"How much you discover as you write!" exclaimed Youlin Shi, a Tai Chi instructor who once taught history in China. With writer friends from Mexico, Japan, El Salvador and Uzbekistan, she will share her immigration story in "Coming to America," a workshop sponsored by the Berkshire Immigrant Center, in the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.
"This workshop helps us all understand the extraordinary challenges that immigrants face and appreciate freedoms we often take for granted," said Marge Cohan of Pittsfield, former director of the Brien Center and an Immigrant Center board member. "Its wonderful diversity and collaborative spirit challenge common assumptions. Immigrant women from different cultures quickly establish universal connections. Multiculturalism, often associated with urban communities or border states, enriches our Berkshires. And Williams College's participation in this festival represents a new, cross-county collaboration.€
For many women -- and members of certain cultures -- life stories revolve around caring for others. This festival invites writers and readers to plumb their own stories and hear their own voices.
"The great American story," Shi reflected, "is made up of small stories like mine, which I want to share and pass on to the next generation. It's time now, in my life, to look back, see my footsteps, be sure my daughter understands how she happened to be born in the United States."
Shi grew up during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Her father, a state official, was labeled an enemy of the party and held incommunicado for years, and she was sent to live and work in a village far from everyone she knew.
Before and after they reach this country, many immigrants face danger -- physical or psychological adversity, loss or despair. As in myth, action leads to agonizing, uncertain wandering before new life, understanding and a better future emerge.
Crossing borders, parting from families, Marcela Villada Peacock, now a multicultural counselor at Williams, left Mexico City years ago.
"It was a long, scary time, not knowing the future," she said. "Fears linger. With my heart in two places, I enjoy helping people make this huge transition."
Workshop facilitator Greta Phinney asked the group, "For whom are you writing?"
She is a former Peace Corps volunteer and life-long teacher in Pittsfield, Latin America and Africa.
"There were three answers," she said. "They want their children to know their stories. They want to connect with other women with whom they share universal life experiences. And they want the rest of us, not recent immigrants, to understand their lives. From the beginning, rich and powerful themes emerged."
When Milagro Diaz's parents left El Salvador for America, she was sent from the farm where she was born to live with her grandparents, where she finished school and began teaching.
Feruza Bourn, an economist and researcher in Uzbekistan, left for freedom, and works now as a quality control technician in an automobile factory.
"In many ways, it was a journey to the unknown, goodbye to life as I knew it, everything that had always defined me," said Esperanza, who requested that her real name not be used for fear of repercussions.
She came from Mexico City and married an American, never dreaming she would be divorced.
While every story is different, all the women have been subject to exploitation, stigmatization and wrenching loneliness. Now, though, they treasure discovering how much they have in common. Finding their voices, they are not alone.
"Slowly I've come to understand," Esperanza said, "that just like previous immigrants, with all our differences, we help shape what the U.S. is today and will be tomorrow. More than a house with a backyard, this is what the American dream means to me."
Exuberance is here -- in Midori's careful voice, writing herself away from past traumas -- she has also requested that her real name not be used -- and in Diaz' excitement.
"No matter what happens," Diaz said, "I want to continue learning until I die."
"From daily life," Shi writes, "I have realized that America is not a perfect society. But compared to some countries where your life, even your thinking, is dictated by the state, this country recognizes the unalienable rights of her citizens. It is like holding the key to your own house."
"Once we realize how short is our tenure on the planet earth," Phinney said, "telling stories helps us see."
We're all explorers from some other land or time. With memory and imagination we can make sense of where we've been. In the end, what's extraordinary is discovery -- of ourselves, others, and the richness of every life -- lived, spoken and on the page.
This column is a collaboration between Berkshires Week and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.
If you go ...
What: "Coming to America: A Reading" -- The Berkshire Immigrant Center presents a reading hosted by Greta Phinney. Immigrant women are invited and supported to share their unique and compelling stories, each facing the challenge of writing and reading in a second language.
Where: Griffin Hall, Williams College, Williamstown,
When: Wednesday, 4:15 p.m.