“A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman” by Bharati Mukherjee

14Feb05

“A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman” seems to be Mukherjee’s manifesto of sorts, in that in this essay she states the goal of her writing:

In other words, my literary agenda begins by acknowledging that America has transformed me. It does not end until I show how I (and the hundreds of thousands like me) have transformed America.

She strives to give an inner life to those normally overlooked—“call them Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese”—“[her] duty is to give voice to continents, but also to redefine the nature of American and what makes an American.”

Mukherjee also states that she considers herself an “American writer, in the American mainstream, trying to expand it,” despite the fact that she was born in India, married and lived in Canada before finally moving to America in 1983. According to Nina Baym, Mukherjee’s interest in using her writing to define “American” and “the American Experience” places her firmly within the American literature tradition. Baym notes in her critical essay “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors” that oftentimes texts that detail the immigrant or minority experience are excluded from the canon because they do not describe the true “American” experience. Mukherjee specifically wants to challenge this notion.

I found this statement interesting: “Wherever I travel in the (very) Old World, I find “Americans” in the making, whether or not they ever make it to these shores.” What makes a person, who has never seen the United States, an American in the making? Mukherjee continues, “I see them as dreamers and conquerors, not afraid of transforming themselves, not afraid of abandoning some of their principles along the way,” and then mentions her main character from Jasmine, who fits that description. But why these characteristics? And why does Mukherjee define them as specifically American?

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