One of my first solid memories is coming to the United States as a small child. I was too young to remark on all the differences between where I had come from and Kansas, where my family ended up settling. But being an immigrant is not a simple transition – moving from point A to point B and blending effortlessly into the culture that now surrounds you. It is more like moving a tree – some portion of the soil must come with the roots if the tree is to survive. Just so, some portion of a family’s culture, their customs, their language will come with them to their new home.
But as an immigrant, you must adjust. If you have any hope of growing, you must embrace the earth of your new home with your roots, digging deep and drinking deeper. To thrive, immigrants know they will have to learn about this place to which they have moved. And to do so, requires patience and observation. What do people do when they greet one another? How far do they stand when they speak? Do they smile? Shout? Both? Neither? As an immigrant, you can’t really take any of it for granted.
As you may expect, observations of this kind can allow a writer to include vivid and honest details in a story. In something more literary, echoing the details of how two characters did or did not meet, what they did or did not say – or how – can make a reader nod in recognition. “It’s true,” the reader will think to themselves, “I do lean in and touch my friend’s arm when we gossip!”
Meanwhile, in something more fantastic – something with magic or aliens or talking lions – the casually mentioned color of a coat, or the bend of someone’s arm can seem at once strange and purposeful. To an immigrant, there is meaning behind the way the queen claps exactly four times at the start of an audience. To an immigrant the idea that one of the royal servants might lean over and pinch the queen on her throne doesn’t seem out of the realm of the possible. Perhaps in your culture such a thing wouldn’t happen – but in this one it is.
So really what it comes down to is that seeing like an immigrant and writing like an immigrant means setting aside assumptions about how we think people should act around one another and simply considering how people might act. And what that could mean.
Maybe you, reading this now, aren’t an immigrant.
But I bet you’ve been to a different city far from your hometown.
Or at the very least, you have been to dinner with a friend’s family at some point.
That uncertainty, that hesitation – do they take shoes off at the door? do they pray before a meal? – embrace it. Feel it. Entry your story with it. The characters you are writing about – they are not you. However close you are to their world, it is not your world.
Approach it with wonder and curiosity and your readers will love you for it.