Frameworks of Memory in Recent American Fiction

Narratives of East-Central European Immigrant Experience

by Marta Koval (Author)
©2022 Monographs 178 Pages
Series: New Americanists in Poland, Volume 13


Based on the theory and methodology of transcultural memory, this book describes and analyzes the fictional representations of memory and forgetting and the multiple roles they play in identity construction of immigrants and exiles. It focuses on fiction by contemporary American writers of East-Central European descent: Askold Melnyczuk, Domnica Radulescu, and Aleksandar Hemon. The analysis of selected novels highlights a distinct historical slant with elements of generational memory, memory of places, rememory, and postmemory. The author introduces and develops the concept of post-immigrant ethnic fiction and identifies a mnemonic pattern characteristic of American post-immigrant ethnic and exile writing.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • Autorenangaben
  • Über das Buch
  • Preface
  • I. Frameworks of Remembrance in Immigrant Narratives
  • I.1 Types of Immigrant Narratives: Clarification of Terms
  • I.2 Migration and Memory: Introductory Remarks
  • I.3 Memory Boom of the 1990s–2010s
  • I.4 Types and Formats of Memory
  • I.5 Cultural Memory
  • I.6 Generational Memory
  • I.7 “Memories are Small Islands in a Sea of Forgetting”
  • I.8 What Immigrants Remember
  • I.9 Memory of Places
  • II. The Need to Remember and the Right to Forget in Askold Melnyczuk’s Novels
  • II.1 A Ukrainian Voice in Ethnic American Fiction
  • II.2 Memory and Identity in What Is Told by Askold Melnyczuk
  • II.3 Frameworks of Remembrance and Forgetting in Ambassador of the Dead
  • II.4 “To Live and Forget and Remember. All at Once”: Patterns of Memory in The House of Widows by Askold Melnyczuk
  • III. Echoes of the War: Exile, Immigration, and Memory in Domnica Radulescu and Aleksandar Hemon’s Fiction
  • III.1 Landscape of Memory and Exile in Domnica Radulescu’s Novel Country of Red Azaleas
  • III.2 Remember to Understand: Memory, Identity, and History in Aleksandar Hemon’s novels Nowhere Man and The Lazarus Project
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Works published in the collection

←8 | 9→

I. Frameworks of Remembrance in Immigrant Narratives

I.1 Types of Immigrant Narratives: Clarification of Terms

Immigrant and exile fiction as a distinct literary phenomenon is particularly significant in the cultural and social context of the United States as a nation built by immigrants. Although both types of writing fictionalize aspects and topics connected with the experience of (in)voluntary immigration, they represent different types of memorial experience and ways of memory transmission and cultural remembrance. In this book, I will analyze two specific types of immigrant narratives: exile fiction and post-immigrant fiction written after 1985 by authors of East-Central European descent.

Although, at a certain point, exile/immigrant fiction may, but not necessarily will, become ethnic fiction, I differentiate between these two categories. While exile fiction focuses mainly on first-generation remembrance and, in the first place, focalizes memories of the “old country,” nostalgia and trauma of immigration juxtaposed with alienation, displacement and exile, immigrant fiction internalizes the experience of the second- and third generations and is one of the elements that shape cultural remembrance of specific ethnic communities.

Werner Sollors defines ethnic literature as a body of “works written by, about, or for persons who perceived themselves, or were perceived by others, as members of ethnic groups” (243), but he also warns against a simplistic approach to the concept of ethnicity and ethnic writing in the context of American history and culture. He notes that ethnicity scholars “tend to misread literature or misinterpret it as direct social and historical evidence” (ibid., 9). In Sollors’ opinion, it is more productive to view fiction written by “ethnic writers” as an expression of mediation between cultures and, more importantly, as a “handbook[s] of socialization into the codes of Americanness” (7). A shift from the “raw data of the so-called ethnic experience” (Sollors 9) to the “cultural construction of the codes of consent and descent” (ibid., 39) gives insights into Americanness as a compendium of beliefs, rites, and values of an almost monolingual, multiethnic country.

Memories of immigration transmitted from generation to generation as well as cultural rituals of the “old country” are also integrated into the mental and cultural constructions of the “new country,” i.e. America. These memories are internalized by what Sollors calls the “cultural construction of the codes of consent and descent” (39). While translating and encoding a different cultural experience ←9 | 10→into American terms is, in fact, an indispensable part of fiction that we may identify, with some reservations, as ethnic, such an experience does not necessarily focalize memories of the “old country” and immigration. Therefore, for this research, I will use the term post-immigrant ethnic fiction to identify works by writers of a distinct ethnic group, which focus on memories of immigration.

Exile and post-immigrant narratives share many features related to their role in shaping cultural remembrance. However, they differ considerably in terms of generational frameworks, perception of Americanness, and integration of a specific cultural and social legacy into a broader American landscape.

I.2 Migration and Memory: Introductory Remarks

Different types of migration and the co-existence of diverse cultures have always been part of the cultural, social, and political reality of the United States; hence the present era (the end of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries) only enriches the existing experience with new insights and creates mnemonic patterns determined by synchronic and diachronic perspectives. Both ethnic and exile fiction focalize memories of migration and identity-making that are a valuable commentary on the experience of the former and a significant element in shaping the latter.

Mnemonic experiences of migration contribute to the understanding of ethnicity and relations between specific ethnic communities and the dominant group, as well as with national and regional communities, in which an ethnic group exists and forms its identity at both individual and collective levels. Rina Benmayor argues that migration is a dynamic concept and a “long-term if not life-long process of negotiating identity, difference, and the right to fully exist and flourish in the new context” (8). Therefore, memory as one of the crucial elements in shaping both individual and group identity is also a flexible and dynamic concept that is influenced by changing cultural, social, and even political realities, priorities, and stereotypes. Memory that shapes the hybrid, hyphenated, multiple, or plural ethnic identity is also multidirectional and multilayered. It is the metaphorical glue that binds together a sense of identity, belonging, and experience. The characters of exile and post-immigrant ethnic fiction by Aleksandar Hemon, Domnica Radulescu, Irene Zabytko, Téa Obreht, Askold Melnyczuk, Karolina Wacławiak, and Jeffrey Eugenides often live in a mental borderland which shapes their pluralistic consciousness, encourages and sometimes even forces them to exist in an in-between space. It is not only that “roots, migratory histories, and cultural experiences do not easily fit into any sort of homogeneous community, whether dominant or oppositional” (Benmayor 13) but ←10 | 11→also because social and cultural survival dominates the perception of reality and, in that way, modifies remembering.

The logical connection between identity and memory – or forgetting as a type of memory – acquires additional meaning in exile and post-immigrant ethnic fiction, which represents the experience of those who exist not only in two worlds but rather between two (or sometimes even more) worlds, in “an interstitial space that was not fully governed by the recognizable traditions from which you came” (Bhabha 190). Homi Bhabha believes that it is the interaction between the two spaces and overdetermination of one of them that produce the “in-betweenness,” a third space that is “skeptical of cultural totalization, of notions of identity which depend for their authority on being ‘ordinary,’ or concepts of culture which depend for their value on being pure, or of tradition, which depends for its effectivity, on being continuous” (190). Identities are formed through “differential, non-equivalent structures of identification,” which outline the borderline of being that we use for articulating and establishing social relations (Bhabha 197). Migrant identity is characterized by the inability, or rather the impossibility or unwillingness of recognizing one constitutive culture and one community, and represents the subject’s condition of doubleness and ambivalence. Bhabha argues that the concept of multiple identity is a “misnomer” as it “introduces … a kind of illusory pluralism as if there are many identities to choose from. But who is free to choose?” (196). In contrast with the model of multiple identity, his concept of the doubleness of identity means the “negotiated iterability of identity, its constant repetition, revision, relocation, so that no repetition is the same as the preceding one” (Bhabha 198). This model leaves ample space for accommodating different identifications and does not establish a rigid cultural framework. Memory, in Bhabha’s model of doubleness, not only becomes one of the elements that enable identity to be repeated and revised in different contexts but it also functions as a flexible construct. In more general terms, the response to challenges of identity formation and cultural awareness, which come to the foreground in exile and post-ethnic fiction, is determined by the characters’ mnemonic experience.

I.3 Memory Boom of the 1990s–2010s

Fascination with memory, or memory boom as Andreas Hyussen called it in Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia has indisputably been one of the dominant tendencies in humanities since the early 1990s. Memory studies have become a rapidly developing area of research that boasts an abundance of concepts, theories, and approaches. Astrid Erll describes memory as ←11 | 12→an all-encompassing sociocultural, interdisciplinary and international phenomenon and “topic that integrates disparate elements like no other. An impressively diverse array of public discourses, media, and academic fields are currently examining the question of memory together” (Erll, Memory in Culture 1). As a theoretical concept and a sociocultural practice, memory is no longer “owned” by any single discipline:

We have come to accept that we live in a world that is mediated by texts and images, a recognition that has an impact both on individual remembering and the work of the historian. The historian has lost his monopoly over defining and presenting the past. What is called the “memory boom” is the immediate effect of this loss of the historian’s singular and unrivalled authority. (Assmann, “Re-framing memory” 39)

Therefore, memory is studied from multiple perspectives and helps develop valuable interdisciplinary perspectives. It represents an approach to the study and re-evaluation of the past, also with the aim of better understanding the present.

Erll identifies political, social, and academic reasons that explain the fascination with memory across nations and academic disciplines. Although her list may not be exhaustive, the three factors she singles out are applicable transnationally and account for the emergence of new types and categories of remembering over the past twenty years. These factors are the following:

1) Historical transformations. Erll believes that the physical loss experienced directly by survivors of the Second World War and the Holocaust represents a turning point in memorial practice and marks the transition from communicative memory (Jan and Aleida Assmanns’ term) to what the Assmanns identify as Cultural Memory. Oral narratives about lived experience give way to indirect forms of remembrance shaped by media, cultural and social conventions, and political practice. Among other important transformations that affect memory studies and forms of remembrance are: the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of new democratic states in South Africa and South America, decolonization, and global migration. These changes give rise to multiple new voices and new narratives that shape ethnic and national memories and diverse forms of cultural expression. Erll describes 9/11 and the War on Terror as events that had a “deep memorial impact” (Memory in Culture 4). The list provided by the scholar can be further expanded to include the Yugoslav Wars, the refugee crisis in the European Union, the Donbas conflict in Ukraine, and many others. In all these processes and events, memory proves to be a “fundamentally political phenomenon with strong ethical implications” (ibid., 4).

←12 |

2) Changes in media technologies and the increasing role of popular media. Erll argues that while the digital revolution has provided unprecedented storage capacity, it also creates a real danger of cultural amnesia. Masses of digitally stored information complicate the process of selection and remembering (Memory in Culture 4–5). The Internet as a global mega-archive has created a specific type of forgetting that Paul Connerton identifies as annulment due to a surfeit of information (64).

3) In addition, global media culture and the general accessibility of popular representations of the past (war movies, semi-fictional feature films about the Holocaust, TV documentaries, etc.) have raised questions about the role of arts and media in evoking the past and transformed the contemporary landscape of memory in general (Erll, Memory in Culture 5).

And, finally, Erll mentions developments within academia. Memory studies focuses on the “past as a human construct” (Memory in Culture 5); therefore postmodernist philosophies of history, theories about the constructed nature and narrativity of historiography, the concept of metahistory, and the idea of the “end of history” (Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition; Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse and Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man) are effectively integrated into the study of mnemonic experiences. Postmodernism, which legitimized the multiplicity of microhistories (Ankersmit 16), also legitimized a diversity of memorial accounts that generate a large number of those microhistories. Hyussen links the recent “memory boom” in the academy with “the decentering of the nation with the locus of historical consciousness in the era of globalization” (qtd. in Bond, “Memory on the Move” 4). At the same time, he argues that there is no return to the past as we know it and to reinscribing “the national geographies of belonging” (ibid.). Therefore, the memory paradigm helps create methodological tools that are instrumental in understanding practices of cultural remembering and comparisons of different memory cultures (Erll, Memory in Culture 5).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (October)
Generation Place Memory Trauma Forgetting Silence Nostalgia
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 178 pp.

Biographical notes

Marta Koval (Author)

Marta Koval is Professor at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Gdansk. Her research interests include postwar American fiction, historical novel in the late 20th–early 21st centuries, exile fiction, American ethnic fiction, memory studies, and transcultural studies.


Title: Frameworks of Memory in Recent American Fiction