Meredith Monk (b. 1942) is a multi-talented American composer, singer, choreographer, director, filmmaker, creator of new opera works and music-theater installations. As one of the most unique and influential artists of our time, Monk creates “works that thrive at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound, discovering and weaving together new methods of perception.” Her innovative exploration of the voice as a compelling instrument expands the boundaries of musical composition, using sound to uncover feelings and memories that are impossible to express in words.
When she was invited to make a film about Ellis Island, the iconic point of entry for millions of immigrants to the USA, Meredith Monk got to work, applying her imaginative vision to the process. She gathered documentary material around contemporary images and wrote an evocative, atmospheric soundtrack to accompany what was otherwise a silent movie. The film intercuts between the historic and the modern. It’s like a distillation of Monk’s unmistakable storytelling style.
Like millions of Americans, Monk’s grandparents were immigrants who had made the journey through Ellis Island many decades ago. When asked about how she felt through the making of the film, she said it was a painful process. “Human beings were commoditized at Ellis Island,” she added. “My film is all about dealing with the ‘other’ . . . and the fact that by ‘otherizing’ a person, you turn them into an object.”
Ellis Island operated from 1892 to 1954, and it was the biggest immigration station in the U.S. from 1892 to 1924. The federal government wanted to take control of immigration to make sure immigrants free of diseases and could support themselves.
More than 12 million immigrants came through the island during this period. The record for immigrants received at Ellis Island was on the 17th of April in 1906. A total of 11,747 immigrants were processed that day. In that year alone, 1,004,756 immigrants entered the United States. 280,000 people were denied entry.
Most immigrants came to America to find a better life. That must be why Ellis Island acquired the nickname, “Island of Hope.” On the other hand, the island was also a place of detainment and deportation, where people often experienced sorrow and relief at the same time.
The first immigrant who arrived was a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore. Annie had come to America with her two younger brothers to reunite with her parents. A statue depicting Annie is still on the island today.
Ellis Island started as a small island of around 3.3 acres. By 1906, the island had expanded to 27.5 through the use of
“What has happened to us in this country? If we study our own history, we find that we have always been ready to receive the unfortunate from other countries, and though this may seem a generous gesture on our part, we have profited a thousandfold by what they have brought us.”
— ELEANOR ROOSEVELT
YOUR WRITING PROMPT:
Today, write about an immigrant or being an immigrant.
How did you, your parents, or grandparents end up in America (or the country where you reside now)? Was there someone in your family who was an immigrant? What was their story? Is there a specific anecdote related to being an immigrant that was shared in your family?
Do you know someone who emigrated to another country? What happened next?
What was a time when you considered leaving your motherland to live and work elsewhere? What propelled or motivated you?
Set your timer for 10 minutes and go!
No judging, no stopping. Keep your pen moving (or your fingers typing) no matter where this prompt takes you in your freewriting this week.
By the way, you can always find more writing ideas in the library of writing prompts I created