5 Ways to start a memoir about your migration experience
‘History in its broadest aspect is a record of man’s migration from one environment to another.’ Ellsworth Huntington
Migration memories are currently a popular genre. If you check on Google you will find many books on memoir. The reading population has developed an appetite for non-fiction memoirs.
The National Library of Australia holds thousands of migration memories. Personal stories of survivors of war-torn Europe or Asia makes for enthralling tales.
Reclaiming families past culture adds to the cultural pride for children and grandchildren.
There are many reasons why a person leaves the country of his or her birth and migrate to another country. Some leave because of terrible wars or dangerous politics forcing them to abandon their home country. Some migrants come as children with their families at an early age and quickly become immersed in the new country. Others leave their country out of a sense of adventure or curiosity and, become expatriates among a community of similar migrants.
Many migrants suffer from themes of dislocation, and disillusionment. If they cannot speak English even simple things like reading signs or finding the right train can be challenging. Children of migrants may memoirs that express conflict in family and differences in culture.
Over time memories become fragmented and distorted. Writing your family’s migrant history helps to clarity stories about your ancestors. Family memoirs and histories can humanise those that are dead so children and grandchildren may know them. Migration memoir may assist the writer to understand current family dynamics and can also solidify a sense of family.
Five ways to start a memoir about your migration experience
1. Interview a person or family member who was born outside of your home country. Or write about your own memories of migration.
Diane Armstrong’s excellent book The Voyage of Their Life details the true story of the ship SS Derna and its passengers. In 1948, 545 passengers boarded the ship in Marseilles and faced an uncertain future in Australia and New Zealand. The author was on the Derna with her parents.
The boat was overcrowded and not in good shape. The book is a poignant portrayal of the refugee migrants on the SS Derna. The passengers had been traumatised by the World War. Many passengers were survivors of trauma and some were holocaust survivors. They came from displaced persons camps in Germany, death camps in Poland, labour camps in Hungry and Gulags in Siberia. Some were fleeing communism. They were hoping to be safe in Australia.
Many catastrophes happened during the voyage. The boat engines broke down and the boat drifted for several weeks. There was a sea burial, scandals and tensions with the crew, even a birth at sea.
The journey was supposed to take 5 weeks but took 3 months and was marked by much passenger conflict, and catastrophe. Tensions simmered, and open violence erupted.
Other passengers fell in love and secret affairs flourished.
Years later Diane Armstrong was eager to find out what happened to the SS Derna passengers. She wanted to know if the SS Derna passengers realised their dreams in Australia. She applied to the Australian archives and received document of the passenger lists and nationalities. She placed advertisements in papers trying to find the passengers. Many responded. At one stage she received a diary of a 17-year-old Estonian girl that was written during the 3-month journey.
Over a three-year period, she interviewed 119 of the passengers and accounted for many others.
Diane Armstrong realised that the SS Derna story had a wider significance and reflected post-war immigration, multiculturalism and diversity. The book became a personal story about people who had overcome incredible odds to achieve a life in Australia. It is clearly about displaced people’s experiences and their struggle to a new way of life. Underlying, was the ability to blend into another culture and learn a new language and customs. The book became an account of the struggle to become Australian.
Raimond Gaita wrote Romulus, My Father as a tribute to his father. His father Romulus Gaita left his home in Yugoslavia and came to Australia after WW 11. He was a Yugoslav-born blacksmith, married Christine Dorr and had a child Raimond. In 1950 the family migrated to Australia.
They settled in Central Victoria. Their home was called Frogmore, it was a small farm house in a village of 10 houses, a school church and a hotel.
Romulus, My Father is an enthralling story of displacement and isolation. His father Romulus was an honest man who taught his son to live a decent life despite betrayal and family madness. The memoir portrayed an encounter with Australia that was common to many post war migrants and many viewed the harsh Australian landscape as hostile and alien.
A successful film by the same name has been made of this memoir.
Many women who came to Australia as migrants suffered from loneliness and disconnection because they were house bound. Their children went to school and the husbands work, but the women suffered disconnection from their family and from their culture.
In my Memoir ‘Calel’ I explored the displacement and isolation of my mother when we migrated to Australia from Lesvos Greece. My father died and my mother was left with few resources to bring up three children alone. This stress brought on a breakdown and mental health issues.
To write a migration memoir is to leave a powerful legacy of personal stories about your family’s heritage and culture for future generations. Drawing up a family tree is a good start. A migration memoir based on exploring the realities or joy and hardship deepens the reality.
Migration memoir also humanises different cultural norms and shares experiences that will create understanding for the current family dynamics.
In Australia, post war migrants from Europe were encouraged to come to Australia because the country needed people to work in factories and harsh environments such as the Snowy River schemes.
Here are some questions to get you started on your migration memoir
How did you travel to Australia?
Why did you come?
Do you have any regrets?
What was your first impression of Australia?
Did you have difficulty adjusting?
Could you speak English?
Were you isolated?
How did you manage school or work and making friends?
2. Develop a central theme for your memoir story.
A central theme assists the reader to understand the concept of your memoir. Your memoir may be centred on a theme of personal dislocation from all that was previously known. It may be based on joyfulness and relief.
All people share common needs such as safety, food and shelter and love.
We all fear abandonment, loneliness and loss of loved ones.
Your memoir could explore one of these common needs and will enable a connection to others. Your memoir will resound with similar human emotions and experiences in others. Use personal anecdotes.
Write your memoir like a novel using clear description, escalating conflict, tension, dialogue.
Write in the first person. ‘When I was 9 we set sail for Australia…’
Tell your stories honestly. You may need to change some names and location of some characters to stop you being sued for defamation if the comments are defamatory.
As mentioned in a previous blog, show doesn’t tell.
Don’t say ‘my father was cruel.’ Instead you may say ‘I froze in fear and could hear the clock ticking as he fell drunk onto the floor cursing my name.’
3. Use of photos
Ask relatives for their old photos and make notes of the stories held within the photos. They may reveal hidden truths and stories. Photos are excellent triggers for memory.
A reminder – old photos are meaningless to the next generation unless there are personal stories attached to the photo and the people from the past.
4. Cultural food and family recipes
Each culture has special recipes that are handed down from generation to the next. It may be a special sweet, a favourite cake recipe. Jot down the recipe and the story behind them. Several memoirs are built around favourite recipes and may be the basis of celebration and rituals.
The memoir My Greek Island Home by Claire Lloyd is a beautiful picture book of photos, recipes and anecdotes of her time on a Greek island.
I suggest you visit your local cultural restaurant, savour the food and discuss the food with your relatives using food and flavour as a trigger for wonderful stories.
5. Other ways of remembering – formal documentation such as birth certificates, personal letters, diaries.
Popular music of the time and art from your culture can relive a time forgotten. Immerse yourself in these.
Religious motifs can hide a powerful story.
Old objects such as a grandmother’s shawl or a brooch can have powerful significance. Handle these and see what comes to your mind.
In my experience – handling a glass inkwell that belonged to my father brings back memories of my father writing to Greek relatives with an old-fashioned nib pen. I remember him dipping the nib in the inkwell and wiping the excess ink on the edge of the inkwell before he wrote.
In summary, five ways to start a memoir about your migration experience; interview family members and take notes about your own memories. Write about a universal theme as the basis of your story. Use photos. Explore cultural food and music to regain memories.
Writing a migration memoir can be a powerful legacy to your family. Future generation will be enriched by your migrant memoir. It is a gift from you to them.
Start your migration memoir today.
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