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November 9th, 2010

Fantasy and the Immigrant Experience

My main POV character in my Nanowrimo project is Romanian-American, with parents that immigrated to America in the late 1970s. I don't know exactly why I latched onto the idea of Roxie (for that is her name, short for an Americanized version of Ruxana) being from Romania. She's also a magic worker living in 21st century Denver, which makes her white but an ethnic/cultural minority and my story an Urban fantasy book.

 I have a lot of problems with the cultural and ethnic diversity in Urban Fantasy fiction, but Real Published Authors have blogged more eloquently than than I could. I'm not necessarily comfortable writing from a non-white perspective, since I'm a lily-white kid from the suburbs with German and Scottish ancestry and I feel damn hypocritical writing from a non-white perspective. But, one thing I have noticed is that even if you have a white person as a protagonist, he or she is invarioubly of Western European Descent. Or at least have Western European names.

Need a white main character with an "exotic" heritage? Make him Scottish or Irish. I can name half a dozen of these, but I won't. Occasionally you get someone like Harry Dresden, who has German last name that isn't obviously German. If you want to really be brave, you may have an Italian-American supporting cast member, like Michael Cellucci in Tanya Huff's vampire books or Lisa Donatelli from Gael Baudino's Gossomer Axe.  There are a few urban fantasy short stories floating around with either main or supporting cast members of Jewish decent, but I've yet to encounter a full length novel with at least at ethnic Jewish protagonist (if its out there, I'd love to read it.) Even if they have very ethnic last name, like Matthew Szczegielniak of the Proethean Age books by Elizabeth Bear, no one mentions the culture that spawned the name.

And it BUGS me. There's a whole realm of a) characters and ethnicities from Europe that never get mentioned and b) cultural heritage traditions like special holiday food and whatnot that never get mentioned, even as world-building or character-establishing elements. Even in the most prominate WASP American families, you can usually find at least one traditional thing that managed to make it over from the "Old Country," wherever that is. So part of creating the character of Roxie and making her Romanian stemmed from that. She has an icon of a very well known Romanian Orthodox saint in her apartment, even though she is largely agnostic. She speaks fluent Romanian. At some point in time she will probably mention that she occasionally craves Zama, a chicken-and-green-bean soup that's a traditional Romanian dish.

Roxie's parents and family figure highly in her early development, as it does with everyone. And here's where it gets interesting. Her parents fled from Communist Romania sometime in the mid-70s, using the fact that her Grandmother was ethnically Jewish and took advantage of the "Gentleman's Agreement" between Romania and Israel that allowed Jewish families to emigrate to Israel -- for a price.  Essentially Romania sold Jews to Israel, since Israel had to pay Romanian officials to for Jewish Romanian citizens to get their travel certificates.They stopped practicing their Romanian Orthodox faith and pretended to be Jewish for several years to get their travel certificates. From Israel they came to America. The details aren't clear for Roxie on what was involved, since she was born an American citizen and neither of her parents ever talk about what went down before or during their emigration process.

But her status as a second-generation immigrant has a powerful hold for Roxie. She was raised by immigrant parents who really did think that America was the Land of the Free. She has been told over and over again about the opportunities for her in America, which is why she is pushed into a certain career path and disowned when she fails at it. She has no extended family in America, and until she was in elementary school she couldn't even talk to her cousins back home. She is drawn to people with large families, which kicks off a close friendship to two other characters. And because loyalty to what little family she has is hammered into her at an early age, there isn't anything she wouldn't do to protect them -- even if she is very estranged from all but her sister. Her father and mother grew up in devestating poverty, so her obsession with money and her mercenary attitude towards certain shady dealings stem from that. And of course, much of her attitude problem and mistrust of authority figures stem from problems that every immigrant kid has to deal with: the disenchantment with her parents idealized version of America, persecution by her peers for having a funny name and having foreign parents, and everything else a second-generation American immigrant has to deal with.

I don't think I'm going to finish the book by the end of Nanowrimo, but I am certainly going to FINISH the book. I think Roxie's a damned interesting character and fills a very specific void in Urban Fantasy. I'm not worried that I can do this well -- the fact that I can do it all, no matter what the skill level, is important to me. Because I can always go back and rewrite the damned thing if I ever want to seriously submit it for publication. It touches on the immigrant experience as not just an interesting facet to a character, but something that deeply shapes her perceptions of the world and motivations. And I think that's a damned important story to write.
 


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