“I hope we write ourselves back to life, I hope that we double down on what we mean when we say ‘writer’, so that the definition explodes and reconstitutes around writing as a socially vital activity, remember that? Remember how people died for it? Remember how people were sent into exile for it, for daring to say out loud again: this is wrong, stop.”
From a young age, we learn the story of our families. Our parents and relatives tell us where we come from. In my family, these trials and tribulations were recounted so often that their struggles felt embedded into my cells, like DNA.
My parents are immigrants. They were both born in countries neither of their parents belonged to. My father: born in England, to a Welsh mother and an Australian father. My mother: born in Germany, to an English mother and a Canadian father. Now, they’re both American citizens.
“Don’t write so much about us,” my dad said on FaceTime this morning. “We’re boring.” He was sitting with my mom in the living room of the house I was raised in. Fat pets roamed as they talked to me, bits of tails and paws passing across the screen.
I don’t think their story is boring. I think their lives were shaped by history: politicians, wars, quota systems that allowed for the acceptance of European war brides and their offsprings. A misfired rocket that downed my great-uncle’s plane. A Canadian refugee act for children fleeing the war.
My dad arrived in New York City in 1949 at the age of 7. His mother had divorced the Australian and quickly taken up with an American soldier. Now they were traveling back west, where he was from. World War II was over, and shattered families were piecing themselves back together. My dad was granted automatic citizenship through his mother’s marriage. He doesn’t remember losing his accent. He remembers being teased for being an immigrant, but never in a serious way. At 11, he was standing in the kitchen helping his mother wash some dishes, talking about a family friend they called Uncle Kit. My grandmother said, “Well Uncle Kit isn’t your uncle just like your dad isn’t your real dad.” I imagine my dad standing on a stool, his hands wet and soapy with water, dumbstruck. Until this moment, he didn’t know he had an Australian father. He didn’t know he had a whole host of sisters on another continent waiting for him.
My mom lived in Germany, Canada, and England before she was ten. In 1972, she was an undocumented high school student in Santa Barbara, California. She’d left her parents and her home in Canada because it wasn’t safe for her anymore. She was undocumented for three years. “I was always nervous,” she tells me. She lived with her older sister, cleaned houses at night, and was the first girl at Carpenteria High School to run on the track and cross-country team. She, through some hole in the system, was able to get her residency at the end of high school.
I remember finding her green card at the bottom of a desk drawer, underneath our passports when I was ten. How funny the word, “alien,” sounded on my tongue, how delighted I was to have discovered this thing about my mother. I didn’t understand then. I didn’t understand how people can be rendered stateless and undocumented, how the removal of those papers can make a whole family invisible.
When she started studying to become a citizen. I quizzed her at the kitchen table, amazed at how few of the answers I knew even though I was in U.S. History class. I don’t remember her citizenship ceremony- where was I? – because it was something that was a given. My mom could get citizenship, as long as she passed the test. “I was very proud of myself!” She reminded me today when I brought it up.
My parents are immigrants, yes. But they are white immigrants. We are from industrialized, English-speaking, European countries. They came as children, in the late 1940’s and the 1970’s respectively. They don’t even have accents, the only vestige of their backgrounds are strange vocabulary choices and a love for deep, sarcastic humor. We, in the United States, are considered the “right” type of immigrants.
No one has ever thought I was anything but an American. No one has ever questioned my legitimacy or my parent’s legitimacy in this country. It is something I can bring out as a fun fact about myself, “Hey, I’m a first generation American!” I have never felt less safe and there was never a fear of my parents getting deported. For others: who are Mexican, Guatemalan, Afghani, or Syrian, or whose skin is a watercolor of histories and continents, it isn’t so easy. My privilege shows in every aspect of the immigrant identity for me: I can put it on and take it off, no questions asked.
This isn’t the case for many of my friends, classmates, coworkers, professors, mentors, loved ones. They have to live in a society that is now governed by a demagogue who rose to power on a populace platform of anti-immigration. That is scary shit.
The United States has always been suspect of the other: the Catholics, the Italians, the Jews, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Somalis. There was always a fashionable group to hate. A fashionable group to fear, to “other” so we can “preserve ourselves” and keep our families safe. But who is we?
If we are not immigrants; if “we” does not include the Syrian family fleeing war, or the Iraqi translator who kept American soldiers safe, or the 15-year-old Salvadorean girl running for her life from gang violence, or the boy just walking down the street, or the child of migrant workers in Salinas trying to go to college, then what have we become?
And we cannot forget the people who never wanted to come here, but were kidnapped, brutalized, maimed, and continue to live in a country that treats them as if they’re less human. A country that subsidizes prisons on the backs of their sons.
I think one of the mistakes that I and many other white, liberal democrats made before the election was thinking we were above history. That our lives would be guided by our personal choices and our values. We believed our government and democracy was rock solid enough that we could float above it, chasing our dreams. The great wars were over, humanity had learned lessons and we wouldn’t need to learn them again. Our lives would unfold before us based on education, who we chose to love, and where we chose to move. It was all available to us.
But, history makes fools of us all.
As we continue forward, we must remember that people are not just one thing. Junot Diaz said it best (as he always does) in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition in 2008,
“What you learn as a kid, is that Whitman Concept that you can contain multitudes. That one can carry inside of them both their country of origin and the country that has received them… you can be two things at once: If American teaches you anything, it’s that.”
There are people detained at airports right now. People with visas and green cards and children and illness and debt and jobs and a whole multitude of things because …they are people. They are not being allowed in because of their religion and their country of origin. This is wrong.
“Why don’t you talk about religion, Lizzie?” My Dad said, eager for me to stop asking pointed questions about his childhood. “Remind them that Jesus was a middle eastern refugee.”
The politics and trajectory of our nation drapes heavily on our shoulders. What is happening in the United States is wrong.
Can I say it louder?
“We didn’t get here by accident. This is not a new brutality, it is a very old one, and every time it circles back around in a new form, we have to look again in the mirror and stand up differently ― writing can yet invent new forms of resistance and resilience in the face of brutality. And the wonder of that. And how this is our present tense calling.”- Lidia Yuknavitch