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By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

As I gathered stories for my recent reading list on the power of names, Vesna Jaksic Lowe’s newsletter, Immigrant Strong, came to mind. In each issue, Jaksic Lowe recommends excellent writing by and about immigrant writers, and creates a space for stories on identity, belonging, multicultural life, and even the complexities of returning home. 

Since 2009, reading and recommending stories we love has been at the core of Longreads. We also remain inspired by the work of fellow curators, like Jaksic Lowe, who read widely, explore their interests and obsessions, and make it easier for people to find something to read.

After consistently enjoying Jaksic Lowe’s reading recommendations, I asked if she’d be willing to discuss her work and perspective. In this short Q&A, we talk about her newsletter and curation process, a few of her favorite reads, and her recent trip back home to Croatia — a journey that always stirs up emotions.

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In a 2019 interview, you explained why you launched your newsletter: to support and elevate immigrant writers and their narratives, and to explore themes of identity, belonging, and multiculturalism. So much in the world has changed since then — from the pandemic to the change in administration. Has its focus changed at all? 

Vesna Jaksic Lowe

Voting out a president and an administration that was steeped in racism, hatred, and anti-immigrant vitriol was critical, but it doesn’t negate the need to share immigrants’ stories. Immigrants and refugees and their families still face horrific discrimination and appalling injustices, and their voices are often silenced or reduced to discussions about politics, laws, or some statistic. And not only is that wrong and narrow-minded, but it diminishes our stories — stories about lives that are full of struggle and resilience, love and loss, failure and success, and humor and joy, just like other people’s.

The world is confronting global crises that don’t stop at any country’s borders, like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, and that actually highlights the need for more storytelling by immigrants. They bring knowledge and experience from multiple countries, cultures, and languages. Their writing is not only beautiful, but raises critical perspectives and valuable information. So my focus has stayed the same — in every newsletter, I share a book and a few essays about immigrant life by immigrants, because we should be the ones telling stories about our lives and experiences.

There is just so much breadth and beauty in writing by immigrants, and they often navigate topics that are ripe for deep reflection.

What, ultimately, do you hope to share in each newsletter?

Literature has the power to inform, to educate, and to create empathy and understanding, so the more people reading these essays, the better. A lot of discourse about immigration and immigrants is based on false information and delivered by people who are not knowledgeable about these subjects, but hold very strong opinions. That needs to end, and I want to get at least a small slice of immigrants’ rich writing out into the world.

I also want to help people diversify their bookshelves. If the only authors you read are white men who were born here, you are limiting yourself. So I focus on sharing writing by women of color — a group that has long been marginalized but consistently produces some of the best writing on the themes I cover.

Tell us about your curation process. What stands out to you, and how do you select the stories that appear in each issue? 

I want to make my newsletter as accessible as possible, so I mostly link to essays that are free. I focus on nonfiction because that’s what I read the most, and that’s the medium I’ve published in and am most familiar with. I’m endlessly fascinated by immigrants and children of immigrants’ storytelling about what it means to straddle multiple cultures; how we define home and belonging when we are connected to more than one place; and how this influences the way we identify ourselves and move through the world.

Do you have a favorite essay you’ve featured?

It’s hard to pick one essay — I loved the ones you mentioned, and vividly remember reading them and being moved by them. A few months ago, I read Madhushree Ghosh’s Longreads essay “The State We Are In: Neither Here, There, nor in Heaven,” and light bulbs kept going off in my head when she discussed how immigrants face this in-between world, filled with love, longing, and guilt. Sulaiman Addonia’s LitHub excerpt on multilingualism awed me with its striking writing on language and loss. And I got goose bumps reading Elif Shafak compare motherlands to “castles made of glass” that can leave you with deep cuts. There is just so much breadth and beauty in writing by immigrants, and they often navigate topics that are ripe for deep reflection.

You share writing from publications we love, like Catapult, Guernica, and Electric Literature. We also get excited when we feature a publication, particularly smaller outlets, for the first time. Do you see more spaces today for immigrant voices?

I think there are more spaces for immigrant writers now in part because the publishing world is addressing a long overdue need to include more diverse voices. And hopefully that’s motivating more of us who are immigrants to exercise our agency and claim our narratives.

What emerging publication have you discovered this year that you’re really excited about? 

I love these outlets you mentioned and there are many more. For example, The Bare Life Review solely publishes immigrant and refugee writers. Khôra magazine is fairly new and while it doesn’t focus on immigrants, I have come across beautiful essays there. And The Rumpus often features interviews with authors who are immigrants and members of marginalized groups.

I always wonder who I would have become had my family not left, and how my immigrant experience has shaped me.

You returned home to Croatia in August and described it in your August 2021 issue as “a liminal space, where my past self merges with my present self.” Can you reflect a bit more on that journey?

I’m privileged and lucky to have the documents and resources to travel back home, which so many immigrants can’t do. My aunt, uncle, cousins, and other relatives and friends live in Croatia, so it’s a time to reconnect with many people I’ve known my whole life. It’s more than a vacation — it’s the only time of the year I get to visit my beautiful hometown of Dubrovnik and my home country. As a parent of a young child, I try to squeeze so much in those few weeks because it’s my main opportunity to immerse her in Croatian food, language, and culture.

Traveling back home is always so emotionally charged. It deeply saddens me that I live an ocean away from home and so many people I love. I have moments there when I feel like I never left, and others when I feel like the perpetual foreigner who doesn’t fit in anywhere. For many immigrants, these trips are so psychologically fraught because they amplify our thoughts about belonging, home, and identity. I always wonder who I would have become had my family not left, and how my immigrant experience has shaped me.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.