Every Wave of Immigration…
Francine Prose, Novelist
Every wave of immigration, every country of origin, has enriched this country since its very inception. What has drawn people here is not only the promise of opportunity, of freedom from political tyranny and religious persecution, but also our relative willingness to consider the possibility that a nation can be composed of people who--recently or generations ago--have come here from somewhere else.
In a perfect world, this would be a constant cause for celebration. Every ship that brings immigrants, every plane that arrives--everyone should break out the champagne and toast the incoming geniuses and decent, hard working human beings. But human nature being what it is, territorial instinct being what it is, that is not always what happens. There have been, as we know, damaging freezes and eruptive overboilings in the culinary history of America's so-called melting pot.
An alternative scenario to the constant welcoming party is this: the population is asleep when the boats come in. By the time day breaks, and everyone wakes up, the new immigrants have already faded seamlessly into an American landscape that now includes the Laotian-Italian trattoria in the middle of Kansas.
In theory, that's an ideal route: the body politic growing, in its sleep, on the model of the way our bodies grow: steadily, gradually, without our conscious assistance, and generally painless. The problem occurs when we are rudely awoken by some shock that makes us want to turn away from the world, and in the process forget that the world beyond our shores is where we and our neighbors come from.
History is perpetually drawing up travel itineraries for men and women and children who may not have planned to go anywhere at all, had history not intervened. And so it seems fitting that this award--evidence that someone is paying attention to and valuing the efforts of foreign-born Americans--should have been founded by two people, Jan and Marica Vilcek, who have themselves experienced both the costs and the rewards of living first in one country and one language, and later in another.
The Vilcek Prize
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