Tag Archive | Italians

Being New Isn’t Easy

When I start writing a new book, I become immersed in the subject. I get to the point where I live the story with the characters, and I’m merely the scribe who writes down their thoughts, feelings and conversations. So, as you might imagine, with my latest book being about Italian immigrants living in New York in the 1900s, I’m focused on the immigrant experience. . .going through Ellis Island, living in a large city after coming from farm areas, constantly hearing the sound of a language different from their language, having to live in tenements, being paid less than other workers doing the same work. It must have been hell.

When a friend of my made a not-so-nice joke about people from India or Pakistan owning/running gas stations in the area, it wasn’t funny to me. My retort was, “No matter where immigrants come from, they work damn hard for very little.” My friend stayed silent until she finally agreed with me several minutes later.

I’ve often thought about what my Italian grandfather went through as a young man of 16. I don’t think I have the courage to face the hardships he must have faced. Once I was in Germany for only a few days and after hearing a different language that I didn’t understand all that time, I couldn’t wait until I landed back at O’Hare Field. I remember the flight attendant saying, “auf Wiedersehen” and I turned around and looked at her with a stern face and said, “It’s goodbye, here!” I think of myself as a very tolerant person, but I proved I wasn’t as tolerant as I thought as my cheeky comment left my lips.

Immigrants can’t hide their accents any more than a Midwestern can hide her accent in Brooklyn. The instant someone different speaks, the outsider is recognized. Believe me, there’s nothing more isolating than not being able to understand the people around you. No wonder “Little Italy” communities grew up in cities. These places were safe and friendly because the immigrants didn’t have to work so hard to be understood by someone else.

And think about how different we live in America compared to much of the world. Social rules aren’t written down, but the minute a new person makes a mistake, they are either shunned or laughed at. I remember going to New York a number of years ago and being overwhelmed by the culture shock. People who live in there do everything FASTER than people from the Midwest. It’s noisy there and the streets are jammed with SO MANY people. Can you imagine trying to build a new life in New York after traveling 20 days in steerage and coming from a place where farming was all you knew? Throughout our history, many millions of people have done just that. It’s amazing they survived!

The challenges that all new immigrants face are tremendous, even if they come from countries that speak English. I admire their courage to put up with the selfish, uncaring, and impatient side of Americans. Let’s face it, everyone in this country (with the exception of Native Americans) has descended from people who came from somewhere else with the courage to want a better life for themselves and their families. We’ve all benefited from their sacrifices and fortitude.  So the next time you meet an immigrant, for goodness sake, welcome them.

It’s More About Feelings than Facts

Writing about something you don’t know about is dangerous. Every writing teacher harps on this from your first sentence to your last essay.  So how do write about things that you don’t know?

If you’re lucky, you’ll have personal accounts from people you’ve met. My first novel — Apple Pie and Strudel Girls is a fictional tribute to may people I knew firsthand who lived through the the World War II years. My parents and all of the friends, my aunts and uncles and so many others were the young “boys” and “girls” who fought that war.

But my latest novel is a story about Italian immigrants who came to America at the turn of the last century. My grandfather was one of those immigrants and so was his best friend Jan and  his wife, Angeline. I remember their broken English way of talking and their big hand gestures, but I was so young when they died, any other memories are lost.

My only recourse to learn about this time in history is to do RESEARCH. I’ll spend months reading  journals, books, papers and articles  that have been written about the period of time, so I can put myself back in time. But this research only provides a backdrop for the story. Research will never be the story.

The trick is to marry the research with the characters and what they will experience. When I get to this stage of the process, I draw on my own experiences. For instance, I grew up in a gregarious, sometimes boisterous Italian family who were devoutly Catholic. I’ve also been on a ship during a terrible storm. Granted I wasn’t riding in “steerage,” but I felt fear rising in my chest as the 30 ft. waves bashed the ship, when lightning lit up the sky like daylight and the 50,000 ton ship bobbed like a cork in the sea. So, I can write about a fearful immigrant crossing the Atlantic.

Going further, my research emphasized that Italians were very isolated, not only because of their language difficulties, but because  of their “neighborhood” mentality — the first generation only recognized the Italians from their own villages. Believe it or not, they didn’t even see other Italians as being part of their group!  I’ve felt isolation many times in my life, so I can indirectly relate to what the early Italian immigrants might have felt. I’ve also been the only white face in a black crowd, where I was scrutinized and scorned.

So, you see, even though I didn’t live the life of an immigrant, I can draw from my own experiences to piece together what was happening at the time with the feelings and motivation of the characters.After all, isn’t the essence of a story rooted in the personalities and experiences of the characters–their happiness, sadness, despair, triumphs, frustration, isolation, etc?

So you see, bringing characters to life on the page is much, much more than research. This is where writing what you know comes into play, and I think this is what most people want when they read a good book, don’t you?