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Gaëlle Josse: Writing the Memory of Ellis Island

A moving visit to Ellis Island in 2012 inspired French poet Gaëlle Josse to write a novel, The Last Days of Ellis Island. Recently translated into English, it plunges the reader into the mind of a fictional character to bring a chapter in American history to life. As the New York immigration center prepares for its final days on November 3, 1954, its director looks back through his memories…
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His name is John Mitchell, an unremarkable moniker that suits his drab appearance and a dreary life spent working for the Federal Immigration Service. In nine days and nine nights, he will step down from his job and leave the now deserted corridors of Ellis Island to live in a small Brooklyn apartment inherited from his parents. For decades, he has seen countless groups of men and women arriving on huge boats from Europe, forced out of their homes by poverty or war. He writes, alone, as if laying bare his conscience one last time, surrounded by the ghosts of the “Irish peasant,” the “Calabrian shepherd,” and the “Polish rabbi” who have since become American citizens. Wracked with remorse, he thinks of Nella, a young girl from Sardinia whose mentally disabled brother threw himself out of a window because America didn’t want him. He remembers the day when he felt like he had betrayed his country by allowing an Italian anarchist worker onto national soil.

Gaëlle Josse, who has also published a fictional biography about the French-American photographer Vivian Maier, tells the story of all these broken lives, all these tales of loss and separation. The novel combines fiction and documentary research. “What does one take into exile?” she writes. “So little: only the things that really matter. The memory of certain melodies, the flavor of a particular food, a way of praying or greeting a neighbor.” A number of real characters inhabit the background of the story, such as Fiorello La Guardia, a translator and interpreter on Ellis Island and the future mayor of New York City, and the photographer Augustus F. Sherman, who took anthropological portraits of the new arrivals.

“I had a very violent physical and emotional shock when visiting Ellis Island,” says the writer. “I felt the history, the palpable presence of the twelve mil-lion destinies that passed through this place. My character is something like the last lookout on the prow of a boat. I imagined his history, both intimate and collective, that highlights the complexity of human beings. Through him, we can see the ambiguities of America welcoming a workforce while protecting itself. A country that wants to take more than it gives.” A novel that resonates powerfully with the tragic fates of today’s migrants.

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The Last Days of Ellis Island by Gaëlle Josse, translated from French by Natasha Lehrer, World Editions, 2020. 208 pages, 15.99 dollars.


Article published in the January 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

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