Alejandra Oliva’s Rivermouth is a moving exploration of translation, whether that be on the border between the United States and Mexico, between self and other, or inner borders of the self between English and Spanish. Full of yearning, rage, and complicated prayer, Oliva’s memoir acts itself as a kind of refuge from which to better see and understand the migrant crisis.
I had the pleasure of emailing with Oliva while she was on her book tour to talk about translation theory, what prayer is, and Julien Baker.
Kyle Francis Williams: Your book is many things at once, a combination of memoir, reportage, theory, and prayer that flows or translates between these aspects of yourself very fluidly. Bridges from one to the other abound, and bridges build on bridges while reading, such that I felt like I was reading to the shape of your thought process. When you were writing, did you find it difficult to juggle these different aspects? What was the process and did you have any rules to follow while writing?
Alejandra Oliva: I think “reading to the shape of [my] thought process” really gets at it. I don’t know that I could have written a book that brings in less, that makes arguments in a more linear fashion because it takes me a tremendous amount of effort to make arguments like that, and I often feel like they leave a lot out—how else are you going to understand the historical roots of hagiography when I talk about the auto-hagiographic work we demand of asylum seekers in their applications if I don’t talk about historical translation of relics in the early church? I think the real difficulty in it was writing to an audience and not necessarily to the inside of my brain—there were many early drafts where I was asking a potential reader to follow me down a lot more blind alleys, to keep a lot more ideas in the air at once. The version of the book that got published is, probably for the best, one that has a structure. The initial core of that structure was a kind of geography of the immigration system—the border, an asylum clinic, immigration court and detention system—each of which was paired with a metaphor. There are definitely some digressions that got cut, some ideas that didn’t feel like they belonged in this book, but I think the end result is one that feels like it successfully brings in at least the entirety of my world as I was learning about immigration and translation, if not the world.
You cite many critical theorists throughout this book, many of whom I share a love for. We get a little bit of Walter Benjamin, Simone Weil, Emmanuel Levinas. (I maybe felt like Kierkegaard was suspiciously absent during the boredom of your court observation!) Because so much of this book is an exploration of translation theory as you apply it to your work, can you tell me about some of the theorists who are especially important to you? Where would someone start to understand translation theory?
A lot of the theorists you mentioned initially came from grad school curriculums and represent a portion of the big classic figures that you’re going to end up hitting honestly if you study any humanities, although I might describe Simone Weil in particular as both my favorite and as the div school special. Despite not really being a translation theorist, she sort of obliquely references translation in my favorite of her essays, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” Over the last few years, I’ve come to understand that this essay has shaped a lot of my moral and activist framework—the idea that minute and fruitless and often frustrating acts of attention have the capacity to bring about change feels like the most hopeful thing I can think of, particularly when the thing you’re setting your shoulder against is the vast unending machinations of late-stage capitalism. Weil also is someone who is comfortable sitting in the midst of a lot of contradictions you might call hypocrisy if it didn’t feel so intentionally complicated and ambiguous, which was something I at least tried to emulate in my own thinking about morality and goodness and service. I think Douglas Robinson’s book The Translator’s Turn really illuminated for me how much of (Western) translation theory was tied up in ideas of Christian theology and the mind-body divide, and his book is a really lovely argument for the return of translation to the body, and for decoupling the two. His words are directly quoted less in the book, although I do cite him, but I want to give a kind of deeper credit here to a line of thinking that unlocked a lot of the theory work I do in the book for me. Finally, the work of Antena Aire, a translator’s collective that lives in both the literary and activist spaces is the basis for so much of the examination of the work I do, and I strive to bring the kind of feral joy and rigor they bring to all their work into my own.
Your time at divinity school is extremely interesting to me. You wrote that you pursued divinity school “halfway out of the same kind of desire that leads to picking at a scab.” Can you say more about what led you there, and how your time there affected you and your thoughts on translation and justice?
Yes! I was raised really hardline evangelical as a kid—Vineyard churches, a lot of spaces where we talked about the sins of oppressed people a lot and the sin of oppression a lot less. It didn’t really take with me, but as I got older and moved away from the church I came to realize the way that Christianity was still ingrained in my mind, in the ways I moved through the world. Going to divinity school some six years after last having stepped foot in any kind of organized church service came out of these twin desires of wanting to understand myself and my Christianity-pickled brain a little better, and also to return to this setting that had brought me a lot of pain and made me feel exiled from communities that were really important to a lot of people I loved. I did make a very conscious choice to go to Harvard Divinity school, which is regarded as the least-Christian of the major-research-university-divinity-schools and has a reputation for being fairly left-leaning—I wanted to give myself as many outs as possible. And of course, going back into it not just as an adult but as a willing student rather than an unwilling acolyte lets you be a lot more generous, a lot more open. I was also far, far from the only person who was there out of these same kinds of complicated motivations, and one of my core memories of divinity school was sitting around in the cafeteria with a bunch of other ex-vangelicals the morning Billy Graham’s death was announced and getting to feel all these really complicated things, all liberally spiced with a hearty dose of fuck-that-guy, and having a safe space to not just feel all that but have it reflected back to me was really radical and exciting. At the same time, I was, for the first time, sharing this environment with all these people who had very serious religious callings, many of which were centered around ideas of justice, and treating fellow humans and animals and plants and the earth with goodness and patience and grace, who saw their job as religious people as one of understanding and welcoming the world and the people in it as they are, and not using religion and shame as a kind of mallet to bonk things into a shape that feels agreeable to them. This kind of care-first, grace-first activism, the way that many of my pastoral-track classmates and pastor/professors encountered the world still feels like a model for me individually. I’m prone to frustration and exasperation and anger (and I still think you should be, in the face of injustice), but there’s a big difference between feeling those things and letting even a drop of that spill out onto not just the people who are actually directly experiencing that injustice, but even the people who have the power to make the situation worse. There’s an absolute strength in knowing that you have the moral high ground and simply refusing to let anything else distract you from your work.
There’s a small reference to discussions you and your peers at divinity school had about the difference between prayer and practice. Can you talk more about that distinction? Do you feel like this book acts in both registers?
There’s a long tradition of tension and friction in Christianity between prayer and practice—you have your Marthas and your Marys, your active and contemplative monastic orders, Paul and James showing down on whether you’re justified (or saved) by faith or works or some combination of the two. A lot of that is kind of inside-baseball theology that matters a lot if you’re a practicing Christian but I think a little less if you’re operating, like I am, from somewhere on the margins of the tradition. To get a little bit into it, Christian monasticism can be divided into these two groups, actives and contemplatives. Actives include groups like, for example, the Jesuits—they’re out there in the world, feeding the hungry, doing colonial violence to spread the word of God, collecting and distributing alms, interacting with lay people, non Christians, the world at large. Contemplative orders, like the Carthusians, tend to be far more cloistered, place a huge emphasis on prayer and inner spiritual life, and don’t really engage much with the world beyond the monastery/convent walls. I took a class on contemplative prayer in div school, and I don’t remember who said this or sort of how it came up in the history of Christianity, but something we talked about was that the contemplative tradition existed so that somewhere on earth, at any given time, there would be someone praying for the world, asking for God’s mercy. When I think about that alongside the Simone Weil essay on attention that I mentioned earlier, prayer becomes this sustained act of attention not just towards God, but towards the world, and having an ongoing, ceaseless thread of prayer in the world means that someone, somewhere is paying attention, drawing God’s attention towards suffering or joy or anger or whatever (recalling here Julien Baker’s perfect hymn, “Rejoice”). One of the ways in which I am not a good believer according to Paul is that I think attention is important, but it needs to be followed by action, by getting involved in the messy, uncomfortable heartbreak of the world. I’d like to think of the book itself as an act of prayer—a way of spreading the net of my attention, of turning people’s gaze towards the things that matter to me, that I think need more attention than they’re getting. There’s a sense in which I hope that the result of sharing this space of attentiveness with me moves readers towards action—a book initially was the thing that not only called my attention to immigration as a real, living problem that was happening every day in the city around me, but suggested a solution that I could be a part of. However, on book tour I’ve also met a lot of people who are in the middle of action—long-term volunteers, people who share identities with me or with the people they work with who haven’t had time to take a moment and contemplate the full scope of this thing they’ve undertaken, and I hope, in equal measure, that the book provides an invitation and a co-presence in doing just that.
I love that Julien Baker song.
Julien is so, so important to me—I first heard her live with a friend in Brooklyn, and she sang this song that appears on her second album, “Happy to be Here” but was at that point, unreleased. I (still) can’t listen to it without crying, which is both embarrassing and incredibly affirming—the line “your humiliating grace” is probably as close as I get to embracing Christianity. I still have a really weird relationship with it, as a whole, but the existence of people like Julien make it a little less weird.
In the book’s introduction, you point out that this book is “unapologetically bilingual,” and presents long sections of untranslated Spanish. You write there that you’re trusting the reader to “figure it out,” and I love that effect. Can you talk more about that decision? Is there an attempt there to impose the work of the translator on the reader, to make the non-Spanish speaker realize for themselves the difficulties of translation?
I will say that this isn’t a decision I came to on my own—originally a lot of the translations had glosses and explanations and sort of half-measures towards giving understanding to monolingual English-readers. Some of them still do. My day job during most of the writing of this book was doing communications for a immigration legal service nonprofit, and a sense of having complete transparency, and explaining and over-explaining everything kind of leaked into my non-work writing from that job specifically—I think you see it in some of my policy explanations as well, like, here’s this great metaphor about ICE boxes, but it’s important to me that you also know that technically Customs and Border Protection is the supervisory agency for these facilities, not Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. I think part of the reason for those glosses also came from the constant feeling of needing to write towards a monolingual audience that gets really baked into you as someone who writes primarily in English. But my editors, Danny Vazquez and Alessandra Bastagli, both encouraged me to stop glossing and explaining, and to write instead a bit about why using Spanish in the text felt important to begin with. I think the main reason is: I wrote this book primarily for bilingual people. I hope that if you’re not, you get a lot out of it (and those early glosses were certainly a nod towards you), but I wrote the book largely for people who, like me, have spent time in both languages, who are struggling to figure out the ways that their identity calls them into solidarity and into work with the people they share a kind-of-bullshit identity marker with, and using both languages felt like a way to send up that bat signal, to say “you can understand every word in this book in a way a lot of people aren’t able to. How does that call you into this community and these ideas in a different way?”
I do also know that that’s not the entire audience of people that would be interested in the book though, and the other part of it was to, as you mention, impose the work of the translator of the reader, to make them confront slippery definitions and the kind of murkiness that happens when you’re staring at some words, and their definitions in google translate but also getting the sense that there is more there that you have to access in some different way. I also wanted the monolingual English reader to be in a space that doesn’t cater to them linguistically. We live in a hugely monolingual society, where actual, deeply-rooted accommodations for non-English speakers are rare, even for a language as widely spoken as Spanish. I’m teaching a class right now on language justice and community access to interpretation and translation, a subject I’ve been working on even in my own previous job at an immigration nonprofit. In this class, most of my students are not Spanish speakers, but instead working in far less represented language-pairs, and it’s become really clear to me how much even Spanish-speaker privilege there is here as far as having access to resources. Which, again, is something you may not ever need to realize or think about if you’re moving through the US-world with English and no other languages. So, a small gesture towards disorientation, towards that understanding, in one of the places where it matters least (the pages of a mass-market hardcover memoir) felt like a good, slightly jarring reminder of the stakes in question.
Did you feel self-conscious about providing your in-the-moment translations of the stories presented to you in interviews in part two? It seemed to me like a remarkably vulnerable move, especially to the reader who might be trying to parse the stories as they might translate them as versus your translations in those moments—a vulnerability that is in some ways related to the vulnerability of the speakers presenting you with their stories in the first place. Later in the book you write about the difficulties of “falling in love” with a text one is translating, as opposed to translating within advocacy and activism. Can you talk more about this emotional register of the work?
Those sections are pretty much 100 percent fiction. I wanted to give a sense of what an interpretation session, a clinic session might look like, what translating and interpreting in the moment might look like, particularly from someone who is bilingual and (largely untrained as an interpreter!), but also what the conversations are like, the weird way people’s narratives and stories get chopped up even as you’re having this three-way conversation, before you even put things down on the immigration form that requires its own kind of butchery, the way the interpreter (me) ends up getting confused and sliding around between first and second person, the way my little grammatical and pronunciation errors end up slipping in as I’m moving between the two languages. I allude to these conversations/transcripts/translations being fictional a little bit within the book, but I’ve been surprised at how many people have asked how I got ahold of them—I mention that I never share any real stories, or full stories with you, the reader, out of a sense of loyalty to the folks I worked alongside. I think getting real, meaningful consent to tell the possibly-identifiable stories of people that I was working with in such vulnerable and high-stakes moments would have been really challenging, and I would have needed to heavily edit or redact the stories they told to anonymize them properly, anyways, so there was a sense in which it wasn’t ever going to be a documentation of the work I did, just an approximation. That, I think, makes it feel a little less vulnerable, although part of what I wanted to show through their inclusion were these kinds of errors and slippages you’re referring to.
Their fictionality, though, does lead me to this other question you bring up, of love. I talked about these conversations being fictional out of a sense of loyalty to them over the reader, and I still think that’s an allegiance I stand by. There’s a lot of ways in which love comes into the work—I have not ever left one of these sessions without being totally bowled over at people’s bravery, or their determination, or their love for their families that have led them, through whatever maze of circumstances, to be sitting across the table from me. There’s also all the little things—the way someone will remind me of a family member or a friend, or will just be super fucking funny as they’re telling me these terrible things that they’ve been through, or will be so gentle with their kids as they’re running around the space, or whatever. And love is something, especially in these cases, that it’s a little embarrassing to admit to, or feels like it’s too extreme to say, “I feel a lot of love for this person as I’m sitting across the table from them.” However, and not to get too Christian on main again, but what else is meant by “Love thy neighbor”? What else can you call that level of attention, that well-wishing? And I know that what I mean when I say “love” is what other people mean when they say “solidarity” or “support” but to me this work, and the feelings it calls up, has been, in a lot of ways, indistinguishable from love. There’s this line from Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan poet that says, “la solidaridad es la ternura del pueblo,” which roughly translates to “solidarity is the tenderness of the masses,” and I’ve been mentally carrying that around for a few years as proof of the way that other thinkers and writers see.
There is an interesting interplay throughout this book with the “you” of the reader: of the difficulties of audience, of, as you put it, translating “towards power—towards the English-speaker used to being met on their own language.” You’re placing an incredible amount of trust in the reader of this book, and while reading I felt very aware of the ways in which the “you” of the reader in the text might or might not even be worthy of that trust. How were you thinking about your relationship with the reader, while writing? Did you feel like you were writing towards power, in some way?
In short: yes. I knew that this book would be picked up by all kinds of people, even those who read, say, American Dirt, and were like “Oh, wow, I understand the immigration system now.” I didn’t think anyone who outright disagreed with me would read it, mostly because it’s pretty clear even from the cover what the book is, but I did know that it would be read by all kinds of people, but largely by those who had thought about the immigration system, and all its horrifying particulars and effects, less than I had. There is also a sense in which I was that reader, even a few years prior to beginning work on this book. I think part of the reason it felt easy to have trust in a reader who didn’t necessarily agree with me is because it felt inconceivable to me that if I pointed out the things that I had seen and the feelings I had, that they wouldn’t end up changing their minds in the same way that I had. The reader I was imagining was more or less the me of a few years back—conscious of this as an issue, but not active or present to it, but willing and ready to be.
Kyle Francis Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is an Interviews Editor for Full Stop and a recent MFA graduate of the Michener Center. His fiction has appeared in A Public Space, Southern Humanities Review, Epiphany, Southampton Review, and Joyland. He is on Twitter and Instagram @kylefwill.
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