• Renee Harleston

Make Room For Immigrants

I love reading about immigrants (or kids of immigrants) in stories. It brings such a rich voice point of view that is really unmatched in any other kind of character. Maybe it's because my anthropology MA thesis was about immigrants, or because I worked as an educator at an immigration history museum in NYC (try to guess which one ;-) ) for years but I love immigrant stories! Here are some thoughts on what to consider, watch out for, and some inspiration.


- Immigration laws at the time your story is set. Would your character have a difficult time entering the country?

- Push/pull factors: What made your character leave their country and why did they pick their destination?

- Attitudes towards certain immigrant groups. Often certain immigrants are preferred to others, is your character in the preferred group?

- Do they still have family or other connections in their home country?

- Are there immigrant communities already existing that they would move to or are they more disconnected?

These things change over time and as they have an effect on real people the should have an effect on your character either explicitly or as a part of their backstory, personality, and disposition...etc. Some of the tips I wrote in my previous post on how to consider history when writing your character will be helpful here as well.


Tropes and Monoliths. All immigrants are not the same. All immigrants from the same country do not speak the same language, practice the same religion, are of similar class. They do not have the same experiences when they come to the United States.


Here are two books that do a fantastic job of representing an immigrant perspective:

Americanah: A story of modern immigration of a young Nigerian woman to the United States to attend university.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn - a second generation immigrant girl living in poverty with her immigrant parents and brother. The book also flashes back to her parent's story of life as immigrants in America.

If you have an immigrant character I suggest you get a sensitivity reader. I have a background in immigration through my education and professional life and can help with some things especially in regards to a historic immigrant story. However, I am not an immigrant and do not have a personal experience, if you're looking for someone to help you with how an immigrant would feel I would seek another sensitivity reader through Writing in the Margins database.

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