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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Border Child and Pride

Note: I usually write these posts a week in advance, but I think it would be strange to put up a post given recent news without addressing the deaths and injuries that resulted from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. I wrote a post about this kind of thing a while ago that pretty much covers my thoughts on the subject, but I'm sure I'll write more about this in the future, since I ran out of ideas literally years ago.

I have two caveats before I begin this post. The first is that I was vaguely bothered while reading Border Child that the author isn't Mexican. Also I was bothered that I was bothered by this. The book is superbly written. The prose is spare and no words are wasted. But I couldn't shake the feeling that people should be very careful when writing stories about people whose voices are regularly silenced. I'll refer to a Q and A session with Saint Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, where she answered the following question:
Q: How would you suggest one should write of a culture which is alien without cliche or stereotype? I am male, 50 and white and would like to write about a young Bengali girl. The responsibility feels huge; do you think the task is insurmountable? 
A: I think the first question is: WHY do you want to write about a young Bengali girl? There are still wonderful stories to be told about 50-year-old white men. If it is feeling insurmountable, perhaps that's a sign.
I can't imagine that's the response he wanted. I think he probably wanted to be praised for using his elevated status as a white man to tell the story the right way. I know a guy like that. Then someone else speaks up:
Q: The advice given to the white male writer who wants to write about a Bengali girl is very short-sighted, in my opinion. It will only ensure that we have more books about middle aged white men and no books about disadvantaged Bengali girls. Is that what we want? 
A: It's unfortunate that you seem to assume that if a white middle-aged man doesn't write about a Bengali girl, then the story of Bengali girls will not be written. There are in fact many Bengalis who can write about Bengali girls - and it probably doesn't feel 'insurmountable' to them. And 'disadvantaged Bengali girl' is a very troubling way of framing an idea of a story. It already suggests that this character will be seen through the lenses of her 'disadvantage' alone. People are people. 'Disadvantaged people also have agency, and dream, and think, and desire. Sometimes how one frames a story determines whether or not we will see the fullness of a character.
I think about this exchange a lot. There's a lot to digest there. The idea that the only people who can tell stories are older white men is absurd, but an alternative didn't even occur to either the person who originally asked, or the other one who chides Adichie (which I feel like is something one does at one's own risk). I don't know a lot about publishing, but my assumption is that publishers deal with opportunity cost as much as every other business does. Every book published by a publisher means another book can't be published. For every book a white man publishes, a Bengali author with maybe a less recognizable name or fewer literary connections may not get the nod.

So that's not an insignificant thing. I think that makes intuitive sense to most of us. The other concept is more interesting, though. I have to chew on that one a little. When someone of privilege writes the story of someone they consider to be "disadvantaged," they're running the risk of writing poverty porn. Writers all want to elicit a response from readers, and making us feel sad and maybe a little guilty about how comfortable our lives are is a pretty easy one. The shame of it is that we forget about the beauty.

Later in this post I'm going to show you a video of Guatemalans who live in a garbage dump. That video is intended to raise money to bring food to those people. It seems like a pretty decent reason, and seeing the kids getting their care packages is genuinely heart-warming. But it's probably pretty important to point out that there is more to these people than where they live. If we're watching videos like that because it makes us feel something, it's worth analyzing that feeling. Because I read a lot about horrors, poverty, and oppression, I have to explore what drives that and if it's healthy.

"These people need their story told," I think, after watching a video about horrible living conditions. And I'm right, in this hypothetical situation. "And I'm the guy who should tell it," I say, blowing it. In fact, I'm not. I could go embed myself in one of their families, live among them for years, and still never know what they are going through. I'm there as a tourist, as some kind of anthropologist. Their lives are a curiosity to me. I can leave any time and everything I look at is going to be through the lens of someone who has something better to go home to, and some potentially lucrative end to my self-inflicted suffering. How much better would it be to hear the story from the viewpoint of a person who has lived there, whose grandma lived there, who was raised to believe that there is no other option?

I argue that it would be much better.

So that's the first thing. I can't say I ever got over it. But I still loved Border Child. The other caveat is that I lived in Mexico for two years as an LDS missionary. This gave me a unique experience that simply living in Mexico couldn't provide, but still it was just a tiny experience. I didn't live in tourist areas surrounded by white spring-breakers or ex-pats. I lived in tiny houses and apartments in Mexican neighborhoods. And I spent much of that time in Mexican people's homes. I saw what I would consider extreme poverty. I saw people who lived in dumps. I lived there long enough that I got used to it. I got to know some folks very well, and reading Border Child felt very real to me in that sense. There are moments where the author's camera lingers a little too long on the "disadvantaged" part, but the characters ring super true in their context and I felt value there.

So now you know where I'm coming from. I have slightly more knowledge about the subject than the average white person who grew up in a Utah suburb, but a tiny fraction of knowledge of someone who grew up in Oaxaca. Michel Stone ostensibly knows more than I do (maybe?), but still hasn't lived it. We'll take that with a grain of salt moving forward.

OK, now that I've written a whole post worth of preamble, let's get to the patented observations mixed with mildly annoying humor I'm known for.

First, watch this video:

Adam Ruins Everything is a TV show that is meant to be entertainment and often oversimplifies things, but the discussion about alpha wolves is pretty much right on. If you need further reading, read David Mech's peer-reviewed article here. Like it says in the video, Mech's book, The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, has been for decades the main source of the myth of the alpha wolf. When the author himself rejects his previous writing, that should probably close the book (in this case literally) on the thing.

That's what science is: using the best available hypothesis until something that better explains the facts comes along. "But what if that science doesn't fit the worldview I already have?" you ask. Well, first of all I'm flattered that you are reading this, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, but I'm afraid that the answer is that your world view is probably wrong. Sorry about that. Also to the Provo guy (Brovo) who keeps calling guys who actually have girlfriends in spite of somehow also respecting women "betas," maybe hold off on the nomenclature until you've observed the same wolf pack for 13 years before typing up your Instagram diatribe.

The reason I bring this up is because while reading Border Child, I kept thinking about Breaking Bad. We all know Breaking Bad, right? It's where a total beta male regular guy with a steady job with benefits and a pretty amazing wife learns to be a real alpha by alienating his entire family and almost certainly directly causing the deaths of hundreds of drug addicts along with a handful of colorful underworld characters along the way. We're shown what a tough guy he becomes when he beats up teenagers in a mall.

The motivation here is that Walter (his name is Walter) gets diagnosed with lung cancer and I guess his teacher insurance doesn't give him good enough benefits to cover the very best doctors. Never mind that some quick research shows that White would have had access to BlueCross Blueshield, which has one of the highest ratings in the country, but OK, got it. We've got to get the chemistry teacher dealing the blue stuff. Further research tells me that Walter really wanted to make sure his family was taken care of if he were no longer unable to support them, which honestly dovetails better into my point anyway.

So forget the insurance part (except that apparently New Mexico teachers also have access to very cheap life insurance, forget all of it!), we all know what Walter's real Achilles heel is: pride. That's what makes this story your very typical Greek-style tragedy. The hero has a fatal flaw. Even in spite of multiple opportunities to have someone else help him financially, he stubbornly insists on doing it his own way. Then, when he has plenty of money, he keeps on going. At the end, we realize the truth: providing for his family was just what he told himself. He tells his wife, "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really... I was alive."

I think most of us agree that Walter is the villain of the story. If the tale were told from Skyler's point of view, or even Jessie's, he would be an unmitigated trashcan fire, albeit one with a complicated and interesting back story. But because we see everything from his eyes, he's a tragic hero who we root for, even though for most of us there was a line somewhere where it was no longer possible. Even at the end, some folks stayed on Team Walt long enough and passionately enough that they sent death threats to the actress who played his wife, who, I feel I need to reiterate, is not really Skyler White.

Why? Oh, because he's a badass. Whee. Warning: very bad language ahead.

Here's another cinematic "hero" who is actually made of used kitty litter. This "are you man enough," "brass balls," "You see this watch," waffle makes me want to barf. And yet this hyper-masculinity "nonsense," as Ed Harris correctly calls it, is consistently touted as inspirational. This guy is acting like hard-selling properties to people and then manipulating them into not being able to get out of the sale when they are allowed to sit and think about it is real work. This is the kind of video Provo guys would quote when trying to whip up excitement about selling security systems to old people who don't know better at Vivint like it's some kind of noble pursuit if they weren't so afraid of swear words.

When I started Border Child, I thought I was getting into something similar. The story follows Hector and Lilia, a young couple in Oaxaca, Mexico. Their village is poor, with few opportunities, so Hector leaves his wife and baby at home to make the journey to the United States. He ends up in South Carolina where he gets a good job, and promises to bring Lilia and their baby girl, Alejandra, to meet him. Lilia's grandmother--who raised her-- dies, and Lilia, grieving and lonely, hires her own coyote to take her across the "linea." In the process, 2-year-old Alejandra is handed to a woman who promises to take her across and meet at an agreed upon location. Lilia arrives and Alejandra does not.

Years later, after being deported for stopping at a car accident to make sure their friend was OK and then being questioned by police, Hector and Lilia are trying to rebuild their lives. They have an adorable little boy and a little girl on the way, but they never stop searching for Alejandra. On the back of the book, it says "they receive an unexpected tip that might lead them to Alejandra, and both agree they must seize this chance, whatever the cost."

There's a point where it looks like we're going down the inevitable fictional path where Hector starts out doing small jobs, then illegal jobs, and we worry that when given bigger opportunities, he'll forget why he started in the first place, Walter White style. It's the kind of thing that might have made for an interesting, but infuriating book. You'd get that old "don't go into the basement," feeling from watching a scary movie, which is fun and thrilling but ultimately forgettable. You can't respect the character that runs down the stairs, knowing that there isn't an exit, instead of out of the door.

Hector is humble, though. Humble to the dirt. Humble in a way I remember a lot of Mexican men being. In his sphere he is quietly competent. If he hadn't been deported, he'd be foreman at his job in the US. If he hadn't left Mexico, he'd also be foreman and sit in the air-conditioned truck while the rest labored. He's kind and diligent and knows his value. He's forgiven his wife and loves her. Basically Hector rules. But he's also a little broken.
He prayed God would give him the ability to protect her from all the evil in this world. As a younger man, Hector's thoughts had only skirted the edge of contemplating evil. His youthful naivete and hunger to experience the world had kept such considerations at bay. Now he often considered the horrors happening every day everywhere, tragedies unfathomable to him as a younger man. He looked across the aisle where the girl and her brother seemed to slumber, somehow, in peace. He prayed for their safe crossing, and that their uncle was better equipped to protect them than Lilia had been at protecting Alejandra.
Various other characters come in and out of Hector and Lilia's life: there's the village midwife who calmly dispenses wisdom, and the priest, who learns of an orphanage where Alejandra may have stayed. It's in the city of Matamoros, where he learns there are hundreds of men, women, and children who live in the local landfill. Here's a real-life report:
The air along the canal and inside the dump is gritty with black soot, smoke and particles. The soil is dark grey and dusty. Clouds of flies, gulls, crows and grackles swarm around old and new piles of rotting garbage, sickening sour smells emanate from all sides.  When a fire burns, the eyes sting and it becomes more difficult to breathe. In this environment, some 150 men, women and children work daily to collect recyclable materials that they then sell – most frequently to a middleman elsewhere in the city.
 Many of the female workers wear makeup and jewelry, even though by the end of a shift, hands will be black and clothes completely stained. Some of the workers wear gloves; others sort trash with their bare hands. Frequently, evangelical missionaries visit the dump, bringing food and pamphlets to the workers. Ambulatory taco vendors visit the dump to sell food and soft drinks. There is no place to wash hands and no constructed lavatory or outhouse. Workers create staging areas where they gather to eat and bring the recyclables or food they’ve collected and where they park vehicles, if they have any, and rest in the meager shade. They sift through mountains of trash for glass, carton, plastic, metal, food and anything else that might be useful. The workers tie the collected goods together, binding them for transport with salvaged plastic bags, ropes and pallets. They pile their goods onto bicycle carts, in the beds of dilapidated trucks, in wheelbarrows and on their backs, hauling them precariously down the long road to town. 
The priest, knowing how poor his own village is, is nonetheless humbled by the circumstances he learns about just south of the Mexico-US border where crime is rampant and people live in landfills. We're presented with an extremely poor village where there are no opportunities, but at least it's not the dump town, right?
On his walk home he thanked God for the beauty around him, for the goats grazing on weeds in the cemetery, for a squealing piglet and the chickens he passed in the old widower's yard, for the bountiful sea and the fruits and vegetables available to him. His people were not wealthy by any standard, but this community could eat food they grew and caught and prepared. Only the poorest among them asked for handouts, and even then, the village took care of these people. He prayed for the children of the dump, and wondered how such a thing could be.
This isn't a new thing, by the way, or unique. As it is apparently my duty to alert readers to something terrible that is going on in other places on Earth, it turns out that living in landfills is a pretty common thing for people all over the world.

Anyway, that's bad, huh? That's probably not a way people should live. It's pretty scary that fictional Alejandra could be in that situation. It scares Hector quite a bit.
Even in his daydreams Hector had no ability to protect his family, and that secret knowledge haunted him, vexed him like a dull thorn wedged deep beneath a toenail, its silent infection seeping into his veins.
But remember what I said about Hector. Hector rules. He's going to get to the bottom of this, and for reals he's doing it for his family, because that's all he has. He lived in the United States, he had ice water in a cooler in his truck and could have cold water whenever he wants. He considers telling his coworkers in Oaxaca about this but doesn't think they'll believe him. He had a sweet little girl and a wife who wasn't always in mourning about her decision, and who he didn't sometimes blame in spite of himself. They were young and in love. Looking at his life now can sometimes make him want to fall apart. But he doesn't forget. There is a moment where he's promised riches, but also he sees a glimpse of the attendant horrors. He doesn't go in the basement.

Lilia is tough as crap, too. She goes through her own journey, even if most of it takes place in the same room, it's pretty harrowing and inspiring as well.

Guys, when I finished this book I just bawled and bawled. I loved these fake people because they felt like real people. Good job, white lady. And good job, white me. Let's all give ourselves a pat on the back for just getting it so hard.