Writing Immigrant Characters: Avoiding Exoticism


During the last weekend in September, I had the good fortune to speak at the Writer’s Digest indieLAB, where children’s author Zetta Elliott gave the keynote address. She spoke about the great need for children to read stories that act as mirrors and referenced an essay by Rudine Sims Bishop, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.”

In that essay, Bishop writes: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.”

I was reminded of Elliott’s talk when I read May-lee Chai’s experience in elementary school, when she was forced to read a story about a Japanese-American girl embarrassed by her mother, who spoke in broken English—which was supposed to be funny.

I wanted to sink into the earth when my class read this story aloud. The plot of the story—the narrator learning to appreciate her mother despite her “flaws”—was offensive. Worst of all, it was the only story in all my five years of elementary school that even had an Asian character in it.

I remember being afraid that my classmates would think that my family and I were like the characters in that story, which was flat and certainly did not celebrate immigrants’ ability to code-switch.

Read Chai’s full essay in the latest Glimmer Train bulletin.

Also this month in Glimmer Train:

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