Author Archives: ruslanaw

1st Anniversary of Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion

Speech by Ruslana Westerlund, 2-24-23

Good morning. My name is Ruslana Westerlund and I am one of the organizers of this event.  Thank you everyone for coming.  This event is to commemorate the year of the resilience of the Ukrainian people, honor those who gave their lives for our freedom, and to thank you all for your ongoing support.  We will hear several speeches from the Ukrainian community, some of who are refugees of war, as well as UW professors.  We will also hear from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church here in town, Father Gregory as well as pastor Charles from Covenant Presbyterian church. We will have a very special young Ukrainian performer. We will conclude with a singing of the Ukrainian anthem and a moment of silence. 

Thank you everyone for coming to our rally. Exactly a year ago some of us were standing here, on these steps, on the second day of this genocidal war.  We didn’t know what will happen. We didn’t know how long we’ll stand.  We didn’t know if we will still exist as a nation. A year ago many Madisonians came to join us and they continue to stand with us.  Thank you Americans, Thank you Madison for showing up again, for standing with us the whole year, day after day.  Thank you for donating, for contacting your representatives, thank you for checking on Ukrainians with “How can we help? What can we do? Or a simple “How are you holding up?”

The war in Ukraine has been going on for 9 years and yesterday, on February 24th 2023 was 1 year since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Over the course of the year the aggressor has been systematically destroying Ukraine and committing terrible war crimes. Despite this, Ukrainians continuously defend their homeland and the world from the aggression of the terrorist country. We have been fighting and defending the whole world with dignity, together with you. You – who have been reinforcing our common victory since the first day. Ukrainians are very grateful for all support because we sincerely believe that only together can we overcome this evil.

Today we commemorate this year – 365 days of defending freedom.

365 days of resilience. 

365 days of determination. 

365 days of courage.

365 days of perseverance. 

365 days of a relentless desire to live. 

365 days of being unstoppable. 

365 days of being brave, of being brave Ukraine. 

Cлава Україні! 

The world gave us three days. But the world measured our might in military equipment. We measure our strength in how much we love freedom. Mathematically or numerically, we were supposed to be defeated because we had a smaller army, however, on the scale of how much we value freedom, we are invincible. That love of freedom, the desire to exist as free Ukrainians is how we are winning this war with a help of a few tanks, of course.  

We are asking for military support not because we are militant people.  We don’t want this war.  I repeat again.  WE DON’T WANT THIS WAR. We are a peaceful people who have been invaded at dawn when our babies were still sleeping. We are trying to protect our homes. We are trying to have a future as a people. We have been aggressed against.  We have been genocided against. Millions of people have lost their homes.  Children have lost their childhood. They continue to live with high levels of stress and trauma. Women and children have been raped and tortured. Family units have been fractured. Children have not seen their fathers for 365 days and counting. 

We are asking for military support because if we don’t, we won’t exist as a people.  The Russian aggressor is targeting civilian infrastructure, bombing hospitals, preschools, universities, schools, and apartment complexes.  One of my dear friends lost her mother-in-law and her husband in one day in the January 14th Dnipro attack.  When the time came to bury them, they had to use a DNA test to identify him because there was nothing left of him. How do you bury your loved ones identified through a DNA test?? That’s why we are asking for continued support because more people will die, and more children’s lives will be lost.  Putin is not going to stop.  And we are not going to roll over. We are not going to give up our land.  It’s our land! We live there!!! Did Putin stop after he took Crimea? No, he just waited a little and rolled in with his tanks and missiles. 

A few words about the posters that people are holding on the black background. Please hold them so people can see them.  These posters come from a series of 365 photo posters about tragic events that have happened each day since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. We chose to use 12 posters, one poster per month to represent the full year of the events. “They show Ukrainian people’s struggles for freedom for the sake of the whole world. Ukrainians are offering to remember this year together, thank the world for helping to get through it, and call on the world to defend our freedom by joint forces to achieve victory” (Alexander Krapivkin).

“During this year Ukraine has shown the whole world its capability and strive for freedom and independence, its desire to build and defend democracy. The world has seen both our authentic culture and our genuine bravery. And the free and democracy-loving world is brave like Ukraine” (Alexander Krapivkin). 

If I were to describe this year in one word: it would be the word courage.  

Courage to stand up to a country 30 times larger than us.

Courage to ask for ammunition and not a ride.

Courage to tell the russian ship to go far far far away.

Courage to absorb evil, torture, and rape so that Kyiv would not fall.

Courage to be separated from your loved ones.

Сourage to stay.  

Courage to leave. 

Courage to stop tanks by blocking streets with their bodies.

Courage to hitch a russian tank to the tractor.

Courage to run to the shelter.  Courage to shelter children with your bodies. 

Courage to continue educating the future despite air rades, shelling, and no electricity.

Courage to go to work, to create, and to have babies.

Courage to dream of a future without war. 

Courage to believe in victory despite all odds. 

The victory of Ukraine will be the victory of every nation that values freedom and democracy. 

Ми з тобою, Україно! 

National Anthem of Ukraine 

Український текстTransliteration*Translation
1. 
Ще не вмерла України і слава, і воля,
Ще нам, браття молодії, усміхнеться доля
Згинуть наші воріженьки, як роса на сонці
Запануєм і ми, браття, у своїй сторонці.
1.
Shche ne vmerla Ukrayiny, ni slava, ni volya,
Shche nam, brattya molodiyi, usmikhnet’sya dolya.
Zhinut’ nashi vorizhen’ki, yak rosa na sontsi,
Zapanuyem i mi, brattya, u svoyiy storontsi.
1. 
Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom,
Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians.
Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine,
and we, too, brothers, we’ll live happily in our land.
Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу,
І покажем, що ми, браття, козацького роду.
Dushu y tilo mi polozhim za nashu svobodu
I pokazhem, shcho mi, brattya, kozats’koho rodu.
We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom
and we’ll prove that we brothers are of Kozak kin.
2.
Станем, браття, в бій кривавий від Сяну до Дону,
В ріднім краю панувати не дамо нікому;
Чорне море ще всміхнеться, дід Дніпро зрадіє,
Ще у нашій Україні доленька наспіє.
 

2.
Stanem brattia vbiy krivavyi vid Syanu s Donu, 
Vreednim krayu panuvati ne damo nikomu;
Chorne moreh sche vsmikhnetsia, deed Dnipro zradiye,
Shche u nashiy Ukrayini dolenka naspiye. 
2. 
Brethren, stand together in a bloody fight, from the Sian to the Don
We will not allow others to rule in our motherland.
The Black Sea will smile and grandfather Dnipro will rejoice,
For in our own Ukraine fortune shall flourish again.
Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу,
І покажем, що ми, браття, козацького роду.
Dushu y tilo mi polozhim za nashu svobodu
I pokazhem, shcho mi, brattya, kozats’koho rodu.

We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom
and we’ll prove that we brothers are of Kozak kin.
3.
А завзяття, праця щира свого ще докаже,
Ще ся волі в Україні піснь гучна розляже,
За Карпати відоб’ється, згомонить степами,
України слава стане поміж народами.
3. 
A zavzyattya, pratsia schyra svoho sche dokazhe,
Sche sia voli v Ukrayinee pisn’ huchna rozlyazhe
Za Karpati vidobyetsia z-homonit stepami,
Ukrayini slava stane pomizh narodami.
3. 
Our persistence and our sincere toils will be rewarded,
And freedom’s song will resound throughout all of Ukraine.
Echoing off the Carpathians, and rumbling across the steppes.
Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу,
І покажем, що ми, браття, козацького роду
Dushu y tilo mi polozhim za nashu svobodu
I pokazhem, shcho mi, brattya, kozats’koho rodu.
We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom
and we’ll prove that we brothers are of Kozak kin.
The Ukrainian National Anthem, including lyrics in Ukrainian, transliteration, and a translation

For a brief history and a more official transliteration following the international transliteration guidelines and the international pronunciation alphabet, visit this wikipedia page

Freeze Framing Time

by Ruslana A. Westerlund

A memory from 2 years ago popped up today on Facebook of living in the moment during this busy season.

December 20, 2017. Rob and I were wrapping gifts last night, watching the Lampoons Christmas Vacation movie (again), and I realized something that was important to me. The whole night we were silly, Rob was singing songs about “poor Tennessee Christmas” when we ran out of ribbons and gift name tags something about the mines stopped working and we had no money for ribbons and bows… We started using post it notes as gift name tags. The fire was going, the movie was on. The kids were trying to sneak up and see the gifts. Everyone was just happy. I paused and thought for a moment that this is the moment to be present in, not just wait to be happy on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, but DURING the preparation, enjoying the moments leading up to Christmas. I tend to miss seeing the joy in the journey because I always live in the future. But living in the present is the true present I gave myself.”

Three years later, on December 19, 2020, we went for a drive-through nativity at Blackhawk church and the line of cars was backing up onto the main road, lasting 1.5 hours long. We had Christmas music on, there were Christmas lights everywhere, creating a stark contrast with the winter evening darkness. But I was getting antsy and Rob reminded me that it’s okay to relax. “No one is in a hurry.” he said. And yet, I was the only one who was in a hurry. I’m like an energizer bunny who is always on the move. Sometimes for no reason at all. Like this evening. The boys in the back were talking about music theory, the physics of fire, the birth of the universe, the astrophysics of black holes (Julian is majoring in physics and his brother Nicky is curious about things, so this is a perfect combination). We sat in the front and just held our hands as happy parents savoring this moment, hoping it would never end. I thought to myself, what I can do to savor this moment and capture it, and at the same time, to freeze frame time, so it can stay still for a moment and not escape like vapor? I realize that because there was no picture of either of those moments, I thought I’d use writing to freeze frame time. And because writing is so one dimensional without the images and color, language has to work all the work. So, I have to choose words carefully as if words were pictures in a movie, helping the moment come alive.

 

What special moments are you noticing? How do you capture them?  How do you freeze frame time?

 

Writing is an Act of Courage

By Ruslana Westerlund, Author of From Borsch to Burgers: A Cross-cultural Memoir

A month ago today I self-published my first cross-cultural memoir From Borsch to Burgers, available on Amazon.  While I was writing it, I was in love with the process.  It was meaningful, analytical, deeply introspective, and highly cathartic.  The writing was preceded by much thinking and deep analysis. It also gave me a chance to relive some memories, revisit places of my childhood, remind myself of where I came from, give tribute to the people in my life, and resurrect some stories almost forgotten.  The words were for my eyes only, on the screen, protected with a password, not for the world to read. As soon as my story became public, I suddenly became terrified. I started questioning my confidence, my writing, my message, the quality of my own translation from my “upper intermediate” level of Ukrainian to English.  I sat out to analyze sources of my fear. I lay out these reasons below.

Writing is an act of courage, especially when you are writing a memoir. 

Memoir is such a personal genre (unlike a novel with fictional characters or your thesis or dissertation where you distance yourself from your writing and report on the results). A memoir is the story of your life for everyone to read and scrutinize, including your personal struggles, doubts and wonderings.  As an emigrant and an immigrant, you write with the fear of not offending anyone, as you analyze and describe Ukrainian and American cultural nuances.  Cross-cultural memoirs are particularly prone to such vulnerabilities because your writing analyzes both sides of your cross-cultural living: your birth place and your new home. For memoirs to be authentic, the stories have to be real and honest. Honesty leads to vulnerability. In the end, to write cross-culturally is to be vulnerable.  

Also, writing as an immigrant gives me a chance to humanize the immigrant experience by telling my own story.  Every immigrant has their own story.  If we don’t tell our stories, somebody else will.  In sharing our immigrant experiences, we provide a glimpse into the immigration journeys with all their twists and turns.  One person recently told me that they had no idea that immigrants had to struggle with so many things.  And I didn’t flee a war-torn country or a drug violence.  I came here by an invitation which I describe in my memoir with lots of details.  By recounting our immigrant experiences, provide an insight for people who have never had to immigrate or never had to defend their dissertations in their fourth language or learn the cultural nuances of communication that go beyond perfect grammar.

Writing is an act of courage, especially when writing in a language that’s not your native tongue. 

When Rob and I were doing the first round of edits, he kept saying, “Honey, in English we would say it this way.  I see what you are trying to say. I don’t want to lose the message but a native speaker would say this way.” I appreciated how he valued my ideas and tried to revise the form to help the audience appreciate the message and not be distracted by my idiosyncrasies.  He also worked very hard to preserve my voice.  More recently, someone said to me that my writing feels like it’s transliterated. That means it doesn’t read “native”-like. It reads like it was translated from Ukrainian. Two things are at play here: English is my fourth language. Technically, English is not my first language, but it has become my primary language of communication.  In the second language acquisition field, the notions of nativeness are being problematized. Who owns the standard language? Who speaks it? What does it mean to write native-like? What does it mean to sound native-like? Those conversations give me permission to continue improving my writing without striving to meet some elusive native-like standard.  

Second, I wasn’t taught writing in school.  Instead, we were only taught grammar because for our teachers writing meant following rules or constructing perfect sentences, not learning how to contextualize language.  Writing for a variety of audiences and genres and adjusting tone for different effects were never a focus of my education. The first paper I produced in grad school was a personal reflection.  I started to expand my genres when learning how to write a dissertation, my first bio, resume, CV, book reviews, and only recently, a memoir. Writing in a new genre is learning to write from square one, it’s a new journey.  What applied in writing my dissertation, didn’t apply in writing my memoir. Even the standard rules of grammar fell apart. Like complete sentences or using past tense to recount past. As an act of resistance, I wrote my memoir in present using past only when referring to the events that happened prior.  

Writing is an act of courage, especially when there is no agent to represent you. 

When you don’t have an agent, your story becomes your agent.  There is no one to represent you, your book or your message. Self-publishing is being courageous with every book signing or approaching acquisition directors in libraries and bookstores.  Courage doesn’t end with publishing the book.  That’s when it only begins.   

Things I Still Don’t Take for Granted in the U.S. 

By Ruslana Westerlund, Author of From Borsch to Burgers: A Cross-Cultural Memoir. 

On September 4, I will be celebrating 24 years of living in the United States. I have been reflecting on things that make me pause and say, “This is pretty remarkable that they do that.  I can’t believe it.” I have grown accustomed to many things in the U.S., such as speaking English without thinking about it (unless it’s slang that make my linguistic gears rev up a bit) and having a car to drive to work. But there are many things that I don’t take for granted.  Just the other day I was driving to work and I noticed a street sweeper on University Ave. I was blown away by the fact that as soon as the construction was over, the cleaning truck was there to take care of the work debris and dust. It’s such a beautiful sight.  I started reflecting more on that fact and made my top ten list of things that I don’t take for granted and notice them daily.

1. Roads and Infrastructure regardless of urban or rural areas.  

I still feel surprised every time I go to a rural town in Wisconsin that I get there on a decent highway and the roads within town are in good condition.  Whenever I travel to another state new to me, I anticipate that somehow it’s going to be like traveling back in time, especially when I enter a rural area, because that’s what happens every time I go to Ukraine.  To my surprise, the architecture, the infrastructure, the roads are in pretty much the same condition that I had in my home state. Of course, some roads are better and some are worse.  They depend on the severity of winters in that state and other factors like funding. In Ukraine, in a town with a huge collective farm during the Soviet times and a sugar beet factory, the only roads that were paved were those where the trucks used for transporting sugar beets. The road that leads to my house is still not paved as I write about it in my memoir as the only thing that stayed unchanged in the last two and half decades.

2. Road Repairs  

They say there are two seasons in Minnesota (and in Wisconsin for that matter): winter and road construction.  Many people in the U.S. complain about road construction. I am happy to see road construction.  It means the local government uses the funding in ways it has been designated. Whenever I travel to Ukraine, I rarely see road construction and the roads in the Cherkassy oblast are infamously known for being the worst.  As I mentioned in my memoir, borrowing from a Facebook meme, “In England, they drive on the left, in Ukraine they drive on what’s left.”  Ukrainians are sick and tired of corruption in the government patiently waiting for the local officials to have the funding and to distribute it to the road repairs.  Because of corruption at higher levels of state and local government, the money rarely makes it its original designated purposes.  That’s why I never think of road construction in Wisconsin as something to complain about.

3. Rest Areas Along Highways 

I write in my memoir From Borsch to Burgers (available on Amazon) in ch. 13 that I don’t

Rest Area in Poynette, WI.  Photo by wisconsindot.gov

take rest areas for granted and think of them as the most wonderful thing for travelers.  I write about it on p. 171, “I wonder if they’ve been invented by the Democrats – such a people-focused service!  No strings attached”. To read more about why rest areas are so amazing to me from the Ukrainian perspective, read my memoir. 

4. Courteous Drivers 

In all of my 22 years of driving (I didn’t start driving as soon as I arrived in the U.S.), I encountered maybe two jerks on the road. Otherwise, people drive in their own lanes and switch lanes courteously (unless you are in Chicago). Even my dad notices that when he visits me in the U.S. He says people drive and mind their own business, and stay in their own lane.  They rarely cut in front of you. Instead, they turn their blinker on to communicate their intentions.

5. Adopt a Highway Clean Up 

Every time I drive on the highway and see people picking up trash, I am amazed at that sighting. Companies advertise their name by adopting a stretch of the highway to clean up. It is the most beautiful thing to see how people in the name of their company and in the name of the clean roads, bend down to pick up somebody else’s garbage.  In my hometown there is a public quarry where people come to swim and barbecue.  What’s sad about the people who use the quarry is that many people leave their trash behind.  However, the hope for the town is the school which has a program teaching children and community members how to clean up after themselves.  I’m very proud of my Buzhanka school.

6. Law Abiding People 

I see this every day: law-abiding Americans put on their seatbelts with no cop around. I am one of them.  When I go to Ukraine, get in my dad’s car, put on my seatbelt before he even starts his engine, my dad looks at me and says, “No need to put on the seatbelt. We are just driving through Buzhanka.  There are no cops around. We only wear seatbelts in the city where you get a ticket for not wearing one.” Most Americans follow rules such as

  • do not cut across the parking lot but drive only in the direction as marked by the arrows.  Of course, there are those “rebels” that still drive diagonally but they get the looks (not that I’ve done that :).)
  • pull through after parking in a two space area. You know that type, right?
  • use the doors for entrance and exiting in public places (grocery stores, malls, medical facilities).  When I don’t pay attention and use the Exit door to come in through, I get the looks or someone will say, “Excuse me” or “Sorry” or “Pardon” to hint at the fact that my behavior is wrong.

Ukrainians do not follow rules to the same extent. It’s not that Ukrainians are more “disobedient” by nature.  Ukrainians learned time after time that most of the laws were designed to take advantage of people. Out of a mere survival instinct, to avoid getting hurt, people learned that rules can be avoided or “bent”. Now, there’s a tendency to avoid even good laws such wear seat belts. 

7. Philanthropy  

Over the past 24 years, I have met many generous Americans who give freely to various causes.  Many of those causes are related to health or human rights issues such as sexual trafficking, lymphoma, breast cancer, muscular dystrophy and others. They organize bike rides, marathons, 5Ks and other events to raise funds.  I’m always impressed with that generosity. I never take that for granted. It fills my heart with gratitude. My church organizes backpack drive and food drive to give to local organizations like schools. They don’t wait for anyone to come to church and “repent” first.  They serve and witness about Christ through their generosity, and occasionally, they use words.

8. Teenagers Holding Jobs 

My boys (ages 14 and 17) hold jobs and there are work permits to give them permission to work but also to protect them from working late or too many hours.  My boys are able to open a bank account, hold a debit card (I don’t let my kids get credit cards and live using money they don’t have). And we live in a small Wisconsin town, where they can ride their bike to work.  In Ukraine, young people can’t have a job because the economy is not that strong. My cousin’s daughter graduated with an administrative assistant degree and can’t be employed because companies like hair salons cut those positions to save money. Ukrainians are generous but they don’t have as much money as Americans.  They also have been burned out by various government scams and don’t often trust organizations that ask for donations. Many people are barely able to feed their own families.  

9. Kind Strangers 

An empty chair by my bus stop. Photo by Ruslana Westerlund

I take the bus to work every morning.  I park my car by my friend’s house and wait by the bus stop.  People who live by that bus stop put out two chairs for us to use.  I hop on the bus and the bus driver smiles, says, “Good morning” and proceeds to observe that I have a choice of chairs.  I smile back, say something genuine and wish him a good day when I get off the bus. Now, of course, this is small town America.  I’m sure in other busier cities, things are different and bus drivers can’t strike up a conversation with every passenger. But even when I walk my dogs on the street, people smile, joggers say hello to us and our dogs, and there is an atmosphere like I live in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  

10. Access to Mental Health Care and Physical Therapy  

The last aspect of American life that I’ll never take for granted is that mental health is not  stigmatized by the community, there is access to mental health counselors, and I can see a physical therapist for my knee. I know of many elderly in rural Ukraine who don’t have access to either of those services.  There is not even an option even if they had the money.  The elderly are often left to suffer in silence and isolation.  My dad visits them on Sundays and brings them communion.   In terms of mental health, when my mom passed away, I was able to benefit from grief counseling. My church was able to subsidize a Christian certified counselor, instead of telling me to pray more. When I had a minor knee pain, a physical therapist gave me exercises to do and explained how the muscles and joints and bones are connected which informed me of how to what kind of shoes to wear and which muscles to strengthen.

This list could go on for pages and pages.  I love the fact that I don’t get used to these things as take as “normal” because as soon as I do, I forget to be thankful for them.

   

A Labor of Love and Language

From Borsch to Burgers is a heart-warming and charming memoir penned by Dr. Westerlund. She draws into the journey she makes from Ukraine to the Upper Midwest.

A labor of love and language, Ruslana’s memoir draws us into her experiences in both of her worlds and in between. She chronicles her journey through a series of glimpses into her past and present. She makes the reader wish for the opportunity to visit Buzhanka.

From Borsch to Burgers is an insightful look into the transformation one makes as they straddle two cultures.

– Sharon Warmka, former graduate student and current friend

 

Roots, Wings and Possibilities

While you may expect a historical review of European dishes, a review of how Ukrainian dishes made it to the American kitchen or a cookbook that combines staple foods across two continents, From Borsch to Burgers is none of those. Ruslana Westerlund has gifted us, through her book From Borsch to Burgers a story of roots, wings and possibilities. She carefully selected various excerpts of her life journey that come together to create a mural that humanizes the immigrant story. Whether you are an immigrant or not, her story makes you long for your childhood home. Through stories that open your eyes to Ukranian history, culture and politics and stories that let you in the door to some of her most intimate stories of her life, Ruslana helps the reader connect in both familiar and unfamiliar ways. After all, we all have roots and her stories of home make you yearn for your own.

Ruslana’s story is also a story of wings, about how she got her wings and where those wings took her. From the sacrifices her parents made to provide her with the means to come to America, to her delight in seeing the United States through fresh eyes. She could have called the book from Potato Harvests to US Castles, or from Communist Propaganda to Minnesota Chatter. All these are but examples of the road trip on which the book takes the reader. Whatever the name, this book takes you from one place to another and paints a picture of what it means to cross cultural, political and social borders. To do that, you need wings and a wind of courage to get to your destination. Ruslana then comes to a full circle in narrating her new odyssey -to give roots and build new wings, this time for her children.

Finally, this book is about possibilities, possibilities in Ru’s life and possibilities for all of us. If a little girl from Buzhanka can travel across the world, conquer language and cultural barriers, and go beyond to become a gift to her new home, any of us has a chance to give back to our little corner of the world. And these possibilities give me hope, and they give me peace. Stories, they are powerful and they bring us together. My wish is that whoever reads Ru’s story (re)discovers the humanity in the immigrant story and through it, connects it to their own, reminding us that we are all border-crossers, we all weave in and out of each others’ stories and this way, we build a better world.”

– Mariana Castro, colleague

 

ruslana with Buzhnaka town sign

Advice for Aspiring Memoirists

While I am not an expert on writing memoirs after writing my first, I learned ruslana with Buzhnaka town signa few lessons worth sharing. Some lessons were emotional and others were logistical.

  1. My husband gave me the best advice: write as if there is no volume 2.  Write as if there is no sequel.  Write envisioning future generations reading your words. Write for them.  That way, you’ll invest all of you into this volume without leaving something for the next book.  The only certainty you have is this current volume, so put your heart and soul into it.
  2. Read a couple of “mentor texts” of memoirs that resemble your style. Because my memoir was a cross-cultural journey, I focused my mentor texts written by authors who were immigrants themselves. If you want your memoir to be humorous, read Frank McCourt. His Angela’s Ashes memoir was a masterpiece of tragicomedy. If you want to write your story of belonging and identity negotiation, read Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: My Life in a New Language. If you are interested in capturing “an elegy to the lost country of childhood,” read Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs.
  3. Decide on your leit motif early on so it can carry it throughout the chapters. The leit motif can serve as your organizing framework, freeing you from having to organize your writing chronologically.
  4. Even though you might set out to write your story as a sequence of events, be ready for deep reflection and soul searching. Be ready to be unraveled, disturbed, shaken up, homesick, surprised, perturbed, and even angry at times.
  5. When you begin writing, remember that the first draft is the story you tell yourself (paraphrasing Terry Pratchett). Or using an elementary teacher’s advice: “when you think you are done, you have just begun.” To the degree that is possible, separate yourself from your writing.  If not emotionally, then physically.  Close your laptop, walk away for a couple of weeks. Ruminate on your ideas. Be ready for some stuff to bubble up. Deal with the emotions, talk to someone safe who will understand you. Don’t rush your writing. Memoirs are not arguments. They are repositories of your feelings.

Logistical advice:

  1. Hire a book layout designer to save yourself dozens of hours of frustration trying to format it using settings in Microsoft Word that were never intended for book layouts. Or invest in desktop publishing software such as Adobe InDesign – a tool that does the job well. Although hiring someone is expensive (I spent $1,000 to design the book with 69,000 words and 40 pictures), it ends up looking professional. Using Word makes you look amateur and your content won’t be taken seriously.
  2. Hire an editor who can give you feedback on the overall development of ideas (not just your grammar and punctuation).
  3. There is no need to hire a publisher. Self publish your book. Memoir is a very personal genre. The publisher may ask you to rewrite your memoir in ways that won’t fit with your voice and your vision.
  4. Make a list of all your topics you want to cover or record them on your phone. Trust me, you won’t remember them unless they are written down.
  5. Ask a few of your friends to be your beta readers. Give them a particular lens for reading and ask for their honest feedback.