I don’t need to tell you Aia Abbas’s story. She tells it herself, and beautifully.
We were all sleeping when we heard something exploding. The sound of bombs and guns was everywhere. The sound was very loud. I felt it inside me. At that time it was dark, but the sky was raining fire.
Abbas is a student at Boston International High, a small Dorchester school for English language learners who arrived here fewer than five years ago. Hers is one of the stories in a collection called “I Want You to Have This,” a book about memory, sacrifice, and survival written by 50 of the school’s 11th-graders, here from 14 countries.
Dreamed up by teachers Laura Gersch and Kristin Russo, the book (to be released Tuesday night at the school) was produced with help from writing coaches at 826 Boston – the local branch of the national nonprofit begun by literary Zelig Dave Eggers.
Illustrated with arresting portraits by photographer Jennifer Waddell, these are immigrants’ tales told not in gauzy generalities, but with gut-wrenching specificity. Each student’s story focuses on a single object – something brought from the old country (a marble from the Dominican Republic, a chair from Eritrea, a ring from Cape Verde), or acquired in the new (a Social Security card, a bible).
For Abbas, the earrings made for her by her father – a jeweler whose hands always sparkled – are heavy with joy and sorrow. He gave them to her just before he was killed in a 2003 attack on her Baghdad neighborhood.
Every time I see the earrings, they remind me about the last time I saw my dad. Now I don’t even want to see them, because it gives me a lot of pain to remember how much I miss my father.
Vanessa Rosa’s mother saved part of the umbilical cord from her birth in Cape Verde.
It was small like a candy, wilted like a rose that had not been watered for days, and brown like the sand in the desert . . . everywhere she traveled she would bring it with her because it was the first thing the nurse gave her before she had touched me.
The spoon he ate with as a child – silver, with stripes on the handle, handed down from his grandmother to his uncle to him – reminds Salman Al Janabi of his childhood in Iraq, before four kidnappers took him from a Baghdad street, and held him for months. He was 7.
I didn’t know where I was or what they were going to do to me. I couldn’t sleep because there were a lot of people in the room, and they were crying and screaming. Everyone was tortured by turns.
It’s not easy to heave your life into fewer than a thousand words, especially with stories as epic as these. It’s even harder when English is your second or third language.
“You don’t know how to start,” Abbas said, sitting with a few other students in a classroom on Friday. “But then you get in it and you can’t stop.” The temptation to tell everything was hard to resist. Teachers and tutors taught the students what every writer must learn: Good writing is all about painful rewriting, peeling away words to leave starker truths.
“We had to go through so many revisions to make readers understand and feel that moment,” said Rosa, who also helped edit the collection. “We are different from people here. . . . But we can still tell our stories.”
As legions of frustrated college instructors will tell you, writing with passion and discipline is a skill way too few high school kids learn. What is lost goes way beyond grammar. Better writers are better thinkers. There is great power in being able to tell your own story, on your own terms.
The students whose stories made it into “I Want You to Have This,” proud and amazed at what they’ve achieved, know this. In a couple of days, their work will be sold in bookstores, and shelved in libraries. They will have authority, and permanence.
“I want to show people what I lost,” Abbas said. “I want to show people the price I paid to get here.”