Monday, July 1, 2019

Frank Strong: George Orwell, Teju Cole, and My Students’ Stories

I’m sitting at my desk in the morning a week or two before the winter break, preparing for the school day, when one of our recent graduates comes into my classroom. He’s carrying an open laptop and walking towards me with an urgency that’s out of place in the near-empty school building.

“Can you help me edit something?” he asks.

He wants help with two letters, one he’s written and one by his mom, both of which ask the government for lenience for her entering the country illegally nearly two decades ago. She’s meeting with her lawyers later in the day and he wants the letters to be prepared, to be polished. I help him fix the structure of some sentences, move around some punctuation, and try not to notice the letters’ content.

Instead, we talk college football. He’s attending the University of Texas now, and we run through the Longhorns’ recent wins and losses. He made it to every game this season.

Then homeroom is starting, and my current students are filing in, and he’s saying goodbye. I wish him and his mom good luck.

The letters are still open in a tab on my computer. I reread them later, when I have time to be devastated. They wreck me.

His mom’s letter describes the situation that led her to come to this country: her parents had migrated to the US when she was a child, leaving her with relatives; she couldn’t go to school because she worked in fields from a young age. A relative abused her and the town they lived in was beset by violence. She crossed the border at seventeen.

His letter lists his class rank and academic accomplishments and ties those successes to his mom’s influence. “She never let me put my homework back into my backpack until it was done right,” he writes.

Both letters talk about what would happen if she were deported: she would have to choose between bringing her younger sons with her and leaving them here without her. If she chooses the latter, my former student might have to drop out of college to provide for them.

Both letters also express remorse. “My mom made a mistake,” my former student says; “I’m so sorry,” writes his mother. More than anything, that makes me seethe. What does she have to be sorry for?

*

Or it’s one of the days before school starts in August. I’m hanging posters and arranging bookshelves in my classroom. Students are in the gym, registering for classes. A student I taught the year before, now a junior, makes his way into my classroom to say hi. I can tell he wants to say more, though, so I ask him about his summer. “I got arrested,” he says. I look at him—he’s not the kind of kid to get in trouble. “By Border Patrol,” he explains.

He was on vacation with his mom and brothers at a beach near the border. They were pulled over for having a broken taillight, and then asked to wait outside of their car until Border Patrol arrived. They were taken to a detention center from which he feared he would be immediately deported. Finally, they were released, but his mom is now fighting a deportation order and he is hoping it won’t affect his application for DACA. I have no idea what to say to him as he sits, red-eyed, in my classroom, telling me this. Later, in writing he shares with me, he’ll describe waiting for Border Patrol on the side of the road, the ride to the detention center with his terrified mom, the brick walls of his holding cell.

The stories accumulate. A girl writes a journal entry about the things she saw in the country she left when she was eight: they include bodies hanging from lampposts.

Another applies to colleges with a personal statement outlining the extra responsibilities she took on after her father was deported.

Another relates her own journey across the desert, made when she was seven.

You can never predict who they’ll come from: the bubbly senior girl who organizes homeroom breakfasts, the point guard on the basketball team, the girl with the nose ring who seems not to give a fuck about anything.

The stories accumulate and I don’t know what to do with them.

*

I keep a few essays printed out in a manila folder in the middle drawer of my writing desk for when I forget how, what, or why to write. One of these “desk-drawer essays” is George Orwell’s “Why I Write.”

In that essay, Orwell describes a particularly unpoetic chapter in his 1938 memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, in which he resorted to sheer reportage in defense of Trotskyites who were falsely accused of collaborating with Franco. Orwell worried that the chapter ruined the book—it was too dry, too factual. Nonetheless, he had to include it. “I happened to know,” Orwell explains, “what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused. If I had never been angry about that I should never have written the book.”

I take from that essay two things. The first is that when you have special knowledge about a political situation, you have a special responsibility to share that knowledge. The second is that it’s okay to write when you’re angry. In fact, that’s the best time to write. Valeria Luiselli brings these two concepts together in her book Tell Me How it Ends when she writes that “it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity.”

I work at a school in Texas where the student population is about 95% Latino; many of my students are undocumented, and even more have at least one undocumented parent. I hear what they say, both in class discussions and outside of class. And I’m a writing teacher, so I see what they write about their lives—in assignments, journals, and personal statements, but also in things they’re sending out and want me to look over.

So, because of my job, I happen to know things. I happen to know, for example, exactly what my immigrant students write about what their lives are like now, in the Trump era. I know the different ways they react when they hear the president’s name, or when they hear about efforts to make undocumented students ineligible for in-state tuition, or about politicians who threaten to call ICE on immigrant protesters. I know that their fears didn’t start with Trump, but I also know how they reacted to his election: this man who promised to send a deportation force to round up their parents, who vowed to end the DACA program on which many of their futures depend, and who said that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.”

And worse, I happen to know that other people don’t know these things. My wife and I were dining not long ago with an older white couple; conversation turned to my work, and my wife was telling some of the stories I’ve told her. About halfway through our conversation, it dawned on both of us that our dinner partners were Trump supporters. The husband listened to the stories, then waved them off: “Well, I hope it’s like Trump says, and they’re just going after the bad hombres.”

I had just told him it’s not like Trump says. It was like an online exchange I had with another Trump supporter, a conservative writer, who acknowledged that separating families like my students’ could be hard, but, she said, “The same sort of felonies that would land me in prison are going to land some illegal immigrants back in their home countries.”

I happen to know that’s not the real story. I know, for example, that nearly half of the immigrants arrested in the February 2017 ICE raid that terrorized Austin had no criminal records at all. I happen to know, too, that many of my students have had parents deported solely for immigration-related offenses, or for “crimes” that would never land a (white) citizen in prison.

When I have these exchanges, I wonder about the efficacy of writing. Is there any point? I think of James Baldwin, who observed that his countrymen “have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” Maybe these Trump supporters don’t want to know what their votes mean.

But I also think of what Baldwin said next: “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent.” And I think of Orwell. I feel responsible, so I write.

*

But not often, or not as often as I could.

In the first place, there are real risks. Though my students speak freely about their status at school, I can’t confuse that comfort with safety outside of the school walls. Those students and their families are at the mercy of a vicious and sometimes vindictive government apparatus, and they mostly survive by being ignored. I can’t write about them without changing names, disguising details, blending stories.

There’s more to it than that, though. Two years ago, during the debate leading up to the passage of Texas Senate Bill 4, which outlawed sanctuary city policies in the state, several students from my school started a petition opposing the bill. They publicized the petition with videos in which they shared their families’ stories and their fears. They went to protests and talked, person to person, with anyone who would listen. They begged people to spread the petition on social media. They didn’t give up after the bill passed the Senate, or the House—they just changed the wording until, finally, they were pleading with Governor Greg Abbott not to sign the bill. In the end, they gathered more than 37,000 signatures. But they also reaped comments like “I hope your parents get deported like the leeching scum they are” and “you should not be wasting our tax money in school” and “GET DEPORTED NOW”. Whenever I write, I have to think about whether it’s worth it to subject my students to that. Do I want to see their stories smeared with that kind of shit?

*

Even that’s not all of it. Picture an image you’ve seen hundreds of times: a group of immigrants in the desert somewhere in the American Southwest. They wear castoff American clothes, ill-fitting t-shirts and brightly-colored sweatpants. The men have on dirty jeans, the women haven’t washed their hair in weeks. They look confused, frightened. There’s a child crying at their feet. Next to them, in control and holding flashlights, are Border Patrol agents.

That image isn’t false. It shows up all the time in my students’ writings. And maybe it’s the image I have to show you to spur you to action, or to change your mind. It is good for creating pity. But pity isn’t a humanizing emotion and, anyway, it isn’t anything close to the full story.

“I write very slowly,” wrote Richard Rodriguez, “because I write under the obligation to make myself clear to someone who knows nothing about me.” I write slowly too because, most of the time, I’m writing under the obligation of making others clear to people who know little about them.

*

Fortunately, there’s an essay that helps with this, too.

I first read Teju Cole’s “Getting Others Right” when it was published in the New York Times, during the summer of 2017, not long after rumors reached me that one of my students had been arrested by ICE—rumors I learned were true when I returned to work in August. This was a few months after the Austin ICE raid, a few months after the “Day Without Immigrants” protest left my school nearly empty on a Thursday, and a few weeks before a group of fifteen Latina teenagers—the same age as my students—ascended the steps of the Texas Capitol in quinceañera gowns as part of a visually stunning protest that went viral and allowed the girls to spread their opposition to SB4 on NPR and MTV.

The first lesson of Cole’s essay is precisely what I was learning in those months: no one is better at telling the stories of a group under threat, or at using those stories to spark change, than members of that group. Cole contrasts two photographers of Native Americans: Horace Poolaw, a member of the Kiowa nation, and white ethnographer and activist Edward S. Curtis. Curtis took some of the most famous twentieth-century photographs of Native Americans, and his pictures are beautiful, poignant, and predictable: Cole notes their traditional garb—a feathered headdress, beads and fur—and the subjects’ “lined faces and stoic expressions.” Cole quotes Curtis, who told us he wanted his photographs to be “an illustration of an Indian character or of some vital phase in his existence.”

Against those photos, Cole poses Poolaw’s, which often featured the photographer’s family: his sister holding a small dog, wearing modern clothes and makeup, posing with an “ironic smile”; his son Jerry, “on leave from Navy duty in his sailor’s uniform and a feathered headdress.” Poolaw’s photographs, according to Cole, demonstrate “disarming warmth,” an “informal mood,” and a “democracy of vision.” They’re culturally specific while simultaneously disrupting easy narratives about what it means to be Native American. “Is the lesson here,” Cole asks, “that the truth of a given community can only be delivered by an insider?”

In my case, I’ve learned it’s often better to be a writing teacher than a writer, especially as a white person entrusted with the stories of people of color. The easiest way to avoid my dilemma is to give my students space to tell their stories and to push them (when they can) to get their words out in the world.

Still, sometimes the job of telling falls to me. Sometimes, I’m the one facing ignorance across a dinner table, or in a Facebook post. I’m the one who has experience getting an Op-Ed published in the paper or submitting testimony on a congressional bill. I’m the one who has clout and influence with other white people, and I’m the one who can speak up without fear of consequence.

This is where Cole’s essay is useful. Cole describes a third photographer, a non-Native woman named Daniella Zalcman, who also photographed Native subjects and wrestled with some of the same questions I struggle with: How could she tell a familiar story without lapsing into stereotype? How could she depict threats to a community without adding to that community’s stigmatization? How could she spur action without invoking pity?

Her specific solution, according to Cole, was “to make double exposures, joining two instants into one by overlaying images of places with portraits of people,” and then pairing those images with text from interviews with her subjects. Cole explains:
Looking at the doubled images, you imagine that the mind of the person pictured is literally occupied by space on which it is overlaid: the decrepit school buildings, the grass where a demolished school once stood. But you also sense that this could be you, that these images are not a report on tribal peculiarities but on the workings of human memory. Uncertain about her right to shape the story, Zalcman lets the subject speak for themselves.
In other words, Zalcman worked first of all with her subjects’ collaboration. And rather than exoticizing the people she photographed, she connected their specific histories to general human experience. And, finally, she cultivated what Cole calls productive hesitancy, an ever-present awareness of the fact that the stories she was telling weren’t hers. This, Cole says, allows Zalcman to produce “quietly forceful reportage from material that could easily have been sensationalized.”

That’s something to aspire to. If Orwell tells me why to write, Cole’s essay tells me how.

*

How to connect, for example, that shaping history many of my students share with the full variety of forms their lives take in the present. My school held its graduation a few days ago. It’s common at my school for graduates to decorate the tops of their caps so that their family members in the balcony of the gymnasium can pick their mortarboards out of the crowd of hundreds.

If you went to high school in Texas, you’ll remember the tradition of homecoming mums, the fake flowers that boys give to their dates on the day of the big game. What might have started as a sweet and simple gesture has turned into an occasion for baroque exuberance: boys—or their moms or generous friends—spend absurd money and time decorating these colored flowers, with symbols of school pride, with messages and trinkets and charms, even sometimes with flashing lights. My school doesn’t have a football team and so doesn’t have a homecoming game, but graduation caps fill that creative gap for our students. They go to Michaels and Hobby Lobby for plastic flowers and stencils, they go to each other’s houses to borrow hot glue guns and paint and markers. Some of the hats end up being funny. Some are sweet. Some are cool. Some commemorate loved ones who have died; many thank parents or grandparents. There are lots of hashtags and jokes, a handful of baby pictures, a few thank yous to Jesus in whom all things are possible.

In this sea of caps, one evokes precisely the image I’ve hesitated to put in front of you: a desert scene, with a blue line representing the Rio Grande, a cactus, a butterfly. The words I walked because they crossed.

I can show you this image of the border now, when the background isn’t the crushed rock earth of South Texas but the rich cardinal red of my school’s regalia, when the sounds surrounding it aren’t sirens and shouting but plaudits and congratulations, when the context is joy and not shame. Now I can show it to you: Now it’s not a static image in the New York Times but a bright drawing about to be tossed in the air.

*

Frank Strong's writing has appeared at The Millions, Ploughshares.org, Pterodáctilo, and the Latin American Literary Review. He earned his PhD in Comparative Literature in 2015 and now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter at @frankstrong.

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