The stories, usually shared in French, were at times intensely personal, and Nora Silva ’19 has heard 10 of them, laying the foundation of her summer Emerson research project.
Silva interviewed French-speaking immigrants from a number of African countries, including Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They now live near Lewiston and Portland in Maine, where she spoke with them about their relationship with the French language. From there she’ll present their stories in a narrative that looks at their experiences within a historical, political, and cultural context.
Majors: French and Francophone studies; literature
Hometown: Portsmouth, N.H.
High School: Concord Academy
All of the people Silva interviewed came to the U.S. to escape extreme persecution in their home countries, so gaining their initial trust as a 21-year-old student researcher presented a challenge. “And even if we’re just talking about their relationship with the French language there’s a sort of hesitancy — can I trust you, who are you exactly, why are you doing this?” she says. “I think that that was probably the hardest thing — being able to present myself and network in this community in a way that made people feel comfortable and like they actually wanted to talk to me.”
The idea for the project traces back to a course Silva took while studying abroad with Hamilton in France. It looked at the history and lasting impact of French colonialism in Africa, which got her thinking about French-speaking communities that exist outside of France. Through family connections, African immigrant communities in Maine were on her radar, and that gave her a focal point for her research.
She's compiling her findings to present on campus during academic year. When she looks back at her summer's work, one interview in particular, with a man from Mauritania, stands out. He stressed to her how significant it was to him that they did the interview in French.
“To him, language plays a role in marking the stages of his life: Pulaar (his first language) throughout his childhood, French in secondary education and throughout university in France, English since he has come to live in the United States,” Silva says. “He described how having the opportunity to speak to me in French brought him back to the portion of his life he spent living in France. Language marks not only aspects of his identity, but the stages of his life.”