While many past Play On Words shows have explored origin stories, family histories and questions of place, we have been wanting to host a show specific to immigrant heritage since 2018, when Donald Trump introduced some of the cruelest immigration policies in the United States to date. Of course, immigrant heritage does not have to center only the experience of crossing borders, but in many ways those narratives are so fundamentally human.
When planning our Our Stories, Ourselves show, we were moved to read Patty Somlo’s short story, “How He Made it Across,” which appeared previously in Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos) and in Somlo’s book, From Here to There, (Adelaide Books). We are looking forward to performing it June 17 as part of our virtual show with the San Jose Museum of Art.
Patty was a journalist for ten years before focusing on fiction and memoir. Her most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Weaving together the real and the fantastic, the 15 linked stories in Hairway to Heaven Stories introduce a diverse cast of characters living in a once predominantly African American neighborhood, now in the midst of gentrification.
Hairway was a finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were finalists in several book contests. She received an honorable mention for fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays.
Patty answered a few questions about herself in advance of our June show.
How did you hear about Play On Words?
A local author who knew my work told me about Play On Words and suggested that I submit something for the focus on immigrant heritage.
How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, I have found myself writing longer pieces and doing considerably more revisions. I am thinking – and hoping – this will result in better work that is more emotionally resonant.
What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?
My grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Hungary with my grandfather, would get up at five o’clock in the morning to start rolling out dough, to make dumplings for my favorite of her dishes, Chicken Paprikash. When she visited us, she arrived on the Greyhound bus with bags of cooking supplies. She would meet people in the grocery store, come home and make batches of stuffed cabbage, and then deliver the meat and tomato-filled cabbage to her new-found friends. She baked elaborate cakes, with thin layer upon thin layer of fruits, nuts and cream, because she didn’t believe that saving time with pre-made anything was worth it. Immigrant heritage to me means memorable food shared with others and the hard work that makes life better.
What else should we know about you?
I grew up in a military family that picked up and moved nearly every year. That upbringing has had a significant impact on what I write. Home – or the lack thereof – is a frequent focus of my work, including writing about immigrants, as well as the homeless.