By Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan
This summer, our middle-grade novel A Place at the Table, will be out in time for the back to school season. It is the story of two girls who meet in a South Asian cooking class and form a reluctant friendship. Sara Hameed, a Muslim, and Elizabeth Shainmark, who is Jewish, are both first-generation children. Each girl’s mother is an immigrant studying for the American citizenship test. Being first-generation impacts Sara and Elizabeth in different ways, but it also helps them form a bond.
We wrote this book to highlight authentically how immigrants are treated in this country, as well as the immense contributions they make to their new nation. Sara and Elizabeth face difficulties shared by many first-generation American children who are navigating race, religion, culture, accent, and economic standing. As we wrote their story, we had long conversations about what it means to belong, and how children of immigrants often feel torn between their family’s home culture and fitting in as Americans.
Many first-generation Americans—like Sara and Elizabeth, like us (Laura) and our children (Saadia)—wonder what our family members’ lives were like in their country of origin. We might want to know what it feels like to be an immigrant. In this moment, when our country’s government has suspended immigration due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we might ask why coming here was so important to our own family, and why people around the world still dream of settling in the United States.
Laura surveyed her friends, asking, “What questions would you like to ask elders in your family about coming to the United States?”
While we are all sheltering in place at home, we invite you to sit down with a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or older friend who came here from another country. Share a cup of tea or hot chocolate and pick a few questions to ask them.
Language and names
- When you came to America, did your family speak English or another language at home? Why did they make that decision?
- Did you change your name and why? If our family’s last name wasn’t changed, what is the original pronunciation?
- Does your name have a special meaning?
- What is the name of the town our family is from?
- What traditions did you keep?
- What things did you bring with you?
- Is there anything you are glad or sad that you left behind? What do you miss the most?
- Which foods did you miss the most when you came here?
Journey and arrival
- What was your journey to the United States like?
- What were the hardest parts of immigrating? How did you overcome them?
- What did you think about your new “land” when you first arrived?
- What surprised you the most when you came to the US?
- How long did our family live in the place you or they left? Why did you leave?
- What was your childhood like? What games did you play?
What did people in our family do for work? What kinds of jobs did they have?
- How were our people treated in your country of origin?
- Can you tell me about some of the relatives you left behind?
- If you have old family pictures, can you tell me people’s names? What stories can you share about them?
- What’s one thing that you weren’t allowed to talk about or ask about when you were growing up?
- What’s one thing a family elder taught you—a recipe, a prayer, a story, or a game—that you can teach me?
With thanks to Donna Smith, Tracy Gold, Jay Hall Carpenter, Lee Gjertsen Malone, Buffy Silverman, Liz Dunster, Reem Faruqi, Kathleen Burkinshaw, Stacy Mitchell Nockowitz, Alexandra Peñaloza Alessandri, Katherine Locke, Katherine Locke, Adrianna Cuevas, Kathleen Stouter Phillips, Patricia VanAmburg, Jessica Bigi, Ally Machate, Miriam DesHarnais, Doritt Carroll, Donna Marie Merritt, Heather Murphy Capps, Virginia Crawford, Kathleen Stouter Phillips, Eric Kimmel, Patricia Valdata, Amy Losak, and Michael Ratcliffe.
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist, interfaith activist, and author of the Yasmin books, an early reader series about a Pakistani American girl. She lives with her husband and children in Houston, Texas, where she is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry, and prose.
Laura Shovan is the author of two previous middle-grade novels, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and Takedown. She lives with her family in Maryland, where she is a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council.