“Because–how to explain that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity?”
Reading Valeria Luiselli’s new book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, I underlined the above quote, typed it in large-print letters, printed it out and taped it to the wall of my classroom, next to other quotes by some of my favorite essayists–Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Ralph Ellison.
The Texas Observer, calling Luiselli’s book “the first must-read book of the Trump era,” notes that it’s less self-consciously literary than her previous work. In this book, the Observer notes, Luiselli is not “much interested in transcending anything, or in her own admission to the great house of immortal literature. These days, reality is more urgent.”
The reality she’s writing about is the surge of children crossing our border in the last few years, fleeing violence from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Affected by radio reports of the children crossing into our Southwestern deserts and turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents in the hopes of receiving asylum, Luiselli volunteered as a translator for their intake interviews. The book is structured around the forty questions that make up the initial interview form, through the course of which, Luiselli hopes, these kids will luck into the magic words that will keep them from receiving a deportation order.
But Luiselli is also writing about the reality that led to Donald Trump’s election: the anti-immigrant hysteria, the dehumanization of others, the politics of cruelty. Early in the book, Luiselli describes being startled by a picture on the internet of an elderly white couple from Tucson protesting the new arrivals with signs that read “Illegal is a crime” and “Return to senders.” “What were they thinking when they put their beach chairs inside their trunk?” Luiselli asks about the two protestors. “And what did they talk about as they drove the forty miles or so north toward the protest in Oracle?”
That image is from 2014, but it’s one of the signs that Luiselli says, in her Coda (written after November’s election), that she should have recognized as an omen of what was coming.
Stories come from a combination of anger and clarity. I want my students to read that quote, to know it and internalize it, because I think it’s a key to learning to write. At least I write most easily when angry, when I have the urgency of something that needs to be said. That’s why I launched this blog with a reading of George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” and specifically with the section of the essay in which Orwell says he wrote Homage to Catalonia because he knew, clearly, that innocent men were being falsely accused. “If I had never been angry about that,” Orwell says, “I should never have written the book.”
But Luiselli also writes that, while processing her anger over the refugees’ situation, she came to realize that “the most important thing was to know how to transform emotional capital–the rage, sadness, and frustration produced by certain social circumstances–into political capital.”
My students know this. They’ve turned their feelings from the lead-up and aftermath of the election into a variety of political actions. Some of them demonstrated at the Capitol during the Women’s March or the Day Without Immigrants protest on February 16th. Others participated in the spontaneous protests in North Austin on the night of the February ICE raids.
They’ve made a pet project of opposing SB4, which I wrote about in my last post. Dozens of students wrote their representatives when the bill was up for debate in the state senate. Some of my students have been to the Capitol multiple times in the last two months, and not just to protest: they’ve gone to testify, to meet with representatives, to hear speeches. One group organized to pressure a state senator whom their research suggested might be willing to change her vote on the issue. Two seniors created a petition to deliver their representatives, which they publicized with videos like the one above, and which now has more than 10,000 signatures.
But while they’re developing their political capital, I want to make sure you–readers, friends–don’t lose sight of the emotional currents that drive it. Because I believe that anyone who clearly sees the fear that’s moving these good kids to action will be as angry as I am–and with that clarity and that anger, that you’ll be moved to get their stories out, too.
In the video above, the female speaker, Jassary, says that since February’s ICE raid: “My mom doesn’t take me to the bus stop anymore… My younger sister asks me why we don’t go out anymore, and it’s very hard to tell her why, because she’s so young.”
I’ve had this sentiment expressed to me literally hundreds of times since the election. I’ve read it in my students’ journals, personal essays, and writing assignments. I’ve heard it in their class discussions, and in conversations while they eat lunch in my classroom. I’ve heard it from good students and bad students, from freshmen and from seniors. It’s real; my students are afraid.
During the Day Without Immigrants, about 70% of the sophomore class was absent from my school. The next day, I had them write about why they decided to participate, or not, in the protest; about how they participated (did they go to the downtown march or stay home?); and about what they hoped the protests would accomplish. Here’s a small sample what they said:
From a girl in my 5th period class:
“The reason why I decided to be part of that protest was because I seriously fear that one day I will get home and my parents won’t be waiting for me. I have three siblings here. Each one of us needs them. We can’t live without them.”
From a boy in 6th period:
“I know many people whose parents have no papers, including my parents. So I care about all the immigrants. They aren’t evil, they are just trying to support their family.”
From a girl, 4th period:
“Yesterday I wanted to go to the protest but my mom didn’t allow me to, she thought it was too dangerous. So just to support my parents I stayed home. Not many of our parents were able to stay home or miss work. So we as kids fought for our parents. Our parents crossed the border and worked off most of their lives for us. Now it’s our turn as kids to return the favor.”
Another girl, 5th period:
“Every day when I wake up, the first thing I think of is, ‘What would happen to me if one day my parents get deported?’ I think it is not fair that my parents are afraid to go to work, but they have no choice because they are trying to get money to buy food and to pay the rent. It is hard for me to see my parents afraid of what is happening today in our country.”
From a student in 2nd period:
“I didn’t go to the downtown protest because my mom thought that ICE was going to be there and didn’t want me to be at risk. So we stayed home. A lot of people went to the protest. My brothers and sisters wanted to go, and me too.”
Another girl in 2nd period:
“One of the reasons I decided to stay home was because I wanted to support my parents. They have supported me my whole life. It makes me feel powerless when I can’t do anything about their safety. I wanted to show my parents that I stand with them and that I would give up anything to let my voice be heard. Another reason why I decided to stay home is because this way I wouldn’t be afraid all day to get home and have a neighbor tell me my parents aren’t there anymore. I’m afraid of one day getting home and not finding my family in my house. I’m afraid that if this were to ever happen, I would have to drop out of school and support my brothers to keep up their education. I’m afraid that my my family will be torn apart by people who don’t understand what it is like to be afraid all day, every day.”
Another boy, 2nd period:
“My family and I did not go to the protest yesterday. The reason why we did not go is because my parents were afraid to even step outside. … My mom doesn’t even want to go to the store to get food and we live really close. She feels like there’s going to be police just waiting for us. My family, we used to feel safe driving around but now we just look over our shoulders to see if anyone is following us. Of course we make it safely home, but then later that night I hear my parents watching videos of people getting taken away. Then they decide not to drive where those people were getting taken away.”
Again, I’ve seen and heard hundreds of comments like this, from kids who should be thinking about soccer games and their homework. It always makes me angry to see how this country has made them afraid; sometimes, I hear so much of it that I get overwhelmed.
But then I see my students, or young people like them, down at the Capitol, or on the news, and I realize they’re doing a great job of telling their stories and making them public. As someone who cares about the future of this country, that encourages me. As their writing teacher, it thrills me.