Words in Transit: Stories of Immigrants ed. by Ilan Stavans (review)
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Words in Transit: Stories of Immigrants. Ilan Stavans (ed). Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. 224 pages. Softbound, $26.95.

Oral historians know that collecting wonderful interviews on a complex topic, such as immigration, is laborious and rewarding but really only half the job. Next we must curate the wisdom of our narrators in a compelling, concise fashion so that others might benefit from their stories. Documentaries, museum exhibits, monographs, and readers-theater scripts are all effective vehicles to present oral histories. The book Words in Transit: the Stories of Immigrants is exemplary in its treatment of an immense, controversial, and timely issue in a meaningful and engaging manner.

This beautiful, 200-page volume grew out of a larger, collaborative Words in Transit project that began as an initiative between the Copeland Colloquium at Amherst College and New England Public Radio (NEPR) from 2014 to 2015. Noted Latin Americanist Ilan Stavans (Amherst) organized this project and partnered with John Voci (NEPR), who became the director of the project's radio and online elements. The goal was to take the national discussion about immigration and bring it home to the Connecticut River Valley, to shift away from an abstract policy debate and instead to consider individual accounts by immigrant neighbors that focused on topics such as leaving one's homeland and resettlement abroad.

The book consists mostly of the personal stories and images of nearly thirty people who emigrated from across the globe; care was taken to represent a cross section of age, class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality among the immigrant narrators. Stavans's introduction to the work references his own immigrant experience and, at times, disorientation, as he journeyed from Mexico City to New York City, and then to western Massachusetts, more than thirty years ago. He remarks, "This volume is an invitation to look at the community of newcomers as a whole, to listen to them with one's eyes, to look into how immigration fortifies the texture of our cultural ecology" (xviii). The resulting book is both intimate and inclusive in its scope.

Each of the twenty-eight short chapters opens with an evocative title taken from the interview, such as "I Can Start Over," "You Don't Want to Stick Out," "I Feel Like I Am from Here," "I Won the Lottery," and "It's Hard to Translate." Included, for example, are the narrative of a young Haitian woman who became homeless during the 2011 earthquake and relocated to Connecticut, where she studies and hopes to become a pediatric oncologist; an Iraqi English interpreter who tells of escaping with his life after being targeted by ISIS for his work—he currently works in a factory and tutors other immigrants at the library; a Fulbright scholar from Palestine; a Romanian yoga teacher; a refugee family from the Republic of Congo; and others from Cambodia, Burundi, Sudan, [End Page 402] El Salvador, Slovenia, Bhutan and more. Collectively we learn about their homelands, what precipitated their moves overseas, why they settled in New England, and, finally, about their adjustment to their adopted home. It is a rich and satisfying approach.

A skillful team from New England Public Radio initially recorded, edited, and aired short portions from the interviews on Morning Edition. The NEPR website (http://nepr.net/wordsintransit) posted them along with Beth Reynolds's stunning photographic profiles of the interviewees: the photos bring to life the expressive faces of the narrators in their adopted homes. The book utilizes both transcribed audio and photographs and goes further to include lengthier, skillfully edited interview excerpts. Details about the project's methodology as well as its collaborative approach and personnel are included in short essays by Voci and project interviewer Tema Silk.

Long ago, my dissertation focused on Sicilian immigration to nineteenth-century New Orleans. A major frustration was that I found no accounts about their lives from the immigrants themselves, who were generally poor and illiterate. In the end, I relied on sources written by others to speculate about them. Ultimately that experience contributed to my becoming an oral historian. Firsthand accounts in the narrators' own words along with striking photographs make it possible for others...



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