As a writer, I’m forever obliged to ask what makes a story compelling.
The above question is so much a part of my own thinking that it is impossible to escape it even in other contexts. While reading the news about migrants at the Mexican border, or watching footage of raids by law enforcement, I ask myself which side in the debate is telling the better story.
Let me admit at the outset that this might well be a narrowly professional concern. To the main actors in the scenario, the demands of duty or the plain urgency of survival make such questions irrelevant and even remote. Nevertheless, I find myself giving a desperate cast to my inquiry. To use the language of writing workshops, are lives being lost because the characters in the story are insufficiently fleshed out? Are futures being stolen because someone has lost the plot? Is our society being torn apart because no one is offering a narrative of sufficient complexity?
Once I entertain all those questions, another one arises: Who is telling the true, more urgent, story?
I recently picked up a novel from the 1970s. This particular novel had been described by a fellow writer as daring and elusive. I was interested in the novel’s form, its jagged edges and changes in tone. I liked the author’s sardonic wit, the intelligence on display and the refusal to give in to traditional narrative conventions. Then, I happened to catch a snippet of a documentary on PBS about the route taken by migrants from El Salvador trying to cross Mexico and then enter the United States. “Many migrants never make it to America. Along the tracks, immigration police only find discarded clothing… According to human-rights groups, six out of every 10 women travelling the route report being raped. And many get birth-control injections before setting out on their journey.”
Do I need to tell you what felt more real?
In recent weeks, such brushes with brute reality have become a flood. Which was the first story that I encountered in the current spate? It was when I came across a Facebook post about a family who had lived in the United States for 20 years and was now being deported to Mexico. That post contained a quote from a news story: “Out of nowhere, Bryan’s teacher came running through the airport, looking for him. He ran back through the security line, and they embraced and broke down. It was a very emotional scene.” I felt my heart race. I clicked on the link and saw the photograph of the teacher. She was holding the teenage boy by the shoulder and, even though there was the metal barrier between them, she was wiping his tears. I looked at her face. She was giving advice, perhaps hope, despite her own tears. Such love. My eyes were wet, too, and, to be honest, I find myself crying as I type this.
I bet there were quite a few people left untouched by the sight of a migrant mother crying when reunited with her child after a period of enforced separation and incarceration. Such people belong to the group arguing that parents shouldn’t have risked the well-being of their children by trying to illegally cross the border. For those making this argument, the story that serves as riposte comes from the Nairobi-born, London-raised poet Warsan Shire, whose poem Home has become an anthem for refugees. The first lines, a response to what was said about refugees weathering the waves on the Mediterranean in flimsy rafts, are as follows: “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.”
Here, in the manner of a storyteller who stops to look directly into the listener’s eyes, I must pause, too, and take you, dear reader, into confidence. When watching the footage of a mother putting a shawl around her son’s shoulder before holding him close to her heart, did you not want to weep, too? Yes, we must shape policy and yes, we can take cognizance of laws, but why did we think it was ever going to be right to snatch a baby from her mother’s breast?
The Trump administration has relied on data to tell their story. These include misleading and inaccurate figures that President Donald Trump has provided to link crime with immigration. If Trump were in a writing workshop, the instructor would perhaps be forced to say something like, “Okay, Donald, you are giving us data, but where are the details?”
In a pedagogical move, the instructor might point to another student and say, “By way of example, in Teresa’s story here, she mentions that it took her character Olivia three months to get her year-old son back from the government. The toddler clung to Olivia’s leg and wouldn’t let her go. And that when Olivia took off her son’s clothes, she saw that he was full of dirt and lice. Had they never bathed him? Eighty-five days!”
I’m going to teach a writing workshop this coming semester. Will I want any of my students to write fiction about the suffering at the border? I’m not sure. I think I would prefer non-fiction. Right now, there is a hunger for concrete facts. Perhaps you, too, have seen the blue hats that say “Make Orwell Fiction Again.” Along those lines, the first thing I want to know is exactly how many children were separated from their parents at the border and where they are located right now.
Having said that, I realize that I’m torn. The truth is that I’m a fan of all kinds of books about the immigrant condition.
If my students write non-fiction, I would offer as a model John Berger’s A Seventh Man, a lyrical report on the lives of migrants in Europe. Berger collaborated with the photographer Jean Mohr, who documented the lives of Turkish migrant workers in haunting black and white photographs.
And, in the realm of fiction, there are so many favorites, too. In one book after another, the display of belonging in the ways in which the writers use language. For instance, Hanif Kureishi’s debut novel The Buddha of Suburbia, with its unforgettable opening line: “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.” Or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth with its bold declaration about cultural mixing: “This has been a century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white.” Smith presents postcolonial history in all its wild glory, a rebuke to those who want to defend an illusory purity and build a wall around our shared existence.
The point, always, is to make visible what had been made invisible. The Jamaica-born British cultural historian Stuart Hall drew attention to the erasure of colonialism with the succinct formulation: “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.” I liked that line so much that I gave it to my protagonist in my new novel. He is an Indian immigrant to the United States and in a note to his American lover, he writes: “I’m the sugar at the bottom of your coffee, I’m the color in the cup of your tea.”
Amitava Kumar was born in India and teaches English at Vassar College in upstate New York. His novel Immigrant, Montana was recently published in Canada by Hamish Hamilton.