COMMUNITY VOICES | Writing our way to success


For a New American, few things can be as empowering and liberating as communicating through writing, be it a personal journal, a blog, for a voluntary newsletter or formal academic or business communication. In response to a Facebook status in which I informed my friends that I will be doing a monthly blog, some have asked me suggestions on how to initiate writing about our immigrant experiences here in the US. So I decided to devote this month’s blog on this topic.

Unlike before, today there are far more avenues for communicating one’s thoughts, aspirations, frustrations as well as advocacy than there ever were in history of New Americans. Personally, I come from an African community whose communication was predominantly oral, with the Somali language only written in 1973. That means that most of my community’s tradition was preserved and conveyed orally. The import of this was the fact that there was no easy way of discovering what the original information or message was, given the narrator’s tendency to shape and color the story to suit his or her individual interests.

Rich as my culture was, lack of written communication limited the extent to which most Somalis could interact with the rest of the world. I still see much of the same predicament here in the US, more so with new immigrants. There is usually a struggle to communicate, which leads to many New Americans shutting themselves up, in the process limiting the extent to which they can communicate with the greater mainstream America.

In a modern world which revolves around information and communication, lack of these two is simply self-inhibition. It simply amounts to standing still as the rest of the world moves on.

Content and Delivery

A common reason that most New Americans do not communicate through writing is lack of proper English language skills. I would however challenge this by pointing out that you can write in many other languages apart from English, and there will always be a ready audience. Much as the new immigrants seek to improve their English language skills, one can still communicate in the language they understand best, be it Somali, Spanish, Urdu, Swahili, Vietnamese or whichever you fancy and the message will still come through. From there you can get a translator to do the magic for you and voila!

Another common obstacle that I have encountered among most immigrants has to do with worrying over what audience to address and with what message. Most such people feel that they came over just the other day, and so consider themselves too green to say anything of substance to the larger US community. These are important concerns even to native professional writers. Every writer pauses to ask “who am I writing for, and what of importance do I have to say?”

However, as every accomplished writer will tell you, these concerns should largely serve as foundations other than obstacles to writing. This is because identifying a target audience is key to deciding how to package the information as well as how to present it. If you are addressing your communication to the Senate, for instance, you would wish to be more articulate and persuasive in order to win support to your cause. The tone and choice of words would therefore be key.

On the other hand, if addressing junior school kids, you would try your best to make your language accessible to the young minds, and so you would weigh the content you wish to deliver to them.

So if you’re still struggling with who to write for and what to tell them, you’re right on track. That’s what I call a decision waiting to be made, not really a problem. There are so many niche audiences over here. You can start a blog about how to clean shoe laces, sign up for pay-per-click advertising to display on the blog and you could earn some Benjamins for that lunch that has remained elusive since you flew in to the US!

On a serious note, I can’t help but marvel at the myriad of topics that New Americans can write about. Think of the dreams you had before leaving your native home to come over here. Perhaps you’ve encountered cultural conflicts that you could describe as out of this world, have been a recipient of acts of benevolence from the people you least expected – which gave you a new definition of generosity. You could write too about the lover you left back home and how the two of you are coping with the separation. Talk about your aspirations now that you are here and perhaps the things that don’t look as promised as they looked back then. The challenges of adaptation to the American lifestyle can make a million novels!

The most surprising thing becomes that the moment you start writing, you discover just how unique your perspective of things is, though you might be in the same circumstance as many others before you or right there with you. So the first audience could be the people in your immediate environment. They want to know how you perceive life and cope with the circumstances around you.

One thing I have discovered all along is the value of humor in attracting an audience. Let’s be frank here, life can get pretty drab, but a moment of laughter is a craving in anyone’s soul. The unique ability to mock life’s absurdity is a gift that I too wish I had in abundance. And for lack of it, I go searching in the humor columns of newspapers and magazines.

Wasted Opportunity

Looking back in my college days in San Diego, I think I lost a great opportunity to run a weekly column for a leading publication back for the simple reason that I didn’t think I was a good enough writer. Faced with the many challenges of trying to cope with life as a new American, I had thought of suggesting a newspaper column dealing with such topic to help with my community’s emerging identity as new Americans at the same time catering to my people in the Horn of Africa to keep them abreast with life over here, specially those awaiting to get to the US.

That would have greatly helped shape the expectations among the thousands of Somalis and East Africans coming over to the US. It would have prepared them and their families for the realities and immense opportunities of the American dream.

I still believe that would have made a best-reader, but I simply didn’t believe in myself enough. Is this something you can do?

I also pitched the same idea to a friend, but he discouraged me, especially about the idea of catering to people in the motherland. He said, “You see, Hamse, people back home think we live in paradise over here. That’s a perception I wouldn’t wish to change, both for my own sake and for many other country men over here.”

Stepping Stones

Now that I learnt from my fears, I would wish to play a more meaningful role in passing information around on the realities facing New Americans, and wherever possible present the solutions that have been tried and tested. If you are a New American, there’s no point re-inventing the wheel. There is so much to learn from those that came over here before us, conquered the challenges and moved up in the economic ladder. You too can leave a few stepping stones behind (no matter how small or unsteady you might think they are) that could help out someone in a circumstance similar to yours – of course by documenting your experiences and making them public.

If we are to successfully lobby Washington, State and Local governments to pass laws and implement policies that make life better for all new immigrants, then we have to put pen to paper and make the petitions. The same is the case for New Americans seeking to advance in education, find meaningful employment, or creating or expanding businesses – we must write our way to success.