Justine Hope Blau
Most of the students in my memoir workshops at Lehman College in the Bronx are immigrants, first generation American, and/or people of color. They come from the Dominican Republic, India, Gambia, Kazakhstan – all over the world – and their writing is rich with fresh perspectives and beloved customs. Whether their grandmothers soothed them withPastelon de Papas, milk chai, feta cheese bureks or warm parathas, the writers in these essays evoke both their love for their background cultures and their pursuit of an elusive American dream.
Some of them left behind traumas in other countries only to face staggering difficulties in the States that include not only barriers to employment but also drug laws which disproportionately target their non-white families. Now, when I read media reports that condemn people who break drug laws or use resourceful skills to survive in a hostile place, I consider too that the person may also have been a generous provider, who helped extended family members to pay their rent and buy groceries, despite having only an elementary school education and few work skills.
The title of the anthology comes from Steven Ngin’s gripping story of his family’s escape from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia when he was four years old. He rode on his father’s back as they crossed the Mekong River and watched his slipper float away. Steven was malnourished, had witnessed atrocities and often endured the terror of being alone for long hours at night in strange houses while his mother was forced by soldiers to work in rice fields. The image of his slipper disappearing is seared in his memory and provides the visual and poetic hook to frame his story – but the lost slipper metaphor also works for the other essays because they too are permeated by the theme of people moving forward after sustaining losses.
In every class, students bonded over their efforts to transcend trauma through the healing power of storytelling.
When I first started teaching in 2015, I realized that many of my students didn’t fully appreciate that their stories were compelling. But then they started writing about growing up hearing gunshots and sirens at night, using fire escapes as basketball hoops, and a ritual I’d never heard of: dancing at Thanksgiving. One student wrote about how he and his brother, at ages 11 and 14, had to fend for themselves after their father was deported. As the students listened to each other, mesmerized, they came to realize that their own stories have the same effect on other people. That motivated them to learn literary techniques to weave their experiences into cohesive, artful narratives.
Many of the writers have since graduated and have become teachers and nurses; others are still in school or, having graduated, are struggling to find the kinds of jobs that they envisioned having, once they had earned a college degree. Yet, however their careers and their lives pan out, they know that continuing to cultivate their writing will give them some measure of power. Their stories of resilience and creativity reflect how American culture is enriched by their presence. To know them is to love them.
Justine Hope Blau is the author of the memoir Scattered (Hand Whistle Press, 2012) and has written for Rolling Stone, Oprah Magazine, CBSNews.com and The Huffington Post. She teaches memoir at Lehman College in the Bronx and holds an MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University School of the Arts.