I’m often asked where I’ve gotten the idea for a particular story. The question eludes and delights me, because there’s no single answer, and considering beginnings takes me back to all the wonderful threads that led me to the story in the first place.
I use metaphors to make sense of the world, and one of my favorites is that writing is a wild rope ride. First, you make a rope by gathering many individual, thin threads. You twist them together until they form something substantial enough to grip firmly, with both hands. Add a narrator to pull you along and … you’re off. Barreling through the plot, up and over the narrative arc, a smooth slide into the finish.
One thread for Out of Nowhere most certainly begins with my grandparents. All four were immigrants; two spoke Spanish as their first language. All became U.S. citizens and all loved America, yet all referred to their countries of origin as “home.” They worked hard to adjust, they struggled to adjust, sometimes with hilarious results. Like the time my mother insisted to her mother, my abuela, that if they wanted to be real Americans they had to eat turkey on Thanksgiving … so abuela complied: and stuffed the bird with rice and beans. Or the time my Irish grandma, learning to adjust to her new, multi-cultural home in New York, volunteered to make spaghetti and meatballs for the new parish priest … who happened to be Chinese. She boiled pasta for about thirty minutes, tossed in balls of ground beef, drained it, stuck a hunk of butter in the middle and served it with ketchup.
Someone explained to me that immigrants, like my grandparents, come with their hearts in their hands: refugees leave their hearts behind. No matter what difficulties my family members faced, they were here because they chose to be here. Not so for people who have fled war zones or recently emerged from refugee camps, like the Somali people I wrote about in Out of Nowhere. When I first saw them, and heard of them, in my home state of Maine, I wondered what it was like for them. If white, Christian, educated people like my grandparents had difficulties adjusting, what must it be like for itinerant, illiterate, black Muslim refugees in a post-9-1-1 world?
I got a small sense of what it might be like about ten years ago, when I attended a rally in Lewiston, Maine. Lewiston is a former mill town, and is the largest bastion of Franco-Catholics in the U.S. When thousands of Somali refugees, drawn by reports of safe schools and cheap housing, began moving there, tensions flared. One response to the city’s problems was a peace rally, sponsored by a group called “Many and One.’
It was held on a bitterly cold January day, turned out thousands of people from Maine and beyond, resulted in the biggest police action in the state’s history … and was a complete success. It was a good day to be from Maine, and I was in awe of the people who came forward … black, white, young, old, male, female, Christian, Muslim, Jew … and demonstrated that peace was possible. As I wrote my story, this was an important thread.
Finally, a third thread: my own children. As teenagers, they played high school sports, and at their games I saw several Somali boys playing for their schools. I had a chance to meet them, and what struck me was this: kids are kids. While the adults all around them might be arguing about politics and immigration policy, kids, for the most part, all want the same things. To make friends. To fit in. Make the team and score the winning goal. It was refreshing, and inspiring, to meet young people who came from remarkably different worlds, yet learned to appreciate and understand each other. Sports, soccer in particular, provided good common ground.
There were other threads that came together to form my story rope, but these were the most important. A novel never begins in just one place … and, frankly, never leaves you where you expected. But that’s another story.
Maria Padian is a freelance writer, essayist and author of young adult novels. Her debut novel, ”Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress” (Knopf, 2008) was selected by the American Library Association as one of the Best Books for Young Adults 2009, and received the 2009 Maine Literary Award for Children’s Literature from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance as well as a Lupine Honor Award from the Maine Library Association.
Her latest novel – ”Out of Nowhere” (Knopf, February 2013) – hits bookstores today.