NEW YORK —Every family has its stories, stories that are passed from one generation to the next. For many American families, these stories originate in other countries. Such is the case for Elizabeth Stone, professor of English at Fordham University. According to Stone, author of the book, “Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Family Stories Shape Us,” family stories can be a touchstone to guide us on our paths through life.
“I think there’s another way to understand the immigrant experience now that doesn’t look at connection to one’s country of origin as something that undermines one’s loyalty to America,” Stone said. “There is a new model which encompasses, let me call it attachment, to the country of origin and loyalty to this country.”
And that dual connection is a large part of what distinguishes the post-1965 wave of immigrants to America to those of the early 20th-century, who were heavily assimilationist, Stone said. Reasonably priced air travel, satellite television and multinational radio stations are among the developments that have aided in immigrants’ connections to their home country.
Stone has coauthored a new article, “Transnationalism as a Motif in Family Stories,” with three Fordham undergraduate students, that will be the lead article in the December issue of the refereed psychology journal, Family Process, along with two invited commentaries to the piece.
In the article, transnationalism is described as a state of living in one or more cultures and maintaining connections to both. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants who often left their roots behind, transnationals are as committed to their country of birth as they are to their new home, America. They don’t choose one over the other.
Transnationalism is not about “divided loyalties. It’s not like a baby with two heads. It’s like ambidexterity,” Stone told ABCNews.com in a recent article. “New York is 52 percent foreign born, but do you see any indication that it is insufficiently American?”
Stone’s collaboration with the undergraduates—all three of whom are significantly transnational—began through the course she teaches at Fordham, “New Wave Immigrant Literature,” which focuses on literature written by immigrants who arrived in the United States in the post-1965 wave.
“Three of the students in the course were exceptionally good students, and while we didn’t concentrate on family stories except when they came up in the literature, it was clear this was something that was interesting to them,” Stone said. “I invited them to work with me on transnationalism as a motif in family stories.”
The three students were Erica Gomez, FCLC ’04, whose parents were Cuban émigrés; Jane Lipnitsky, FCLC ’04, who was born in Russia of Russian-Jewish parents; and Despina Hotzoglou, FCLC ’04, whose parents are Greek.
Stone herself is the granddaughter of immigrants who came to the United States from Salina, a little island north of Sicily. But despite these modest beginnings, her mother became a Broadway actress; her uncle, a novelist; and her aunt, a painter.
“I couldn’t see anything in their daily lives that promoted this,” Stone said. But she noticed that her family’s stories celebrated the arts. “So who knows whether these stories which exist in every family were true, but I saw that they were sort of North Stars to my family,” she said. “They used those stories as an entitlement that they didn’t otherwise have socially or economically.”
Gomez, one of the undergraduate co-authors, has never been to Cuba, but Spanish is the language spoken in her home, and her family’s Cuban heritage is held as tightly as is their American identity.
“I know my own stories by heart, but I never realized what kind of role they played and how transnational I was,” Gomez said.
Lipnitsky, who now does research for anesthesia at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, said, she believes she is “a little bit more American” than her parents, “in that I’m okay with talking about stories about myself, more so than they would ever have been. But even so, this class kind of pushed me to analyze the stories that I knew in a different way.”
Still, she said, while she speaks Russian with her parents, now that she is out of the family home she sometimes finds herself reaching out for the more tangible aspects of her Russian-Jewish culture. “The physical things—like food or speaking Russian to people—I have to reach out for, but the core of who I am is in me; a lot of my Russian culture is in the way I think,” Lipnitsky said.
The research for the article, and Stone’s earlier research into the subject, also points up the importance of the oral tradition, not just in terms of personal identifiers, but for setting the record straight.
“Sometimes there are competitions between oral narrative and written tradition, and historically people have been quick to side with written tradition,” Stone said. “The revelation to me was that the oral tradition can be right and the written record wrong.”
Co-author Hotzoglou, who is studying toward postgraduate work in speech pathology, also runs after-school programs in Greek folk dance at three schools. She said the collaborative work experience was a valuable one. “We all worked really well together and Professor Stone was really good at not trying to take over, but letting our ideas roll and giving guidance, kind of shaping them,” she said.
Stone, a journalist as well as an academic, is faculty advisor to The Observer, the student newspaper at Lincoln Center, but had not collaborated on research before with undergraduate students.
“I had a number of people who mentored me and now I feel it’s my turn to do that,” Stone said. “It’s like an intellectual motherhood.”