In the country we love by Diane Guerrero


There was an article in the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper I glance at every day, about families in the Bay Area applying for dual citizenship for their American-born children at Mexican consulates. The fear of deportation has led them to plan for these emergency situations where the family has to be uprooted. It’s based partly on a misconception that US-born children won’t be allowed into Mexico without proper documents.

Reading the stories of the undocumented rushing to get Mexican citizenship for their kids made me angry and made me reflect on the story of Diane Guerrero, an actress on Orange is the New Black. She is an American citizen but her parents were undocumented immigrants from Colombia. And one day, when she was just 14, she returned home to find that they were gone. They had been taken by the immigrant authorities and were inmates in a detention centre.

Guerrero had to live with a family friend. Although they made her feel welcome, she was  always worried that she would do something to make them kick her out. She wasn’t an actual family member after all. And with everyone just barely making ends meet, an extra person in the house (even if her parents sent money) was difficult.

Guerrero applied to Boston Arts Academy, a public high school for visual and performing arts, and it was there she honed her performing skills. But her long-distance relationship with her family becomes even more fractured.

I love how Guerrero has become a fierce advocate for immigration. Guerrero is set to play an attorney defending undocumented immigrants. And the pilot sounds like it’s based on her story – that the attorney is the child of undocumented parents.

In The Country We Love, co-written by Michelle Burford, has a very casual tone of voice. I can imagine Guerrero talking as I read it. And I have the feeling it would be quite a good audiobook to listen to.

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A Woman in The Crossfire

“What am I going to do? My daughter is far away from me, my mother is far away from me, I am forbidden from going to my own village and my own city. I can’t do anything. I am suspended in the air. All I do now is translate people’s agonies into words through my interviews and meetings with those escaping massacres and prisons.”

 

This book. How does one go about writing about this book?

This brave book. This mad book. This book that I want to tell more people to read and that more people should read but is full of despair and violence and fear and hate that I am unable to say, hey, read this, for it is uncommon for people to want to read about things like this. This book that terrifies me, that there is a country out there which treats its people like this. I mean, it is one thing to read about revolutions and violence and brutality in news articles but it is another complete different entity to read of it in these far more personal stories and interviews that Yazbek tells us in her book. I didn’t have the stomach to take notes about the torture that these people went through though and this post may be the poorer as a result of that.

Samar Yazbek, a Syrian writer, a novelist, didn’t have to write this book. She is a member of the Alawite clan, the same one the dictator Bashar al-Assad belongs to. She belongs to a influential, well-to-do family. She could have been safe, cocooned by her family, but she chose to use the best weapon she had – her words.

“It isn’t enough for them to kill people; they were buying and selling their bodies. Oh my God, how can we live alongside these murderers? How can they walk freely among us?”

She first started posting about her opposition to what was going on in Syria on Facebook, on websites. She kept a diary of her observations, her personal reflections, of her conversations with those who protested, who were arrested and tortured. It is painful to read of these acts of violence happening to men, women, teenagers, children. And it is difficult to read of Yazbek’s struggle between fighting for what’s right and keeping herself and her teenaged daughter safe. She is disowned by many of her relatives, receives death threats from strangers. Several times she is snatched up and taken to an unknown location to be interrogated. She lives in fear. Her daughter once “said bitterly that the only way I could make her feel better was to appear on state television and proclaim my loyalty to the president.”

“I don’t like to talk about heroic deeds. Heroism is an illusion.”

But Yazbek, who now lives in exile in Paris, unable to return to her homeland, has indeed done something heroic. Risking her life, her daughter’s life, to gather stories, to write these things down, to convey to the rest of the world what is going on – that is heroic. Even after her exile, she returned to Syria three times, talking to Syrians, gathering their stories and compiling them in her 2015 book, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria.

She explained why she does this in an interview with World Literature Today:

“I’m writing for the whole world to see what the people of Syria experience on a daily basis. I wanted to convey the voices of these victims to the world. It’s the role of the educated Syrian elite—writers, artists—to engage in this situation, to take part in social justice.”

What Samar Yazbek has done – is doing – is truly admirable. Her bravery in bringing these stories to the world’s attention. Her need to tell the truth – and going against her clan in order to do that.

Throughout the book, I kept wondering, could I do that? Would I be that fearless?

You Can’t Touch My Hair

Here’s where I admit I hadn’t heard of Phoebe Robinson before I saw this book..wherever it is that I saw this book..on one of your blogs, on Litsy, Instagram? I definitely saw it very many places before deciding to download it.

So who is Phoebe Robinson? She’s a comedian, a host of a podcast called 2 Dope Queens, and a series on YouTube. All of which I hadn’t heard of or seen. I’m obviously not current and modern and young and up to date enough to know all these things! Maybe you are!

But you know what, it didn’t matter.

It was such a fun, funny read that also made me sit up and learn a great variety of things.

Like just how difficult it is to be a woman of colour in the entertainment industry. In the aptly titled chapter ‘Casting Calls for People of Color That Were Not Written by People of Color’, made up but inspired by what she’s seen in real life such as the African-American Principal “nice-looking, personable, but not too dark”, which was explained because of the special effects and lighting. To which Robinson retorts

“If the BBC can light Idris Elba for Luther so he looks like a delectable blueberry tart from Giada de Laurentiis’s kitchen, then y’all can light a garbage ad that’s going to air during the Jane the Virgin commercial breaks.”

In a collection like this there will be essays that make you sit up and go, yessss finally someone wrote this. And there will be others that might not sit so well with you but I kinda reckon that’s still pretty ok as long as Phoebe Robinson is writing it. I mean I could do without all the abbreviations like J/K. That might just be me. But abbreviations aside, she’s just such a delight to read, in her very conversational tone. For instance when she’s ranking the members of U2, or talking about doing her laundry at her parents’ house or ordering for two (for one) from McDonald’s. I mean, she’s even making want to go and investigate her podcasts. Me, who has no time to myself to even finish listening to an audiobook.

But she is at her best when she talks about race and racism.

“But as a nation, we are far from the “everyone holding hands in racial harmony” that we assumed would happen once Obama was ushered into office. In fact, throughout the Obama years, there had been, at the very best, resistance to change, and at the very worst, a palpable regression in the way the country views and handles – or more accurately, refuses to handle – race.”

She is not one to mince her words or to call out people for their racist behaviour.

“First of all, people need to stop acting like racist behaviour only happens within a three-block radius of Paula Deen’s house. Ignorance exists everywhere, including liberal bastions like New York City.”

My favourite chapter is where she writes letters to her 2.5-year-old niece Olivia, who is biracial.

“…lean into your “girlness”. Throw it in people’s faces that you are fully embracing everything they think is a flaw. Eat, cuss, laugh, feel, dance, fight, dress, think, love, and tell your story like a girl, which means do everything you intend to do with no regard for how people want you or expect you to behave.”

Now that is an awesome aunt.

This was just such a delight to read.

(Also if Jessica Williams, Robinson’s work wife who also wrote the foreword to this book, has plans to write a book, I would definitely want to read it. Does she? Anyone?)

#nonficnov: Immigration reads

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It’s week 4 of Nonfiction November! You can find all the details here

This week’s topic:

Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Immigration and citizenship has been on my mind of late.

I read a lot of fiction about the immigration experience (like Americanah, The Namesake, The Book of Unknown Americans), but not much in terms of nonfiction. These are some of the books I have read that fit into this category.

 

cosmopolites

The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian was a short read about ‘citizens of the world’ including the buying and selling of passports, and the Bidoon, who are the stateless people of countries like the United Arab Emirates.

devilshighway

I read The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea a while ago (it was published in 2004) but I still remember the horror of reading this book about this group of men who attempt to cross from Mexico into Arizona.
snakehead
The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe was a fascinating tale about a $40 million smuggling business run by a middle-aged woman known as Sister Ping.

Some books I would like to read:
undergroundamerica
Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives (Voice of Witness) compiled by Peter Orner

immigrants
Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them by Philippe Legrain

inthecountrywelove
In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero

littlemexico
The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream by Steve Wilson

wetoosingamerica
We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future by Deepa Iyer

makingasianamerica
The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee

Do you have any recommendations?

#nonficnov – fiction-nonfiction pairing

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(All the details for Nonfiction Nov are here)

Book Pairing: This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I always love when bloggers and book sites do this, but when I sat down and thought about it, I realize that this isn’t an easy task. Maybe it’s because I don’t read much nonfiction? But here are some attempts!

If you liked: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (a fantastic story set largely in space with strong female characters)

try: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

Seveneves is one of those the Earth is doomed kind of books but with women in the key roles. Hooray! That made me think of the Rocket Girls, women who worked at Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) as “computers”. That was the term used for their jobs in the 1940s and 1950s – they did calculations (velocities, trajectories) and all the math behind getting these rockets into space. And it was pretty much an all-women team of human computers. 

If you liked: The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang

try: The Chinese in America by Iris Chang

and The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

 I recently read Wangs and loved this smart and funny book about a family whose fortunes have fallen. I thought a good nonfiction pairing would be one about Chinese immigration to America as well as one that talks about the 2008 financial crisis. I haven’t read The Big Short yet but want to after reading the Wangs. 

If you liked: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

try: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick  and In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

Another two-fer. I picked Orphan-Master’s Son as that’s the only popular fiction I’ve read set in North Korea (if you’re interested, Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Guest is set in North Korea, but I’m guessing he’s not a familiar name to many). Barbara Demick has written an unforgettable book about life in North Korea and Yeonmi Park relates her own experiences growing up in North Korea in her book. 
And now for the most obvious pairing of all…

If you liked:
The Princess Bride by William Goldman

try: As You Like It: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. If you can get hold of the audiobook, even better!

 

#nonficnov – choosing nonfiction

 

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(All the details for Nonfiction Nov are here)

Choosing Nonfiction:

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book?

Sometimes I pick up nonfiction after reading a fantastic work of fiction. So I think the answer to that would be that I pick up nonfiction as a distraction from the fiction I’m reading. I know that’s not really the kind of answer the question is looking for, but that’s my answer!

Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to?

I like books about travel, diaspora and immigration. And also, foodie nonfiction! Sometime this year I started listening to celebrities narrate their own audiobooks and really like that – like Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, and Yes Please by Amy Poehler.

Do you have a particular writing style that works best?

I like narrative nonfiction. I like when the writer’s personality is very much infused into the book. Like in The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin, who is writing about historical figures, but also very much about herself, her relationship and her own ‘exile’ of sorts to Berlin. Oh and I like when books are funny (but not necessarily funny as in written by comedians), like Mary Roach’s works.

When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking

Smoke gets in your eyes  is for the title. While the other two are for the covers.

#nonficnov: My year in nonfiction

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Almost forgot all about Nonfiction November! You can find all the details here

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions –

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

asyouwish

I read more nonfiction than I thought I did – 24 books! And a good number of them were audiobooks, which is very unusual for me. It’s hard to pick just one!

I loved listening to As you wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride that was just an absolute treat for the ears! Bluets by Maggie Nelson was, at 113 pages, so short but so beautiful. And The Song Poet

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

songpoet

The Song Poet by Kao Kalia Yang, a Hmong American writer, is a book that more people should read. First of all, the story of her father and his family struggling to survive, having to flee their village is moving, emotional. Their stay in a refugee camp in Thailand, where Yang was born, was painful. But it was even harder to read about their life in America, where they work day and night to make a new life for their family in this strange new land. 

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?

Science-related nonfiction!

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

More recommendations please!