Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Aren't We All Immigrants?

edited to add:  I've already gotten good feedback/pushback from a friend at church, challenging me on this notion that we are all immigrants.  That's what I'm looking for!  Help me think this through -- please feel free to leave respectful comments, even (especially) if you I'm headed in a wrong direction!

This coming Sunday is the twentieth anniversary of the death of my mother, who was an immigrant, and whose story I have been feeling compelled to tell lately (it's a great story!).  This coming Sunday is also the first of two Sundays for which there is no plan for adult Sunday school, due to a cancellation of the class that had originally been scheduled (I serve as the Director of Christian Education at my church, Old First Reformed, so filling this void falls to me, lucky me...)  These two facts have me thinking about how I could both tell my mother's story and have something to offer at Adult Forum ....

So I have an idea that keeps swirling around in my brain, but won't quite cohere.  I'm thinking about how much more likely it is for us to care deeply about an issue if it touches us personally.  And as I think about my mom, and her immigration story -- which is also my immigration story -- I keep thinking about the ways that we are all immigrants.  Right?  Every one of us has a story about how our families came to this land.  Some of them are stories of men and women seeking opportunity and hope.  Others are stories of people fleeing persecution.  Still others are stories of ancestors brought here forcibly as slaves.  Some of us know more about our stories than others of us, but every family story ultimately takes on mythic proportions, every family story is both real and imagined.  Indeed, it seems to me that if this land has a creation myth, that myth is an immigration story!  Even Native Americans have immigration stories, albeit ones that likely must be mostly imagined because they are so ancient.  Still, doesn't it highlight even more how much immigration is this land's creation myth, if we think of even Native Americans as having come from some other place?   If we see that even peoples who have been here for millennia are immigrants too?  Well, this is where it's still sort of vague in my mind, but somehow, it seems to me that by telling our immigrant stories -- all of our immigrant stories -- we highlight the absurdity of singling out the most recent immigrants among us as "illegal."

I even want to say -- and this is where it's still really fuzzy -- that somehow, if we all document our status as immigrants, doing so somehow compels us in a way that is more immediate and urgent to stand in solidarity with those who are supposedly "undocumented."  I say supposedly, because of course, every immigrant has a story that should be heard, that we should care about, that should be -- and can be -- documented.  I keep playing in my mind with the word "document"...

As I said, I'm not sure where I'm going with this.  But for starters, I was thinking about telling my mom's story -- that is, my story -- at church on Sunday in the Adult Forum, and then trying to figure out ways for everyone else to tell their stories too.  And because I'm a writer, I was thinking of trying to get folks to write them down.  And because I'm a blogger, I was thinking maybe I would find a way to share them  more widely ... I haven't figured it all out yet, but stay tuned.

And let me know what you think....

Friday, April 23, 2010

Gathering Madness

It’s not too late: Call Gov. Brewer NOW & ask her to veto SB1070. English: 866-996-5161- Espanol: 866-967-6018

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It occurs to me that if I were me, the same old Marta – everything about me the same – except that I were of Mexican, and not European, decent, and I lived in Phoenix rather than Philadelphia – it occurs to me that the SB 1070, which seems poised to become law in Arizona, would effectively require me to carry my birth certificate at all times or risk being stopped, arrested and jailed until I could prove my citizenship.

As I write this, I keep checking the news to see if Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has signed into law recent legislation which would make it illegal to be an undocumented immigrant in the State of Arizona.  SB 1070 would not just allow, but as I understand it, would require police to stop anyone whom they reasonably suspect to be an undocumented immigrant, and demand documentation.  Any suspect who fails to produce such documentation could be arrested and jailed.

It occurs to me, in fact, that if I were me, but of Mexican decent and living in Phoenix, that the danger I face as a lesbian would pale in comparison to the danger I would face as a United States citizen who rarely thinks about her family’s immigration story.

I am not of Mexican decent -- my mother came to the United States as an immigrant from Sweden in the early nineteen-fifties.  She was actually Dutch, but the Dutch quota was full.  My grandmother, Marta, was a Swedish citizen though, so they came from Sweden, on the Swedish quota. 

But for that small fact – Sweden, not Mexico – my citizenship could now be something I must be prepared to prove in the state of Arizona.  The entire rest of my family’s immigration story could be exactly the same and it wouldn’t matter one bit.

My mother and her family were legal immigrants.  They did everything by the book.  They came with almost nothing – almost literally just the clothes on their backs – to make a new life in Flint, Michigan.  Theirs is a classic immigration success story – my grandfather was a waiter, my grandmother a chambermaid, my mother went to school consistently for the first time in her life as a thirteen year old who did not speak English when she arrived here.  They all worked hard, my grandparents bought a home, my mother got good grades, went to college, eventually earned a Ph.D.  She also had a family, named her first-born after her late mother, her second-born after her favorite Swedish uncle, Sven-Erik, and occasionally told us stories of life under Nazi occupation.  But other than that, she raised two thoroughly American kids.  We grew up in Indiana speaking only English, with flat, Midwestern accents.  We have white skin, blue eyes; my nephews (the only children in this country biologically related to that little 1950’s immigrant family) have my brother’s childhood blond hair.  There is nothing to distinguish us from the majority (at least for a little while longer) of full-fledged, legal, born-and-bred U.S. citizens. 

Perhaps for this reason, it’s easy for me to forget that I am first generation American.  That I have only to scratch the surface of my native soil to expose my immigrant roots.  It’s easy for me to view immigration as just one more issue among so many that progressive folks like me should care about.

But the gathering madness in Arizona has shaken me up a bit.  If everything were the same, except that my family were Mexican, not Swedish … Because in Arizona, what “reasonably” marks someone as an undocumented immigrant?  Brown skin and fluency in Spanish, of course.  There’s really nothing else. 

This legislation has me shaken up, even while I am clear that the target and the real victims of this legislation are not anyone remotely like me, but rather are the hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of whom have lived and worked in Arizona for years, who are undocumented.  This bill is very specifically intended to terrorize undocumented immigrants, making their very existence illegal, and I have no doubt it will do a very good job of pushing individuals and families even further into the shadows, into the margins, further and further away from the opportunities and responsibilities and protections of civil society.  That those who crafted this legislation do not care at all that American citizens could be swept up in its police-state tactics is just evidence that SB 1070 is the work of extremists motivated by nothing more than racism and xenophobia. 

We should not oppose SB 1070 because a midwestern white girl like me suddenly, for the first time in her life, is able in some small way to personalize the very real threat facing brown-skinned immigrants.  We should oppose SB 1070 because it is awful, and hateful, and wrong.  But still, I can't shake this feeling, what a small accident it is that I am not, in fact, at risk.  That I am safe and they are not.  In 2004, I felt unsafe as a lesbian, as Dick Cheney and Carl Rove cynically fanned the flames of homophobia.  Maybe the memory of my fear then, whether real or imagined, is also part of why this issue suddenly feels so visceral and urgent.  

Do you have a story, an experience, that puts you close enough to this issue to make it feel real and urgent?  I hope so, because it's time to stand up and let your voice be heard.  Please take a minute to call Governor Brewer, and to ask her to Veto 1070/Veto Hate.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)[*****].  This seems to be the phase of my life when I read a lot of great books I should have read a long time ago.  I've known that Tim O'Brien is a great writer I ought to read, but sort of like my resistance to reading Mary Karr (yesterday's review), reading about Vietnam is just never what's calling me in the moment, and I'm a pretty capricious reader.  Again, Julie was the impetus to read The Things They Carried -- she teaches this book (she got a free classroom set when it was the One Book, One Philadelphia selection a couple of years ago) and recently was invited to hear O'Brien speak.  Her rave review is not overstated -- I too just loved this book.  It's categorized as fiction, and I suppose can best be described as a set of related short stories, but I'm really intrigued by the genre, which is really a blend of memoir and fiction, short story and essay.  Many of the characters in the stories are real people, including the men O'Brien served with, and Tim O'Brien himself.  O'Brien was a recent college graduate with a scholarship for graduate studies at Harvard when he was drafted, and he tells in a very moving story about his decision to serve rather than to flee to Canada, which was his first impulse.  He concludes that it was a failure of courage on his part, and simple fear of embarrassment and shame, that drove him to Vietnam rather than Canada.  In the title story, he tells, literally, of the things he and his buddies carried -- first the literal things they carried on their backs, how much they weighed, what they were for, what it felt like to carry them -- and then the more metaphorical things they carried, and what that felt like -- and his writing -- the cadence, the images, the pace -- is just exquisite.  His experiences in Vietnam have clearly marked him so deeply that he has spent the rest of his career writing about them -- the war is pretty much all he writes about, I think -- and this book is as much about Tim O'Brien the writer as it is about the war and Tim O'Brien the soldier..  As a character in the book, Tim O'Brien the writer very explicitly grapples with what it means to tell the truth about war, and whether there even is such a thing as truth when it comes to war, but at the very least, he concludes that to tell the truth, he has to make stuff up.  He tells many compelling stories, and then he retells them, and then he tells you they are true, and then he tells you they are entirely all made up, and then he tells you what really happened, and then he tells you that's all made up too, and then he insists that nonetheless, it's all true.  It reminds me a lot of how thoughtful people read Scripture, and I suppose that's not an accident, though O'Brien does not appear to be a person of faith.  Nonetheless, he seems to be seeking some sort of redemption through his story-telling and his meta-story-telling; and while I suspect he might argue there is no redemption, this gorgeous and provocative book is perhaps as close as it gets.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review: Lit by Mary Karr

Mary Karr, Lit (2009) [*****].  I know I should read Mary Karr's first two memoirs, The Liar's Club and Cherry, as she has been credited with practically singe-handedly sparking the memoir madness of the past couple decades, but the brutal subject matter -- parental alcoholism and psychosis, childhood abuse and neglect, adolescent promiscuity and drug abuse -- have just never called me at the moment when I am thinking, "What shall I read next?"  Julie, however, has read all of Mary Karr, along with the whole wretched-childhood genre she pioneered -- what we call the "Bastard Out Of" series, after Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (so Liar's Club is Bastard out of Texas, and Push is Bastard Out of Harlem, etc.).  Julie recently read Lit, and insisted that I really had to read it, she loved it so much.  And I'm very glad I did -- it is beautiful and very compelling -- though I didn't love it quite as much as Julie.  Lit is the story of Mary Karr's adulthood, in which she writes poetry, marries a poet, becomes a mother, drinks an astonishing amount of alcohol, attempts suicide, spends some time in a mental hospital, gets sober, divorces her husband, converts to Catholicism, and becomes a successful poet and memoirist.  Her story-telling is funny and thoughtful -- this is a very fast and engaging read.  And I know I should say that it is beautifully written, luminous even, and it is!  But....  I will admit there were times when I grew weary of yet another simile or metaphor.  And don't get me wrong - every one of them was fresh! original! illuminating! But every other sentence, really?  It's not an accident that the first half of the book is more lush with metaphorical language than the second half, which is much more sober.  I get what she's doing, and she's really good -- I'm eager to read her poetry, in fact -- but sometimes it just felt like too much, distracting even.  My only other criticism is that Karr strikes me as a bit falsely modest at times -- it was easy to believe, as she told it, that her career as a poet suffered terribly from her extreme alcoholism, but then when fellowships and book contracts and teaching offers kept falling in her lap, it seemed possibly she had been a bit disingenuous about what a hit her writing had taken. These are minor quibbles, though, in an otherwise fine memoir that does a lot of really hard things well:  Karr convinces us that she really can love and forgive her totally crazy and self-absorbed mother without seeming like a martyr; she tells her side of the story of her pretty unbearable marriage without bitterness and with, what seems to me, a great deal of genuine generosity to her ex-husband; she acknowledges the pain she inflicted on her son with open-eyed clarity, but without narcissistic self-recrimination and self-pity; and the story of her conversion from atheism to Catholicism is moving and convincing and mercifully lacking in evangelism.