Not From Here: The Song of America

Leah Lax

Publisher: Pegasus Elliot MacKenzie Publishers Ltd Pages: 392 Price: (paperback) $20.99 ISBN: 9781804680179 Reviewed: May, 2024 Author Website: Visit »

Immigrating to modern-day America is the theme of Leah Lax’s vivid, sensitively framed collection of interviews first collected years earlier as the basis for her libretto to Houston Grand Opera’s 2007 production The Refuge.

From conversations with 123 Houstonians, Lax shares six full-length accounts (offering short, pithy quotations from others in between), prefaced by descriptions of the interviews’ settings and sometimes of how she connected with her subjects (one was an acquaintance; one the “soccer friend of another subject”) accompanied by her personal reactions to their stories and explanations of the stories’ historical backgrounds.

Her first interviewee, Luisa, recounts a harrowing past, fleeing from violence and poverty in El Salvador, and an uncertain present, hoping to be reunited with her young sons despite her unresolved immigration status. The second interviewee, Binh, a successful member of Houston’s large Vietnamese-American community, tells an equally harrowing story as one of two million Southeast Asians who fled by boat following Saigon’s fall.

Others include successful Pakistan-born Ali; Indian-born couple, Mythili and Murthy; Soviet-Ukranian Jew Manya; and Nigerian dissident Elias, his wife and four of their six adult children.

Together, they provide vivid details that illuminate why someone would leave his/her native country and the challenges faced once in America. Lax’s depth of feeling for the topic (e.g., her shock at realizing that in 21st century America someone “who crossed the border without papers was no longer … a needy human in search of work, food, and safety…Now they were criminals”) is extremely powerful. The narrative also benefits from the balance Lax strikes between her interviewees’ voices and her own, and most of all, from her spare, lyrical writing style, as when describing the Vietnam War Memorial: “The march of disembodied names etched into black granite was as ordered as troops across a blackened landscape.”

This is a thoughtful work of self-inquiry and oral history—a fascinating and beautiful look at the modern American immigrant experience.

Also available as an ebook.

Author's Current Residence
Houston, Texas
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