The Six-Word Memoirs creator on his latest book, a collection of immigration stories, as well as a collaboration with the TV show Fresh Off the Boat
Larry Smith picked an ideal day to celebrate his latest installment in the literary phenomenon he launched more than a decade ago. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday—both his birthday and National Citizenship Day—the Six-Word Memoirs creator will host a book-release party for “Six Words Fresh Off the Boat,” a collaboration between Smith and the creators of the TV show Fresh Off the Boat. The book, the ninth in the Six-Word Memoirs franchise, features immigration stories, each told in just six words, from more than 500 people, including celebrities like actor George Takei (“Even after internment, still love America”) and entrepreneur Arianna Huffington (“Another Greek Odyssey, thriving in America”), as well as a handful of folks from Columbus, where Smith lives with his wife, Piper Kerman, the author of “Orange is the New Black.”
The party’s location is also appropriate. Featured prominently in the book is the Alshahal family, the Columbus restaurateurs whose latest offering, Trism, 1636 N. High St. in the University District, is hosting the book release party. The gathering will also serve as a fundraiser for Community Refugee and Immigration Services. The Alshahal family, the culinary forces behind the Crest gastropubs and several other Central Ohio restaurants, found sanctuary in Columbus after escaping political strife in Lebanon. Columbus Monthly caught up with Smith this week to find out more about his latest book and where he might take his Six-Word Memoirs concept next.
What inspired this book and how did you come to partner with Fresh Off the Boat?
The inspiration is my grandfather, Morris “Smitty” Smith, who came to America [from Russia] with his family in 1914, at the age of 4, to escape the war. He grew up to become a small-town pharmacist, working long days, nights and most weekends so his children could have an even better life then he did. But he was more than just a pharmacist to his customers: He was someone who cared about them and knew their stories. It was behind his counter that Smitty excelled at the most important part of his job: He listened.
I start every single talk I give—whether in a third-grade classroom or professional conference—with the story of Smitty and how important it is to understand who and where you come from. With my grandfather as my muse, I’ve long wanted to do a book of immigration stories.
But I just couldn’t get a book deal—my literary agent tried for years. Then in 2015, while on book tour in Los Angeles for “The Best Advice in Six Words,” a friend working with the show Fresh Off the Boat approached me and asked if I would want to collaborate. Over the next few months, we had many conversations, and it was clear we had a shared vision of this book: It wouldn’t be one that reflected only the experience of the show’s family (Taiwanese-American), but rather a mechanism to capture hundreds of memoirs on the immigration experience from across America, spanning cultures and generations. With a hit TV show as a collaborator, we suddenly were able to get a book deal and did exactly what we set out to do.
Why does the six-word format marry well with this topic?
Almost everyone has a coming-to-America story—theirs or their family’s. When Fresh Off the Boat started holding test viewings of the show before it aired, its producers were struck by what happened. While the show is about one Taiwanese family’s life in Florida, viewer after viewer—Italian, Lithuanian, Irish, Mexican—said: “A version of what just happened in that scene happened in my life, too.” “My Greek grandma is just like the Taiwanese grandma!” And then, on the spot, they would start sharing their own stories.
So the show is an accessible, enjoyable in-road for storytelling. Six-Word Memoirs does exactly the same thing. Six words are an easy way to start telling your life story—a deceptively simple way to get a glimpse into another person’s life, essence, humanity.
Do you have a favorite memoir from the new book?
I’ll share three favorites. A notable figure who reminds us why we are a better nation for welcoming immigrants: “In 1948, I was a refugee.”—Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State. A great American dream story: “From migrant farmworker to NASA astronaut.”—Jose Hernandez. A student who gives us hope for the future: “You build walls, we build ladders.”—Alexis Miramontes
The Trump presidency, obviously, has made your book timelier. What do you hope this book contributes to the ongoing debate about immigration in this country?
Immigration is a hard, intense topic, but this book isn’t meant to be a political book or a polemic (regardless of my personal view). Still, we know this: It’s hard not to have some measure of empathy when you know their story; it’s hard not to find some aspect of their lives you can relate to.
Columbus resident Sara Abou Rashed—“Another immigration; must run in blood”—came to America from Syria at the age of 13 with her mom and grandmother. She arrived in the welcoming city of Columbus knowing no English, having no friends, and had to learn a completely new way of life. Four years later she has won poetry slams, been honored by Children’s Defense Fund’s Marion Wright Edelman, given a TEDx talk, headlined a Six-Word Live story show and has just started at Denison on full scholarship. She wants to study political science. She wants to change the world. And she will. We need to be an America that lets the Saras of the world in. [Rashed and several other book contributors will share their backstories at the book party.]
Did you discover any universal or near universal themes in the stories you compiled?
Many of the themes in the book are what you’d expect: family, safety, freedom, food. There are actually quite a number about food —“Parents Indian, found tuna casserole exotic,” “From Russia, via Israel, with lox”; ‘What IS that in your lunchbox?”—as food is so much a part of cultural identity.
Another theme that you see a lot, especially among the memoirs by recent and first-generation immigrants, is duality. People feel torn by the work of navigating the different sides of their identity (“Eight hours English, five hours Spanish.”); or pragmatic (“Indian at home, American at work.”); or even shameful about not appearing “American enough” (“Sister pretends she can’t use chopsticks”); or then there’s this from 8-year-old Omar Valdez, who enthusiastically shared his story during a workshop at his school: “Half American, half Mexican, all soccer.”
A Columbus immigration lawyer’s memoir (“Hello, sir, do you remember me?”) serves as the title of the party on Sunday. Why did you single out that personal story?
While the book isn’t only the stories of our newest arrivals —its 500-plus contributions are about slaves ships, Mayflower boats and everything in between. But naturally the recent immigrant experience is a large part of the book. So when I first started gathering stories, I reached out to organizations directly working with immigrants and refugees. I had heard CRIS-Ohio executive director Angie Plummer’s TEDx talk and knew she would love this project and was so helpful. A number of the stories in the book are from the CRIS community. I heard from Adbi-Hakim Mohamed, (“Mogadishu Columbus”— safe shelter from warlords”) and Jessica Elsayed (“Peanut butter spread in pita bread”). I sat in the home of Walid Ali, a former translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq [who was also featured in our November 2016 story, “The Second Shangri-La”], who told me the harrowing story behind his six words, “They are coming to kill you!” (and the book includes his backstory. I received an email from Paul Sonenberg, a CRIS immigration attorney who submitted the six words: “Hello, sir, do you remember me?” He explained that these are the first six words that his clients often say to him when they call, hoping they haven’t been forgotten. In the end, we all want the same things: food, clothing, shelter, work, access to health care, and, I think, to be seen. There is so much humanity in those six words.
This is the ninth book in the Six-Word series. What’s next for your project?
The best way I can describe how far Six-Word Memoirs can go is with these six words: “The only limit is your imagination.” I want to continue to collaborate on books with people and places that are living and breathing whatever topic is next. Among the ideas I’m exploring are six words on health and wellness; six words on women and power; and six-word emoji stories. We have one story told via emojis in the new book, and I love it.