Saturday, September 09, 2017

A Genre, A Book, A Party: Celebrating Immigrant Pride in 'Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat'

"My family's why I can fly."
-- Hudson Yang, star of ABC's Fresh off the Boat,
    in the new book, Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat

Premiering on ABC in February 2015--based on a 2013 memoir of the same name by Eddie Huang--Fresh Off the Boat existed as a TV show prior to the presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump.

The sitcom, which features Hudson Yang as a teenage Huang, showcases a Taiwanese family that has moved to Orlando, Florida.

Although I have only seen a few episodes, it is clear that the show aims to erase preconceived notions about Asian-American immigrants while depicting a family not so unlike those seen on Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, The George Lopez Show, Blackish and family sitcoms dating back to the 1950s.

According to Larry Smith, who created the origins of his Six-Word Memoirs magazine, book series and website in early 2006, he and Steven Melnick--an executive with Twentieth Century Fox, which produces the ABC program--have been discussing a Six Word collection tied to Fresh Off the Boat for at least a few years.

So the book, Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat--subtitled "Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America"--hitting shelves last Tuesday, the same day President Trump announced intentions to rescind DACA protections for 800,000 young adults brought to the United States illegally as children, was obviously mere coincidence.

Hudson Yang, Larry Smith and Ikram Goldman. Photo by Seth Arkin
But to Yang, Smith and the 70+ people gathered at a book release party at the Chicago fashion boutique Ikram--whose proprietor, Ikram Goldman, is represented by both a six-word submission and a 2-page backstory about her emigration from Israel--the timing clearly adds a potency to the book and its purpose.

The 14-year-old Yang, who was at the event with his mom Heather, an immigrant from Taiwan, told me how meaningful it was for him to be included in the book--see his entry at top--because his success reflects the struggles and sacrifices of his well as those of many other Asian-Americans.

In a brief speech, Yang shared, "My mom had to work so hard just to support the family; she was the first person in her family to go to college.

My six words is basically just all of that."

Photo by Larry Smith
With his sitcom likewise working to eliminate stereotypes, Yang told me that his favorite six-word entry came from another Asian teenager, identified in the book as David L.:

"I do not know kung fu."

Essentially asking American immigrants of all ages, generations and ethnicities, "What's Your Story?" Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat includes succinct submissions "by writers famous & obscure."

Among those in the former category are Madeline Albright, Aziz Ansari, Jimmy Carter, Julianne Moore, Mila Kunis, George Takai, Jeremy Lin, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mario Batali, M. Night Shyamalan, Fresh Off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan, several of the show's stars & producers and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black (from which the Netflix series is based), who happens to be Larry Smith's wife.

More obscurely, my point of entry to the Six-Word Memoirs world--and the reason an unemployed copywriter like me was welcomed to Ikram's high-end boutique where, per the New York Times, her most loyal clients might spend $40,000 in one visit--is my close friend Ken Stasiak.

Appropriately writing under the nom de plume, Hemingway1955--per Smith, the Six-Word concept derives from Ernest Hemingway's bar stool bet winning novel-in-6-words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."--Stasiak has been a regular contributor to Six-Word since 2013, after his mother's death two years prior left him seeking new forms of expression and introspection.

Ken will gladly tell you that aside from events tied to family, including his two grown children, one of his proudest moments in life came in 2015 when he was featured--along with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright--on Page 1 of Larry Smith's Six-Word Memoirs compilation titled The Best Advice in Six Words. (Click into Amazon's "Look Inside" preview to see Stasiak's entry.)

Another "life's accomplishment" for my pal came this past May when Smith named Stasiak the 6 Words Memoirist of the Month.

Inspired by Ken's enthusiasm for the Six-Word Memoirs genre, earlier this year I turned my passion for promoting cultural literacy into a daily 6word Portraits blog.

Clearly stating that "this website, and the concept of six-word phraseology, is inspired by Six-Word Memoirs from SMITH Magazine. No infringement is intended and no income is being generated."--I also told Larry Smith about it at the book party and he was cool with it--each day I concoct a 6word descriptive embodiment of a celebrity I admire who was born on that date.

I share each post on Facebook with a list of other daily birthdays, and friends seem to enjoy it.

So without suggesting I share Stasiak's Six-Word agility or evoke universal truths like the best examples in Smith's books, I have come to appreciate the challenge of trying to express something compelling in just six words.

It reminds me a bit of the majestically steadfast parameters of haiku, and one of my aims is for most anyone seeing my 6word descriptive phrase to be able to guess the subject without seeing him or her.

Today's example: Golf's "King" mixed lemonade, iced tea. (Revealed here to be:__________)

Having had past Six-Word Memoirs publications cover Advice, Love & Heartbreak, Teen Life and other specific and universal subjects, Smith was struck by the idea of devoting a book to the topic of Immigration and the experience of coming to America.

He was having trouble getting publishers interested until he connected with Steven Melnick of Twentieth Century Fox and developed the concept to tie-in with the popular Fresh Off the Boat sitcom, set to begin its fourth season on ABC on October 3. (You can see the first three seasons on Hulu.)

Melnick, who I spoke with briefly at the party, invoked some Yiddish into his Six-Word contribution for the book:

"Grandma's Sunday greeting: Gotenyu zisa boychikel!"
(Translation: Dear God, what a sweet boy!)

Ikram Goldman, who by many accounts is globally known and respected in the fashion world due to her namesake Chicago boutique (at 15 E. Huron), a passionate personality and having dressed First Lady Michelle Obama, was born and raised in Israel to Christian Arab parents.

As she relates in her backstory within Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat, she came to America at the age of 13 when her mother fell ill and needed treatment only a Chicago hospital could provide at the time.

The plan was to return to Israel but her mom passed away shortly after they arrived and Ikram realized she didn't want to leave.

"I stayed and I raised myself."

In warm remarks at the reception, Goldman stated unequivocally:

"I am truly a better American as those I surrounded myself with are also immigrants."

Ikram co-hosted the book release party with her husband, Josh Goldman, a lawyer who spoke to me quite proudly about being a Jewish-American who married an Arabic immigrant.

Effusively conveying his affinity for the Portland band Pink Martini, which performs songs in a multitude of languages to champion the notion of "the more the merrier," Josh voiced beliefs similar to mine, including that we are all human beings first, our core desires are pretty universal and different cultures are interesting. (I had recently returned from a trip to India where it was reiterated to me that people aren't really all that different anywhere; hence xenophobia is based on ignorance and fear, not reality.)

Clearly imparting that he and Ikram were raising their twin sons to understand the importance of diversity while sharing messages of love, not hate, Josh was openly concerned with the rampant anti-immigration rhetoric by and under the current administration.

As likewise a white Jewish man born in the U.S.A., I have been constantly distressed by attempted Muslim bans, the turning away of refugees, open insults of Mexicans, ridiculous wall-building schemes, white supremacy marches and the murderous aftermath, mass deportations that admittedly pre-date Trump, proposals to dismantle DACA and day-to-day examples of bigotry, intolerance and superiority that are hard to miss.

Thus, while on the surface it may seem that I spent a couple hours at a chichi party--the hors d'oeuvres were great by the way--at a swanky boutique that I would never otherwise enter, thanks to one of my best friends getting six words published in a new book, there was something resonant about the whole endeavor that reminded me of marching with a local mosque against the Muslim ban, as I did back in January.

In Morton Grove and on the Gold Coast, people of all colors and stations in life, in popular sitcoms and new books, at posh boutiques and in the streets, Americans--of all stripes, including undocumented--are fighting back against bigotry and xenophobia and malevolence and intolerance and anti-immigration policies & proposals.

Referencing "The New Colossus" poem by Emma Lazarus that adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, my pal Ken Stasiak--a first generation American son of Polish immigrants, including a father who fought Hitler, was held as a POW and chased Nazis alongside U.S. troops--is represented on page 22 of Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat by this contribution:

Tired. Poor. Huddled masses. Seeking hope.

One may not imagine much can be conveyed in six words, but in reading through many of the entries in the latest collection from Six-Word Memoirs, believe me, it can.

While I won't reveal her real name or show her picture, I was truly moved by a contributor to the book covertly calling herself Doreen, as she works for the Department of Homeland Security.

Although she candidly admitted the DHS isn't always a fun place to be these days, she noted that many of the agency's approximately 200,000 employees are working diligently to help bring people into the U.S., not keep them out.

She herself has transitioned from a job in higher education where she helped recruit international students to a someone similar one at DHS, where she works with schools to help attract students from abroad.

Also speaking at the reception was Maya Bayazid Khater, Secretary & Director of Events for the Karam Foundation, whose mission is to build a better future for Syria.

Khater championed the aim of Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat, noting how the book's messages of struggle, perseverance and hope dovetail with her non-profit's aim to provide smart aid for Syria while helping to ensure safe passage and, ultimately, innovative education for Syrian immigrants.

Although I'm not certain it's contained within the book, Khater said her six-word message would be:

"Syria to Alabama; redhead not redneck."

Along with their hospitality, Ikram and Josh Goldman purchased copies of the book to give to each reception attendee. Ken--who had participated in a book signing event the night before at Anderson's Bookshop in Downers Grove--had already given me a copy signed by himself and Larry Smith, which I also got autographed by Hudson Yang, Steven Melnick and Ikram.

In her inscription, Ikram borrowed a line I know well from Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterful Hamilton musical, which champions immigration & diversity and--even in a divided, partly xenophobic and hateful America--has become, in multiple locations, seemingly the most in-demand live entertainment event in U.S. history:

"Immigrants, we get the job done."

Six words, but who's counting.

I should end there, but can't help but offering up my own six words on the topic at hand:

Our differences—and similarities—unite us. 

...whether our ancestors came over on the Mayflower or we're Fresh Off the Boat.

Purchase Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat from the Ikram boutique website or wherever books are sold. 

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