The afternoon of Day of Dialog, an all-day event held by LJ on Wednesday, May 27, at New York University’s Kimmel Center, saw the full-capacity crowd settle in to hear from writers whose work touches on the immigrant experience. Moderated by LJ’s Stephanie Sendaula, the panel featured Vanessa Diffenbaugh (We Never Asked for Wings, Ballantine, Aug.), Nadia Hashimi (When the Moon Is Low, Morrow, Jul.), Dan-el Padilla Peralta (Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, Penguin Pr., Jul.), and Patricia Park, Re Jane, Pamela Dorman: Viking, 2015).
The books’ settings provoked much discussion, with Park noting that her book is set in the New York City borough of Queens, which “might be the place you’re from, but it’s not the place you stay.” Queens doesn’t have much media representation, she said, although it’s compelling for a writer, as “one subway to the next, you’re in a different world”—an atmosphere that she tried to impart to her book. Peralta noted that setting is difficult for him as an undocumented immigrant: he feels attached to many places even though he was transient in them. Unsurprisingly, Hashimi, whose novel has settings as diverse as Afghanistan, Iran, and Greece and who wanted to portray changes in culture rather than merely in scenery, explained that “my passport was my friend.” Diffenbaugh, meanwhile, imagined a neighborhood that is in a steep decline and set her book in the home of “the last family who would stay there.”
No matter who writes a book or what its setting is, the author must figure out how to craft the final product. In his memoir, Peralta faced an issue in writing his main character, a pastor who is a father “when I had none,” he said. “How to render him as a father to others was the issue.” At first, Diffenbaugh tried to write a personal essay, “but I was disappointed that I couldn’t make up the ending.” She found that writing her book, about a woman trying to raise her children in a dangerous area, as a novel was much easier. “Fiction gives you room to play,” she explained. Park expressed the opposite problem, explaining that “I need to remember that I can make things up.” She struggled, too, with writing a book that featured two main characters from different generations and with stories spanning different times.
Sendaula finished by asking the panel what the reaction to their work has been, and Peralta’s answer summed up what is best about these books on immigrants: a Dominican American reader, he explained, told him that his book “spoke to her lived experience.”