Thursday, August 13, 2009
On Writing What You Know and Cultural Heritage
I just finished reading the Giller nominated Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa. Mr. De Sa is a fabulous Toronto author of Portuguese descent and since I haven't found many novels about the Portuguese-Canadian immigrant experience (and since my own book was inspired by the 2006 immigration crackdown on illegal Portuguese workers here in Canada) I was really looking forward to reading it.
I was not disappointed.
Barnacle Love is such a beautifully written book. I read it in one evening straight. Even though it's about a particular Portuguese-Canadian immigrant and second-generation family experience the book touches on so many universal themes of family obligation, love, entanglement, despair, hopes, dreams that make all families so uniquely screwed up that no matter your heritage there would be something there for any reader to connect with.
But because I am a second-generation Portuguese-Canadian I read so much in those pages that I intrinsically understood, so many characters that I recognized from my own childhood, so many experiences that I remember so vividly it enraptured me. Not many of my Canadian friends, for example, can identify with the fascination and horror when your Dad slaughters a pig in your garage. Ya, that experience is seared into my memory and Mr. De Sa captured the sights, smells and behaviours so vividly it felt like he'd been in my small, rural farm in southern Ontario instead of four hours away in big city Toronto. Suffice to say that the book really, really resonated with me.
And that's why writing about 'what you know' is about so much more than just making you as a writer feel comfortable about your story or your characters. As I was growing up - heck, even now still - it was so rare to find stories with characters that reflected my personal cultural background, my immigrant family experience. It made me feel like stories about people like us just weren't that interesting. Nobody was writing about us (that I'm aware of)twenty years ago. Mr. De Sa proved through Barnacle Love that's not the case anymore. Maybe it's because we have to wait a certain amount of time - the second-generation is now getting to the age where we can look back at the experience and see it more clearly. It's taken a while - for me, anyway - to recognize that Portuguese-Canadians have a unique, interesting history that should be shared. And we all, regardless of our background, have common human experience and feelings that we can understand regardless of where we come from.
And I really want more books with Portuguese-Canadian characters out there - especially for young adults. I guess that's one of the reasons I wrote Illegally Blonde. I hear so often that the children of Portuguese immigrants aren't moving into postsecondary education as fast or with as many numbers as other immigrant groups. Why?? I don't know why there aren't more Portuguese-Canadian authors (or Portuguese-American authors for that matter)out there right now. There is so much rich history and stories to be mined! It's not that I think all writers with a particular heritage need to write about that heritage. But, boy, if there's a story there why not?? Books reflect society and we have such a multicultural society here why isn't there more diversity in the books out there?? Yes, it's getting better but, boy, it can sure improve a lot more.
While I'm not only going to be writing about characters that come from the same cultural background as I do my whole life I do know that my heritage helped me with writing and selling Illegally Blonde. I'd written other books before this one but, for some reason, Illegally Blonde - about a young girl of Portuguese heritage who is forced to leave Canada and recognize that who she is and where she comes from plays a huge role in who she will eventually become - was the first book of mine that captured a lot of agent and editor interest. It will be the first book I have published (I certainly hope it won't be the last!) And while the story is certainly fiction (I've never been deported so I only hope I capture the feelings of my protagonist well enough to be believeable!)I hope there is enough there in terms of my understanding of the Portuguese setting, the protagonists family and the conflicting feelings that a second-generation daughter of immigrant parents continually has with her family to make it a little bit more believeable for the reader. I've experienced that weird mixture of love and respect mingled with anger and frustration for parents who have one foot planted in their old country and one in their new while both of yours are so firmly rooted in the new.
While there are many, many other stories I want to tell that may not touch on families and the immigrant experience, I have a feeling that I will always have a special connection with characters who inhabit that experience. And, if I've done a good enough job maybe, just maybe, that little bit of understanding and experience that I do have will make the story feel a little more real.