In a 2016 essay for the New York Times, Parul Sehgal wrote that “the idea of a literature of migration seems to have fallen out of fashion.” She blamed this on the “bitter paradox” of how such literature is perceived, that the phrase “immigrant writing” connotes not the insight of those who exist between worlds but the narrowness of a peculiar experience.
The latter view arises in part from the very discrete and violent rupture that migration creates in a life. It’s easy, even for immigrants themselves, to mistake the rupture and its immediate consequences for the crucial part of the narrative. When I was five, my parents brought me to the United States from what would remain for several months the Soviet Union. We came with tourist visas and the proverbial hundred dollars in our pocket. The story feels almost lifted from a template, and for a long time I took it for the founding myth of my family, a moment that unified and transformed us.
With hindsight, however, I’ve come to see this moment as a brief section of a longer and more ambiguous narrative, one that spans at least three movements. There are the hardships that motivated my parents to leave, only a tiny portion of which I retain as fleeting, indifferent memories. There are the very different grafts that each of us formed with America. And finally there is me today, a branch indistinguishable from the tree, in a way that would be impossible for my parents. I can fuss over heritage, but for all practical purposes, I am no longer my nationality, only (this being America) my race.
Migration, then, seems to me not an event but a life-cycle of stories—stories of departure, of arrival, and of having arrived—that plays out across countries and generations and which no one person can experience in its entirety. Seen in this light, the paradox is less bitter: The migrant writer, rather than the steward of an unusual memory, becomes a figure with a certain vantage point, a particular imagination. The stories are universal; the migrant’s gaze is unique.
The inaugural issue of The Bare Life Review, the first ever literary journal dedicated to the works of immigrant and refugee writers, is a testament to this. Founded less than two years after Sehgal’s essay, Bare Life’s illustrious advisory board, generous writers’ fees, and very existence point to the emergent urgency of creating a space for migrant writing. More importantly, the journal format proves to be well-suited for the task. Bare Life’s stories, essays and poems are able to explore migrant narrative collectively, in the end producing a richer and more nuanced picture of this narrative precisely because many of the individual pieces would not, outside this context, seem to be about migration.
Nathan Go’s “For Whiter Shores” is one such story. Set in the Philippines, it reconstructs the tangled life of the disappeared maid Belen through the callous interest of the various other characters. Her employer, Mr. Honorio, is her provider, long-shot hope, and tormentor. One of her daughters is her intended replacement, competitor, and lone support. Her husband is a leech and gambler that she can’t leave. Her sons are both burdens and helpers in different ways. The whole family lives under one roof. When Mr. Honorio disavows their affair, she knows she can expect only more trouble. Even though she disappears, Mr. Honorio’s brother, a police lieutenant, visits her family to sniff out the risk of extortion. In Belen’s life, there is no space for negotiation or gradual adjustments, like her dream of becoming a typist; there is certainly not enough money for a journey, except for the final one. Therefore, Belen has taken a pearl necklace from Mrs. Honorio. Wearing it, she walks into the ocean, toward the distant white sand beaches across the bay.
For many migrants, the decision to leave is as much the end of a story as the beginning of one. Like Belen, they are caught in a thorny and paralyzing tangle of social relations that they have to call home, a sediment of dissatisfactions that can only be cleared away by a complete rift, like migration or suicide. The link between the two is more explicit in Iracema Drew’s “The Lost Elegies of My Late Friend Maria”, in which a gentler oppressiveness reigns over a rural Brazilian town. The narrator, a high school girl from a poor family, sees her parents or their signifiers everywhere, as she visits the loom house where her mother makes rugs, the rich estate where her boyfriend Jefferson works, and the bar where her father gets drunk. The narrator cares for her mother, but if her filial devotion is too great, if she doesn’t leave town with Jefferson, she’ll have to take up her mother’s drudgery. And the communal knowledge of her relationship makes her marriage to Jefferson seem inevitable, even as she seems to have some doubts. Lost, she spends a day trying to find the poems written by her late friend, Maria, whose sadness stemmed from having a selfish, restless mother. The closing line, addressed at her father, reflects the narrator’s resignation to a similar bind: “I say whenever he’s ready, we will go.”
Out of all the pieces in Bare Life, these two were most moving, in a classical, melancholy, Chekhovian way. This comes from how tightly the characters are bound to one another for their own survival, how irreversible their important decisions seem, and how little prose has to go into making both these qualities seem real. Both of the protagonists seem to exist with ten pairs of hands always on their shoulders. They don’t have the separation that the Cuban-born narrator of Dariel Suarez’s “Protest” possesses when he says, “I didn’t subscribe to any particular global beliefs, being too poor, cynical, and individualistic to care.” He has been brought to Madrid to pursue his literary studies after being “discovered” while working in Cuba as a tour guide, and now his benefactor Modina wants to drag him to an anti-government protest, to show Cubanito, as they call him, the joys of political resistance. While the Spaniards yearn for a cop brawl, Cubanito calculates the visa implications of a possible arrest, his hopes for leaving Spain for America’s even greener pastures, and his chances with Gaby, Modina’s girlfriend.
Poor though he is, obliged though he is to his hosts, the narrator is already much more in control of his destiny than either Belen or Maria’s friend. Attending the protest is not without risks, but his academic success is not predicated on Modina’s assessment of his fealty. Nor is he so closely tied to the community he left. In passing he worries his mother will have a heart attack if she sees TV footage of him at a protest, but only in passing. He’s happy to have left behind the life that he describes—in words that could describe Belen’s—as a “devastating routine.” His is a story of arrival: Having successfully escaped the narrow orbit of his previous life, he can now make his own solitary and precarious way.
His political ambivalence is not surprising. Migrants are, after all, not martyrs; whatever convictions they have are quickly subsumed by their fear of being discovered as alien to their adopted homes and the constant self-monitoring that accompanies it. Cubanito intuits exactly how much he can tease his privileged friends who are still starry-eyed about Fidel Castro. He also rations his jokes about Modina’s zealotry when he flirts with Gaby. This mental apparatus acts as a screen between him and the scene in front of him, makes a performance out of the chanting crowd and the mounted police. His sympathy lies with the conscripted horses: Like him, they’ve been dragged into other people’s fights; like him, they have no global beliefs; like him with his eye toward America, they’d prefer to go wherever they’ll have the most to eat.
Many migrants are condemned to this transitory state their whole lives. Some must bequeath it to their children—what is the Hebrew Bible, if not a standing reminder that yours is a genealogy of exile? In other families, the story of arrival eventually becomes a story of having arrived. The narratives that sustained the migrant’s arrival—the belief that hard work is enough to change their circumstances, the memory of the hardships that forced their journey, the gratitude for new opportunities—will lose their potency once those circumstances have been successfully changed, once those hardships have become more mythic than real. If stories of departure are about why we choose to leave communities, and stories of arrival are about what it means to exist as a community of one, then stories of having arrived explore the desire for a community regained. By convention, they involve a trip to an unknown homeland (Everything Is Illuminated, etc.), but they can also involve less obviously atavistic ideas of community, as in Ariel Dorfman’s “Fair Trade.”
Three different migrant narratives manifest in three of the story’s characters: José Luis, an undocumented migrant whose living conditions are compared unfavorably to those of animals; Rebecca, an older Costa Rican who embodies the successful immigrant’s attitude of “If you haven’t made it, you aren’t working as hard as I did”; and her middle-aged son Justin, the protagonist, American-born but bilingual. Justin is the archetype of a decent guy. His heritage makes him passionate about his work promoting Fair Trade certification, the meager salary of which hasn’t stopped him from saving enough to buy Melanie, his wife whom he met while protesting sweatshop labor, her dream $5,000 mattress.
His lone problem is that his work feels too abstract, too focused on numbers. Justin cares deeply about politics, but he worries that the real politics are happening elsewhere, outside the office, in some place where he could be using his Spanish fluency to make a real connection. He gets the chance when he meets José Luis, one of the mattress movers and seizes on the idea of offering him his old mattress, going out of his way to assuage José Luis’s honor and make sure there won’t be issues with the moving company. “He prayed that José Luis, no matter how proud he might be, would say yes. That yes would make Justin’s day, make Melanie’s birthday complete with a good deed.”
José Luis agrees, but their fellowship proves brief. Whereas the old mattress’s very defectiveness had helped smooth out Justin and Melanie’s petty fights by forcing them into a somnambulant dance, they begin to drift apart amid the stupefying embrace of memory foam. Justin returns to José Luis and offers what he considers an obviously fair trade: expensive mattress for cheap mattress. José Luis, however, won’t consider it. He’s had nothing but luck, both on and off the old mattress, since the fateful day. (You yourself, he tells Justin, said the mattress worked miracles.) Male tempers flare, and Justin, after his mother chimes in against the “wrong kind” of Latino immigrant, wonders what kind of pressure he would apply to get the mattress back.
“Fair Trade” is a frustrating story. Its plot seems much more contrived than that of, say, “For Whiter Shores.” It feels like so much more of an event when Justin visits José Luis than when the police lieutenant brother visits Belen’s family. And the drama hinges on the reader believing the mattress to be genuinely miraculous, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. And yet these failures reveal the dimensions of the challenge that the story has tried to scale. To successfully entangle two characters into a shared narrative, a story must find the thread that, if either character pulls on it, the other is thrown off balance. These threads, which we can call conflicts or obligations or mutual need, proliferate so naturally in stories like “For Whiter Shores” and “Lost Elegies.” But how does a writer credibly link, without resorting to Crash-style serendipity, two lives as distant from one another as those of an undocumented Mexican migrant and a middle-class American citizen?
The contrast between these stories is not coincidental. The atomized world in which Justin exists, a world of fungible jobs, homogenous socializing, professional segregation, romantic choosiness, holidays-only families, and the ability to exist without intrusion—our world, in other words—is not just the inverse of the settings described in “For Whiter Shores” and “Lost Elegies,” but also a reaction to them. This atomized world was created by waves upon waves of migration, across borders, across state lines, and across city blocks, by individuals using new job prospects and modes of travel to cut themselves loose from, or to survive being cut loose by, their hometowns, their families and their faiths.
Clipping these threads is a kind of progress. It points to the utopia envisioned by self-help, one in which we can choose to bestow only to admirable leaders, virtuous friends and worthy lovers the power to throw us off balance. It’s not the worst aspiration, but to believe in it means accepting the illusion that, like planets without gravity, each of us exists independent of humanity. It means we dress ourselves in the migrant’s alienation, even as we forget the journey that the garment was first designed to weather. True, it’s a journey the migrant will never complete. Everywhere she goes, she will be a stranger. But that doesn’t mean she has no home. Hers is the one she carries with her, not in her memory, but in her imagination. And it’s this vision, the vision of all those who’ve taken different paths along that same journey, that is the thread that binds her to the world.
Kris Bartkus is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Tweets forthcoming in 2020 at @kbartkus.