Every person who immigrates to the United States has a story and Larry Smith has been asking people to share their stories in just six words. The newest of his Six Word Memoirs series is called Fresh Off The Boat, Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America. He spoke with KUNM's Chris Boros.
KUNM: Larry, thank you.
SMITH: It is so nice to be here in Albuquerque, Chris. I’m so happy to be here.
KUNM: So one of my favorite six words stories about immigration in your new book is this one, “Germany escaped, England survived, America lived.”
SMITH: I mean that’s a story that’s reflective of the book, which is if you didn’t have that same life, that same background, you can picture the person that did and you suddenly ask yourself, what’s my family’s story and you take it from there.
KUNM: Why six words?
SMITH: There’s a legend that Ernest Hemingway, that, you know, muscular simple writer, was once challenged to write a whole novel in just six words. As the story goes, “For sale baby shoes never worn” — the six word novel. So on my website, I said let’s give the six-word novel a personal twist. I called it the six word memoir. The next day I checked my email and there were 5,000 submissions to the six-word memoir contest and it just took off.
KUNM: Let’s talk about your grandpa because he’s from Russia and he immigrated here. Did his story play into this at all, that you wanted to tackle this topic?
SMITH: Well, my grandfather’s story and my relationship with him really infused everything I love about storytelling. My grandfather came over from Russia in 1914 at the age of 4. Like many Americans, he was coming here for a better life. His family came over and his dad sold eggs door to door in Philadelphia and sent money home back to Russia — the American story, right? And I just loved talking to him and hanging with him because he talked to everyone. He was curious. So my grandfather really inspires what I do and his story of coming from Russia, really led me, I think, to this new book.
KUNM: You know, when I was going through the book and I’m reading these six word stories, I got this sense of feeling patriotic when I read some of these. Have other people mentioned that to you, that feeling they get?
SMITH: I think the reason you feel patriotic is because almost all of us, unless you’re Native American, and we have that perspective in the book for sure, almost all of us at some point in our background, our family background, we came over from somewhere and our great great grandparents or whoever it may be, grandparents, if you’re a recent immigrant maybe your parents, maybe yourself, you have taken an act of faith. I think it makes us feel good about what we are as a nation.
KUNM: There are a couple too that seem, I don’t wanna say negative, but maybe they didn’t have such a great experience immigrating here and I wanna read two of them. “Identity reduced to a check box,” or “Go back to Africa — just might.”
SMITH: Right, and I think that it’s hard, right? And when you hear someone’s story like that, I think there’s no way not to have a little bit of empathy and maybe this book can, if not change minds, start discussions.
KUNM: You tackled lots of different topics in this six word memoir series, law of life, work, is there a next topic coming out?
SMITH: Well, in six words, you’re only limited by your imagination. I have to tell you.
KUNM: Your whole life is six words now!
SMITH: People send me six word texts and emails and its wonderful but one of the stories in the book is told in emojis and I sort of love it and so I thought, we could do a book of emoji stories. Maybe some with backstories, some with not.
KUNM: You’re gonna be at Bookworks in Albuquerque tomorrow at six for a book signing.
SMITH: Yeah and our book events are a little different than most book events. I have local contributors, who are in the book, start with their six words and then tell the backstory in about 4 - 6 minutes and we also invite just local storytellers, who aren’t necessarily in the book, to come and also do the same thing. It’s a really fun kind of event. It’s participatory, it’s loose, it’s warm, and you know, what’s better than storytelling?
KUNM: Larry Smith is the creator of the Six Words Memoir series. The newest edition is Fresh Off The Boat. He’ll be at Bookworks in Albuquerque tomorrow night at 6. Larry Smith, thanks.
SMITH: It was a pleasure to be here.
KUNM: If you’d like to share your own six word immigration story, head to our Facebook page to post your story in six words.
Smith will be at Bookworks in Albuquerque at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29.