Jan 24, 2018 | interview

Immigrant Experiences in Fiction and Real Life: A Roundtable Discussion

Humans have been moving from place to place for at least as long as we’ve recorded history, and every shifting experience creates a different story. I had a roundtable discussion with the authors of “Those We Feed”, “Hehua”, and “A Legal Alien” about some of the ways immigration has shaped their experiences and perspectives. Layla Al-Bedawi, Millie Ho, and Maya Kanwal all have different experiences with immigrant communities, language, and culture. In this conversation, we discuss how these things influence their lives and their work as writers.

Julia Rios: Please introduce yourselves and tell us a little about your relationship to immigrant experiences.

Millie Ho: Hi everyone! I’m a writer and illustrator from Toronto, and feel very lucky to come from such a culturally diverse place.

As a kid growing up in North York, my peers were other Chinese Canadians. We went to the same schools, consumed the same media (a mix of Japanese anime, American pop culture, and Jay Chou albums on repeat), and bonded over the same experiences and challenges as first-generation immigrants, like trying to convince our mothers we didn’t all want to be doctors!

Now that I’m living abroad, I feel more like an immigrant than ever before. Canada will always be my home, but I enjoy the transient nature of travelling and soaking up new cultures, something I credit to my immigrant experience.

Maya Kanwal: Hi all! I’m a writer from Houston, and like Millie, adore the diversity here!

I am Pakistani-American, grew up in the deserts of Dubai and landed in several feet of snow in upstate New York when I came to the US for college. I found right away that there is no such thing as a “typical” Pakistani immigrant–as in every other community, people’s attitudes, daily experiences and adjustment to American life varied not only based on their past experiences, but also on who they were as a person, and, very importantly, what they read!

Layla Al-Bedawi: Hello! My immigrant experience is not easily summarized, but I’ll try: I was born in Germany to very recent immigrant parents, one Iraqi Kurdish, one Ukrainian. Aside from very few friends who’d immigrated at the same time, my parents didn’t have a community of people who shared their background at all, so neither did I growing up. I learned Russian first (it’s the language my parents speak to each other), then German in Kindergarten, then English a few years after that. I moved to the US in my mid-twenties for grad school and ended up marrying and staying–I joke that I’m first- and last-generation German, though ancestry-wise, I’m really only German on paper.

Julia Rios: How often, and in what ways does this come through in your writing?

Millie Ho: While I had a strong sense of self in real life, creatively I felt out of place, especially when I was younger. None of the characters I saw in books, TV shows, or movies looked like me, or if they did, they were relegated to side roles and/or quickly killed off. I remember one Law & Order: SVU episode that featured female Chinese immigrants. They had no agency, played stereotypical roles (illegal sex slaves, etc.), and spent the entire episode being rescued. My twelve-year-old self was very disappointed.

So now I write almost exclusively stories about people I wish I could’ve read about or seen on the big screen growing up: Chinese Canadians and other immigrants who have one foot in the past and one foot in the present, trying to carve out a future where they can be who they truly are.

Maya Kanwal: Rather than exploring the “Pakistani-immigrant” experience in my work, I often find my stories relying on the “state of being Pakistani,” whether my stories are set in US or elsewhere. The one aspect of being an immigrant that does inform my writing consistently is the general condition of being a new person in an established world, and the power structures one must navigate to maintain a sense of dignity and self.

Layla Al-Bedawi: In my writing, I don’t often address the immigrant experience in a literal way, though I love reading that kind of work and finding myself in it. Instead, I find that in my poetry and flash fiction I often work though the subject of my immigrant identity by writing it onto the physical body–experiences of feeling different, of feeling like your parts don’t fit together in a literal way; the desire to dissect, disassemble, reassemble yourself, if that makes sense. Being made into–or making yourself into–something strange and new. I’m a green card holder here, I left Germany over a decade ago, I’ve never been to Iraq, and I’ve only spent a handful of childhood summers in the Ukraine. I feel very in-between and never wholly of one place (like I know many people with mixed backgrounds do). I grapple with my trouble to fully claim any of my identity fragments, and I think that always shows in my writing, whether I intend it or not. This is also how I found my home in speculative fiction, I think: my work is full of strange, fragmented creatures who don’t quite know who they are or where they belong, fighting for their space in a world that doesn’t always understand or welcome them.

Julia Rios: Millie and Maya, you both have written stories explicitly about immigrant communities in places where you currently live. How do the communities in your stories reflect your lived experiences? How are they different?

Millie Ho: The more I write, the more I realize how little immigrant visibility there is in fiction, and how important it is to showcase all the nuances of our different experiences. For example, it’s different being a first-generation vs. a newly landed immigrant. In “Hehua”, I explored this idea through Cassie, a CBC (Canadian-born Chinese) and Hehua, who’s new to the country. The way they handle the situation speaks volumes about their mindsets, the pressure to assimilate or dissimilate into their environment, and the way they’re perceived by those around them. I’m always tackling questions about individuality in my work: how much of the life being lived is from your own design, and how much was designed for you? When are traditions supposed to be honoured, and when should they be destroyed? These are all questions inspired by my immigrant background.

Maya Kanwal: I enjoy writing in caricature. So my characters are often larger-than-life representations of cultural attitudes that intrigue me, especially if these were traits that nagged at me even while I was growing up in Pakistani communities elsewhere around the world.

Julia Rios: Millie, you specifically mentioned the diversity of Toronto, and Layla and Maya, I know Houston is also a very diverse city. How does living in a diverse place enrich and affect your quality of life?

Millie Ho: Growing up in Toronto gave me ample opportunities to connect with and understand people from many different backgrounds. I love hearing the personal stories the most. Why did your parents move? How did your grandparents feel when they visited and saw Niagara Falls for the first time? Can your extended family understand your broken Spanish, or does it lead to a lot of unintentional humour?

Toronto made me appreciate, very early on, why I must always seek the truth about people for myself. I reject external sources–like politics and the media–that try to paint a certain picture of an ethnic group. Sure, there are traditions and common traits of a culture, but everyone and their situations are unique. The diversity of Toronto–and now Bangkok, where I’m currently based–has taught me never to entertain preconceived notions about people and to not be lazy in learning more about them, from the source itself.

Layla Al-Bedawi: Living in Houston for the past four years has been such a great and interesting experience. Houston is enormous, so someone could live here and spend their days in spaces that are mostly white, but you can also seek out communities that reflect your own cultural background, and you can seek out places that show the best of Houston, places where people of various backgrounds come together in ways that make that kind of environment feel natural and commonplace. If ever there was a place where I could say, “Hi, I’m from Germany but my dad is Kurdish and my mom is from the Ukraine and they speak Russian to me and I answer in German!” without being met with a blank stare or exclamations about how strange and unusual my background is, it’s Houston.

Maya Kanwal: Diversity was my life line as a child growing up in Dubai, because if it were up to my family, I would be encased in an insular bubble of conservative Muslim teachings combined with culturally condoned suppression of my role as a young Pakistani girl. I loved going to school every day, because school was full of kids from all over the world, opening up my mind, my imagination, giving me hope for my future. So even now, I look for that in my neighbors and friends. I need them to keep my heart open and my soul fired up.

Julia Rios: All of you have experience with different languages. How does the language you speak inform your sense of identity? How does this show up in your work?

Layla Al-Bedawi: I was going to say that my sense of language and my sense of identity are like a pair of twins, but they feel closer-related even than that. Just as I sometimes struggle with fully claiming the different parts of my background, I feel like an impostor calling any of the languages I speak my native tongue. I spoke nothing but Russian until the age of three, and my pronunciation and comprehension is that of a native speaker, but of my languages it’s now my worst, due mostly to lack of practice but also the fact that I never learned to write it and can only read it very slowly. For the longest time, German was the language that I considered, unquestioningly, to be my native language. But after living in the US for over a decade, an unexpected devil called L1 attrition has snuck into my brain: turns out that, as you become more and more natural in a new language, your first language–your L1–almost invariably suffers as a consequence. Except for certain tells, I’m told I sound fairly close to a native speaker in English, which has taken a toll on my German. Certain word choices have begun to feel less natural; prepositions are sometimes hard to pick. The strangest thing to me is that even my pronunciation has taken a hit. So now I officially speak no language like a true native speaker. When I first realized this a few years ago, I was devastated. I felt like I’d broken my language brain. But I quickly understood that I loved the benefits of being multilingual more than I was bothered by its strange side effects–and after a while I fell in love even with those side effects. I embrace and nurture my unusual language, just as I hope to nurture (and be nurtured by) my mix of identities.

Millie Ho: There’s so much about the Chinese language I still have yet to learn! I’ve spoken Mandarin all my life, but I’m just starting to learn Sichuanese, a dialect spoken in Sichuan province, where my lao jia (family) is.

While I can get by in modern China with Mandarin, I still don’t fit in properly within my own family. This definitely reinforces the feeling of my foreignness in China, where I look the part but sometimes can’t communicate properly. In this way, I don’t feel like I completely belong in either China or Canada, and I try to channel this tension into my work by exploring themes of alienation, external pressures to conform, and the importance of having your own ironclad sense of identity and self, because that’s all there is, when all’s said and done.

Julia Rios: Layla mentioned that identity and the body comes up a lot in her work, and that she feels these things are connected to her sense of identity and the experience of feeling othered. There’s a lot of conversation around the idea of Own Voices–people telling stories from and about their specific cultures, and the idea that it’s important to allow for underrepresented voices to tell any kind of stories. Do any of you feel external pressure to make your work always be in dialogue with your sense of identity and culture? Do you ever stretch and play in ways that explicitly don’t engage those aspects of your life?

Millie Ho: I think writers should write what they want, first and foremost. We should not create works that deal with our sense of identity and culture out of obligation just because that’s what’s expected of us. But when we do write those stories, we owe it to our readers to do our best, which means having done our research and being respectful.

Layla Al-Bedawi: Like I said, I don’t tend to address my cultural background and identity in my work head-on–it just keeps sneaking into the subtext. I agree with Millie: writers should write what they want, but do so responsibly. I don’t feel any direct external pressure to write about/within my identities, for which I’m grateful. If anything, feeling so between cultures makes me feel ill-equipped to write within the cultures of my parents, so for myself, I think far more about how to do it responsibly than whether to do it at all. My own identity, of course, isn’t that of my parents, but lives in that fragmented, culturally unmoored place, and that’s all over my writing always.

The Own Voices movement is so important. I’m happy to see more and more writers and readers actively thinking about who has been allowed to tell their own stories, and whose stories have been told for them–sometimes, historically, exclusively. Those critical of the movement need to understand that Own Voices isn’t about policing or silencing anyone, but about giving space to voices that are too often silenced, about telling stories in ways that don’t misrepresent or villainize minority communities or do harm in any other way.

Julia Rios: Do you have any other thoughts about immigrant experience you’d like to share? How do you feel the immigrant experience in places you have lived has changed over the course of your lifetime? How do you think it might change in the future, and how do you feel that the power of immigrant stories can effect positive changes?

Maya Kanwal: Immigration is a fact of earthling-life, and communities around the world are bound to churn and mix at a faster rate with each passing year because of political, technological, and natural forces. Remember the cautionary folktales from the last century where the moral of the story was to be kind to the stranger in your midst, or suffer the consequences of your presumptions about them? I feel that the immigrant stories of today play that role, perhaps in a more nuanced manner. Today’s stories aren’t turning their characters into beasts or ripping away their first born children, but they’re definitely holding up the wrenching mirror of truth.

Millie Ho: One thing I want to point out, especially with regards to Own Voices, is that quality also comes with quantity. My stories definitely don’t speak for all Chinese Canadians. I am just one dot on the mosaic of the entire experience. I would love to see more underrepresented groups share their stories and start more conversations about their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. We’re already seeing more signs of this, and it’s fantastic! This is how lasting progress is made, one voice at a time.

Layla Al-Bedawi: Stories are not just how we learn about others, but how we get to know them. The experience of reading fiction, at its heart, is a dialogue–not so much with the writer, but with the world we live in. Reading stories about those who are different from you yet, in their humanity, the same as you, changes your understanding of the world around you, and that change in you, in effect, bit by bit, changes the world.

Julia Rios: Thank you, Millie, Maya, and Layla for sharing your perspectives with us!

© 2018

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