Letting Immigrants Tell Their Stories

Tufts undergrad Saherish Surani, A21, interviewed people new to the country for her book "The Stories of U.S."

Saherish Surani posing with a copy of her book, “The Stories of the U.S.” A Tufts undergrad, she interviewed people new to the country for her book.

In the sometimes-loud debate about the role of immigrants in the United States, immigrants themselves often don’t have a voice. Saherish Surani, A21, wanted to change that.

Surani’s parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in the 1990s­, and she grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, alongside many undocumented and first-generation immigrants. She decided to write a book that told the stories of immigrants, to balance the negative portrayals sometimes depicted in the media.

Surani, who is majoring in psychology and political science, published her book The Stories of U.S.: A Collection of Stories of Undocumented and First-Generation Immigrants Living in America Today in December. It tells the stories of ten undocumented or first-generation immigrants that she interviewed and details the struggles and discrimination they face on a daily basis.

“My inspiration for this book came from the people and places around me,” says Surani. “Being the daughter of immigrants made me realize what a privilege being an American citizen is. It is frustrating to see so many people assume the stories of others because of what is often presented in the media.”

Writing the book was a long process, and involved dozens of interviews. “My mom and dad were driving forces in pushing me to keep writing,” she said. “While I didn’t explicitly write about their stories, their journeys were why I wanted to provide a platform for others.”

Tufts Now recently spoke with Surani about the people who inspired her, the process behind The Stories of U.S.’s publication, and her plans for the future.

Tufts Now: What made you decide to write The Stories of U.S.?

Saherish Surani: This project initially started because I wanted to gain a better understanding of the struggles—and the many successes—of the people who live around me, beginning with my parents. As I talked to more and more people, I learned that they wanted their stories to be shared but, for many of them, their situations were uncertain. Therefore, they didn’t feel comfortable doing it on their own. Each of the stories in the book are true, but some identifying details were changed.

How did you discover the immigrants you interviewed?

This book is really a product of the people around me. The immigrants in the book are friends of friends of friends; many of them are so far removed that I don’t think the people who initially referred me to others even know who they are.

I interviewed thirty-six individuals altogether, but the story is a compilation of just ten of them, whether it was because their circumstances changed or they didn’t feel fully ready to share their stories. Throughout the entire process, I wanted the people who inspired the stories to have complete authority over them, so it was important to allow them to decide if, when, and how they wanted to share their journeys.

What was your biggest takeaway from your conversations for the book?

For all of the people I interviewed, there were aspects of their lives that I could in some way relate to or understand, but at the same time, many of these individuals had experienced things that I could never imagine. One young woman talked about how when she was younger she was so stressed by her geometry exam—she could never remember the numbers for perfect right triangles, something that I remember feeling when I was in middle school.

But she also worried that immigration officials would come to her father’s work or to her school, and didn’t like when she had to interact with any type of government officials, even the security officers at her middle school.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the process of writing and eventually publishing The Stories of U.S.?

Balancing classes, participation in clubs, research in labs, and internships alongside this project was at times exhausting—both physically and mentally. I conducted interviews throughout the spring of my sophomore year—ten to twelve hours for each chapter, many spanning days and weeks—and time zones. There was one person I FaceTimed with for about forty-five minutes on her lunch break every Thursday for about twelve weeks—I had to wake up at 3 a.m. to speak with her because of the time difference.

I wrote some of the manuscript during finals week of that semester, and finished the rest of it in June while I was interning in Washington D.C. I thought my load would lighten after I submitted the manuscript for final review in July, but then came copyediting, final manuscript revisions, working on cover designs, layout editing, marketing, and the launch, all of which I worked on a lot through the fall semester of my junior year.

You use a variety of different writing styles to capture the stories of the immigrants you interviewed for the book: first-person accounts, journal entries, and letters to a loved one, to name a few. How did you decide which style of writing was best in effectively representing these stories on the page?

Each format was dependent on the individuals who inspired the chapter. The individual who inspired the Emily chapter said that she wasn’t confident in her English and would often write haikus in her native language, so I wrote her story in the form of poems. The individual who inspired the Pablito chapter kept a journal of his thoughts throughout high school, and the individual who inspired Sahara wrote letters back home, although she never actually sent them.

How did writing the book fit in with what you’re currently studying?

I’m really interested in studying the intersections of policy and social relationships in minority or underrepresented populations, as they pertain to both ingroup and outgroup dynamics. By doing research in Professor Sam Sommers’ Diversity and Intergroup Relations Lab, I’ve had a chance to work on some of it as well. I’m not entirely sure what I want to do or where I want to be after graduation, but I know that I want to be working with people and policy.

Sara Norberg can be reached at sara.norberg@tufts.edu.

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