Ahead are the stories of several families, and hoping to grow. This project is above all, about our relationship to our stories. At its base, Said’s Orientalism discusses the Orient through the Western gaze. The West is progress, it is the future, it is constantly changing. The Orient is ossified, it is regressive, it is a world frozen in the past. It is a tendency that has essentialized the East as “other”, as strange and undeveloped, for centuries.
Through the lens of Orientalism, I wanted to engage with immigrant family stories across the generations. For many immigrant families to the United States, the passing down of stories unintentionally mimics Orientalism, as the Orient literally does become the past, and the West, the future. By unraveling stories from the immigrant to the second and third generations, I found how generational distance effects storytelling. As the generations move forward, the homeland becomes a place frozen in time. The homeland that is passed down in story is still, as it was when the immigrant left it.
In the distance between the experiences of the immigrant and those of their children, we fill in the gaps with our imagination. We mythologize our familial pasts to make sense of them, make folklore out of life. Using oral history testimonies from various generations of the same families, I recorded the tellings and retellings of these stories, and the differences in thought and gaze that develop. Using creative nonfiction, I enacted a kind of meta-storytelling. I acknowledged the act of the telling of these stories, and myself as a character within this search, both a guide and a subjective navigator attempting to parse out the fantastic, the people, and the perspectives at hand.
A small spoiler—after the introduction, I begin my own family’s reflections with the words, “A year or so ago, it came to me that each member of my nuclear family was born on an island.” I have been attracted to the motif of the island for its fragmented nature, but also for its ecology. I can no longer remember whether it was high school Environmental Science or Biology where I learned about the founder effect, but I know that if you place a small population of wildlife on an island away from its origins, the new population is bound to become distinctly genetically and phenotypically different from its mainland predecessors. Once of the same blood, they evolve independently, continue on from the point they arrived and morph into something else until they may no longer be recognizable among the population of their origins.
It is true that yes, within Orientalism, the Orient itself becomes a sort of island, an untouched, exaggerated variant of its origins, lost to time. But so do the stories we pass on, as they are told over and over, evolving independently from their source. And we as storytellers, as children of immigrants, become islands onto ourselves in a new country, isolated evolutions of our homelands. Beyond that, every person is, in a way, their own island of memories; as our memories, and only ours, are available to us in the way they are.
As you read and listen, I hope that you think through these themes. But more than that, I hope you enjoy the stories ahead, because really, that is how they stay alive.