Today on the blog, we have Francesca Kyanda, the winner of The Young Writers Initiative February contest. She is an amazing writer and an experienced one as well. Today, we will be discussing the immigrant experience, how it affects our writing, and how to write characters that are immigrants.
Riya: Hey, Francesca, glad to have you on the blog! I’m super excited for our discussion today. Would you like to tell us more about your relationship with the immigrant experience?
Francesca: Absolutely! My mother and father are both Kenyan immigrants (my dad was born in Uganda, but was a refugee and moved to Kenya at a young age), and my entire family in the U.S are also immigrants. My parents came here to give my siblings and me more opportunities.
Riya: I’m also an immigrant directly, born in India, and for sure, the experience must be different. As you grew up, what differences did you notice between you and your non-immigrant peers?
Francesca: I noticed that my peers bought lunch in the cafeteria or ate sandwiches; meanwhile, I always had something different, like mandazi, a sweet friend dough or chapati, a fried flour tortilla served with some kind of minced meat stew. I also noticed that their names were shorter and easier to pronounce, while most teachers tripped over the syllables in my first and last name. As I grew older, people made the assumption that I was from Kenya, when I was really born in North Carolina. The social dynamic was different too: my peers made friends easily and were allowed to date and go to sleepovers, while my parents had strict restrictions on these things.
Riya: I’ve experienced a lot of those things as well, including differences in parenting styles that have affected my attitudes and beliefs. How has your unique cultural upbringing made you different from someone that doesn’t come from an immigrant family?
Francesca: As a second-gen immigrant, it’s a bit of culture shock. Kenyans are normally very loud and boisterous, which is odd in a group of reserved, polite peers. My parents also didn’t teach me Swahili, the language of Kenya, because they wanted me to be American. I also wondered whether or not I was Kenyan enough since I don’t speak the language or understand the customs or even know how to cook most of the dishes I love to eat. As a kid, I wanted to be American and a normal girl with blonde hair and short-shorts instead of an awkward African-American with kinky hair and weird food.
Riya: Culture shock is so real. The only life I remember is American life, yet I am raised on Indian beliefs. I never felt like I really belonged anywhere, cause I was too Indian for my American friends, but to American for my Indian friends. One thing I really want writers to understand when they write characters like us is that the stereotypes are not always true. I’m a Christian Indian who has parents that fiercely campaign for my independence and self-sufficiency, almost feminist. My cultural experience is different from my immigrant friends because our families are so different. What tips can you give writers who are struggling to tread the line between stereotyping and not representing the experience enough?
Francesca: My parents also taught me to be independent and think for myself as well. They wanted me to embrace my American identity because that’s what I am. I’ve found that it’s unlikely that a second-gen immigrant will fluently speak the language of their parent’s country. The amount of times I’ve been asked to ‘speak African’ is frankly so insulting. I would also like to point out that being an immigrant’s daughter is not my entire personality. Sure, my values are at the core of that, but I also defy a lot of stereotypes. I identify as black and Kenyan. If your character is bilingual or multilingual, don’t have them translate for the sake of English speakers. For example, my parents and most of my relatives have spoken in full Swahili to me without remembering that I only speak English. My mother also remembers words for things in Swahili, but not in English. Look up tips on how bilingual and multilingual people differentiate between languages. Talk to people from different countries! Do a lot of research on the culture, food, and language! The immigrant experience is rich and vast—this coming from an American.
Riya: When we talk about doing research, we don’t really clarify. For me, researching this topic is not looking up stuff on google, but actually going and talking to the people we’re representing. A Chinese-American will have a different experience than a Kenyan-American, and talking to people about how they were raised, how their culture influences them, discrimination they face, all of that is so important. What are some questions you think writers should ask when trying to research these different types of cultures and their people?
Francesca: Ask about their favorite memes and comedians of their culture. Ask them where they grocery shop for their special ingredients. Ask how they were raised and whether or not they’re religious. If applicable, ask about the class systems and prejudice between people of either different ethnicities within the culture or even colorism. Ask about beauty standards for women and how they interpret what it means to be, for example, ‘a good Kenyan’. A lot of differing points of view will help diversify your research and make it more authentic.
Riya: Those last points are so important. Cultural standards on what it means to be a man and woman impact me and my friends every single day. The slight remarks about us being too dark, being too skinny, being too revealing, it’s all subconscious, even if it’s not said aloud. I think when people write about immigrants or people that come from immigrant families, they have to consider those pressures, and how it influences a person. How do we as writers write those feelings and societal pressures into our stories without it seeming forced?
Francesca: This can be difficult if you personally haven’t experienced this. One of my favorite authors, Scott Reintgen, talked about this at one of his book signings. He wrote the Nyxia Triad series for his students, as he was a teacher, and his book is praised for being so casually diverse, meaning that yes, the characters come from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, yet they have personalities outside of that. He had beta readers read over his drafts and asked for critiques about how the characters talked and interacted with each other, and I would suggest this as well. Yes, there are stories about this kind of culture shock and identity crisis, but there are also those individuals with settled identities who are going through the same thing that teenagers go through: academic pressure, first love, friendship problems, moral issues, and family dynamics. If your character really comes from an immigrant background, it’s about interlacing them and learning to balance them.
Riya: Beta readers that specialize or understand the experience is so important, and I’m glad you mentioned it. If you’re unsure that you’re not representing enough, ask some people that have experienced this to read and criticize you. It might hurt, but it’s for the best of your book. Now for a more fun question, what’s your favorite ethnicity to write about?
Francesca: I write mostly about Kenyan girls or black girls! I don’t know why they’re no rep in the States for Kenyans, so I write my own. Honestly, seeing Black Panther was kind of cathartic for me. To this day, I’ve seen it about 30 times.
Riya: I haven’t seen much rep for characters from Africa in the first place, and I’m glad that you write them. I personally love Spanish and the Spanish culture, so I love writing about it, its vibrancy, and all the fun things, but also the problems. A big problem people face is discrimination, even they’re not immigrants themselves. Have you experienced discrimination, and if so, how has that affected you?
Francesca: Lucky for me, I haven’t experienced a lot of discrimination for being black or being African as of now. When I was younger, people would make fun of me for having extensions and call me ‘Medusa’. I would often get petted when I wore my hair naturally and I got asked about my accent—a thing I don’t have—or my food. It used to really affect me as a kid because all I wanted was to fit in with everyone else, but now it’s given me a unique outlook on things.
Riya: What do you mean by unique outlook?
Francesca: Well, instead of seeing myself as someone ‘other’, as a woman and a black person, it’s fun to write about my culture. Food, music and the arts are very important to black people, and there are a lot of aspects that I get to explore in my work: being queer and a POC, navigating relationships, family reunions, defining for yourself what it means to be in your culture, and especially hair. Hair is such a hot topic for both communities, whether you have a weave or natural curls. Also, as someone who comes from a loud, extroverted family, I’m great at storytelling and catching people’s attention.
Riya: I love that! I agree that it does give you a unique outlook on life. For example, I’m able to handle much more criticism because Indian culture is very very brash at times. Examining how certain parenting styles create different outlooks is super important. Is there anything you would like to add on this topic?
Francesca: My parents were very much focused on our grades, making sure their kids studied hard and valued their education. They weren’t as concerned about our social lives because they knew that our grades would get us places. As a result, I also value my grades and education very much. At times, I wish they were more nurturing, but without their pushing, I wouldn’t be the student I am today. There’s a stereotype around the African community that all the parents want their children to be doctors or lawyers because they’re lucrative, steady careers, but my parents haven’t forced me to go that path. In fact, they’re very supportive of my love of books and wanting to be a writer. They knew that if they raised us the way they were raised, it would be hard for us to identify with our American peers. More than anything, immigrant parents want their children to succeed.
Riya: That’s all a great addition, and is important to consider. Just cause there are stereotypes that does not mean they are always true, and it’s always interesting to read but that diverges from the stereotypes. That’s all I have for today, thank you so much for coming onto the blog!
Francesca: My pleasure!
Don’t forget to check her out on instagram: @neverwithoutanovelornotebook and her blog, https://neverwithoutanovelornotebook.wordpress.com/
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Hope this helped,