Everyone Has a Coming to America Story— An Invitation to Tell Yours

My grandfather came to America from Russia in 1914. He was four years old. His family settled in Philadelphia, where his dad sold eggs door-to-door, saving money to send back home so other family members could follow. Morris Smith (who everyone called “Smitty”) showed me the importance of understanding where we come from.

Me and Smitty, Atlantic City, summer of 2000.

As a kid, on many walks with him on his beloved Atlantic City boardwalk, I saw how he engaged just about everyone he encountered. He became the unofficial mayor of his stretch of the boardwalk with a simple approach to life: my grandfather asked people about their lives, then listened to what they had to say. Perhaps his listening skills came from his work as a pharmacist. The customers at Smitty’s pharmacy were treated like family. They trusted him as they did their local doctor. Their kids feasted on hot dogs and milkshakes at the store’s soda fountain. (The soda fountain is long gone, as is Smitty, but his store still remains independently owned and operated in Maple Shade, NJ.)

Smitty taught me that everyone has a story.

My work in the storytelling world was inspired by Smitty. With the Six-Word Memoir project I found a simple way for people to tell their stories. The constraint of six words forces​ you to get to the point, creating brief stories that can be powerful, memorable, and spark conversation.

Ten years of short-form storytelling has led to me all the way back to the start. Our ninth book of Six-Word Memoirs is about the most American of experiences: immigration. Called Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America, and published this fall in partnership with the acclaimed ABC series, Fresh Off the Boat, the book will feature stories of recent arrivals as well as family journey stories from those who have been in America for generations.

This project has been in the works for almost a year — long before the very current, very unsettling moment for immigrants in which we now find ourselves. I believe this book’s simple and inclusive form will offer powerful and fascinating perspectives on the hard, amazing, diverse experiences of coming to America. Stories of safe havens, long journeys, complex transitions, and customs — told six words at a time — will tell the stories of people who indeed make America great.

And now, an invitation.

1. I invite you to share your story to be considered for the book. There are two easy ways to do so before February 15, 2017 deadline for submissions:
• Post on www.sixwordmemoirs.com/fotb
• Email to fotb@sixwordmemoirs.com

2. If you work with and/or know people at immigration or refugee
organizations, please share our call for submissions. While we are already working with national groups such as the ACLU, YMCA,​ ​and National Council of La Raza, much of the work to seek stories from recent arrivals needs to happen on the local level (storytelling is a ground game). Download our Toolkit for organizations here.

3. If you are a teacher, take a look at our free Teacher’s Guide with a lesson plan for teaching “What’s My American Story In Six Words?” Let us know how it goes and we’ll likely include some of your students’ stories in the book. To see how other educators have brought Six-Word Memoirs to their classrooms, take a scroll through the “Six in Schools” blog,

4. Ask someone — a family member, an acquaintance, that person you see at the store or school events but don’t really know, your mailman, doctor, or Uber driver — about their story or their family’s story of how they came America. Don’t know how to break the ice? Tell them people are playing a game in which people share six words about their life, shares your first, and then suggest it’s now their turn. Writers are welcome to submit a memoir in their native language — so long as the English translation is six words.

“Why did you come to America from China,” I finally asked the owner of a foot massage place I had been going to for years. “And would you mind summing it up in exactly six words?” He did just that, in English and Chinese.

Everyone has a story. The sum of our stories is who we are and will define ourselves as a nation. My grandfather’s story, a story of a little boy who escaped Russia with his family during World War 1, worked his way through college, and eventually opened his own small business, is a classic American journey story. Morris Smith—born Morris Kuznets—came here for a better life. And America—at its best—let him in.