Writing about the Immigrant Experience

by Tammy Pasterick
published in Writing

Immigration is an emotional topic that can turn the friendliest of conversations into a fierce debate. People have wide-ranging views that have been shaped by their own experiences, the opinions of friends, and the news programs they watch. Writing about the immigrant experience requires a lot of nuance and attention to detail.

Seven years ago, when I started writing my historical novel, I was not paying close attention to the news coverage of the migrants at the Mexican border or the Syrian refugees crossing the Aegean Sea to get to Greece. I had been inspired by my research into the lives of my great-grandparents, who immigrated to America at the turn of the twentieth century to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, and simply wanted to recreate their world in a novel. 

I did not anticipate that my genealogy project turned historical novel would have so many parallels with today’s immigration issues and would provide such a relevant and timely message about empathy.

I’m an American. I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania and have lived in Maryland for the past twenty years. I cannot speak to the challenges faced by today’s immigrants nor have I considered telling their stories. People who have ridden Mexico’s La Bestia or who have recently fled the Taliban rule in Afghanistan have heartbreaking stories to tell, and I am not qualified to provide advice on how to write a memoir. 

My expertise lies in historical research and novel writing, and I have learned some important lessons about how to write about the immigrant experience from the past and pay tribute to their unique sacrifices. 

Whether your ancestors were from Italy, Ireland, Egypt, or Argentina, the following tips will help you bring your family’s past to life while taking readers on an entertaining and emotional journey in writing about the immigrant experience.

Research your family history.

Conducting research into your family’s past is the first step in writing about the immigrant experience. Websites like Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com have a wealth of birth, marriage, military, and death records as well as ship manifestos and census information. These documents may reveal some fascinating facts about your ancestors and spark your imagination. 

While I was on Ancestry.com, I found the World War II draft registration card for my Lithuanian great-grandfather, who was in his early fifties at the time he signed it. I’ve often wondered what motivated his bravery, as his advanced age exempted him from the draft. Was he hoping to return to Europe to find a lost love or a child he gave up for adoption? Was he seeking revenge on the Germans for killing his best friend during World War I? I may never know, but these theories are all good premises for a novel.

Research the time period.

The world you create in your novel should be historically accurate, so read as much as you can about life in the time and place your immigrants settled. In my case, I read excerpts from The Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological study conducted from 1907-1908, which chronicled the living conditions of immigrant families. I also consulted several books about the steel and coal mining industries in Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. 

While there is more freedom in writing fiction than non-fiction, you should still try to educate readers as you entertain them. Just be careful not to weigh your story down with too many unnecessary details. It takes time to achieve the right balance, and you’ll most likely master this during the editing process.

Be careful when writing dialogue.

Dialogue is tough for all writers, but it’s especially challenging when writing historical fiction—even more so when your characters are speaking a foreign language. You need to stick to a certain style when your immigrants are speaking to each other in their native tongue and another style when they’re struggling to converse in a second language. 

For instance, characters who are learning English might misuse words and only speak in the present tense. They might also stutter or pause repeatedly when telling a story. When immigrant characters are speaking to each other in their native language, simply insert tags like “he said in Slovak” to alert readers that the conversation is occurring in another language. You won’t need to manufacture mistakes in these situations since people generally speak their first language effortlessly.

Sprinkle in world events, politics, and societal conflicts that affect the immigrant experience.

In my opinion, the best historical novels always have characters struggling with both internal and external forces. In Dr. Zhivago, for instance, Yuri Zhivago falls in love with a beautiful young nurse while married to his childhood sweetheart. He wrestles with his feelings and his conscience while the events of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution tear his world—and his family—apart. 

If your story takes place in a turbulent time, include those events. Providing a portrait of the larger world will help readers gain a deeper understanding of your immigrants’ struggles. 

In my novel, the primary focus is on the relationships within the immigrant family, but I also show how the labor movement, social inequality, anti-immigration sentiment, and the deplorable working conditions in the steel and coal mining industries impact their lives.

Add plenty of drama!

Historical fiction readers are looking for an escape to the past. They want to be taken on an emotional journey while learning about a specific time period or world event. While it may be tempting to include every fact you uncovered about Chinese immigrants building the transcontinental railway, don’t do it. Your novel will turn into a history book. 

Drama is the key to good historical fiction, and your book should have plenty of it. You want your readers to laugh, cry, clench their fists in anger, and maybe even throw the book across the room. 

In my novel, I paint a very accurate picture of 1910s Pittsburgh and include vivid descriptions of the steel mills, coal mines, and immigrant neighborhoods. It’s all very interesting, but what makes my book even more fascinating is my main character’s unraveling sanity. It affects her entire family and drives the plot forward. It’s the element that keeps readers turning the pages. 

No matter what type of drama you choose to add—a love triangle, a murder, or kidnapping—you can create an authentic portrayal of the immigrant experience and still keep your story spicy.

immigrant experience

A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. She began her career as an investigator with the National Labor Relations Board and later worked as a paralegal and German teacher. She holds degrees in labor and industrial relations from Penn State University and German language and literature from the University of Delaware. She currently lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with her husband, two children, and chocolate Labrador retriever. Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash is her first novel.

You can follow Tammy on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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