Thursday, October 23, 2014

[Library Events and Programs] Dinaw Mengestu Reading and Immigrant Experience Panel Discussion

We have added a special panel discussion to the Memphis Reads finale scheduled for Tuesday, November 4, 2014 at the Central Library. Along with a visit from our special guest Dinaw Mengestu, author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, attendees will hear powerful stories of struggle and survival from three authors who are also immigrants to the United States. 

Click to view flyer

Who are the panelists? 

Della Adams: daughter of an American POW and granddaughter of a Chinese warlord. She is the author of An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and POW Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China

Dr. Clark Blatteis:  Holocaust survivor who was a passenger on the St. Louis, a ship that rescued refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939. He is the author of Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust, which was adapted into the film, Voyage of the Damned.

Morris M. Gbee:  is a former Liberian War child soldier and Iraq War veteran. He is the author of War Face: Based on Real Life Experiences During the Liberian Civil War

Jonathan Judaken will serve as discussion moderator. Judaken is the Spence L. Wilson Chair in Humanities at Rhodes College and host of "Counterpoint," a radio program on WKNO-FM. 

Don't forget to mark your calendars for November 4, 2014. 

The author reading by Dinaw Mengestu begins at 5:30 p.m. followed by a panel discussion of immigration stories scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, 3030 Poplar Ave. Call (901) 415-2709 for more information. 

For information about the 8:00 p.m. talk with Dinaw Mengestu at CBU University Theater call (901) 321-3270. CBU University Theater is located on the Christian Brothers University campus, 650 E. Parkway South, 38104.

This event is offered in partnership with Christian Brothers University as a part of the Memphis Reads initiative, a city-wide effort to promote literacy in Greater Memphis.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Saehymn Oh

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Saehymn Oh
Throughout the novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, the theme of displacement is explored, as Sepha Stephanos tries to find his identity in his new home in the United States while being mentally stuck in Ethiopia. As Sepha makes an effort to settle into his community in Logan Circle, forget about his homeland, and find love, the conflict of displacement follows him. The novel frequently flashes back to several months before and his life back in Ethiopia to further readers’ understanding of the theme and the character of Sepha.
In his 17 years of living in the United States, Sepha only makes two fellow African friends, who share his sour nostalgia of Africa. Whenever they get together, they discuss their lives back home, the politics, and events that had happened in Africa. Sepha makes it his lifestyle to relate everything he sees to his memories of Ethiopia. He and his friends speak in “broken English of Africa’s tyrannies,” as they create a fantasy world revolving around their reminiscence of their lives back in Africa. Sepha lives in this fantasy world while simultaneously trying to survive in the harsh reality of running his indigent grocery store in the corner of Logan Circle. Although his life is in Logan Circle, he never feels like he belongs there, and imagines himself moving back home. He lives his life in isolation and loneliness until Judith and Naomi, a Caucasian lady and her biracial daughter move in next door.
As Sepha’s relationship with Judith and Naomi deepens, he tries to play the role of a father to Naomi as he remembers his own father. As Sepha read stories to Naomi, he slips into the characters just as his “father would have done had he had been the one reading.” He attempts to identify himself with his father who had sacrificed himself for his family to his relationship with Naomi. At night he “relieved old fantasies and memories” of Ethiopia and imagine his father remembering the way he “cried at funerals, baptisms, and weddings.” Although Sepha is developing a relationship with Naomi, it revolves around his reminiscence of his father, hindering him from making a fresh start.
Some aspects of Sepha’s life are applicable to my life, because I had also moved to the United States. Although the circumstances and reasoning behind my journey here is much different than Sepha’s, moving to a different country is difficult and often stressful. I moved from South Korea when I was six and lived in Minnesota ever since. My memories of Korea have become snippets of images, so far and distant that sometimes I wonder if they were fabricated in my mind.  As Sepha had forgotten how his brother looked, I began to forget the faces of my cousins and aunts and uncles back home. My fondest childhood memories are in my backyard of my suburban neighborhood in Minnesota, playing ghost in the graveyard with the neighborhood kids during the summer and making snow forts during the endless winter. For the longest time I had a difficult time figuring out whether I was Korean or American. The documents tell me that I’m American, but my blood tells me I’m Korean. Like Sepha, identification was something that was confusing and I was stuck between two nationalities. When I was younger, I tried to hide the Korean side of me. I only wanted to blend in with my friends. But as I got older, I could feel the Korean side being more and more neglected. There is no one way solution and answer to this struggle. I only just matured, and the more I thought about who I am as a Korean American, the prouder I became. How awesome is it that I get to say I understand and am part of two cultures? I started embracing my Korean side, becoming more interested in the history and language. This, something that I had once considered embarrassing and shameful, is now a prized and valuable part of me that I will forever cherish and continue to cultivate.
As people transition from one phase of their life to another, it’s easy to get behind mentally and live in the past. By the end of the novel when Sepha leaves the store, Mengestu decides to leave out Sepha’s definitive future. Despite this frustrating and confusing ending, it only reemphasizes the uncertain and unpredictable thing that is life. As incoming freshmen in college, this is where many of us are--the fork road ahead of us of either living in the past glory or condemnation of high school days or taking advantage of college to renovate ourselves and pave our futures. As Sepha’s father’s wise words resonate within us-- “ a bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings--”  as one door closes, we must walk through the other door in order to break through the uncertainties.
--Saehymn Oh

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

[Library Events and Programs] Benjamin L. Hooks Collection Open House Saturday October 25

Benjamin L. Hooks Collection Open House 

Join the Rhodes College Archival Studies Fellows as we celebrate the opening of the Benjamin L. Hooks Collection. Selected materials from the collection will be on display.

Saturday, October 25, 2014
2:00 p.m.
Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library
3030 Poplar Ave
Memphis, TN 38111

Note: The library's homepage is temporarily unavailable. Click here to view Memphis Public Library events calendar 


Monday, October 20, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Prakruthi Phaniraj

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Prakruthi Phaniraj
A man who believes and lives with the mind and heart together lives a life well. However, if the same man's mind lives in one place but the heart belongs somewhere else, he lives in confusion and mystery. In Dinaw Mengestu's novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Sepha Stephanos experiences this confusion as he searches for his identity and overcomes his displacement of living in a new country, America. He is stuck between the old memories and joyous family members of Ethiopia and the new adventures, as well as struggles, of America. As Stephanos tries to make a living in America by forgetting his homeland and finding love, the confusion of self-identity and displacement chase after him.

        Even though Stephanos has been living in the United States for seventeen years, he manages to make two African American friends, who, like him, share the longing of home. Through their similarities of homesickness, they all get together and discuss their lives back home, the politics and all the events that happened and are happening in Africa. They typically speak in "broken English of African tyrannies, what had yet to grow tedious," while they create a world of fantasy revolving around their recollections of their joyous lives back in Africa (48). Stephanos lives in this same fantasy world, reliving old memories and anecdotes while concurrently building a life and surviving through the life of the American society with the opening of his international grocery store on the corner of Logan Circle. While Stephanos dwells on the thought of living in isolation for a long period of time, Judith and Naomi, a Caucasian lady and her bi-racial daughter move in next door.    
        Stephano's relationship with the eleven-year-old Naomi deepens and he tries to play the role of a father to Naomi. He remembers his own father and his thoughtful and careful judgment; through this, he cares for Naomi with a stronger heart. As Stephanos reads stories to Naomi, he falls deep into the character's actions and thoughts just as his "father would have done had he been the one reading." He tries to recognize himself with his father, who sacrificed his life for Stephanos and the rest of his family in his own relationship with Naomi. After dusk, he "relived old fantasies and memories" of Ethiopia and pictures his father, recollecting the way he "cried at funerals, baptisms, and weddings."  Stephanos is developing a deeper relationship with Naomi, however the memories of his father are hindering him from making a new start and better relationship with Naomi.
"How was I supposed to live in America when I had never really left Ethiopia? I wasn't, I decided. I wasn't supposed to live here at all," Stephanos thinks as he uses his uncle's couch for two strenuous months (140). However, he soon realizes it is enough and with a little push from his uncle, he gets a small job and even attends the school his uncle picked out for him. Three years later he decides he can’t live like that anymore. "I couldn't believe that my father had died and I was spared in order to carry luggage in and out of a room. There was nothing special to death anymore. I had seen enough lifeless bodies by that point to know that," he thinks as he leans over an edge looking down at the sea (142). The next day he quits his job at Capitol Hotel and soon moves out of his uncle's apartment. With the help of his friends. he soon manages to learn how to "make lists, order supplies and goods and balance my budget" (143).  That's when his new life, along with his friends' new lives, starts.
        After many challenging endeavors and obstacles, he soon comes to a twist in his father's old saying: "A man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough" (228). He is stuck between the two worlds and struggles to know where he truly belongs. Although those moments are inevitable to anyone, all they can do is sit back and look at the life they have made in the place they live. When Stephanos looks at his store, he sees that it could not be more perfect than it already was. He now has something he can truly claim as his own and this new claim is more than just property: it is his final destination and discovery of self-identity.
        Similar to Sepha Stephanos, I feel like I have been pulled between two places: my home country India and the United States. I entered the United States as a child, around eight years old. Although I was young enough to adapt to the culture and ways of the American society, something always seemed to pull me back from reaching out to the other American friends I had made. I didn't realize what it was since I was still so young, but a few years later I returned to India for a visit. Being back with my old friends and close relatives, I realized that my heart still belonged in India and the customs that I was so used to, I couldn't find in America. The Indian languages, Telugu and Kannada, were widely spoken and the food was known to everyone. However in America, I had to hide the Indian curries and rotis I brought to school and speak a language not spoken fluently every day. But soon enough, I taught myself to show the other side of me, the Indian side, to the other Americans around me. I had nothing to be embarrassed about and I although I was living in another country, my home country, mother India, will always be with me. As I found the courage to open up, I found that my peers were very interested in my food and language and even music. As I showed them the variety of Indian delicacies and different music selections, they showed me the different foods and musical artists in America. Then I didn't feel so stuck between where my heart was and the place I lived in. I live in a place where I can engage in the society and around me and live my Indian life as loud as I want.   

--Prakruthi Phaniraj

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

[Book Review] Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie


Marilyn reviews DREADNOUGHT: BRITAIN, GERMANY, AND THE COMING OF THE GREAT WAR by Robert K. Massie (Random House, 1991)

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie was a good read on the political and military history of Great Britain and Germany before World War I, also known as the Great War. Robert Massie wrote an in-depth history of the rise of Germany and Great Britain’s reaction to the German nation’s alliances, acquisition of colonies, and development into a naval sea power. 

Robert K. Massie starts his work with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the rise of Germany into a world power. The book also recounts the personal lives of Queen Victoria, her children, and grandchildren. Her son, Edward VII, and grandson, George V, would become kings of the United Kingdom. Another one of her grandsons would become Kaiser William II of Germany, while her daughters would marry the rulers of Europe.

Of interest to me were the personalities of the ambassadors, prime ministers, naval personnel, and king. I was intrigued by the choice of alliances between countries, the changing of their navies from sailing to coal-driven turbine Dreadnought ships, and Great Britain’s move from a policy of isolationism to forming alliances with countries in Europe. The depth of the secrecy of Germany’s alliances, which it continued to make and change in the later part of the 19th century, was a fact of which I was not aware. In the twentieth century came the emergence of the Dual Alliance and Triple Alliance and, as a result, the stage for World War I is set.

Marilyn, Central Library

Don't forget the World War I Monday Lecture Series taking place in the Memphis Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library from 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. 

The last two dates are October 20 and November 10, 2014. Call (901) 415-2742 for more information. 

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

[Memphis Reads2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Nick Vongprachanh

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Nick Vongprachanh

Where I Belong

While the primal desire to reach a state of stability is apparent in all living organisms, the psychological strain produced from changing environments is a characteristic almost exclusively reserved for humans. In the novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu, the protagonist Sepha Stephanos appears to be leading an average lifestyle; he has a home, friends, and a store which provides his income. Although most would be content with his way of life, Sepha still feels as if he is “a bird stuck between two branches” due to his inability to fully accept American culture and realize that he will never return home. In this novel, the author utilizes this geographical barrier and Sepha’s inability to let go of the past to display how difficult the path of self-discovery was for Stephanos and how he was able to carry on with his life afterwards.

Although Sepha left his home country of Ethiopia at the age of sixteen, it wasn’t until he moved out of his uncle’s apartment that he truly felt like he was leaving home. Upon Sepha’s return to his uncle’s apartment almost fifteen years after moving out, he stated that “living here is as close to living back home as one can get, which is precisely why I moved out.” While still living with his uncle, Sepha still had plans of returning home and never fully accepted that he would never return. After moving out, however, Stephanos, with the help of his friend Kenneth, embraced his newfound hope in America and opened up his own shop. By doing so, Sepha further cemented his ties to America and came one step closer to accepting his newfound life.
Although changing locations displayed Sepha’s willingness to become independent of not only his uncle, but also the comfort of his own people, it was still difficult to fully grasp how Sepha’s mentality towards American culture had changed. Luckily, Stephanos had two friends who illustrate his split sense of belonging perfectly. His friend Joseph, commonly referred to as “Congo Joe,” never missed an opportunity to bolster about his African heritage. Joseph’s desire to retain his African roots was so severe that he even refuses to seek dental work and instead claims “you can never forget where you came from if you have teeth as ugly as these.” On the other hand, Sepha’s friend Kenneth, otherwise known as “Ken the Kenyan,” fully embraced American culture and all it has to offer. Since coming to America, Kenneth has crawled his way up the social ladder to become an engineer, who continues to “fight the good fight.” Together, these two characters display the split sense of identity Stephanos retains throughout the novel; they also continue to reiterate the fact that “home” is where you make it and the importance of retaining some sense of personal identity.
While Sepha’s best friends played a vital role in fully illustrating the two sides of his personality, it wasn’t until the arrival of Judith and Naomi that Sepha fully realized that he was searching for all this time in America. While Judith may play an important role in revealing Sepha’s own insecurities regarding what he has accomplished in life so far, it is Naomi who plays the truly vital role in Sepha’s own self-discovery. While it may seem rather odd that a middle-aged man and a little girl could become great friends in such short period of time, it is primarily due to the fact that they rely on one another for emotional support. Although Naomi’s father is still alive, she has never fully accepted him as her parent. By having Sepha read to her, she is filling the void left in her heart. This was also the first time that Sepha finally felt at home since coming to America and as he put elegantly “tomorrow did not come fast enough.”  It was also during these reading sessions that Sepha was able to reminisce about the time he spent with his father and help him cope with his loss. While reading to Naomi, Sepha states that “this is exactly what my father would have done” and that “he would have made the story an event, as grand as real life.” This statement reiterates Sepha’s desire to be like his father and to live a life that would make his family proud. It might have been easier for Sepha to forget about his past if his brother back in Ethiopia, Dawit, was not a constant reminder of his father and his own failures. Unlike Sepha, Dawit was a college graduate and as Sepha put frankly “he already looked more like him then I ever would.”
Ultimately, the coming and going of Judith and Naomi along with the eviction of Sepha from his convenience store led to Sepha’s realization that while it is important to remember his father, it is pointless to try to emulate him. He is a grown man, and now it is time for him to lead his own life and become his own person. America is his home now, and it is imperative that he find happiness in his own life instead of constantly dwelling about his own shortcomings and worrying about what his family would think if they saw what his life had become.  As a whole, this novel illustrates the fact that home is where you make it and the importance of understanding one’s self, because living for someone else’s sake is no way to live.
While reading this novel, I found myself constantly thinking of my own father. Like Sepha, my dad was also a refugee, escaping from Laos with his parents and two sisters at the young age of eleven. Although I’ll never fully be able to understand the difficulties my dad faced when coming to America, I still experience the friction between the two cultures in my everyday life. Unlike my father, my mother is an American, born and raised. While this may seem like no big deal, I find myself constantly trying to appease both sides. I also find myself not fully wanting to fully embrace or reject the other culture. While my tastes in food, appearance, and knowledge of Lao customs might make me a little too foreign to be seen as a typical American, my inability to speak the language and dislike for some of the weirder Lao foods permanently subjugates me to be branded as no different from any other Caucasian. For me, being stuck between two cultures was never a big deal. While at times it may be somewhat irritating trying to appease both sides, I never really felt like being wedged between both cultures was that overbearing. Therefore, to claim I have resolved my dilemma would not be necessarily true; instead, I would consider myself at home between the rock and a hard place. While it may not be the ideal situation, I find comfort in knowing that both are there to stay.
--Nick Vongprachanh

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Monday, October 13, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Luke Wade

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Luke Wade
Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a story of a man with an identity crisis, though not so much in who he is as where he feels he should be.  Although the book’s protagonist, Sepha Stephanos, has left his home country of Ethiopia seventeen years prior, he is still conflicted as to whether the U.S. is really where he belongs.  Several times, he considers just packing up and going home, yet in the end he stays. The text serves to show how he comes to understand that he cannot go back, as well as the trials he must face to reach this understanding.
        Stephanos, at least for a good portion of the story, is a man who has left his home, but has not altogether “left.”  He is still reminded of his old life everywhere he goes, and even claims, “For at least the first two years that I was here, I was so busy passing my mother, brother, father, and friends…that at times it hardly felt as if I had really left….My hallucinations of home became standard” (175-176).  It is clear that though he has physically moved on, he is still stuck in the past mentally.  Yet he still tries to create his own identity as a store clerk chasing the American dream.  This exemplifies his struggle for a unified self in one country or the other, in that he strives for success in one while struggling to let go of the other.  Without making a choice, he remains stuck in a geographic limbo.  That is, until he meets Naomi and Judith, or rather, when he must say his last goodbye to them.
        When Sepha becomes closer to Judith, he often considers what a relationship with her would be like, but he always holds back.  Why? Even after seventeen years in the country, he still can’t see himself with an American woman, because he still hangs onto the possibility of returning to Ethiopia.  Time and time again, he skirts the edge of intimacy with her until it is too late to make his move.  It is at this point, as he walks away from her for the last time, that he truly accepts that he can never go back, and the fact that he should have been looking ahead in the first place.  “…a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone.  I have dangled and been suspended long enough…Right now, I’m convinced that my store looks more perfect than ever before” (228).  Here, he chooses his quaint little store, the life he leads in America, and the affirmation that he will not let another “Judith” slip through his fingers.
        While Sepha’s story may seem foreign (both figuratively and literally) to some, it is actually quite relatable to me.  Though I’ve never been out of the country (and have hardly left Tennessee, for that matter), I can understand being stuck between two conflicting “worlds,” and letting life pass me by in the process.  Not long ago, I was battling severe depression.  Every day felt like a tug of war between waking up and giving up.  I knew I should have been productive and involved, but I rarely felt the drive to be so.  I considered my thoughts bipolar, but never my actions; one minute I was ready to conquer the world, the next not even ready to get out of bed.  Regardless of what I was thinking, I hardly left my room save for going to school, because I was trapped by “what-ifs” and whether it was just easier not to try.  I wanted to be successful, though, so I finally made my choice and stuck to it.  I knew that I was depressed in part from an incredibly poor self-image.  I was overweight, had poor hygiene, and prior to making my decision, made next to no effort correct either.  However, I needed a starting point, and that proved to be it.  Over the course of about three months, I lost nearly sixty pounds, and, to the benefit of everyone around me I’m sure, began showering consistently.  My fourteen-hour long gaming marathons ended, and I eventually gained some confidence.  I was doing better than ever in school, and overall felt much better about who I was and who I could become.
        A year has now passed since I decided to make a change.  While I still have some kinks I need to work out, I feel I am in control of my life and have the support I need to keep moving ahead.  Now I’m just your average, somewhat awkward teenager going to college to take yet another big step forward in life.  To me, this reaffirms the idea that your development as a human being is never done.  The journey never ends, but you move a lot faster when you’re not trying to follow two separate paths.
---Luke Wade

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Jeanne StaAna

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Jeanne StaAna
Sepha Stephanos, like many immigrants, came to America for refuge. Many of them seek opportunity, and a new life full of possibilities. However, Sepha and his friends came to realize the reality of homesickness was all too real. To migrate from a land that is not your own, and to make peace with the faces that are not like yours can be a difficult battle to win. Regardless of the hell Sepha had seen of the war in Africa, he could still not accept that the land he knew was no longer there, and that he was no longer a part of it. Every day he lived his life with the future in mind, blindly waiting for tomorrow to come, never realizing what had become of the present. Somewhere along the road, he began to drag his feet, and the weight felt a little heavier.
In his mind, somewhere things were supposed to change. In the land of opportunity, he was supposed to become someone. At one point, he decided to go to college, not because he really wanted an education, but because he wanted the title. He wanted an identity, and in a place where he had nothing of his own, it was his best effort at trying to find a way to assimilate. It was supposed to be his beginning, an accomplishment that would establish his roots, and give meaning to his being there. Yet, nothing came of it. Nothing became of Sepha’s life at all. He’d become so afraid of losing everything that he settled for having nothing.
However, when Judith and Naomi came into his life, he finally saw something that he wanted, desperately. The problem was that in his eyes they were worlds away. He finally saw the harsh reality of America. There were limits; here he would never be given the time of day. Not only by Judith, but also by anyone, because he came from a war-torn country, an impoverished country, a bloody country that was not America. His people were pitied and looked down on, or they were feared. Never was he to be seen as respected unless he proved himself. This was America, the land of the free. A country where you work for what you want, but Sepha could never find his place. Not in his neighborhood, not with Judith, and not in Africa. His problem was he never knew where he truly would land his step. He longed for one life, and let his own life just pass by.
As an immigrant, I do understand Sepha’s struggle to move on. While we are all aware what kind of opportunities America has to offer, it’s hard not to look back on what you left. Often it feels like when you migrate to America, you expect a grand life and are blind to the reality that you are not the only one racing towards this goal. My mother often tells me that I have everything I could want here. While I agree, there are moments where I wonder what could life had been like if I had stayed in the Phillippines. There are still times I wonder what will be waiting for me if or when I go back.
Another unfortunate fact is that while I may love going home, memories can make things better than they are. Nostalgia can trick your mind into obsessing over a place that no longer exists. Also, another problem with being an immigrant is never being able to fully assimilate into other cultures without losing parts of your own. The values that are highly upheld in one country may not be a respectable or admirable value in another. The blurred lines between generations of immigrants become difficult to distinguish, and problems arise as to what culture should be more dominantly practiced.
So which country is really home? What I’ve learned is that while I wish to call both countries my home. I can only say that the Philippines was where I was born. My home is in America, in the places I’ve grown up. While my family has found a good balance with assimilating parts of my Filipino culture and American, I still identify more with the latter. When I am in the Philippines, this is where I feel more foreign. Their social norms and mores are completely different from where I was raised, but at least it is still relatable. I have been exposed to enough of my culture, told enough stories, and reminded of fond memories enough that in my heart, the troubles of my people are not disregarded. I am fortunate to have come here, and, yes, I do look back. However, when I see myself moving forward, the only home I see is here in America.
--Jeanne StaAna

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