“We want to simulate Mars on Earth and so we need a place that looks as much like Mars as possible. And we found it here in Oman.” —Alexander Soucek, lead flight director of the AMADEE-18 mission, in Phys Org, October 30, 2017
The first time my husband visited me in Oman years ago, he peered down from the plane window and received his first glimpse of the landscape: an undulating palette of browns, beige, mauve, and grays. This is Mars, he thought to himself. Mars on Earth.
This was Arabia as a romantic imagination might have created it; nights so mellow that they lay out under the scatter of dry bright stars, and heard the silence beyond their fire as if the whole desert hung listening.
—Wallace Stegner, Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil
“When we arrived there [Aramco], it was no Arabian Nights at all. It was just a kind of shack, it seemed to me.… Air-conditioned shacks with a great big swimming pool in the middle with a canvas over the top.”
—Mary Stegner to her husband’s biographer, Jackson J. Benson
“It was No Arabian Nights at All”: Coming of Age in America’s Kingdom
Sitting on a green couch in what is now a bedbug-infested Brooklyn apartment, I suddenly realized that my flight to meet my family for the first time in five years was actually tonight, not tomorrow; 12:30 a.m., not 12:30 p.m. I had planned to wake up early in the morning, make two cups of coffee, and pack a small bag with the few gifts I managed to buy last minute for my siblings. I thought I had more hours to sit with my heavy feeling, which I assumed to be a mix of excitement and longing, but which was rather a combination of wariness and fear, of things going wrong, of encounters no one can prepare for.
In front of the couch, there was a round coffee table, which I circled around in panic, not sure if I could make it to JFK on time, to Kiev on time, to Tbilisi on time. For months, my sister and I had saved and borrowed so we could have this one-week reunion trip in a country we knew nothing about. A few months after my arrival in the United States, the Kuwaitis had denied my application for passport renewal, subsequently making me an asylee. My family’s attempts to get U.S. visas were repeatedly denied, so we began to make different plans. We called embassies every morning, in the United States and in Kuwait. I asked, “Do you accept a U.S. refugee travel document? How long to issue a visa?” while they asked, “Do you accept a stateless travel document? How long to issue a visa?” The mutually closest country was Georgia, a place Arabs have come to discover in the past few years, this time not as conquerors, but as refugees in transit, hoping to infiltrate Europe from her eastern side.
Mapping Exile: A Writer’s Story of Growing Up Stateless in Post-Gulf War Kuwait
My mother cuts the outboard motor. Over the slap of waves on the boat’s black pontoon, I hear the fur seals barking. The cliffs are dotted with white albatross. Seals sprawl along the rocky shoreline: gray fur seals with black, rowdy pups, and brown elephant seals beached like massive timbers. Their smell carries across the water, a familiar, testosterone-laden stink, like a mix of musk and onion rings.
Last year, I wandered through Greece, knocking on all the gates of Hades. I walked along the Acheron River, whose icy blue waters seemed colored by the spirits of the dead. Stalactites dripped onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves of Diros. I searched for the entrance to the sea cave at Cape Tainaron, scrambling over sharp rocks below the lighthouse as darkness fell. Sometimes I wondered if my search for the underworld tempted the Fates. I remembered Orpheus, the father of music, who charmed beasts with his lyre and descended into Tainaron to find his lost bride, Eurydice. With song, he implored Hades and Persephone to bring her back to life, and his words moved the deathless gods to tears. They granted his wish, allowing him to lead her out of the underworld on one condition: he must walk ahead of her, not looking back until they left the dark halls of death. Approaching the surface, the farthest reach of light, Orpheus feared his love’s silence behind him. He turned to look and saw her sink back into the depths, reaching out to him and bidding him farewell for the last time.
Leaving behind the clamor of Mexico City, I catch a bus and cross the wide altiplano. Behind the tinted windows are strewn the blackened remains of trees and cactus, upon which perch large, dark birds. Half asleep on the silent bus, which plows like an ocean liner across the prairie, I think about the birds outside, peering into passing vehicles from their watch-posts. I fall asleep and dream that the birds standing aloft the cacti are truly enormous, and that they have a name that no one can pronounce. Even the local people are confused because they cannot utter, or even remember, the names of these birds, which means, in their language, “those whose croak inspires terror.” It is not known, the people in my dream tell me, whence the name originated, nor have any of the birds been heard to croak; they all remain implacably silent. If one of the birds were to call out, it would signal the end of the current universe, the death of the sun, and the whole terrible process of regeneration would begin once more, following the previous cycles of destruction by (i) tigers, (ii) the winds, (iii) rains of fire, and (iv) water. The inhabitants of the plain, when they die, are roasted in a clay pit and eaten by their relatives and friends. Their livers and other inner organs are eaten by their closest kin. Their feet are cut off and left out for the birds whose name no one can remember, as it is believed that this will prevent them from making their dreadful sounds. Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Dead is in there somewhere, hovering in the debris of my dream.
Nina Kossman is a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
Nina Kossman’s Family Dictionary of the Twentieth Century is a lyrical, panoramic exploration of a family tree shaped by the cataclysms of history. In this assemblage of memories, Kossman exhumes displaced, forgotten, and buried family stories in order to make whole what has been scattered and destroyed by Nazism and Stalinism, while also attempting, through her devotion to her Russian émigré parents, to keep whole the family that still lives. In the tradition of W. S. Sebald, Nina Berberova, and Natalia Ginzburg, Kossman probes questions of “outsider”-ness within one’s own immigrant communities and friendships, plumbs the subconscious, and maps the incomprehensible scale of twentieth-century events and the intimate inheritance of its traumas. These vignettes in Family Dictionary of the Twentieth Century—these entries—build to an immensely moving conclusion about what it means to be the carrier and keeper of a family’s history.
Some 14 years ago I wrote to the Latvian archives, asking them to send me anything they could find on my family, and after several months of waiting, I got more than I had expected. Among many other things, I received my father’s report card from his German high school, Statdtische Deutsches Gymnasium zu Riga, for the year 1929. Apparently, this was not the best school year in my young father’s life, as we can see from his grades on this handwritten report card. Compared to the grades he received in elementary school, where he had been considered one of the best students, “genugend” (satisfactory), the grade he got in almost all subjects in 1929, was seen as a “bad grade”.
Lisa Lee Herrick is a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
The illuminating essays in Lisa Lee Herrick’s Endangered Animals describe contemporary Hmong American culture and community with journalistic vigor and a keen sensitivity. With great authority, Herrick interrogates what is lost in personal, ancestral, and cosmic terms when a family leaves the homeland that holds their history, their forebears, their mythologies. Displaying a deeply felt sense for the customs, rituals, and folkways that re-evoke left-behind terrain, she conjures it anew amidst the unfamiliar realities of immigrant life. How do we maintain a diasporic culture? How can we uphold and bolster the spirit in the face of war, migration, and forced adaptation and erasure? These essays of startling range and vision provide new ways of thinking about these essential quandaries of our age.
This excerpt is adapted from an essay originally published by Emergence, which was included in Best American Essays 2021.
Days before California governor Gavin Newsom mandated the statewide stay-at-home order on March 19, 2020, which effectively paused all nonessential economic activity and travel for nearly forty million residents, a Facebook post from a publishing acquaintance popped up in my news feed. His collage of photos and videos were taken, he claimed, during a past trip to China years ago, and they caught my eye because they featured an array of skewers arranged in neat, vertical piles—including grubs and scorpions—heaping piles of brown foods garnished with chopped scallions, and a balding, middle-aged Chinese man, lips pursed, clearly enjoying his meal. Above it, my acquaintance wrote: A few photos/videos from a “live animal market.” Any questions? I held my breath, watching the flurry of gray ellipses begin to dance in the comments.
The ethos of the modern world is defined by immigrants. Their stories have always been an essential component of our cultural consciousness, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Isabel Allende, from Milan Kundera to Yiyun Li. In novels, short stories, memoirs, and works of journalism, immigrants have shown us what resilience and dedication we’re capable of, and have expanded our sense of what it means to be global citizens. In these times of intense xenophobia, it is more important than ever that these boundary-crossing stories reach the broadest possible audience.
Now in its sixth year, the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing supports the voices of immigrant writers whose works straddle cultural divides, embrace the multicultural makeup of our society, and interrogate questions of identity in a global society. This prize awards $10,000 and publication with Restless Books to a writer who has produced a work that addresses the effects of global migration on identity. This year’s judges, Francisco Cantú, Shuchi Saraswat, and Ilan Stavans, have selected the below four finalists. Click on the links in each section to read excerpts from their books.
Read Excerpts by the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing 2021 Finalists