This Thanksgiving season has been riddled with some weird stuff. Syrian refugees, ISIS doing stupid things, people hurting, shooting after shooting here in the US, and protests all over the place. It made it difficult for me to really feel thankful for anything, because I had this sinking feeling of guilt when I said I was thankful, and also it felt like avoiding the truth of our situation by pretending everything was okay.
Down in the basement of my parents' house, I found a plate my dad picked up a few years ago. It shows a family on a boat heading to Ellis Island. "I like to think they're our ancestors," Dad told me. We keep this plate up on the wall because we don't actually know what the family looked like that did come over here. They never took a photograph of themselves, and it wasn't until recently did we even know they were Hebrew.
My grandmother was raised Catholic from the get-go. A staunch Catholic Italian-Hungarian-American family on the South Side.
But I always knew I came from immigrants. Since I was a kid, my maternal Gramma told me all about her own grandmother, who sailed to America at the age of sixteen from Germany. She spoke no English, and she landed in New York just as the Draft Riots hit. She moved to Iowa due to the Homestead Act, and she did well enough for herself that she could sponsor Gramma when Gramma finally wanted to go to high school.
I always thought this was all normal. I thought everyone had an immigrant story. I live in Omaha, which was smack-dab in the middle of Homestead Act country. I live only about six hours east of where My Antonia took place, so most of the people I know are German American, Italian American, Irish American, Mexican American, or some-kind-of American. My best friend in high school was first generation Nepali American.
But with the dialogue opening up in the last few weeks about immigration, I have started to see that not everyone has grown up with the immigrant narrative. Not everyone has family that came over on the boat and succumbed to Ellis Island and had to start from scratch. A lot of people have never known anyone who has come from another country. And that is confusing to me.
It has made me take a long look at my WIP and my main character. It has made me infuse her life with the narrative that bore me into existence. And I have been reminded that no matter how boring you think your own life is, there is something different about you that only you can express in literature.
One time in a workshop, someone said, "I think everyone thinks their narrative is the normal everyday narrative."
"That's not true," another student said. "Mine was completely boring and normal. I was right in that regard."
Thus proving his point.
I've lived in all different kinds of neighborhoods, I've been friends with a bunch of different people from different regions, and everyone has their own story down pat. While I was traveling this summer, I listened to conversations on trains in Scotland with Indian ex-pats, and their normal was not my normal. They talked about America for a while and how traveling in America was so different than in Europe, they had a hard time understanding. "Can you imagine going on a holiday to some place like Disney World? What are you going to learn in Disney World?"
Here in the states we have funny cartoons about a satirical Paris, with weird accordion music and flirty skunk cats. There in Paris? They have a fascination with our Wild West here in the states that is absolutely not PC.
"No one would be interested in my life," we always joke. But what if we were? What if we shared our stories with each other, and we all became humans to one another? If we understand where we're each coming from, then maybe we can start to grow a little empathy for one another.
So write about how it is to live in Seattle. I don't live in Seattle, I have no idea. Do you live on an island? Do you know how many people have no idea how hard it is to be a teacher? Did you go through medical school? Was your dad a record producer? How many siblings did you have? Have you ever lived in another country? What sort of allergies do you have, and how do you navigate that? Have you ever felt completely alone? Have you ever felt completely insane? Have you never ever swam in a pool or swung on a swing-set? What decade did you grow up in? How many oceans have you seen? How big or small was your home growing up?
Share your stories. Share your ancestors' stories. Give perspective. That's what writing is for.
What is this?
Dawson is an editor and writer and MFA student at Stonecoast. She writes stuff.