ORONO, Maine — “The Somali Narrative Project,” an oral history collaboration between four University of Maine faculty members and Somali residents of the Lewiston-Auburn area, has resulted in the publication of a new book about the experiences of the newly arrived residents in their own words.
Edited by Kimberly A. Huisman of the UMaine sociology faculty; Mazie Hough, the associate director of the Women in the Curriculum and Women’s Studies Program; Kristin M. Langellier of the communication and journalism faculty; and Carol Nordstrom Toner, Maine Studies Program director and research associate, the book, “Somalis in Maine: Crossing Cultural Currents,” is now available in bookstores online and throughout the country.
The 400-page paperback containing personal stories, ethnography and reflective essays about the unique cross-cultural interactions and collaborations between Somali refugees and Americans in Lewiston is published by North Atlantic Books and distributed by Random House.
The impetus for the book began with a reader’s theater performance by members of the Somali Narrative Project at the American Folk Festival. An editor from North Atlantic Books was in the audience and was so intrigued by what she saw, she proposed combining the voices of scholars and oral histories into a published anthology. “Somalis in Maine” includes pieces by the four editors, Somali students and alumni from UMaine and nationally and internationally known Somali scholars.
The interdisciplinary group initially came together in 2004 in response to cultural tensions that arose with the Somalis’ mass immigration to Maine.
“At the time, there were negative images not only about Somalis, but about Lewiston,” Langellier recalled. “We wanted to produce other narratives, in some case counter-narratives to what was readily available.”
They sought to create “a library of real stories” in one Somali’s words, stories that promoted understanding and improved communication, and that documented that period through narrative. Because oral tradition is essential to Somali culture, storytelling was a natural next step.
“The Somalis told us that others didn’t understand their language, culture, history and religion,” Langellier said. “Also, because generations and children change so quickly in the United States, the elders felt like they were losing their own sense of history. Their children didn’t know their history, they didn’t know about Somalia or even about immigration.”
In telling their stories, a contemporary history emerged and is now chronicled in rich personal revelations about the Somali experience from the community’s point of view.