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BOOK REVIEW : ‘Imagining America’ From Many Angles : IMAGINING AMERICA Stories From the Promised Land<i> edited by Wesley Brown and Amy Ling</i> Persea Books $24.95 cloth, $11.95 paper; 370 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a time--and it wasn’t very long ago--when the word multiculturalism evoked images of harmonious co-existence.

In the last couple of years there’s been a backlash against the idea, however, particularly among entrenched academics who began to see that multiculturalism threatened their authority; they responded by calling multiculturalism a retreat from accepted standards and the Western tradition and by accusing its adherents of forsaking analytic rigor.

Those favoring multicultural studies soon found themselves portrayed as intellectual opportunists who refused to separate wheat from chaff in the misguided attempt to extol the virtues of each.

Well, the old academic guard won’t be happy with “Imagining America,” an openly multicultural collection of 37 short stories that contains wheat and chaff.

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The more you read of this collection, however, the less appropriate that analogy seems, for it contains so broad a spectrum of voices that any attempt to distinguish wheat from chaff seems irrelevant--like ranking apples and oranges.

Taken on purely literary merit, the stories by Bernard Malamud, Richard Bausch, Bharati Mukherjee and Oscar Hijuelos are the collection’s best, but some obvious one-note stories by unknown or lesser-known writers are almost as effective, although for entirely different reasons.

Some stories, indeed, are effective precisely because they are so limited in scope--because they address blind spots important only to cultural outsiders.

In “Japanese Hamlet,” for example, Toshio Mori tells of a young Asian in the Bay Area who reads Shakespeare constantly, obsessed with becoming “the ranking Shakespearean actor.”

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No one dares tell him that his dream is impossible, regardless of his talent. In Tahira Naqvi’s “Thank God for the Jews,” Fatima is panicked that she doesn’t have halal meat for her Islamic relatives, until she learns that kosher meat is prepared in the same religiously acceptable way.

In Paule Marshall’s “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam,” a child visits her grandmother in Barbados and finds that she cannot make the old woman marvel at New York’s skyscrapers; the grandmother knows something more vital about land, fruit and sunlight.

A common complaint about multicultural studies is that they devalue art in favor of politics--that the worth of a story is judged not by aesthetic principles but by its political correctness.

Wesley Brown and Amy Ling, the editors of this volume, have for the most part avoided the overtly political, but most of the stories collected here--like those just mentioned--do touch on politics.

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“Imagining America” demonstrates, between the lines, that it’s virtually impossible to be an immigrant without being politicized because the immigrant’s life is so thoroughly shaped by his or her status; as refugees or illegal aliens, or as members of the uneducated poor, the lives of these immigrants are largely defined by government.

Even “successful” immigrants can’t help but be politicized, it seems, for they become true believers in America, or at least antagonistic toward the government they left behind.

Assimilation is a recurrent theme in this book, and it’s remarkable how differently these authors view cultural integration.

In Gish Jen’s “In the American Society,” assimilation is more or less taken for granted; the narrator’s Chinese-American father has bought a pancake house in order to send his daughters to college, and the mother is trying to join a country club. Contrast that with Hector in Hijuelos’ “Visitors, 1965,” who is “sick at heart for being so Americanized, which he equated with being fearful and lonely”; he soon finds himself envying more recent immigrants from Cuba, who have suffered under Castro and harbor no conflicts about flourishing in the United States.

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Fong Wing faces a similar conflict in Monfoon Leong’s “New Year for Fong Wing”: He curses the croupier in a Chinatown gambling den for not making more of himself in America, until he sees that the man has no legs, having lost them fighting for his adopted country.

It’s tempting to say that “Imagining America” is a good book for dipping into, because most of the stories take but a few minutes to read. In fact, it’s best read in extended sittings, when the enormous diversity of the authors’ concerns and perspectives gradually becomes evident.

“Imagining America” is a welcome attempt to correct the average citizen’s cultural ignorance--and not just about other cultures, but about our own.

Next: Paul West reviews “Almanac of the Dead” by Leslie Marmom Silko (Simon and Schuster).

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