uconn.edu/2017/12/an-immigrants-legacy/)

This year’s UConn Reads selection, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection ‘The Refugees,’ affords an opportunity for the university community to reflect upon and debate the hot-button issue of immigration. As part of this, UConn deputy spokesperson Tom Breen shares this reflection on his great-grandfather, an immigrant from Ireland.

This is a picture of my great-grandfather, John Evangelist Breen. He brought his family to the United States from a small village in County Kerry, Ireland, not as a refugee, but as a fugitive from justice: my great-grandfather left Ireland because he shot and killed a man.

There are always complex reasons for things like that, but the proximate cause was that he carried out the killing at the behest of a secret revolutionary organization called the Irish Republican Brotherhood. A cousin in Dublin doing genealogical research brought up the story when she contacted me in the summer of 2014: he kept his gun hidden in the thatched roof of his cottage, apparently.

Before he died, my great-grandfather wrote a long, detailed, self-justifying account of the killing, which is how I learned most of the details. The man he shot worked for a landlord who owned residential properties in Castlemaine, a village in the southeastern corner of the country, where my grandfather grew up in a household of 21 in a building about the size of a two-car garage. The landlord had ordered a number of families to be evicted from their cottages. The IRB objected to this, and my great-grandfather’s gun was the instrument of their objection.

Fleeing Ireland after the killing, he came to the United States with his wife and children. Their first language was Irish and his most prominent skill was evading the police. They eventually settled on the South Side of Chicago, where they had more children. My great-grandfather got a job as a streetcar conductor and left his family a pension when he died; his formidable wife wore black every day after his death, and raised six children. One of their sons was awarded the Silver Star for his service in World War II, and was present at the liberation of Dachau. One of their grandchildren won an Academy Award for a screenplay about that famous Irish-built ship, the Titanic.

It has become common, in the ongoing debate about immigration, to characterize the people arriving in the United States today as fundamentally different from earlier generations of immigrants, who are idealized as plucky, hardworking, and eager to assimilate. The unspoken implication of this version of history is that these immigrants were also white, and therefore better suited to become Americans.

That this was not, in fact, the case is important to emphasize when seeing the past used as a cudgel in today’s debates. It was, after all, a son of Polish immigrants who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, just as it was Mario Buda, an Italian immigrant to Boston, who is credited with inventing the car bomb, the prototype of which he detonated on Wall Street on Sept. 16, 1920, killing 38 people. You can still see damage from the blast in the walls of some of the buildings there today.

Those earlier generations of immigrants now seem like ideal aspirants to American citizenship only because they were allowed to come here in the first place, to live their lives and raise their children and build their institutions and join pre-existing ones, to change the country and be changed by it. Our rosy view of that experience is all hindsight.

But the people today who proudly describe themselves as Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American, and so forth are the descendants of immigrants who seemed just as foreign to the Anglo-Saxon Protestants of their day as people from Syria or Latin America seem to those same hyphenated Americans today.

Make no mistake, those earlier generations of “real” Americans – the New England Yankees and the New York Dutch and the stolid burghers of the Midwest – were fearful of the people coming from Ireland, Italy, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Russia, and beyond, but that fear did not prevail. And because it didn’t, we have the country that exists today, and which we take for granted, as if it had been formed without struggle and at no cost to anyone.

My great-grandfather was about as bad a prospect as you could imagine for citizenship; an impoverished member of a revolutionary organization who had killed a man. Today’s opponents of immigration would probably consider him “Exhibit A.”

But he and his wife came here anyway, and did well for themselves and their children, who in turn did well for themselves and for their children. We’re now on the fourth generation of descendants of John and Mary Breen, whose progeny have included a doctor, a union leader, many teachers at all levels of education, and people who have made intangible contributions to their neighborhoods, their towns, and their country. You’ll forgive my immodesty if I say the United States would be slightly poorer without them. I’m very grateful to live in the country that gave them a chance, and hope it remains a place of refuge for people like them from all over the world, as long as it exists.

UConn Reads 2017-18 Selection: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees 

Vietnamese 'boat people' refugees huddle together on a tarp as they are airlifted out of the sea during the Vietnam War, 1960s. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

By Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (Chair, UConn Reads Selection Committee)

(Originally published in UConn Today on July 18, 2017:  http://today.uconn.edu/2017/07/uconn-reads-2017-18-viet-thanh-nguyens-refugees/

Though we are widely recognized as a nation of immigrants, the migration of peoples to the United States has consistently occupied a vexed place in U.S. politics, not least in the current political climate. This year’s UConn Reads selection, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection ‘The Refugees,’ affords an opportunity for the University community to reflect upon and debate the hot-button issue of immigration.

We often hear that the United States is a “nation of immigrants,” but it may be more accurate to say the country is a “land of refugees.” Refugees – individuals who are the involuntary inheritors of wartime displacements, natural disasters, and state-authorized subjection – have played a key role in American history. From the forced migration of enslaved peoples to the urgent movement of Puritans seeking freedom from religious persecution; from the involuntary relocation of Native subjects during the 19th century to the post-World War II resettlement of Holocaust survivors in the 20th; from those impacted by Cold War conflicts (in Asia and Latin America) to those escaping the realities of the ongoing War on Terror, the line between immigrant and refugee is more often than not blurred.

Although immigrants and refugees are often considered marginal in mainstream discussions of who is and is not a “true” American, their – our – stories of migration, acculturation, and assimilation are central. Many of us have in common an ancestor who traveled from “over there” to “over here,” and the histories that brought us into being as Americans, whether as refugees or immigrants, are inextricably tied to the desire to seek (voluntarily or involuntarily) a better life. Our language and literature are replete with references to “cities upon a hill,” “promised lands,” “asylum states,” unparalleled opportunity, and unmatched possibility.

As Harvard historian Oscar Handlin argued in his seminal work The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, the history of the United States is first and foremost a longue durée story of migrations from all points north, south, east, and west.

Although Handlin’s book emphasizes “immigrants,” its very title – The Uprooted – evokes images of those forced to leave their homelands. It is surely no coincidence that work was published in 1951, the same year the United Nations held its Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which formalized a now-familiar definition of “refugee-ness.”

According to the Convention, a refugee is “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Since 1980, U.S. policies involving asylum have largely adhered to the UN definition of who is considered a refugee. Yet U.S. immigration and refugee policy has vacillated between periods of openness and eras of prohibition. For instance, 10 years before Ellis Island opened its proverbial doors to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the United States passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which initially targeted laborers and was eventually extended to other Chinese migrants. Passed in response to anxieties involving the supposed ubiquity of Chinese workers and the perceived threat against white working-class laborers, the Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed for nearly 60 years, until 1943. Such immigration restrictions were by no means limited to the Chinese: at various points in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japanese, Korean, South Asian, Latin American, Southern European, and Eastern European immigrants were also targeted with quotas and increased regulation.

The most restrictive of such pieces of legislation – the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 – was, as David Wyman compellingly argues in The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, responsible for the denial of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. It was not until 1965 that the quota system concretized by the Johnson-Reed Act was eventually overturned by the passage of the Hart-Celler Act, which removed all racial and nation-state requirements for immigration, reflecting the aims of the mid-century civil rights movement. Since the Hart-Celler Act was passed, more than 48 million immigrants have gained legal entry to the United States, and it is credited with changing the demographic face of America by paving the way for the first mass migration of immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

Despite the openness of this act, immigration (along with refugee asylum) remains a contested issue. As President Trump’s travel ban against refugees takes effect, and details of the proposed wall with Mexico and debates over what to do with the nation’s estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants make clear, Americans are divided on whether the United States should be either a “nation of immigrants” or a “country of refugees.” In the context of competing calls to close our border and open our doors, the UConn Reads Committee selected Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees as this year’s book. The Refugees focuses its narrative attention on men and women displaced from wartime Saigon and resettled in California who, until now, have remained voiceless. In The Refugees, according to a New York Times book review, Nguyen “gives flesh” to South Vietnamese refugees in a manner that prompts the reader to “lean in more closely, listening beyond what the refugees say to step into their skins.”

Timely and provocative, The Refugees is very much a work that speaks to the mixed feelings associated with migration and resettlement. I encourage you to read the book and engage with UConn Reads activities over the year ahead.

Immigration is the Next UConn Reads Theme (2017-2018)

Cathy Schlund-Vials as a baby, right, with her twin brother and mother. (Courtesy of Cathy Schlund-Vials)

By Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (Chair, UConn Reads Selection Committee)

(Originally published in UConn Today on April 11, 2017. The link to that story is as follows: http://today.uconn.edu/2017/04/immigration-next-years-uconn-reads-theme/)/ 

Immigration has been selected as the UConn Reads theme for the upcoming academic year, following on the previous two years’ themes of race and religion. The UConn Reads Committee is now seeking nominations for a book or other form of text on the theme, “The Conundrum and Challenge of Immigration.” You can make a nomination here.

There are currently 41 million first-generation immigrants living in the United States. I am one of them. Although I have held U.S. citizenship since 1979, I am still part of, and affected by, the swirling debate surrounding immigration. Here is the story of how I came to be here.

I was born in Udon Thani, Thailand on Sept. 2, 1974. My biological father was an American G.I. who was stationed at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in the northwest corner of the country near the Thai/Laos border. Although the base is now largely forgotten, it once served as the primary hub for the CIA-owned Air American fleet, which carried out covert campaigns in Southeast Asia. It also included the black helicopters that landed atop various buildings in Saigon during the final days of the Vietnam War. On April 29 and 30, 1975, Air America carried 1,373 Americans and 5,595 individuals of other nationalities out of Vietnam as part of the largest evacuation in human history during the chaotic days, weeks, and months after the North Vietnamese overtook the South Vietnam capital.

What follows is a fragmented history of how I and my twin brother came into being. My biological mother was a Cambodian who was married to a Thai pilot. She and her five children had accompanied her husband to Udon Thani, where she met and had an affair with my biological father. I never knew my biological mother, but I can imagine the difficulty of her circumstance. With few resources, enmeshed in familial conflict, and facing the physical reality of two mixed-race children born out of wedlock, she quickly put us up for adoption. At the same time, a mixed-race couple – a third-generation German Scots-Irish American G.I. .and his first-generation Japanese wife – also living at Udon Thani were looking to adopt.

By February 1975, my adoptive parents – the Schlunds – would finally have the family they had spent 13 years of their marriage searching for. Two months later, we left Thailand. Because my father was career military, we moved around: we lived in Florida, England, and Georgia, before we settled in Austin, Texas. In 1979, my brother, my mother, and I became naturalized U.S. citizens. I remember my father telling me I could be anything I wanted to be in the United States, with one notable exception: due to my citizenship status, I could never be president. Aside from that, I was raised with the concept that the United States was first and foremost a nation of immigrants. At a relatively young age, I even thought that my immigrant background made me more American than my native-born peers.

Over time, however, as an immigrant and an Asian American, I have come to realize that while we may consider the United States a “nation of immigrants,” it has also been a country of profound nativism and at times xenophobia. For example, attempts were made to exclude the Chinese in the 19th century, and Southern and Eastern European immigrants were restricted in the early 20th century. In both past and present, the divide between native-born and foreign-born is at the fore in debates as to whether or not we – as a country – should open doors or build walls. On a more personal basis, tensions around immigration have come to the surface in painful exchanges, when strangers have told me to “go back to where I come from,” or assume that English is my second language.

The “immigration question” remains unresolved, despite declarations that as Americans, we are “all,” by way of our families’ past history, immigrants. From restrictions targeting Asian immigrants at the turn-of-the-20th century to contemporary deliberations involving refugee, and from prohibitions involving the undocumented to travel bans against so-called “terrorist” nations, immigration has consistently occupied a vexed place in U.S. politics.

The UConn Reads Selection Committee seeks nominations that represent both sides of the debate and reflect the complexity of the issues. We are open to multiple types of nomination, but are particularly interested in novels, non-fiction, poetry, short story collections, and graphic novels. We will receive and review nominations online this month and next, and will announce the selection in June.