Tag Archives: transition

Personal Stories of Migration and the Transition Experience

By Carole Reedy

Home is where you are …
David Byrne

By definition, migration is moving from one place to another, while transition is the process of changing or developing once you arrive. The books listed here tell the stories of both, spanning the globe from Mexico and India to Russia. Accounts of this type have been written since humans put pen to paper. These, I feel, are particularly significant for readers of The Eye.

Homeland Elegies: A Novel, by Ayad Akhtar (2020)

Although pegged as a novel, the immigration story that weaves through these pages is based on the author’s own experiences and family. Akhtar is an American, and he is also a Muslim. In a very personal manner he tells the story of his family in the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India: the journeys back and forth and the reactions, attitudes, and beliefs of his family, especially his father.

This modern story of Muslims here and abroad contains a most up-to-date analysis of the US in relation to the rest of the world. Most important to me was the flowing narrative, which appears effortless and addresses a variety of emotions, attitudes, and doubts about modern American society, what it was, and what it has become.

Salman Rushdie calls it “passionate, disturbing, and unputdownable.” It is.

On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, by Tony Cohan (2001)

Of the many novels written about the US transition to life in Mexico, Cohan’s description of building a home in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) resonates perhaps most clearly to those interested in modern migration and transition.

As background: Two of the original pioneers from north of the border wandered to San Miguel over 80 years ago from Chicago. Stirling Dickinson and Heath Bowman together wrote books about their Mexican and South American travel experiences. Eventually they built a house in San Miguel. Bowman left, but Dickinson stayed in SMA until his death in 1988 at age 89. He contributed to the art and culture of the area, living a simple life from his arrival until his death

Tony Cohan and his wife, after visiting central Mexico in 1985, returned home to Los Angeles, sold their home, and journeyed to SMA, where they bought and refurbished at 250-year-old property. On Mexican Time is the story of the joy, tribulations, adjustment, and drama of their migration and transition to life in Mexico relating specifically to the construction experience.

Cohan’s writing is poignant, fluid, and funny. Most important, though, he finds the perfect phrasing and words to gift readers with a description of the qualities needed to integrate into a culture not their own. On Mexican Time has become a travel classic.

After the success of his first book about Mexico, Cohan went on to expand his writing geography to other parts of this diverse country. Mexican Days: Journeys into the Heart of Mexico (2007) explores the old and new Mexico of coastal and mountainous Veracruz, the sights and smells of Oaxaca, the modern and ancient culture of sprawling Mexico City, the Mayan ruins of the Yucatán, and the indigenous culture of Chiapas.

Burnt Shadows: A Novel, by Kamila Shamsie (2009)

The complete and compelling history of this novel’s families spans countries from Japan in 1945 to Delhi and then to the newly created Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is a time of major world-changing and life-changing events, from the bomb in Nagasaki to the partition of India, the creation of Pakistan, and the jihadist movement in Afghanistan.

An ambitious project, to say the least, but Shamsie creates a cast of believable, sympathetic characters whose lives are shaped by tragic world events. Kirkus Reviews praises Shamsie for her “rare combination of skill and sensitively.”

Lost Children Archive: A Novel (2019) and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli is one of the most visible, influential, and credible writers about migration and transition to grace bookstores in the past few years. She has personally lived the migratory life and experienced its many transitions. She was born in Mexico City, but just two years later Luiselli’s family moved to Madison, Wisconsin. From there her father’s work took them to Costa Rica, South Korea, and South Africa. At age 16 she moved back to Mexico City. She has also lived in Spain and France.

Currently, Luiselli lives in the Bronx. Her work as an intern at the United Nations, interviewing and interpreting for Central American child migrants, led to the two books mentioned here.

Tell Me How it Ends is a simple book that relates her day-to-day work as an interpreter for the children from Central America (not Mexico) who have crossed the US border and have been separated from relatives or have crossed unaccompanied. The title comes from questions her own children asked as she related her daily work to them each evening–they wanted to know “how it ends” for the children. This is a stark rendering of the state of US immigration policy, a short and mostly sad story.

Lost Children’s Archive, Luiselli’s fifth novel, is the story of a family on a road trip from New York to Arizona in which the children learn about their father’s obsession with Geronimo and at the same time are exposed to the grim realities of children crossing the border.

Luiselli is an intelligent and creative woman who writes in a variety of styles. One of her most interesting works is the short book The Story of My Teeth (2015). I won’t say more. Try it. I think you will find it quite amusing … and more.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2004)

Readers are in love with Luis Alberto Urrea, who is probably the most popular and important of Mexican-American writers, acknowledged on both sides of the border as one of the most accurate descriptors of the border-crossing experience. Many of his books revolve around the economic struggle of Mexicans and their desire to cross over to the life of riches they perceive will be available to them in the US.

Urrea’s most famous book and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Devil’s Highway is the true story of 26 Mexican men who, in May of 2001, crossed the Mexico-US border into the most dangerous of deserts, the 130-mile dirt road in the Sonoran desert called The Devil’s Highway. Published in 2004, the subject remains as fresh in our hearts and minds as it did then.

Urrea investigates and shares the motivations of the various people involved, from the men who attempted the crossing, despite warnings of danger, to the border agents in the US and the coyotes who are paid to be “in the know” about all aspects of the crossing and to lead the men across the deadly terrain.

The Devil’s Highway has been called a must-read in age of migration from south to north, but his novels also give us insight into the Mexican way of life via brilliantly depicted characters and situations, some based on his own family. Urrea has also earned well-deserved kudos for The House of Broken Angels (2018), Queen of America: A Novel (2011), Into the Beautiful North: A Novel (2009), and The Hummingbird’s Daughter: A Novel (2005).

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir, by Lev Golinkin (2014)
In 1989, the family of the young narrator of this story, which stretches over continents and years, leaves the Soviet Union with three unusual items and little else in tow: a bear, a backpack, and eight crates of vodka.

Told through the eyes of the young son, this memoir begins in Ukraine and ends in the US, with stops in Europe as the family makes its way from repression to freedom. Lev leads a life of confusion, not only about where they’re heading, but of his own identity as a Jew.

The tone at the beginning of this book is amusing and entertaining, but as Lev ages he finds that he needs to address his identity and the people in the past who helped him. His formative years were spent moving and settling, in doubt and even fear. The light touch at the start of the tale becomes heavier as we watch Lev develop into a man.

There are many tales of desperate groups of people seeking refuge and freedom, but Lev’s feelings and his adaptation to a wide variety of circumstances present different challenges. The constellation of emotions evoked in this memoir make it one that will stay with you – it’s also an ideal book for discussion.

The subject of migration and transition has always been with us and will remain a dominant issue for novelists and writers of memoirs for years to come. And, of course, they will provide seductive material for this column.

Transition to Transformation

By Susan Birkenshaw

On December 8, 1989, having reached my late 30s, I “retired” from my long-standing employment with the Ontario government. Over numerous summer assignments while still in school and permanent jobs, my focus was always on the education and personal growth of the people I managed. I found it fascinating that it did not matter what job we were doing or the level of responsibility or accountability a team member had, we were the most successful in meeting goals and simply “Getting the job done!” when each individual was acknowledged, encouraged, and rewarded both professionally and personally. There is nothing more rewarding than to watch the growth of the staff around me.

Fast forward to the time of my “retirement.” I had been in a position where I trained executives in public service for a variety of subjects and tasks – developing skills for leadership, management and labour relations. The most ironic subject that I was faced with was “how to make early retirement work for you!” Imagine an under 40-year-old person, teaching long term civil servants (often over 60) how to make the best of early retirement options.

THEN – I had a “lightbulb” moment – with my years of service and the new program that the government was offering, I was eligible for one of these retirement options! Suddenly, I was unemployed, at my choice. I now had the opportunity to create my next future. I had to learn the true meaning of transition, transformation, and growth!

This was at the time when self-help books were raining from every bookshelf, self-styled gurus were popping up on every street corner and flyers for new personal growth courses arrived in your snail mailbox on a regular basis. This also was before the advent of email, internet, and the ubiquitous AOL disc! I knew two things in my soul – I loved working with adults and having meaningful conversations where opinions were shared and challenged with respect, and I craved being my own boss – maybe not forever but to experience that feeling of self-power. OOOH, I had so much to learn!

After many starts and revisions, I was and am a private coach and educator in the simple art of personal communication. As I proceeded to work with many people who found themselves frustrated with their lack of success in communicating what they wanted to say, I finally put together a short but simple message to demonstrate the goal of each training session: “Transform to Keep the Good Stuff – Thrive with the New.” Change is usually just a cosmetic alteration – a coat of paint, a new window, or a new clothing style. Actual transformation is an alteration or replacement of things that are not working, and we must remember that the results of transformation are not returnable.

I designed a program called ThrivalQuest©.

Consider the caterpillar. This small, maybe bright green worm creeps about in its environment and finally picks a spot to create a chrysalis to move on to her next life. In this chrysalis, she alters her complete make-up, goes through a soupy goo stage, and ultimately recreates herself and comes out as a beautiful butterfly (or moth) to live on anew. The thing to remember here is there is nothing left of the caterpillar – no cellular similarities, no memories and likely not even any of the same colours.

Now we come to my forever favourite – the Dragonfly – this magnificent creature challenges all of us to see movement in a different way, colour in its many layers and just simply to SEE. Her magic begins in her early life – from egg to larva to adult dragonfly. The most wondrous thing about this whole process – anywhere from 3 months up to 5 years – she keeps the parts and cells that will work in the next stage, rejecting things that will control her growth – like her hard-shelled exoskeleton.

In other words, she keeps the good things about herself and rejects the things that hold her back. Clearly, I am not a scientist and I find the minute detail of the process that a dragonfly goes through to achieve such beauty a bit overwhelming – but I did and do find the analogy of her process was a perfect fit for my clients: “Shed the Old Coat that No Longer Fits!”

I still use the beautiful dragonfly to support me in any conversation I have about transformation. Each time I hear someone tell me that something must things have to change – my first challenge is “Everything? Or can we take small steps over time?” More often than not, there is a long pause in the conversation, and we begin again – what needs to be different? How fast does this need to happen? What will need to happen to achieve our goal? I do know that if we want to thrive in our currently weird environment, we need to be flexible. We can neither change everything nor keep everything the same in our lives – but if we are selective about who and what we keep around us, we will thrive.

I suggest as we come to a time where our world transitions through drastic change both personally and globally – take a good hard look at your “old normal.” This is when you can identify all the stuff that is holding you in a place where you may no longer be comfortable. With that list in hand, these are the questions you need to ask yourself. Is this still true? Is this still important to my life? Does it give me pleasure? Can I keep that thing or that person in my life and still respect myself? Am I being honest? And finally, what are you going to do next with your new knowledge?

This is ridiculously hard and may take a long time, so I strongly suggest the time is now! If the pandemic has given us anything, it is the gift of time to design and prepare to take the next steps in our lives.

Susan Birkenshaw-Keith is a storyteller and a personal communications specialist. She has retired from active clients and enjoys the creative arts, writing her life stories and living in Huatulco.