BECOMING A WRITER WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF FAMILY, CULTURE, READING, AND AN AVOCADO by Susan Kuklin
My grandfather, who we all called Pop, was a Russian immigrant. He was the kind of person who couldn’t bear knowing that people were being mistreated, especially because of their race, ethnicity, or beliefs. He believed strongly that “all men are created equal,” and he was grateful that his adopted country provided him with a safe haven, a good education for his children, and a satisfying life. I’ve wondered, though, if Pop was technically here illegally. Once he arrived in the U.S., he did not follow immigration directions, which was to take a train to Chicago where a sponsor and a job were waiting. Instead, he saw my grandmother in a candy store in Philadelphia, fell hopelessly in love, and stayed there forever.
This woman, who would become my grandmother, was also an immigrant from Russia. Mom gifted me with the love of literature and the arts. I was a sickly child who spend many a school day at home in bed reading. Mom would arrive at our house with the most perfect home-made chicken soup, crunchy crackers, ginger ale, and a pile of books. She’d sit down at the foot of the bed, stroke my feet, and read stories and fables from her native country: Scholem Aleichem, Tolstoy, and Pushkin (and also my beloved Little Women) She read with passion, enthusiasm, and a soft Yiddish accent. Mom’s authors filled my asthmatic self with curiosity about the grand world beyond the quiet streets of West Philadelphia.
As I grew older, and healthier, I often curled up with fiction and nonfiction books about Asia, Africa, and Europe. I’d be swept up in cultures different from my own. I hopscotched centuries. Writers who found the perfect turn of a phrase reached deep into my being. How did they find the perfect combination of words to express an interesting idea? I was in awe – still am.
Here’s the avocado part. In middle school science class, we students were each given an avocado seed. We plugged toothpicks into its middle and placed its rump in a glass of water. We were required to keep records of the seed becoming a plant and then write it up for a term paper. Everyone’s avocado grew rich, deep green, leaves – everyone’s but mine. My seed just sat there and did nothing. I titled my term paper “The Bad Seed,” based on a popular movie a few years earlier. The grade presaged the future: A for creative writing and a D for science – but the A didn’t count. This was a science class not an English class. My family realized that I would never be a scientist, especially a botanist, but maybe, just maybe I could be a writer.
My new book, We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Young Adult Undocumented Immigrants was created in part to honor my grandparents and give thumbs up to that sweet-but-barren avocado seed. It was also written to open a conversation about much-needed immigration reform.
To create the book, I interviewed a number of high school and college age people who came to this country without the proper documentation. Most of them are known as DREAMers, young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Some had no idea that they were undocumented. They were raised in American communities and schools, and grew up like any typical first generation American.
All of the people who volunteered to participate in We Are Here to Stay said that they were grateful to their parents for giving them opportunities they never would have had in the country of their birth. As we spent more and more time together, I was struck by the fact that their parents’ reasons for coming to this country were similar to the ones I heard in conversations with Mom and Pop. It was also a deep pleasure to get to know and interview people from such diverse places as Colombia, Ghana, Mexico, South Korea and Independent Samoa. I loved hearing stories about their culture, their customs, and how they married their proud heritage with an American lifestyle. Our conversations brought me back to the days when I first yearned to know about people from worlds other than my own.
We spent many hours together recording interviews, taking photographs, and sharing meals. The response to my questions felt natural, never foreign. While writing each profile, I wanted to tell a good story, for sure, but within the confines of the participant’s voice and the participant’s truth. To do so, it seemed logical to write in the first person. This is their story, not mine, their voice, not my voice.
When you read We Are Here to Stay, I hope you enjoy getting to know the nine young adults whom I’ve come to appreciate and admire. May you enjoy the richness of their experiences and their heritage, for clearly there is not one bad seed among them.
Susan Kuklin is the award-winning author and photographer of more than thirty books for children and young adults that address social issues and culture, including No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row and Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, which was named a Stonewall Honor Book. Her photographs have appeared in the Museum of the City of New York, documentary films, Time magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times. Susan Kuklin lives in New York City.