On America ruining a name, finding a voice, and leaving Lebanon
|vesna jaksic lowe||Apr 9||2|
It’s never easy for me to read books about the war that destroyed my country of Yugoslavia, turning my and many other families into immigrants and refugees. But I love supporting fellow ex-Yugoslavs and as someone whose day job is in human rights, I’m keenly aware of the power of storytelling to heal, foster tolerance, and educate so that we do not repeat history’s worst mistakes.
Amra Sabic-El-Rayess’s The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival has the power to do that. Sabic-El-Rayess is a Bosnian genocide survivor who spent a part of her teenage life caught in a senseless war because her family is Muslim. Her memoir takes us to her hometown of Bihać, which was held under siege by a Serbian army for three years in the 1990s. It shows how quickly nationalism can escalate into conflict, causing even childhood friendships to collapse.
In addition to reading her book, I encourage you to listen to one of her online talks and readings—she’s a great speaker and as a professor at Columbia University, she often discusses the transformative power of education to stop hatred, build empathy, and prevent violence. Given the ongoing discrimination and attacks against Muslims and other racial and ethnic groups, Sabic-El-Rayess’s work on the page and inside the classroom offers important lessons infused with a war survivor’s and an educator’s perspective.
Essays and op-eds
I’ll start with Beth Nguyen’s America Ruined My Name For Me in The New Yorker. It’s one of those pieces I’m sure many immigrants can relate to and that I wish everyone would take time to read. It’s also important for every parent, so that we can teach our children to be open-minded about names and cultures they may not be familiar with.
“It is one of my historical facts that the name is steeped in shame, because living in the United States as a refugee and a child of refugees was steeped in shame. America made sure I knew that, felt that, from my earliest moments of awareness.”
In this powerful Guernica piece, Exodus, which weaves together reporting and personal narrative, Lebanese journalist Zahra Hankir writes about being homesick, the guilt and resentment that living in the diaspora can create, and how plans to migrate for one year often turn into multiple years and decades.
“While we were growing up, my deeply depressed mother played Lebanese music, especially Fairouz, for me and my siblings. When selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors lifted her mood, we sometimes caught her belly-dancing. She filled diary upon diary with thoughts of someday returning home, and the difficulties of living in a foreign land. The weather and the people were often too harsh for her to bear, she wrote.”
“My halmoni never spoke English. Not when she moved to this country in the 1970s, and not when she died in the nineties. It’s not that she couldn’t; she just didn’t, or—given her stubborn nature—she wouldn’t. No matter how much my white mother tried to catch her slipping. What was there to say? This was not her country, not really.
These days, I question whether it is mine.”
“For years, I saw my mixed-race self as solid proof of the promise of mending. Now, my body felt torn apart: voice, sound, soul gone fugitive. My mother was a poised, sophisticated Iranian woman. Her skin was light and she was Muslim. My South Asian father was dark skinned and Hindu. These descriptions do nothing to fully capture their characters, of course. But this is what people wanted to know, always want to know.”
Nicole Zhu’s Electric Literature essay combines some of the topics from above—food and the mother-daughter relationship—while confronting the difficult subject of anticipatory grief. Here is Chinese Cooking Helps Me Connect With My Mother—And Helps Me Prepare to Lose Her.
“As a second generation Asian American, I recognized myself in her descriptions of her adolescence and the sensation that one could “never be of both worlds.” Whether I’m in America or China, my belonging feels like something to prove. I related strongly to these descriptions of meals that were, above all, a means of easy, joyful cultural connection.”
Whenever you see Min Jin Lee’s byline, you know you won’t be disappointed; here is a lovely essay from her on the importance of books, reading, and learning in The New York Times, A Lifetime of Reading Taught Min Jin Lee How to Write About Her Immigrant World.
“All those shelves of books had built my mind, teaching me how to shape a narrative about my people, from what they had lost and found. In life, even in my life, there was a coming-of-age, tragedy and meaning.”
Jennifer De Leon’s LitHub essay Bridged: How the Art of Writing Can Close the Divide Between Worlds offers a wonderful reflection on writing, mother-daughter relationships, and the approval we often seek as children of immigrants.
“In that moment, I felt they even had the same heart. Her mother’s face wore an expression of unfiltered joy, with a shade of Where are we? How did we get here? Are we really here? My mother has had that look before, my mother who was born in another country and moved here for a better life. It is a certain look. And Patricia’s mother had it.”
Here is one more piece on the evolving relationship between a daughter and her parents. It’s a Harper’s BAZAAR essay by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, After My Father Left, I Watched My Undocumented Mother Reinvent Herself. The writer, who was born in Ecuador, is always so skillful at combining honesty, vulnerability, and humor.
“My father had shamed her for eating “white,” which meant that my mother insisted on buying organic food, which was obviously more expensive. My dad thought it was out of our station as undocumented immigrants. He had absorbed the xenophobic rhetoric we were bombarded with.”
I’m glad many Asian-American writers have been speaking out about the horrific hate crimes and attacks on their communities. I loved R.O. Kwon’s piece in Vanity Fair. Jennifer Hope Choi’s op-ed, Why Did My Mother and I React So Differently to the Atlanta Shootings?, for The New York Times, also gives an important perspective.
“Georgia’s Asian oasis advertises a narrative familiar to countless immigrants: the promise of retaining one’s own cultural identity while seamlessly pursuing the American dream. The Atlanta shootings reveal a different narrative: how class complications are often left out of the bootstrap-lifting immigrant success story.”
And for NBC’s Think, Michelle Yang wrote The Atlanta shooting, anti-Asian hate crime and what it means to be (Asian) American, sending a message we should all live up to.
“Inheriting the ignorance and hate of earlier generations may have been somewhat out of our control, but it is now our responsibility as individuals with agency to educate ourselves and each other, challenge past wrongs and stop the cycle. Perpetuating ignorance and fanning it until it festers into hate is dangerous and keeps us repeating history’s atrocities.”
Thanks for reading,
About me: I grew up in the former Yugoslavia, then immigrated to Canada, and now live in the United States, where I work as a writer and communications consultant for nonprofits focusing on human rights. I have written about my immigrant experience for The New York Times, Catapult, the Washington Post and the New York Daily News. Find me on twitter, @vesnajaksic, or on my website, www.vesnajaksic.com.