“Six Words: Fresh Off The Boat” shows so much power and truth in so few words. ABC’s “Fresh Off The Boat” team worked with Larry Smith of “Six-Word Memoirs” to create a collection of six words anecdotes on immigration, memories and life of immigrants.You never really realize how powerful six words can be until you read this book. There is meaning, love, loss and more in every single entry.
We listed a few quotes from Mila Kunis, George Takei and Anziz Ansari below. You can read them along with our interview with Larry Smith about the project and experience. “Six Words: Fresh Off The Boat” is available wherever you buy great books.
Earle Dutton (ED): How did the idea for this book come about?
Larry Smith (LS): The inspiration is my grandfather, Morris “Smitty” Smith, who came to America with his family in 1914, at the age of four, to escape a war. He grew up to become a small-town pharmacist, working long days, nights, and most weekends so his children could have a better life than he did. But he was more than just a pharmacist to his customers: he was someone who cared about them. He didn’t just know their ailments and prescriptions, but also their stories. It was behind his counter that Smitty excelled at the most important part of his job: he listened. I start every talk I give – whether in a third-grade classroom or [at a] professional conference—with the story of Smitty and how important it is to understand where you come from. With my grandfather as my muse, I’ve wanted to do a book of immigration stories for a number of years now. Then in 2015, while on book tour in Los Angeles for my last book (The Best Advice in Six Words), a friend working with the show “Fresh Off the Boat” approached me and asked if I wanted to collaborate. Over the next few months, we had many conversations, and it was clear we had a shared vision of a book of six-word “coming to America” stories: it wouldn’t be one that reflected only the experience of the show’s family (Taiwanese-American), but rather a mechanism to capture hundreds of memoirs on the immigration experience from across America, spanning cultures and generations. With a hit TV show as a collaborator, we landed a book deal and did exactly what we set out to do in our first chat in that bookstore.
ED: How long did the project take?
LS: While I’ve been thinking about the topic of immigration for years, from actual book deal to published book was almost exactly a year. I put out the calls for submissions for “Six Words Fresh Off the Boat” stories in September 2016 and the response was great. Then on November 8, the forty-fifth president [Donald Trump] was elected, the world changed, and suddenly the timeless topic of immigration was not only intensely timely, but a conversation that people needed to have. On September 5, 2017, the book was released on the same day as [President] Trump’s DACA decision.
ED: How did you decide on the participants? Was it hard to get people to participate?
LS: The process of story gathering for this book was more complex than has been the case for the previous books—and also more meaningful. As we always do, my team put out a call for entries on SixWordMemoirs.com and on our social media channels, as did our collaborators at “Fresh Off the Boat.” But more so then the other books, much of the story seeking took place in real spaces. We were invited to work with English-language classes for recent immigrants and refugee organizations across the U.S. We spent time at naturalization ceremonies and among tour groups at Ellis Island. We were in classrooms across the country, talking to recent immigrants and students whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. So, it wasn’t hard at all to get people to participate — almost everyone has a coming to America story, and almost everyone wanted to share that story. I cannot recommend highly enough the simple act of putting down your phone, turning to the people next to you in line (or in the elevator), and asking a simple question: “What’s your story?”
ED: Would you do it again?
LS: Of course! In many ways, “Six Words Fresh Off the Boat” feels like what a decade-long journey with the Six-Word Memoir project has been leading to. And the role of Six-Word Memoirs, a teaching tool, has always been important to me, and now so [much] more than ever. Especially in this moment when immigration is such an intense subject, I am really moved to hear of so many educators finding this approach to “coming to America” stories valuable in their classrooms.
ED: What would you like people to take away from this book when they are done?
LS: Immigration is a heavy topic, but the book isn’t meant to be a political book or a polemic. We know this: when you meet someone and hear his or her story, it’s hard not to have some measure of empathy for their experience; it’s hard not to find some aspect of another person’s life you can relate to. Columbus, Ohio’s Sara Abou Rashed (who wrote, “Another immigration; must run in blood,” [see page 69]) came to America from Syria with her mom and grandmother when she was thirteen. She arrived in Columbus knowing no English, having no friends, and needing to learn a completely new way of life. Four years later she has won poetry slams, been honored by the Children’s Defense Fund’s Marion Wright Edelman, given a TEDx talk, and has just started at Denison [University] on full scholarship. She wants to study political science. She wants to change the world. We need to be an America that lets the Saras of the world in.
ED: I know that the title of the book is also the title of a popular show, but do you think the double entendre makes people form opinions without checking it out?
LS: Not at all. There was a time when “fresh off the boat” was a derogatory expression, but this nation has always been a nation of immigrants. We are fresh off the boat and fresh off the plane. And in the end, anyone who comes to America wants what all Americans want: safety, freedom, family, and food. They want what my grandfather’s family sought when they arrived on these shores in 1914—a better life.
ED: Are you working on a new project?
LS: The best way I can describe how far the Six-Word Memoir project can go is with these six words: “The only limit is your imagination.” Right now, I’m in the midst of “Six in the City: Columbus,” a civic engagement initiative that connects people from across all corners of one city through short-form storytelling. Like “Six Words Fresh Off the Boat,” much of the work is done in real space rather than digital space and has me and my team immersed in the community. Community and connection through storytelling are what I love most about the power of possibility of Six-Word Memoirs. And, of course, I’ll always explore new book ideas. Among the topics on the front burner are health and wellness, women and power, and—why not?—six-word emoji stories.
“Six Words: Fresh Off The Boat” is available wherever you buy great books.