Monday, March 15, 2010

What Being the Daughter of Immigrants Taught Me About Writing

I spent the first half of my life basically trying to ignore the fact that my parents were immigrants. I don't think I was alone in feeling that my cultural 'differentness' was not something I waved about with the pride that maybe I should have. Different language, different food, different family - these things, while I didn't denigrate to my english speaking, Protestant faith, Capital C Canadian friends I also didn't celebrate. I tried to ignore those aspects of my life by not really talking about them. I could never really forget them entirely, mind you. After all my name was a big red flag that shouted 'different'. Every time a friend came over and met my limited english speaking parents and knew a pig had just been slaughtered in the barn shouted 'different'. Every time I had to take part in the Portuguese club dances or functions or whatever the community had going said 'different'. To me, the fact that my parents were immigrants was always more of a liability in my younger days never a plus. I never thought about what their being immigrants could actually teach me. What a gift it was to me in becoming who I am today. A writer.

Next week I'll be sitting on my very first writers panel. It's being held at York University and the symposium's title is "Narratives of the Portuguese Diaspora: Emmigration and Identity." The writers panel is supposed to discuss how emmigration has affected our writing. I can certainly talk about my novel, the plot and themes and connect it all to the issues of emmigration specific to the Portuguese experience. But what this topic has really started me thinking about is how being the child of immigrants influenced me in taking the first step toward becoming a writer. The life lessons my parents immigant experience taught me - even if I didn't realize them at the time - they were invaluable and sustained me as I struggled through the last seven years.

So, what are those life lessons? First, and most importantly, ...

Have a Dream
My father and mother were raised during the depression and WWII years in abject poverty under an oppressive dictatorship. They truly had nothing but their family and their dreams to sustain them. My father dreamed of owning his own land one day - being his own boss. That dream sustained him when he was a young married man with a child to raise and no job to be found anywhere. That dream sustained him when faced with the most adverse conditions and experiences when he emmigrated. Experiences I never expect to be faced with but it taught me the importance of holding on to your dreams. I had a dream to write one day. That dream lived inside me until I was ready to ...

Take a Risk
Dreams are a wonderful thing to have but without following through on them - without taking a risk - that's all they are and they will remain just as insubstantial. My father took the biggest risk - leaving his young family and travelling to an unknown world, with an unknown language, to an unknown and harsh geography, with no definite job and no guarantees. My mother left her family - unwillingly. She took the greatest risk of all becaue she was terrified to leave the only home and place she'd ever known.

I took a risk and decided to stop dreaming and start writing. It was exhilerating and terrifying at the same time. But I was only able to continue because my parents taught me to …

Persevere When Faced with Adversity/Rejection
When my father first came here he traveled for the first year from city to city, town to town, from south to north and east to west - literally looking everywhere for a job. He was constantly told "No. I don't need you." "Try again next month." "Can't pay you what I said. Here's half of what I owe you." "Sorry. Thought I needed you but we're cutting back."
He never gave up looking. He persevered.

Reading a letter or email that says "Sorry. Not for me" about the novel you sweated bullets over is peanuts when I remember what my father and mother went through. Which leads directly to the next life lesson my immigrant parents taught me …

Always Work Hard
My dad took any job he could get. Mostly as an itinerant farm labourer for years until he finally got a job as a lumberjack in a remote logging community in Northern Ontario. A dangerous, risky job in horrendous conditions for years (one day I'm going to write about those stories he told me about). Then, finally, after achieving his dream of owning his own farm he still had to put in hours and hours of backbreaking labour while he also worked in an auto factory assembly line and then as a janitor. Four hours of sleep a night for years. Crushing debt for years. But what got him through those years was his never-ending, never-failing work ethic.

It taught me that if you work hard, if you take pride in doing jobs you hate but need to get your dream in the end - if you keep writing and do it well - you earn the respect of others, but mostly you earn something even more important: self-respect.

But it wasn't just about perseverance and hard work. My parents couldn't have survived without a critically important factor …

Join a Community
The Portuguese, like many immigrants who have left their families behind, join with others of their culture for support, for understanding, for comfort especially when faced with so many pressures that quitting and going back home seems like the best solution sometimes. But because you have others to commiserate with, others who share your struggles, it keeps you going for another day, another week, another year.

Writers understand the importance of communities and I, for one, knew that I needed the support and understanding of fellow writers if I was going to survive this journey.
But, ultimately, what I learned the most from my parents and their immigrant experience and what I carry over to my writing and through my writing is this …

Family is the Most Important Thing
No matter what you do, never let your dreams and the work that is involved in realizing those dreams, take precedence over your family. Even though I knew my parents worked abnormally hard at what they did - even though I sometimes resented having to help with so many tasks and didn't always have a parent to take me to the park or have vacations like my friends did - I always knew and felt that my parents were working so hard for me and my brother. Yes, it was their dream but we were also their dream and everything they did was for ultimately for us.

So, like a lot of things, you come to realizations much later than you should in life. Today I know I am a writer because my immigrant parents taught me to have a dream, take a risk, peresevere, work hard, join a community and put your family first. They taught me well.

Obrigado, Mae and Pai!


  1. Powerful post, and one I related to.... Explains why I'm so persistent when it comes to writing.

  2. Sometimes I don't realize how much my parents influence me - especially when it comes to perseverance and dreams.

  3. Medeia: I think we absorb a whole lot more than we realize when we observe our parents. That never give up attitude has been the best gift.

    Laura: It sounds like your parents gave you the same focus as mine - yay for awesome parents!