Immigrant Strong: December 2021 Issue
On inclusion, becoming American, and moving back to the motherland
I love essay collections and recently enjoyed Jennifer De Leon’s White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, & Writing. The daughter of Guatemalan immigrants takes us on her journey of becoming a writer and teacher as a woman of color; explores her search for identity as an immigrant; and contemplates the roles of race, culture, and class in America.
Essays and Interviews
I’ll start with Blood, Sweat, Turmeric, an essay by Shilpi Suneja for Guernica’s Dirt issue about her period, cleanliness, caste, colonialism, and more.
“Growing up in India, I watched the Brahmin priests chanting Sanskrit mantras at the temples. I could see the crusted dirt in the priest’s toenails, smell his sweat as I got closer, but a thousand showers wouldn’t make me cleaner than him. By arranging people according to their ancestral occupations, caste becomes a hierarchy of cleanliness.
A system that condemns and dehumanizes people who play vital roles in society is a vehemently evil system.”
I enjoyed this Catapult craft piece by Crystal Hana Kim, Native Flowers and True Names: Using Research to Write Richer Narrative Fiction.
“In my novel, I had been trying to show the effects of Japanese colonialization and the Korean War, to explore the ways in which my people had been impacted by outsiders who took away our language and customs again and again. This research affirmed how our history has been formed right down to the literal root, to the trees and plants that grow in our soil. The foreword confirmed that I was right in investigating these topics, in considering the plants underfoot as equally important as the man-made markers of cultural change.”
Many of us who are immigrants will be nodding our heads while reading Ofelia Montelongo’s great essay in The Rumpus, Becoming American in the Age of Trump.
“When I sang the final chorus of “land of the free and the home of the brave,” the image of George Floyd killed by the police came to mind. This followed by caged immigrant children and the words of Julia Álvarez: “The land of the free, but not for everyone.””
Priya Fielding-Singh examines what happens when immigrants start to eat more American food in On the Culinary Americanization of First-Generation Immigrants in LitHub. The piece is excerpted from her book How The Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America.
“Sometimes, that food was all she had to remind her—the last vestige of a culture she was now alone tasked with keeping alive for her son. She wanted her son to remember that he was Mexican as well as American. When she prepared traditional Sinaloan dishes for him, Teresa showed Esteban that. She remembered who she was too. Teresa had given up so much to come to the US. At the very least, she didn’t have to sacrifice their identity.”
Tria Wen interviews Jenny Qi in Smoke Signals to the Dead: A Conversation with Jenny Qi for The Rumpus.
“I think part of that closeness came from being isolated in a foreign place. I know my mother did not have much in the way of a Chinese community, and I mostly grew up without knowing other Chinese Americans. So, I think we were both culturally isolated in that way. I wonder if that’s one of the factors.”
I love coming across work by writers with connections to my motherland, the former Yugoslavia. For Catapult, Natasha Tripney writes about her mom’s journey back to her hometown. Here is Immigrating From Yugoslavia Was a Struggle and a Privilege—Both Can Be True.
“She knew it would not be easy, that you can never really go “back” anywhere, certainly not after fifty years. This would be true of anywhere, even if the country in which she grew up had not ceased to exist in 1992.”
And then there is this piece by Rebecca Duras, also for Catapult, My Parents’ Country Doesn’t Exist. I Moved There Anyway, which of course filled me with Yugonostalgia.
“Most of us who belong to diasporas, regardless of our countries of origin, have an unhealthy habit of projecting our own desires onto our home countries. We desperately need those homes to be places where we magically fit in. We want them to serve as playgrounds for self-discovery. But the old country moves on. The old country discovers new things and births new people and experiences new pains. It does not wait, hermetically sealed, for us to visit. We can try to force a whole country to reflect our vision, or we can accept the pain that comes with being a side character, one of many, and approach our home with an open mind.”
I’ve featured Anjali Enjeti’s Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change in this newsletter before. As someone who’s worked on voting rights for organizations such as the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice, I’m also an admirer of her work to block Republicans’ voter suppression efforts. In this interview with Madhushree Ghosh for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Enjeti discusses her writing, volunteer and activism work, and publishing two books during a pandemic.
“My activism and writing feel so intertwined I can sometimes hardly figure out which is which. Most of my nonfiction writing is about social justice and even the novel I’m working on now is about a feminist activist from the 1970s who gets away from activism and is trying to find her way back to it. I’ve been an activist even longer than I’ve been a writer, so I suppose it’s only natural that social justice is a frequent topic for me in my writing.”
My husband doesn’t speak Croatian and most of my Croatian relatives live outside the country. I’m adamant about teaching my mother tongue to my daughter, but it often feels like a struggle. While she understands most of it, she responds to me in English even if I’m speaking Croatian. It’s one of many challenges faced by immigrant parents that Masha Rumer tackles in her book, Parenting With An Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children. Here is an excerpt in LitHub, The Very Real Correlation Between Bilingualism and Advanced Executive Function.
“Teaching the family language to my kids is a link to something bigger than words. It isn’t a sweater one can just peel off on a warm day.
Its cadence is in our DNA and the conversations waiting to happen, the words of affection and the untranslatable humor. It’s in my grandmother’s wrinkled fingers, mincing onions to the tune of a folk song like they have a thousand times before.”
Turning to humor, here is Meghana Indurti’s New Yorker piece, How Immigrant Parents say “I Love You.” Several sections rang true for me, including “It would be ideal if you were hungry every fifteen minutes so that they could feed you” and “Asking about a friend you haven’t thought of since the Bush Administration.”
I’ll wrap it up with Jade Song’s Electric Literature essay, Real Inclusion Means Centering Voices, Not Just Bodies—Especially for Queer Chinese Americans.
“The relegation of these Chinese American characters’ bodies into tools, into objects, is precisely why I cannot let go of them. I have seen us become objects far too often. I want so much more for Katrina and Jane, for myself, for my community. I want us to free ourselves from the weight of narratives we have been cursed to live under. Our bodies deserve autonomy. Our bodies deserve our selves.”
I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes from bell hooks, the groundbreaking Black feminist, writer, scholar, and intellectual. Rest in power.
“Sexism has never rendered women powerless. It has either suppressed their strength or exploited it.”
“We can’t combat white supremacy unless we can teach people to love justice. You have to love justice more than your allegiance to your race, sexuality and gender. It is about justice.”
Thanks for reading—and happy holidays,
About this newsletter: Writing about immigrant and refugee life—the struggles, triumphs, and quirks—by immigrants and refugees, and children of immigrants and refugees. For more info, here is a Q&A I did with Longreads about the newsletter. Photo in the logo: Miguel Bruna/Unsplash.
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 and social justice. I have written about my immigrant experience for The New York Times, Catapult, the Washington Post and the New York Daily News. This year, I attended Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing conference as a parent-fellow, and participated in the Tin House Summer Workshop. Find me on twitter, @vesnajaksic, or on my website, www.vesnajaksic.com.