books, Debut Novel, Essays, Immigration, People of Color, Political Writing, Reading, Women Writers

On Immigration, Home, and Belonging

“Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”
                                – Valeria Luiselli, “Tell Me How It Ends”

IMG_7095In this current political climate, where worldwide we are told there is an immigration ‘crisis’, that ‘floods’ of people threaten our borders and our way of life, I can’t help but spend countless hours and unmeasurable emotional energy thinking about history, humanity, and human migration. Throughout recorded time, immigration has taken on so many shapes, has been driven by so many forces, has had so many outcomes. And yet, at its core, despite the horrors refugees might flee or the opportunities dreamers might seek, migration is about identity, safety, and the universal search for a sense of belonging.

Over the past week, my reading has been guided by these thoughts, as I subconsciously selected books which unpack and explore widely variant experiences but which center on immigration, particularly of people seeking home in the United States. This weekend, the sessions of the Boston Book Festival which called out to me continued this theme. I heard Jonny Sun, Lisa Ko, and Hala Alyan engage in a thought-provoking and somehow heartening discussion of home in a session named “Strangers in a Strange Land”. In another session – “Voices of America: the Immigrant Experience Through a Writer’s Eyes” – Ha Jin, Grace Talusan, and Marjan Kamali reached similar conclusions. To all of these gifted writers, people whose parents are Chinese, Iranian, Palestinian, Filipino, home is not a physical or geographical place. As they have matured and grown, as they have felt ‘other’ and even ‘alien’, all have come to believe that home is internal, personal, and intangible. As Jonny Sun put it, “Maybe home is a focused group of people interested in the same thing at the same time.”

“So the Path Does Not Die” by Pede Hollist

“‘After college, I wanted so badly to get out of Sierra Leone to come and live here, where it wouldn’t matter what ethnic group I belonged to, whether I was a foster child, or that I was a woman. … Boy, did I get that one wrong! I just replaced the circles on my back with ones that say black, African, and foreign – no, no alien. Black and alien. Is this what life is all about? Running away from place to place trying to fit in, to belong?’”

In “So the Path Does Not Die”, Pede Hollist explores the complexities and heartaches of IMG_1480the life of Fina, a girl born in a small village in Sierra Leone whose family is outcast when they interrupt her circumcision ceremony and whose life is a constant search to establish herself and to gain a sense of belonging. After college, Fina fights her way to getting a Visa for the United States, then is disheartened to discover that her opportunities are limited and barely tenable. Working menial jobs for long hours and short rewards, Fina constantly wonders whether any of this is worth it. Is she truly better off in America? Was leaving her country worthwhile, or is she responsible for those left behind?

The conversations Fina has with other immigrants are honest and critical, the wariness they reveal is visceral.

          “‘You never outgrow your home, not if it meant something to you,’ Fina replied. ‘It’s the smell of the marketplace, the sound of the church bells, or the call to prayers of the muezzin. Its’ the world that you recognize and understand.’
          ‘These ideas are all in yuh head Fina,’ Cammy chuckled. ‘Every time ah gone home, ah come back disappointed because what ah imagined or hoped for is not the way things really are. Know why?’ No one answered. ‘Because back home is a memory, a canvas of good times stitched together to cope with present realities. All this talk of going back reflects our unwillingness to accept our new home. … Sorry to burst yuh bubble, but there is not and never has been a back home to go to. It’s all in yuh heads, a fiction, like tradition and culture, which controls and keeps yuh tied to one country, one way of seeing and doing things. Ah want to be more than Trinidadian, American, or Nigerian – more than even a black man. I want to be bigger than one place and one culture!’”

Pede Hollist’s exploration of the African diaspora and of the universal and perhaps unending journey for a sense of self was moving and thoughtful. Though rough around the edges, lacking editorial polish and refinement, the novel simultaneously opened up little-known cultures and all-too-common experiences.

“Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions” by Valeria Luiselli

IMG_6741Valeria Luiselli is a celebrated, if undersung, writer. Her debut novella “Faces in the Crowd” (reviewed here) was bold, original and captivating. As Luiselli, herself a Mexican citizen, was embroiled in the United States’ Green Card application process, she became overwhelmed and irresistibly drawn to the growing crisis of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the US after harrowing journeys from their Central American homes. These children, mainly fleeing untenable poverty and rampant gang violence, are getting swept up by the thousands by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, facing detention, deportation, and potentially death if immigration officials chose not to grant their asylum requests.

“It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”

Luiselli volunteered to conduct and translate intake interviews with hundreds of these children in the New York City area, hoping to help build their cases and ensure that as many as possible were given the sanctuary they and their families have risked their lives seeking.

“I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear.”

In “Tell Me How It Ends”, Luiselli gives haunting, urgent insight into this ongoing tragedy. Published in 2017, though her work in this crisis began in 2014, “Tell Me How It Ends” is eerily timely. As the back book jacket declares, this book is “an indictment of our treatment of undocumented children, a reckoning with our culpability for the dangers they are fleeing, and a damning confrontation between the ideals of the American dream and the reality of American racism and fear[.]”

“The Leavers” by Lisa Ko

Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, is enigmatic and IMG_9172independent. Living in stark poverty, sharing a one bedroom Bronx apartment with his mother Polly, his mother’s boyfriend Leon, and Leon’s sister Vivian and nephew Michael, Deming is a misfit, an other among others. Though he was born in the United States, he spent his young childhood in rural China, raised by his strict grandfather. When his grandfather dies, Deming is ‘returned’ to his mother, to whom he forms a fast and fierce attachment.

“[H]e had thought his mother was invincible. She was louder, funnier, faster, and smarter than other adults, and he could never keep secrets from her, about his grades or if he’d been having regular dumps or if those were his crumbs that had spilled on the floor. She wasn’t particularly strict, or cruel, but she was sharp, one step ahead. She was competent, she worked hard, and no matter how tired she was, there was always concern or vigilance left over for him.”

His world and his tenuous ties to constancy are suddenly upended when Polly goes to work one day, then disappears without a trace. After months of struggling to get by, Deming’s default family feels forced to give him up, surrendering him to the foster care system where is adopted and somewhat forcibly adapted by a suburban white couple. Deming – now known as Daniel Wilkinson – finds himself even more out of place among the privileged, middle class white kids of his new home.

“Daniel was malleable, everyone and no one, a collector of moods, a careful observer of the right thing to say. He watched other people’s reactions before deciding his own; he could be fun or serious or whatever was most strategic, whoever you wanted him to be. … If only he had the right clothes, knew the right references, he would finally become the person he was meant to be. … Deserving of love, blameless. But no matter how many albums he acquired or playlists he artfully compiled, the real him remained stubbornly out there like a fat cruise ship on the horizon, visible but out of reach, and whenever he got closer it drifted away. He was forever waiting to get past the secret entrance, and when the ropes did part he could never fully believe he was in. Another door materialized, another rope to get past, always the promise of something better.”

Daniel’s adoptive parents are stereotypical, well-educated, white liberals, but that doesn’t make them less real. Their caricature may, in fact, inform the discontent, the ennui, the sense of displacement Daniel struggles against throughout his life. While he is inherently a seeker like his birth mother, he is also inherently resistant to the model laid out for him by his adoptive parents. These two forces buffer and bat him about throughout his coming of age.

Alternating between the third person point of view of Deming/Daniel and the first person accounts of his mother Polly, “The Leavers” explores the constant search for a sense of self and belonging with characters who are fully-fleshed and refreshingly flawed. “The Leavers” is part mystery, as Deming seeks not only to find himself but to discover what happened to his mother many years ago. Lisa Ko’s story is fresh and resonant, and the open ending, the continued seeking of “The Leavers” from first page to last makes the story live on in the reader’s mind.

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books, Debut Novel, Reading, Women Writers

“Elmet” by Fiona Mozley

“Sometimes it was as if Daddy was torn apart by our questions. He wanted to be an honest man who shared what he knew with his children, imparting details of his current and former lives, knowing that if any details were too much for us that was the very reason for imparting them. Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it. We had been taken out of our school and our hometown to live with Daddy in a small copse. We had no friends and hardly any neighbors. We obtained a form of education from a woman who dropped books lazily into our laps from a library she had developed to suit her tastes and her own way of thinking.”

IMG_0894In a small, rural village full of struggling and underemployed families, a mountain of a man is raising his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. For Daddy, Cathy, and Daniel, the world outside is better than the outside world. Together they scavenge and hunt, build and fight, an isolated, fiercely independent, deeply enmeshed team of quiet, disquieted souls. Loyalty is their lifeblood, and they are willing to follow each other to the ends of the earth. Daniel, in particular, looks to both Cathy and Daddy for constant guidance.

“Big sister, little brother. I wanted her to always lead the way, tell me what was what, carry me home.”

To him, and in some sense to the reader, Daddy and Cathy are mythical, magical, infallible beings. When it comes to pass that Cathy may have been involved in a violent crime, Daniel’s response is deceptively simple.

“‘You’re my sister and I love you. I have believed everything you’ve ever said and I will believe everything you ever will say. And if you did it there was a reason, even if that reason was just that you wanted to. It’s nowt to me. You’re my sister.'”

As for their father, well, Daddy is a bear of a man.

“For all his brutality, Daddy liked other people. He liked people with as much affection as a huntsman had for his prey, deeply and earnestly but with cold regard. He had few friends and saw them scarcely but the people whose worth he felt were held like rare souvenirs. He took care of those people.”

Daddy has clearly instilled similar values in his children. They trust him fully, follow his lead, and truly connect with no one else.

“We could say nothing after he mentioned our mother. We almost never spoke of her and his mentioning her was so rare that we did not now whether to take it as an invitation or as a warning. I could not detect either mode in his tone nor read his expression. He walked on impassively, while I looked up at him then down again at the path in front of us then up again at him, like our eager dogs who trotted at our feet and turned their faces up to their masters on every other step. The dogs looked at me and Cathy. We looked at Daddy.”

Cathy, too, is impossibly strong and strong-willed. This quiet girl sees not only the mess of the outside world, but the dangers and horrors of rampant misogyny. She is full of anger, fear, strength, and desperation.

“‘[I]t is my life and my body and I can’t stand the thought of going out into the world and being terrified by it all, all o’ the time. Because I am, Danny, I am. And I don’t want to be. I don’t want to feel afraid. All I kept thinking about was Jessica Harman, thrown into that canal, and all those other women on the TV, in newspapers, found naked, covered in mud, covered in blood, blue, twisted, found in the woods, found in ditches, never found. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about them. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about how I’m turning into one of them. I’m older now and soon my body will be like theirs. I dindt want to end up in a ditch. I dindt want that any more than you want to be a fighting man like Daddy, or a labouring man, out sorting potatoes on a farm all day until your limbs get caught and broken and chopped in the dirty machinery, dirty iron and dirty steel. We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.'”

My greatest regret for this otherwise heroic debut was the sometimes furtive handling of Daniel. Mozley drops in small tidbits and anecdotes about Daniel’s gender identity that don’t feel fully developed. It felt off-putting and almost gossipy to allude briefly to Daniel’s sense of gender in a sentence or two, only to move abruptly away. In my opinion, this part of the story either needed further development or needed to be omitted. Treated as an undercurrent, this part of the ‘back story’ feels irrelevant, and it is unclear what Mozley intended to accomplish.

When all is said and done, this is a small criticism to what is nonetheless a remarkable and crisp work of art. Fiona Mozley’s debut novel “Elmet” is haunting in every sense of the word. It’s quiet force keeps a firm grip on your attention. It is full of darkness, struggle, and even horrors. It may make you flinch and will certainly quicken your pulse, a thriller at pastoral paces.