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.