As a reader, I had not truly understood how much happened off the page of the story. Most authors masterfully slip in backstory without disturbing the flow of the narrative. When I became I writer, I realized how much “pre writing” has to happen in order to understand the motives and decisions the POV character makes. I spend a lot of time on this backstory and none of it makes it into the book!
I will be providing a behind the scenes look at my book as I write it. What you will find in the posts, is not about my main character Tessa, but her great grandmother Rose Azar, who is LOOSELY based on my own great-grandmother. Rose’s story and journey, in Shallow Roots, is completely of my own making and imagination. The fictional Rose Azar, is a combination of many of the Syrian Immigrant experiences I have read about in my research. There will unfortunately be a lot of errors on the page. Unintended anachronisms, misunderstood history, and more.
I wanted Rose to be an independent woman, who spoke English (after education in the missionary schools of which daughters were allowed to attend), she, like many women around the world at the time, wanted to break free of the traditional roles women were compelled to hold. America held that opportunity, especially for immigrants. Rose’s story is where my POV character, Tessa, derives her courage, of course, we all know that courage doesn’t come from other people and that will be the story Tessa tells in the book.
But I have fallen in love with Rose and her journey and I wanted to share it with you.
The behind the scenes look will be in a diary format. These are diaries that Tessa, my POV character, refers to throughout the book, and informs her decisions and choices as she confronts difficulties. If I had included this in the book, it would have slowed the narrative or taken away from Tessa’s story. But I love Rose and I didn’t want her to be silent.
There is quite a bit of vulnerability in sharing an unpolished scene, but I do think it helps other writers and readers to see what happens off the page. There is a lot that goes into writing a book that many never see.
I hope you enjoy
June 10, 1910
My brother has arrived and cleared Ellis Island without being detained. I received the telegram yesterday morning, but couldn’t bring myself to reply, at first. The last time I saw him he had begged to come with me to America. For my parents to lose a daughter is one type of heartbreak, but to deny them their heir I could not do.
At fourteen, though, all he could think about was the adventure of America. He listened to the stories the old men at the market tell from the letters they received from sons or nephews. I have heard from the nuns at the school that America has its delights, but it also has its hardships. The streets are not lined in gold, foreigners are held at a distance and excluded in many circles. Jobs were plenty, if you could be hired. I knew what I was subjecting myself to and at his age he did not. It broke my heart to leave him, Christianity no longer offered the protections of the past. The government needed able bodied men and in too few short of years my brother would be forced to serve a country that didn’t always see him as an equal.
He also needed my parents guidance, though, in his few remaining years at home, to learn to be the man he would become.
I had lied and told him to go grab a bag of clothes and food and I would wait for him at the crossroads near the olive groves. The olive groves were where the town guards waited for men who planned to sneak out of the country. I led him right into the hands of the very guards I hid from. It was the only way I knew to stop him. I believed and still believe it was for the best. My only hope is that he will forgive me for lying to him.
I have hope that the forgiveness I seek might be found, for when I sent him a telegram inviting him to dinner, he immediately replied yes. I do not know how he will respond when he arrives and I do not care one bit. If he meets me with anger, I will still love him. If he meets me with guilt, I will still welcome him into my home. If he wants to fight me, I will respond with an embrace. I do not know his agenda for accepting my invitation. All I feel is gratitude that he did.
After he left to gather his belongings, I went to the old mulberry farm, husks of trees killed by drought and blight, offered little protection from the guards, but they often did not travel this far out of town, and if they did, I had money to give them to look the other way. I waited for my guide, the man I had paid to lead me to the docks of Beirut. Guilt ate me the entire trip across the ocean and when the ship docked, not in America but South America, I knew it was because of my sins.
That was then, and now, my brother is here, in New York City. I still can’t believe it. There is so much I want to say to him and even more I can’t wait to show him. I love my adopted home, but that does not mean I do not have regrets. I do wonder what would have happened if I had broken my engagement, found a teaching position at the missionary school and lived the life I wanted among my family. If my brother could forgive me for leaving him behind, perhaps my parents could have forgiven me for staying. I won’t ever know because I took the cowards way out.
I do not know what will happen when my brother arrives, but I cannot be disappointed with who I have become and I hope he understands. And I will soon know if that is true.
For Further Reading about the Early Syrian Immigration Experience:
This work was the first narrative of the Arab immigration in the 20th century. Naff collects the stories of immigrants, and there are even recordings at the Arab American History Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. A lot of the history I use in my book comes from this source.
When Syrians first arrived in the US they were starkly different from other groups. They shared Christianity with a lot of the other immigrant groups, but many were Melekite or Maronite. They dressed differently. Men in baggy pants and red fezes. The language was not like any other group. Syrians quickly assimilated though, which helped them become a part of American life, but as a fourth generation Syrian-American, I realize the cost of that assimilation.
I reference this in my book, but in 1915, the Supreme court in Dow vs the United States, determines that Arabs are white. Arabs, particulary Syrians, fought to be considered white, because otherwise they could not gain naturalization. Again, the benefit of naturalization was important, but it also made it quite easy to let go of heritage.
What questions do you have about early Syrian Immigrants? I’d love to answer if able. Or if you are a 3rd or 4th generation American of immigrants, I loved to chat with you about your experiences.