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
Natasha Burge is a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
A strikingly original exploration of autism and psychogeography, Natasha Burge’s Drifts takes us through the souks, caves, and sands of the Arabian Gulf to create a loving and sensorial meditation on place and transcultural identity. In gorgeous poetic prose, Burge probes her unfurling awareness of autism, connecting seemingly tangential thoughts and wanderings with the anchored histories of the Arabian Gulf. The scenic and descriptive power of Burge’s writing is remarkable, bringing to life vivid landscapes, city streets and markets, desert sunsets, and unseen waters flowing beneath the earth.
The following excerpt includes material originally published by The Smart Set.
An editor suggests I write about being an alien. This word I like, with its superabundance of meaning. It reminds me of visa stamps crowding an already full passport, of space shuttles and star dust and loneliness. It rings true.
Ani Gjika is a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
By Its Right Name is a courageous and profoundly intimate story of recognizing and reclaiming the power of one’s sexuality. Ani Gjika intricately reconstructs her personal history in America, Albania, and beyond, naming traumas that often remain unspoken. By Its Right Name is a different kind of immigrant story, one that demands that we consider the specific, insidious ways that patriarchy controls a woman’s relationship to desire and sex, as well as to her body, mind, and expression. With a poet’s ear, Gjika finds language for confronting patriarchy, misogyny, and the male gaze on the most intimate of terms, ultimately revealing the transformational power of self-discovery through the written word.
Sometimes there’s a father I wish I had. He picks me up at school high-fiving me just as I run out the door into the schoolyard.
“How was it?” he asks. “How’d you do in the exam?”
“I nailed it!” I say, all joy and pride around my father.
“Didn’t I tell you?” he says. “If you put in the work, you can do anything.”
The wall above the desk in my childhood bedroom is covered in sticky notes, index cards, and fading color photographs. They are haphazardly layered, held up by torn pieces of Scotch tape and pushpins at odd angles. Each time I sit, spinning in my blue, cat-clawed desk chair, I reread and remember.
My first college English professor told us everyone should keep a commonplace book: somewhere to put words, ideas, and sentences we want to hold. He said it was a way to mark the passage of time and the changes of our minds. I was intrigued by the idea, but aware it was the sort of thing I’d begin and then forget in the bustling adjustment of no longer being at home. So I wrote down the word—commonplace—but started nothing then.
Before the arrival, there was a departure. A view of an airport gate through an airplane window.
I was eleven years old; my brother Nathan was eight. We had just completed the drive from our home in Norman, Oklahoma to Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. I was eager to board the plane and get to my seat so that I could look out the window, back toward the gate. My best friend Rachel had come to the airport with us, back when you could hug someone goodbye right up to the boarding doors. She had promised that if I looked out the plane window, she’d make sure I saw her waving to me, and she promised to keep waving until after the plane had pulled away from the gate and Nathan and I were far above the place where we’d grown up, in between two very different homes, two parents, two lives. I held onto this promise tightly, as if looking back to see Rachel waving was as far as I was going that day: boarding a plane just for this small moment.
Before I left to study abroad in Galway, Ireland, in the winter of 2020, I’d stumbled upon a lively online discussion amongst first-generation, Black Irish immigrants. From the comfort of my bedroom, I came upon a comment that stuck with me for quite some time: I have never experienced outright racism here, an anonymous poster said. It’s because the racists here are cowards. They will never say anything to your face.
“Your teeth hurt because you have some recession,” says my dental hygienist. I’m leaned back in the chair, gritty-mouthed from a cleaning. I’ve never had this problem before, so it takes me a minute to get what she means.
If I had kept a journal in the early fifties, when I was new in New York, I would have marked the day on which I saw the basalt bowl in a store window in Greenwich Village. It was small, and had an in-curling rim and the finest matte black finish. It cost fifteen dollars, almost half my monthly salary, so I got back on the subway and went home. I could not get the thing out of my mind. I desired it. “Beauty,” Stendhal said, “is the promise of happiness.” There was the Saturday I took the subway to the Village, but my bowl was gone.
It might have been twenty years later when I could afford the large basalt platter with a rim that flattens outward. It was a handsome piece, but it did not redeem the thwarted love for that first small black bowl.