The Immigrants' Daughter:
A Private Battle to Earn the Right to Self-Actualization

by Mary Terzian


Booklocker.com, Inc., 2005. ISBN 159113773X.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 03/14/2006

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: Relationships

A Question of Identity

"Where do you come from?" is the first question of Mary Terzian's absorbing memoir of her journey from her native land of Egypt to the United States. The Immigrants' Daughter is a story about personal identity: of shifting cultural contexts within which a young woman must find, and finally create, herself.

Born to Armenian parents who survived Turkish genocide to settle in Egypt, Mary spends her childhood and teen years in Cairo. Her memories of those pre-war days are sharp and clear, rich in the distinctive sights and sounds and smells of bustling, cosmopolitan Cairo, with its crowded streets, colorful markets, and multi-ethnic crowds. The loss of her mother and her father's remarriage create enormous change for her, personal losses and challenges interwoven with the German invasion of Egypt. "Between Mama's death, World War II, and the insecurities of life, childhood slips away unnoticed," she writes, as she struggles to imagine something other than the conventional fates of wife and mother (or seamstress: her father's idea of an acceptable occupation) for which her traditional culture destines her.

At last, after some conniving (the scene in which Mary translates and attempts to mediate the fiery argument between her father and the school's administrator is priceless), Mary manages to enter the academic track in her secondary school. She embarks on her first job, in the office of a trading company, and finally achieves a measure of independence: she leaves her restrictive, demanding father and stepmother and takes a room at the Y.W.C.A. In the last few chapters of the memoir, a new job with the United Nations takes her out into the world beyond her cultural borders.

Mary's account of her struggles with her strictly traditional father reminded of my own, and made me think that perhaps all fathers of our era were alike, whatever their nationality. And all daughters, too, perhaps, for Mary's story reminded me of my own desperate desire to escape from my parents' life and into a life of my own.

Perhaps we can all echo Mary's credo: "Where do I come from? I come from the core of humanity, from a combination of joys and sorrows, from circumstances that fashion destiny, from experiences that forge character, from the sum total of expressed or repressed emotions that I have entertained during my life."

Mary Terzian's compelling memoir is told in the present tense, which gives it vigor and urgency. The book is a good read, a thoughtful presentation of a difficult life's passage, and a richly-colored portrait of Armenian immigrant life in pre- and post-war Egypt.

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