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.

books, Essays, People of Color, Political Writing, Reading, Women Writers

“The Origin of Others” by Toni Morrison (and two Atlantic articles by Ta-nehisi Coates)

“Language (saying, listening, reading) can encourage, even mandate, surrender, the breach of distances among us, whether they are continental or on the same pillow, whether they are distances of culture or the distinctions and indistinctions of age or gender, whether they are the consequences of social invention or biology.”

On this day – September 12, 2017 – the newest works of two heavyweights are being IMG_0805released to likely widely differing attention. Hillary Clinton’s memoir assessing and assigning blame for her tumultuous loss in the 2016 presidential campaign is on the tip of everyone’s tongue and at the top of every news feed. What isn’t likely to get the buzz and analysis that “What Happened” is enjoying is Toni Morrison’s new release,”The Origin of Others”. This small but weighty treatise, drawn from Morrison’s Norton Lectures, also reflects on the current socio-political climate, particularly on how ‘othering’ informs history, politics, and literature.

One would face little argument in placing Toni Morrison among the greatest living American writers, and this work is introduced by a foreword from another, Ta-nehisi Coates. In the foreword, Coates beautifully captures the premise of Morrison’s collection:

“This is a work about the creation of aliens and the erection of fences, one that employs literary criticism, history, and memoir in an attempt to understand how and why we have come to associate those fences with pigment.”

This premise is one of great promise and desperate timeliness, and this collection of essays is deeply informative and flawlessly composed. What it isn’t, unfortunately, is the commanding, mesmerizing voice one has come to expect from Toni Morrison. I suspect that hearing Morrison deliver these thoughts in their original lecture format would have been powerful and impactful. Their tenor and tone as essays, however, are constricted by their origin as lectures; in the place of narrative flow, one finds frequent quotations and a pedantic tone that just don’t translate well to the page. I suspect that her agents and she herself are well aware of that fact, thus the relatively quiet release by a small publishing house. “The Origin of Others” is a less successful work by an inimitable author, but one which is timely in its content and as part of America’s struggle to understand ‘what happened’ and how can we change what we have become. In no way does its measured success diminish her voice, her body of work, or her stature among the greats.

In an unusual turn and out of respect for the import and validity of Morrison’s premise, I would like to turn to two articles which I consider to be companion pieces to “The Origin of Others” and which, in my opinion, carry out the premise to greater effect. I am referring to a pair of Coates’ own articles in The Atlantic: the January/February 2017 “My President Was Black” and the October 2017 “The First White President”.  In these two breathtaking and heartbreaking articles, Coates points to the role of race in this political moment and eviscerates the argument that what this moment is a result of the voices of the white underclass being ignored.

“These claims of origin and fidelity are not merely elite defenses of an aggrieved class but also a sweeping dismissal of the concerns of those who don’t share kinship with white men.”  (October 2017)

Coates unabashedly indicts the role of racism in the 2016 election and in the fraught landscape of 2017.

“[W]hiteness – that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them.” (October 2017)

“Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.”(January/February 2017)

Ta-nehisi Coates has a gift and a power which he is exercising for the common good. Reading these and other in depth works by Coates, I am simultaneously invigorated and despondent. He can say the things I long to say because he is a gifted writer. He can say the things I long to say because he has aspirational access – to people and platform. He can say the things I long to say because he has unimpeachable credibility. He can speak his heart, and in doing so, speak so many of ours.

Thank you to Harvard University Press for providing a complimentary copy of “The Origin of Others” in exchange for a fair and honest review.