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This immigrant life
English professor Elizabeth Graver’s students set fiction aside and pick up the microphone
Why did you come to America? asked Leslie Perlera ’16, standing at the podium in a 20-seat classroom in Stokes Hall. Then she pressed play on her laptop.
“It wasn’t my decision,” responded a male voice with a slight Haitian accent, monotone and subdued, but loud through the speakers above the chalkboard. After a pause, he continued, “My dad passed away, so I had to come here and live with my aunt.” Another pause. “If I stayed there, the man who shot him might come after me.”
The voice belonged to a friend of a friend of Perlera’s. Prior to meeting him, she knew only that he had moved from Port-au-Prince to central Massachusetts when he was 14, seven years ago, and hadn’t seen his mother since. The interview was one of 17 oral history presentations in English professor Elizabeth Graver’s new course, “Second Voices: 21st-Century Writing by American Immigrants.”
Graver, whose last novel, The End of the Point (2013), was long-listed for the National Book Award, conceived of the course while researching her current project, a novel loosely based on the stories of Sephardic Jewish immigrants in her family. As she interviewed cousins and aunts from Chicago to Barcelona, she thought students could conduct similar interviews to personalize their understanding of immigrant literature. Throughout the fall, the class read, discussed, and wrote papers about novels and memoirs by living immigrant writers, including Junot Díaz (Dominican Republic), Le Thi Diem Thúy (Vietnam), and Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat (who visited the class in late September). Then, each student was asked to interview an immigrant on their own, touching on the course’s themes of diaspora, exile, and cultural identity. They were to edit the recorded audio or video into a 10-minute presentation, à la public radio’s This American Life and StoryCorps.
Most of the students in the class were either immigrants themselves or the sons and daughters of immigrants from Africa, Asia, Europe, Central America, and the Caribbean. Some had signed up wanting to read books that weren’t written by “dead white guys”; others to learn how to better delve into their family histories. Perlera hoped the course would be “revealing of the kinds of conflicts my parents faced” when they emigrated from El Salvador to Boston in 1990. Both sides of junior Ryan Daly’s family had moved from Ireland to New York in the 1920s. He was going to study in County Kildare in the spring, and he wanted to “develop tools to ask deep questions” before meeting his great-grandparents. Adding to the complexity of the class discussions were events in the news: the waves of Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees trying to enter Europe, many at risk of their lives, and the varied responses in Europe—and in this country among candidates vying for presidential nomination. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the class met at noon to try to make sense of the immigrant experience.
Graver kept the oral history guidelines spare. In essence: “Ask questions you don’t already know the answers to.” Students interviewed family members, classmates, or strangers. Kyle Donohue ’17, who works 10 hours a week in O’Neill Library, interviewed Michael Spiegel, a circulation assistant who moved with his wife and son from the Ukraine in 1978 with what amounted to $50. Nzinga Moore ’17 spent a Sunday at her grandparents’ house in Stoughton (as she does every weekend) talking with her uncle Silvestre Fontes ’89 about moving from Cape Verde to Cambridge (by way of Portugal) when he was nine. Ali Takahashi ’16 met her subject, Hong Kong native and Boston College senior Jacqueline Kong, when they happened to pet the same Labrador on Campanella Way.
Many questions focused on memories. What do you miss about your birthplace? “Not too much,” said Spiegel. “The food here is better, and the basketball is way better.” What do you first think of when you think of your home country? “I don’t know; there’s a point where my memories end and my mother’s stories begin,” said junior Bianca Kugblenu’s interviewee, Nigerian-American Sonia Chiamaka Okorie ’17. “The orange tree,” said a young woman named Ejona, a friend of Megan Montgomery ’16. Not long after she moved from Albania to California at age 11, Ejona’s former home was razed for new construction. Every other year her family returns to the site, where an orange tree is all that remains in what was their front yard. What do you remember about the day you left for America? “It was very cold. My little sister was wrapped in a blanket,” said Farukh Kohistani ’16, whom fellow senior Jovani Hernandez interviewed on film.
Kohistani was born in Afghanistan, in a town besieged by the Taliban; children there were homeschooled for their safety. In 2000, when she was five, she fled with her mother, sister, and grandfather to Pakistan, leaving her father and brother behind (they would reunite in seven years). Two years later they moved to Colorado, just six months after September 11. At this point in his presentation Hernandez paused the video to note that, just as Gary Shteyngart describes hiding his embarrassment over his Russian accent in his memoir Little Failure (2014), Kohistani felt a “pressure to present herself as stronger than she felt.” But sometimes the anti-Muslim bullying was unbearable.
Kohistani, whose large black eyes stared into the classroom from the eight-foot projection screen, recalled one day in fourth grade when a classmate cornered her in the cafeteria and said, “Why don’t you just go back to your country?”
“I wish I could,” she had replied. “But I can’t.”
The class’s interviewees immigrated for opportunity as often as to avoid oppression. Andrea Portnanova ’16 interviewed Mariela Páez, an associate professor of teacher education at the Lynch School of Education, who moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland to attend Cornell in 1992. (For the course’s purposes, the island territory qualified as another culture if not another country.) “Imagine you’re back home,” Portnanova said. “What do you see? What do you smell?”
Páez envisioned herself on the beach in Old San Juan. “It’s full of palm trees. I can smell the ocean. I can hear people laughing. Did I mention Puerto Ricans are loud?” She then told a story of when her son’s kindergarten teacher in Boston scolded him for screaming and her son retorted, “I’m not screaming; I’m Puerto Rican.” “I was so proud that day,” said Páez.
The students laughed. But Páez’s aside sparked a lengthy discussion afterward about immigrants leading a kind of double life. Fujianese-American Long Yang ’16 said “I speak much louder to my parents in Fuzhounese than I do in English with my friends.”
“It’s the same with my accent,” said Kugblenu, who moved from Ghana to Harlem when she was 11. She said that, while she strained to lose her accent in order to fit in at school, “when I’m with my parents, my accent reemerges.”
In the final class discussion on December 8, half the students said the course had compelled them to ask their parents or grandparents over Thanksgiving break what immigrating has been like for them. Others, however, remained leery.
“I’m afraid to ask my dad what he considers home,” said Marianna Sorensen ’16. “I want him to say here, America, but I think he’d say Denmark.”
Perlera agreed. “It’s too fresh. [My parents are] still living through the pain” of leaving their homeland. She mentioned that she found it easier, and more therapeutic, to explore her family’s history through another class she took with Graver, a fiction-writing workshop. The author of fiction, she noted, “has more control of the narrative.”
Graver, whose maternal grandfather emigrated from Turkey to New York in the early 1920s and her grandmother a decade later, brought up her own decision to fictionalize her family’s story: “Fiction allows me to get much closer to the emotional core, because it’s less direct.”
“I don’t want to say this course has had a negative impact on me,” said Hernandez, whose parents moved from Mexico to the Bronx a couple of years before he was born. “But now I’m much more hesitant to ask my parents about their immigration stories. I can’t pretend anymore that they’re not in pain. There’s a lot of rupture. This has brought me closer to them, but I’m not ready to talk about it.” Instead of interviewing his parents on the drive home for Thanksgiving, he filled their car with streamed music—the ranchera songs of Vicente Fernández and the duranguense dance music of El Trono de México.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The print version of the article noted that the students modeled their presentations off This American Life. They also modeled their presentations off StoryCorps.
Read more by Zachary Jason