In my grade-school writer’s workshop, my students are writing up their own histories. Most of them, even at their tender ages, have made the immigrant’s journey to the US from various parts of Asia, though by plane rather than ship steerage. They seem surprised by the topic, and insist no one would be interested in their stories—which is exactly what my grandparents told me, when I pestered them for tales about Denmark and Ireland and Poland. My grandfather-in-law spoke little about his childhood in Sicily. Why would they not feel their former lives, before America, were important? Why, even today, are we considering immigrants and refugees as second-class third-world citizens, not worthy of even thinking too much about?
I wanted to encourage my kids to write expansively and honestly about themselves in a positive way, not to be shy or self-conscious, but to simply tell their truths. Finally I told them: These stories are for your children. That did the trick: My eight and nine-year-olds were utterly tickled by the idea of their future progeny, and quickly set pencil to paper in an attempt to impress them. Dear Future Kids…And it’s amazing, how many details and anecdotes emerge, when I encourage them to really think hard about it.
What they are really doing is a form of memoir. This is one of those genres that writers really love, but it’s actually rather hard to get right. You have to find the right balance of fond memory and hardcore assessment of your life; it needs to be completely honest, too, good with the bad. I think one of the best memoirs I ever read was Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle. It had just the right blend of accurate, even lyrical, description, honesty and rueful awareness, without an ounce of sentimentality. Being sentimental is fine if you intend only loved ones and family members to read your work; but for something to be shared with the world, it’ll sink the boat the every time.
Oddly, my students are surprisingly unsentimental about their journeys and stories, although I would indulge them if they chose to be. We’re talking about nine-year-olds, not college literature students. They are creating little stapled-together books that are basically for themselves and their family archives. But I’m glad they’re doing this, if only to help them understand they are part of a significant era of history, part of what is perhaps the second greatest wave of immigration and emigration since the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century. In generations to come (and of course there will be; I was told as a kid there was no future to look forward to, and here I am, looking even farther ahead), when their grandchildren pester them for stories about their big journey, they’ll have something to fall back on.