Non­fic­tion

A Begin­ner’s Guide to Amer­i­ca: For the Immi­grant and the Curious

  • Review
By – January 10, 2022

In her recent­ly pub­lished book, A Beginner’s Guide to Amer­i­ca, poet and nov­el­ist Roya Hakakian art­ful­ly gives insight into the inner life of a new­ly arrived immi­grant observ­ing our nation from its periph­ery while nav­i­gat­ing dai­ly life.

Hakakian’s book is meant for every­one: for those who scaled moun­tains and wad­ed through rivers to reach our shores; those who com­fort­ably stepped off a boat or plane; those learn­ing Eng­lish for the very first time; those who have lived here for decades; and those Amer­i­can cit­i­zens whose lin­eage dates back to the Mayflower. Hakakian cap­tures the shock, con­fu­sion, awe, humor, and joy a new-to-Amer­i­ca émi­gré expe­ri­ences while also ana­lyz­ing both the mul­ti­plic­i­ty and sin­gu­lar­i­ty of our coun­try. She speaks from the heart and draws can­did­ly from her own cul­ture shocks, hav­ing fled post-Khome­i­ni Rev­o­lu­tion Iran and entered the Unit­ed States as a refugee in 1985.

In poignant­ly penned prose, she turns the read­er into the out­sider look­ing in. She jos­tles our com­pla­cen­cy and alerts us to all we take for grant­ed. When one comes from a home­land that cen­sors speech, books, news, music, art, movies, and free-flow­ing hair, Amer­i­ca can be both a source of com­fort and bewil­der­ment. Con­se­quent­ly, adjust­ment is a long journey.

When Hakakian stud­ies America’s mar­ket­ing bill­boards, boun­ti­ful­ly stocked super­mar­kets, and the Amer­i­can prac­tice of buy­ing — then return­ing — mer­chan­dise, she writes:

They had expect­ed to see the sus­pen­sion bridges, the under­wa­ter tun­nels, the end­less forests, and bot­tom­less seas. But it is the exer­cise of return­ing goods that is the surest sign of America’s great­ness to them … Return­ing items is the proof that the con­sumer, one of the sev­er­al man­i­fes­ta­tions of the cit­i­zen, is for­mi­da­ble here. It is the evi­dence that any­thing is pos­si­ble because a one-time deci­sion need not be des­tiny. You can change your fate here and turn it in for a bet­ter one.

Walt Whit­man called Amer­i­ca the Great­est Poem.” Hakakian, in her own way, does the same. Leav­ing no stone unturned, she skill­ful­ly exam­ines Amer­i­can cul­tur­al para­dox­es. The pow­er of poet­ry and democ­ra­cy come from mak­ing a uni­fied whole out of dis­parate parts, a notion that is high­ly rel­e­vant, espe­cial­ly when Amer­i­ca feels bit­ter­ly divid­ed. Hakakian has made a major con­tri­bu­tion to the great canon of lit­er­a­ture that encour­ages all Amer­i­cans to bet­ter know them­selves. And, by read­ing her book, one cer­tain­ly will.

Esther Ami­ni is a writer, painter, and psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic psy­chother­a­pist in pri­vate prac­tice. Her short sto­ries have appeared in Elle, Lilith, Tablet, The Jew­ish Week, Barnard Mag­a­zine, TK University’s Inscape Lit­er­ary, and Prox­im­i­ty. She was named one of Aspen Words’ two best-emerg­ing mem­oirists and award­ed its Emerg­ing Writer Fel­low­ship in 2016 based on her mem­oir Con­cealed. Her pieces have been per­formed by Jew­ish Women’s The­atre in Los Ange­les and in Man­hat­tan and she was cho­sen by JWT as their Artist-in-Res­i­dence in 2019.

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