Immigration Memoirs: 2019 National Book Festival


[ Applause ]>>Carlos Lozada:
Good afternoon. My name is Carlos Lozada. I am the nonfiction book
critic at the Washington Post. The Post is a charter sponsor of
the festival, and I hope will be for a long time to come. It is my great pleasure to be
here with these three authors. And let me just briefly
introduce them. Reyna Grande is a fiction
and nonfiction author. Her books include “Across
a Hundred Mountains”, “Dancing with Butterflies”,
“The Memoir”, “The Distance Between Us”– which
was a finalist at the National Book
Critic circle prize. And her new book, “A Dream
Called Home” is also a memoir. She received multiple awards for her work including the
[inaudible] Literary Award, the American Book Award, she
was born in Guerrero, in Mexico, and came to the United
States as a child. Aleksandar Hemon writes fiction
and essays– criticism memoir– is the author of
multiple books– “Nowhere Man– the
Lazarus Project”. Most recently a duel
memoir called “My Parents– an Introduction/This Does
Not Belong to Me” with one of the most sort of
innovative binding and cover designs
I’ve seen in a while. He’s the recipient of
a Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Fellowship. Was born in Sarajevo and came
to the United States in 1992 when he was unable to return
his plan to the violence that had broken out at home. And Suketu Mehta is the
author of “Maximum city– Bombay Lost and Found”
which is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. He is an associate professor
of journalism at NYU. His latest book is called
“This Land is Our Land– and Immigrant’s Manifesto”. And he came to the United
States from India when he was in his early teens, I believe. So, it’s always fun when you
have you know a group of writers who can just kind of have
an extended conversation. To start us off,
I was hoping each of you could just briefly
describe what led you to write this book. How you knew it was a
story you wanted to tell or an argument you
wanted to make. And also, share with
us a passage that you think exemplifies
that effort. If– Reyna, do you
want to kick us off?>>Reyna Grande: Sure. Hello, everybody. Thank you so much
for being here today. It’s such an honor for me
to be sharing the stage here with these wonderful authors. And thank you, Carlos. So, “A Dream Called Home” is a
sequel to my previous memoir, “The Distance Between Us”. And in “The Distance between
Us” I write about my experience of growing up in Mexico
without my parents because they both immigrated
to come here to look for work. And I tried to write about
what it’s like to be a child in this situation of not having
my parents, being left behind. And not knowing if we would
ever be reunited again. And then I write about my own
border crossing coming here at nine years old
running across the border to be reunited with my family. So, when I wrote “A
Dream Called Home”, I wanted to continue writing
about my experiences of growing up here in the United States. First as an undocumented
immigrants, and then going on to become the first person in
my family to go to university. And my father only
went to the third grade and my mother only went
to the sixth grade. So for me, going to
university was one of the biggest accomplishments
of my life. And I wanted to write
about that experience of being a first-generation
university student. Especially coming from my own
background of being you know, low income– being
an immigrant– first gen. So, one of the
reasons that motivated me to write about this is because
I feel that there are not a lot of books about Latinos
in college. And I wanted to capture that. You know, that we
do go to college. That we are working
professionals. And to me that was one of
the most important things that I was trying to
capture in this book. I also write about
my dream of wanting to be a professional writer
and all the obstacles I had to overcome to make
that dream a reality. But the book is called “A Dream
Called Home” because the theme of the book is really
about my search for a home. And my search of trying
to really find a place where I felt that I belonged. So, I’m going to read a
brief passage that kind of explores that idea more. “I didn’t know that at 13 years
old, I had turned to writing as a way to deal with my
traumatic experiences before, during, after migration. Because I was a child immigrant,
my identity was split. I often felt like an outcast
for not being completely Mexican but not fully American, either. The border was still
inside of me. Physically I had crossed it, but psychologically
I was still running across that no man’s land. I was still caught back there. And so were my parents
because the truth was that we were never the same
after we crossed the border. We all changed. Perhaps it was because
we had left something of ourselves behind the
way migrants leave a shoe and empty can of tuna, a
plastic water bottle, a shirt. What we each left on the
border was a piece of our soul, our heart, our spirit. Clinging to the branch of a
bush, flapping in the wind. Depression, anxiety,
posttraumatic stress disorder, these words were not part of my
vocabulary, so I never used them to describe how I felt. I expressed my feelings through
stories while my father drowned his in a can of beer. I turned to writing to save
myself, to record and remember, to give meaning to
my experiences. Writing was an act of survival. It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered it could
be a possible career option. Having grown up never
reading any Latina writers, I thought Latinas didn’t
write and publish books. So I had assumed
I couldn’t either. I hadn’t thought I could
pursue a career in writing until I met my English
professor, Diana Sabas [phonetic]. If Sandra Cisneros can
do it, you can do it. If Isabella Llenda can
do it, you can do it. She would say to me
while handing me a copy of their latest book. Usually my stories
were about Mexico. I had now lived in
the US longer. Only through my writing could
I hold onto my native country and keep it from floating
into the mist of my memory. By writing about it,
I could claim Mexico in a way I couldn’t
in real life. Despite everything I had
gained by immigrating, I had also lost things. My relationship with my
sweet maternal grandmother, aunts and uncles,
cousins, my friends, and my native country itself. The Mexican way of life
felt different now. My Spanish was broken. My Catholic religion
almost nonexistent. I knew little about Mexico. Just pieces of its history,
its customs, its geography. It was in many ways
a mystery to me. Like my parents, my native
country was full of loss and they had mistreated
and abused me. And yet I still loved and clung
to Mexico with childish hope and optimism dreaming of the day
it would change for the better. In the same way I hoped
my parents would change. On my first return visit to
Mexico three years earlier, everyone treated
me like a foreigner because I had been corrupted
by being Americanized. To the people who
had seen you grow up, I was no longer Mexican enough. But in the US, I wasn’t
American enough either. For years I struggled to fit
in, to learn the language and culture, to find my way. But no matter how hard I tried,
I still felt like a foreigner. So I took refuge in my writing. The words I put on the
page created a bridge that connected both countries
both languages, both cultures. I hope someday to write
my way into a place where I finally belong. Where I finally felt
I was enough”. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Aleksandar Hemon: Well,
thank you for having me here with these wonderful people. Talking about something that
has defined my life and the life of my family and just
about everyone I know. I devised this book– or
these books, or rather– sometime 2014 or so when
the images of migrants on boats trying to get to Europe
were being broadcast and one of the things that troubled
me then as it troubles me now, is the representation of
immigrants and migrants and refugees as this
faceless mass just driven by some kind of obscure hunger. And the discourse
around it suggests that they want what we
have, whoever we may be. And this kind of
dehumanization of immigrants, the erasure of their stories and
individualities, and histories and all that. That to me is appalling on
a very basic moral level, but also from the point of view
of my writerly [phonetic] life. It is something that I
thought I might be able to do something about. And so, I just as Donald
Trump announced his candidacy, and announced his
racism in the same take, I decided to write three books and then I added one
more for some reason. And so, the two of those
I– in this volume– one of them is about my parents. And the overarching idea behind
all these projects is giving– allowing people to have
histories and stories. Right? Or telling the stories
and histories of people. People who are most familiar
to me starting with the people who are most familiar to me,
and those are my parents. My parents left Bosnia
in the spring of ’92. They left Sarajevo and they
wandered around the region for a while with nothing and they eventually
immigrated to Canada. Luckily to Canada. Where they have healthcare,
imagine that. And so, Canada is
kinder than this country to immigrants, I think. But not entirely kind. What was always fascinating
to me is that how they maintained
coherence in their individuality and thinking and moral
and ethics– my parents. And my assumption is always
that all immigrants do this. That it’s a complicated
traumatic thing to migrate from one place to another. And what people carry over–
and this is most amazing and interesting, is
this ethical system or philosophical system, even. And so, I wanted to
write about that. I wanted to think through
the thinking of my parents about the world and before and
after and during the transition. So, the book is not a
memoir strictly speaking, it’s more like a series of
essays about my parents. And this is from a
part about catastrophe. “My father likes to talk to
people, ask them questions, tell them stories
and hear theirs. Sometimes when I read or watch
TV or just silently stare into space, he sits next
to me and orders– ‘Talk”. True. “I bristle, but then I
yield and of course the talking. It’s not just that he
cannot stand silence, nor is it that he
cannot bear the thought that people might have
nothing to say to each other. It’s also his voracious
curiosity un-dampened by his age. Everyone he assumes
has some story to tell not least his
professionally storytelling son. My father expects other people
to engage with the world which has somehow
delegated him to probe you and conduct conversation. Silence is the death of
storytelling, and thus, of love. In 2007, my wife Terri and I and
our newborn daughter Ella went to visit her parents in
Florida for Christmas. And my parents came
along from Canada. Terri and I had married in Paris
earlier that year which was when my parents had
encountered hers and gotten splendidly
along with them. Now, in Pensacola Beach,
my parents spent time with Terri’s extended family
which frequently gets together and features untold number of
aunts, uncles, and cousins, including the friends of
the family who have been over time absorbed
into the kinship. My parents quickly saw
that essential structure and practices of an African-American
family were much like those of our Bosnian one and they
liked that quite a bit. One thing was somewhat
lacking, however. Terri’s family didn’t do as much of what my family always
did, and does still. They didn’t spend a lot
of time telling stories. Their history for
whatever reason, was not entirely
available by way of collective public narration. Thus, as we walked one balmy day
along the splendid white sand beach toward Fort Pickens where
the great Geronimo had died in prison by the freedom
loving United States, as seabirds coasted over our
heads below clouds [inaudible] my father said to
my wife, ‘Terri, tell me about your family. What bad happened?'” [ Laughter ] “Terri was gracious, but could
not fully satisfy his curiosity. Apart from the general
and everlasting calamity of American racism, applicable
to an entire population, there were few particular
historical family disasters she could tell him about. My father found it that perplexing even
a bit disappointing. For if nothing bad happened, it was hard to imagine how any
stories could be forthcoming. If nothing bad happened, what
do we have to talk about? If nothing bad happened, what was that happened what is
the story of nothing happening? Terri knew, of course, that my
parents had failed experienced the siege of Sarajevo and
ended up as refugees in Canada. She knew well that bad
things had happened in the history of the Hemons. The baddest [phonetic] and the
most recent one being the war in Bosnia. But my father’s question
was one of those moments when I felt compelled to explain
my parents to my good wife to establish and introduce
the theoretical foundations of their thought system to
instruct her and anyone willing to submit and listen on the ways in which trauma alters the very
structure of world and reality. For I instantly understood why
my father would ask a question like that. I recognized the compulsion. The ‘What bad happened’ was
a shorthand for catastrophe. He asked her to lead him into
the history of her family by way of outlining the
ruptures that defined it. For that’s how he would tell
the story of our family. The wars, the injuries, the
displacements, the losses, the struggles, the moments
of danger and despair. There could be no history
without catastrophe. To outline a history one
had to narrate its disasters to formulate one’s
position in the world, one had to define
oneself in relation to the experienced
catastrophes and that which cannot be narrated
could not be comprehended. A family without a catastrophe
could not be conceptualized because it was an
impossible proposition. If catastrophe is
the dramatic event that initiates the
resolution of the plot– this is in the theory
of tragedy– and its absence suggests
a possibility that the tragic plots
will never be resolved. A catastrophe in other words, it
might be a trap but also allows for a narrative escape. If you were lucky enough to have
survived the catastrophic plot twist you get to tell the story. You must tell the story.” Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Suketu Mehta: Thank you all,
so much for coming and again, it’s really wonderful
to be on this panel with such excellent writers. I wrote my book, “This Land
is Our Land” out of rage. Rage at the way in which
immigrants today are depicted all over the world. As robbers, as rapists,
as murderers. I’ve been in this
country for 42 years and I’ve never heard immigrants
depicted in such horrific terms. By some of the most powerful
people in the country and this is true
all over the world. I have been writing a book
about New York for a long time, but on the first
Tuesday of November 2016, I decided to write
something else in response to the present emergency. You know there’s a lot of
conversation about migration around the world because
human migration caused by climate change is going to be the defining human
phenomenon of the 21st century. Immigration might be an issue on which the next presidential
election will be decided. It is the single
most important issue for Americans in recent polls. So there’s a lot of
conversation about immigration, but what’s left out is the
immigrants perspective. Why are they moving? What would cause someone to
take their baby and their arms across the Mediterranean
or go all the way across Central America risk
death and rape and assault and try to make it over
a fence on the other side of which they are going to
take your baby away from you. What would cause people to move? So what I say in my book
is on connecting the dots. Through colonialism, war,
inequality and climate change, the rich countries
have stolen the future of the poor countries. People are moving not
because they hate their homes or their families but because
the West, the rich countries, have left them no choice. So I read an excerpt from
the beginning of my book which gets into this matter. “One day in the 1980s, my
maternal grandfather was sitting in the park in suburban London. An elderly British
man came up to him and wagged a finger in his face. ‘Why are you here,’
the man demanded. ‘Why are you in my country?’ ‘Because we are the creditors,’
responded my grandfather who was born in India, worked
all his life in colonial Kenya and retired in London. ‘You took all our
wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come
here to collect.’ We are here, my grandfather was
saying, because you were there. These days, a great many people in the rich
countries complained loudly about migration from
the poor ones. But as the migrants
feared, the game was rigged. First, rich countries colonized
us and stole our treasure and prevented us from
building our industries. After plundering us for
centuries, they left, having drawn up maps in ways
that ensured permanent strife between our communities. Then they brought us to their
countries as guest workers as if they knew what the word
guest meant in our cultures. But discouraged us from
bringing our families. Having built up their
economies with our raw materials and our labor they
asked us to go back and were surprised
when we did not. They stole our minerals and
corrupted our governments for that the corporations could
continue stealing our resources, befoul the air above
us, and the waters around us making our farms
barren, our oceans lifeless. And they were aghast when
the poorest among us arrived at their borders not
to steal but to work. To clean their shit
and to fuck their men. Still they needed us. They needed us to fix their
computers and heal their sick and teach their kids
so they took all of our best and brightest. Those who had been educated
at the greatest expense of the struggling
states they came from. And seduced us again
to work for them. Now again, they ask us not to
come, desperate and starving. Though they have rendered us because the richest among
them needed a scapegoat. This is how the game
is rigged today. My family has moved all over
the earth from India, to Kenya, to England, to the United
States, and back again. And it’s still moving. One of my grandfather’s left
rural [inaudible] for Calcutta in the [inaudible] days
of the 20th century. My other grandfather living the
half days bullet cart ride away left soon after for Nairobi. In Calcutta, my paternal
grandfather joined his older brother in the jewelry business. In Nairobi my maternal
grandfather began his career at 16 sweeping the floors of
his uncles accounting office. Thus began my family’s journey
from the village to the city. It was I now realize,
less than 100 years ago. Mobility is survival. I am now among the quarter
million people living in a country other than
the one they were born in. I’m one of the lucky ones. In surveys, nearly three-quarter
of a billion people want to live in a country other than
the one they were born in. And will do so as soon
as they see a chance. Why do we move? Why do we keep moving?” Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Carlos Lozada: These are
books about true a greater or lesser degree, family. Certainly in the case
of Reyna and Aleksandar, and there’s moments
of memoir that appear in yours as well, Suketu. What are some of the unique
challenges you faced in writing about your own families
something so personal? And why does it seem that so
many immigrant reflections end up being thinking about and questioning the
choices your parents made?>>Reyna Grande: Yeah,
that’s a great question. When I set out to
write my memoir, I didn’t want the story
to be just about me. Because when we talk
about immigration, immigration is not just about
the individual immigrant. It’s about the entire family. And what happens to one person in that family affects
the entire family unit. So, in my books I
wanted to capture that. You know? I wanted to capture
the journey of my family across the border and
everything that we went through during our journey. So, I was very aware of writing about my family,
about our journey. And of course, the journey began because of the choices
that my parents made. And, I explore those
choices a lot because through the
years I have learned– I have learned to see
things differently than when I was a child. You know? When I was a child,
and my father came here, when I was two years old,
and then my mother came here when I was four and I was
left behind in Mexico. I didn’t understand
why they had left. I had no concept of you know,
the fact that we were living in the second poorest
state in Mexico. I wasn’t aware of the
national debt crisis or peso devaluations
or lack of jobs. Lack of opportunities. I didn’t know about
those things. So I didn’t understand why
my parents had immigrated and as a child what I felt
was that they had left because they didn’t love
me enough to stay with me or to take me with them. So it took me a long time to understand why they
had made those choices. But I had to live with the
consequences of those choices and that meant that I was
growing up without a father or mother because
they had to leave me in order to take care of me. So, I didn’t understand
those things. And writing these memoirs really
helped me to understand more about my parents
and the situations that they found themselves in and why they made the
choices that they made. For a long time I was very
resentful of my parents for leaving and for putting
me through a childhood where I spent so many years
being afraid of being forgotten, afraid of being abandoned, afraid of being replaced
by US-born siblings. And I was so resentful
of them for putting me through that situation. But then, when I go back to
Mexico to visit my relatives who still live in
the same poverty that we escaped, I understand. I understand that even though
to this day I’m still suffering from the trauma of separation, I
knew that that was the only way that I could get to
where I am today in life. That if we had stayed in Mexico,
I would be living the life that my relatives are living
there still learning $4, $5 a day. And trying to get by in a place
that is full of corruption and oppression and very
limited opportunities. So now, I can look back
and forgive my parents for putting me through
what they put me through and I forgive them because
now I am able to provide for my children in a way my
parents couldn’t provide for me. And now as a parent, I
don’t have to walk away from my kids just to go try to
find a better life for them. I also don’t have
to put my life– my kids’ lives at risk
the way that my father had to put my life at risk by crossing me across
the US border. I don’t have to do that as
a parent and to me I feel that that was one of
the greatest gifts that my parents gave me. It was that now as a
parent, I don’t have to be in the situation
that they were in. [ Applause ]>>Aleksandar Hemon: I think
Reyna is absolutely right when she says that you know,
that families are affected even by just one member of
the family migrating. And the whole structure of
the community is altered even in the best-case
scenario when one part of the structure goes missing. I lived with my parents
well into my 20s in a very small socialist
apartment with my sister up until the war. And then we broke up, ended up in the United States,
ended up in Canada. My sister lives in
London, England. Because what happens is you
know before the migration or in our case before
the war and you know, the subsequent migration
my parents were refugees. I don’t really think
of myself as a refugee, but my parents were refugees. There was a fracturing of
that shared experience. Right? My life was different
in the United States. Their life was different
in Canada. My sister’s life is
different in England. We did all right
relatively speaking, but that vastly overlapping
experience of living through that in the
same language in the same cultural
context in the same as it were social abilities. Right? We shared
that experience. There was this unity of time
and place and experience that we shared and
then it gets fractured. Right? And it gets broken up. Even if we were–
if we had moved to the same place there
would have been a fracturing because I spoke English better. I was not a professional
who lost his job to migrate. I had not lost my social
contacts, and so on. So what happens is
this fracturing of the shared experience
within the family. And one of the ways again, to agree with Reyna
wholeheartedly is to tell stories and write so
that you build those bridges. There is something
about building a bridge between new country
and the old country, but also within this community within a family there are
multiple bridges trying to communicate this experience. Right? And try to
unify experience and to create a shared
experience within the act of writing and literature
and a book. So in other words, I live
with my family and my books but not in the real world.>>Suketu Mehta: So, the
trump administration is trying to eliminate or reduce family
reunification as a criteria for giving people visas
to enter the country. Even though I’m Indian,
I didn’t come here as a skilled immigrant. I came here because of the
family reunification category. My aunt sponsored my mother
and her siblings and family. And the conversation as I
said about immigrants is about you know these
people who are coming here and they lack certain
moral value. This is the impression
that if you were to listen to Fox News you would
get about immigrants. And if you actually were to see
what family means to immigrants, you should do what
I did which is go to a place called Friendship
Park on the US California– on the US Mexico border which
it’s just out of San Diego. So there’s actually a wall
which goes down a section of California and kind of
ends right by the ocean. But there’s a small
stretch of land which under the Nixon
administration the US government decided was the only place
along the entire southern border where if your family was on
the other side of the border, you could go and meet
them face-to-face. And it used to be in earlier
years that you could– if you didn’t have the
papers to crossover or if you only had
a work authorization and you couldn’t go
back and come back into the US you could go
to the Friendship Park and you know have a
picnic with your family. More recently, there
has been a fence built across this little
stretch of land. And the border patrol which administered Friendship
Park have decided to make it all but impossible for people
to meet their families. But still, it used to be until
recently you could go there on weekends and for 10
minutes go up to the fence and put your face up to
the fence to your family. So I spent two weeks
there last year. And it was the most
heartbreaking reporting of my career. I saw families like Reyna’s who
had been torn because one member of the family decided to come
over the border almost always to work and to send money back. This is why I call immigrants
in my book, ordinary heroes. Almost all of them are here
and what little money they save up they send back
to their families. So I [inaudible] with a
notebook and a Mexican man came up who hadn’t seen his mother
for 17 years and he goes up to the fence and his mother
comes up on the other side. And they put up their faces and he later told me
I could smell her. I could feel her
breath on my face. He told her how much
he loved her. How much he missed her. She told him how much she
loves him, misses him. She asked if he’s eating right. And in the end, you
know, they can’t touch because of the thick
ugly iron fence. They can’t hug each
other, but the holes in the fence are
only large enough to put your pinky through. So he put his pinky through and
his mom put her pinky through, and they touch pinkies. That’s all they are allowed. It’s called the pinky kiss. All along the fence. Mothers and children
best friends, siblings touching just
kissing of the pinkies. If you’ve ever had a rupture
with someone in your family, go down to Friendship
Park and see what happens when there’s a stake which
keeps you from your family. When there are laws that
are made by bureaucrats and lawyers sitting
in different offices which keep you from your family. See how much family
means these migrants. See what they are
doing for the migrants. It was the most heartbreaking but also the most hopeful
reporting of my career because I saw what family
really means to immigrants. It’s– the expression
of the heart through the touching
of the pinkies. [ Applause ]>>Carlos Lozada: Aleksandar, you write that our history
is the [inaudible] longing for the home that
could never be had. Is that an inevitable part of migration this longing this
almost sees parallel lives that you are running through in
your head wondering what things would’ve been like in a
different circumstance if different decisions
have been made?>>Aleksandar Hermon:
Well, I think– I mean I busy myself with
defining what home is in my books for myself and
whoever else cares about that. But what happens
with migration– and I think there’s a difference
between immigrants and refugees, but it’s a difference in
degree but not in kind. I think migration is always
traumatic to some extent. So the refugee escaping war
that’s much larger trauma– not much larger, but different
trauma necessarily than someone who just gets up and walks. Not just– someone who gets up
and walks across the border. There’s differences– they
are important differences. Let alone someone like me who
flew in and decided to stay. Nevertheless, it
divides a life– migration the act of
getting from one place to another divides the life
into the before and the after. Right? And Reyna
also mentioned that. So your life and the
life of your family– the life of all your
friends might be– is divided between
the before and the after the unity of
time is broken. And also the unity of space. The way we lived before the
war in Sarajevo everyone was in the same space all the time. We have an entirely
different notion of privacy. My father to this day– I work on the computer he
just leans over my shoulder. And reads the emails without
any compunction whatsoever because we all were
in the same space. And so I think that what makes
home a fully impossible is this rupture. Right? This dramatic rupture
that dividing of the life into the before and the after
into the here and there. Right? And so the struggle is– and this is not necessarily
entirely traumatic. That this trauma doesn’t
have to be devastating and entirely destructive. There are ways I hope to
use this productively. One of which is riding
in my mind. Trying to find a new kind
of unity to create new homes or to have two homes even. When I go to Sarajevo
I say I go home. But then I go from
Sarajevo back home to Princeton now
and before Chicago. So you can have more homes
than one but somehow that unity that I remember experiencing,
right, that solidity that total presence of wholeness in the world is no
longer available. I have no desire to own property and could live out
of a suitcase. This is how I feel. Not because I’m a cosmopolitan
person, but because you know, this might all be gone sooner
or later just like my, you know, early home went away–
is no longer available. So the possibility of the home
not being available is forever present to all of us.>>Carlos Lozada: For years
I’ve always been jealous of people who had a hometown. The place that to
them meant home. We moved around a lot as
well from Peru to California and different parts
of the United States. And I felt they had
something I couldn’t have. Reyna you talked on this
in your book as well. You described a conversation
with Betty– with your younger sister in which she asks do you think
things would’ve been different if they had never left? Right? Do you think we would
all be together as a family? There’s a sort of
longing there as well for something that’s lost.>>Reyna Grande: Yeah. When I was younger, I use to
have this conversation a lot with my siblings about
what our life might’ve been like we had stayed in Mexico if
my parents hadn’t immigrated. If they hadn’t broken up once
they got here and just thinking about the family
that we used to be. As opposed to the
family that we are now. But, now when I go
back to Mexico, I have a different perspective
on that because when I go back, you know, I have uncles
and aunts that stay there. And I remember my mother
whenever she went back to Mexico she was trying to get
her brother to come out here because you know her
brother like the rest of the family was very poor. He was living in a one room
shack with his seven children and he could barely
afford to feed them. And my mother would say
why don’t you go to the US so that you could make money
to support your family? And my uncle would always
say I would rather be poor but together. And he refused to leave. But when I go to Mexico
and I look at my cousins who didn’t finish
elementary school because my uncle
pulled them out as soon as they were old enough, and
they had to start working to help him put food
on the table, I think about the
consequences of his choice versus my parents’ choice
of immigrating and trying to find more opportunities
for us. So I don’t have these
nostalgic you know, memories of my childhood
or I don’t fantasize about what my life might’ve
been like because I see it. I see it when I go. It’s in my face. That poverty. It’s in my face, and I remember, and I know that that’s what
my life would have been like. And I had this really
interesting experience because I was recently published
in Mexico for the first time. I’ve been published here
in the US for 13 years. But in Mexico, I just got
published there two years ago for the first time. And I went to Mexico
to do some events. Coming back to my native
country as a published author and I was doing events with these Mexican
writers from Mexico. And most Mexican writers from
Mexico are from the upper class. And I was sitting there with
them, and I was thinking if I hadn’t immigrated, I
would be their maid right now. Instead of sharing
the stage with them. And that was when I felt
grateful for what my parents did for me and for what
we went through. It soothes that pain that
I still carry with me when I am faced with the
reality of where I am now and where I could have ended up
if things have been different.>>Carlos Lozada: Suketu, your book is explicitly
called a manifesto. And you say early on
that it was written in sorrow, in rage, in hope. I think in what you shared so far this afternoon
we’ve gotten a sense of the rage and of the sorrow. [ Laughter ] Where is the hope? How do these three emotions
come together in your book?>>Suketu Mehta: Hope is
the thing with feathers. [ Laughter ] Yeah, if you look around
the world, the conversation around immigration I see why
it’s difficult to be hopeful. The fear of migrants is doing
incalculably more damage to countries than the
migrants themselves ever could. I mean Exhibit A is Brexit. The biggest [inaudible]
goal in British history. But you know there is– and
this is where the hope comes in. So, as I said the rich
countries have stolen the future of the poor countries
through colonialism, war, inequality, climate change. People are moving
like never before because they have no option. They have to move. They will literally
roast to death or drowned in the countries
they are living in. But when people move– this is
the happy ending of my story– it’s a good news story. Greater migration
helps everyone. It helps the countries
that the migrants moved to particularly the
rich countries because the rich countries
aren’t making enough babies. The United States would
collapse if people were to stop immigrating here. The reason that America
does well is that we have always been good at importing the
talent that we needed. Both skilled and unskilled. And if you really want to look
at Hope I mean I’m a New Yorker. Two out of three New Yorkers are
immigrants or their children. And New York has never been more
prosperous, more dynamic, safer. Immigration works and we can
see it in the great cities of the world: London, New York,
Los Angeles, Washington DC. I was walking around
DC today and yesterday and everywhere I mean I’ve
never had such a great choice of restaurants to eat at. I can have [inaudible]
or [inaudible]. I can– so when people move
it’s you know it’s not just that it’s you know a nice
choice of food or music, I economically it makes sense. The Social Security fund this
year will actually give out more in benefits than it
takes in and revenue. In about 15 years, if you retire in 15 years you will only
get $0.80 on the dollar of what you are entitled to. And the only thing that can
save the Social Security fund is immigration. The rich countries simply
aren’t making enough babies. Immigrants when they
move, they’re younger, they enter the workforce in greater numbers
than the native-born. The immigrant armada
that is coming to our shores is
actually a rescue fleet. And it’s also good certainly for
the migrants because in the case of refugees, it’s literally
a matter of life and death. For people who migrate
for economic reasons, they greatly improve
the standard of living. An Indian programmer who moved to Silicon Valley will
increase his standards. His income by around five-fold. And it’s also great for the
countries that they moved from because if you really
want to help the poorest people in the world and let people
from those countries move here and send money back
in remittances. Remittances are the best
and the most targeted way of helping the global poor. Those $100 and $200 money
orders that migrants send, they go directly to their
families to help a brother with an education, a
mother with a hospital bill, to build a school, to build a
home, and it’s not siphoned off by corrupt governments. For remittance of last year,
amounted to $700 billion which is four times more than
all the foreign aid given to the poor countries
in the world. For immigration is a good news
story and this is how we need to think of people
who are moving. Human migration is a good thing. We’ve always moved, and we will
continue moving and we ought to take it as our birthright. [ Applause ]>>Carlos Lozada: The last
question I will ask before we open it up to questions from
the audience, with immigration, with the movement
of people being such a defining political
issue of this time, certainly the United
States but around the world, does that create any special
urgency, responsibility, burden in telling
immigrant stories today for you as writers?>>Reyna Grande:
Yeah, definitely. I think urgency. But I also like that
word– the burden– because that is I feel that
as an immigrant writer, I feel this big responsibility
to speak up for my community, and sometimes I feel that
you know why can’t I just be a writer? You know, why do I always have to be the immigrant
writer the right? And, that’s created
some challenges in me like the way I see myself
as a writer, how do I fit in to American literature? Do I fit into American
literature? And then I remind myself that the immigrant story
is the American story. So, yes I do fit in to
American literature. And, I feel that I
have been given a gift. And, I need to make sure that
I use this gift that I have for language and the opportunity
that I have to be published to use that to speak up for my
community and to raise my voice for those whose voices have
gone unheard and I take that responsibility
very seriously. I also feel that here in
this country, you know, we tend to judge immigrants
by what one immigrant does. The whole community
gets judged by it. Usually in a negative way. Right? If one immigrant
does something bad, then all the whole immigrant
community pays for that– what that one person did. And I would like
to reverse that. You know? Why can’t we
judge all the good things that immigrants do? You know? Individually, what
we do, what we bring here, our skills and talents, why
can’t you look at one immigrant who is doing well and
say wow, you know, our immigrant community
is doing this. This is what they bring here. Let’s celebrate their
contributions. So that’s what I would
like to see more of. That if we are going to our community when
we do something bad, let’s also represent
our community when we do something
really wonderful. [ Applause ]>>Aleksandar Hemon: One of
the projects I started working on after 2014– 2015,
is interviewing Bosnians who were migrated to
various places in the world and the basic question
is, how did you get here? Wherever here is. It could be DC or St. Louis
or Tokyo, Japan or Australia. And one of the persons
I interviewed, she sells high-end real
estate in South Florida now. But she was– as a teenager she
survived the siege of Sarajevo– ended up in college in
Iowa your long story short, she was giving presentations
to the Trump family one day after attaining a
business degree, and among the Trump’s
was The Donald, too, and so after her
presentation he came up to her and she is good looking. And so, he came up
to her and asked– he said, “What’s your story? Start from the end.” And to me, that is symptomatic
of Trumpism, but also this model of how what I put in– representation of
immigrant experience. Where all that matters
is what you are here now. Right? No history,
no story, no past, no other place, no other town. Right? And so of course in Trump’s case it’s
the ultimate pathology of everything including that. So to me, as a writer, there is
everything Reyna says I agree with again. Because there is this
situation which I– willy-nilly [phonetic]– I did
not, you know, try to do this, but I speak for some people who have similar experiences–
Bosnians, at least. But I also feel a need
to cover the whole range of the experience. Not only this– where
we are at right now which is very narratively rich
as it is, but how we got here. Right? Whoever we may be. It’s also a narrative
opportunity. There are a lot of books
that can come out of that because each
journey is a story. Each– you know, migration
is a whole world of stories. Narration is migration
squared, if you wish. And so it is the wealth. If you take out immigrant
writers from American literature,
you will be stuck with suburban [inaudible]
for the rest of your life. [ Laughter ] You will be just sitting by the
pool and drinking cocktails. [ Laughter And Applause ]>>Suketu Mehta: So I
think there is a battle of storytelling around
the world. If you look at all these
populists as they are called, Trump, Boris Johnson and
Nigel Farage in the UK, Modi in my birthplace, India. Bolsonaro in Brazil. Putin in Russia. Orban in Hungary. All these strongmen populists. They are gifted storytellers. That’s what a populist is. A populist can tell
a false story well. And the only way to fight him is
by telling a true story better. [ Applause ] So, you know, as a writer, as a journalist, I
like fact checking. [ Laughter ] Not everyone in Washington,
DC likes fact checking. I hire a professional fact
checker to go through my book and I have 50 pages of endnotes. The thing is that you know
we need to tell these stories which are backed up by numbers
and have a strong argument. And often people who are trying to tell immigrant stories
particularly in academia, you know they’ve got
the right numbers but they don’t have the passion. Or they equivocate. You know, we on the
left like to be nuanced. We like to say on the one side
this on the other side that. You know. [inaudible]
there isn’t an other side. Cannibalism, for instance. [laughter] On the one hand, some people say eating
your fellow man is wrong. On the other hand it’s a cheap and readily available
source of protein. No. [laughter]>>Carlos Lozada: The
marketplace of ideas in flesh.>>Suketu Mehta: So the
immigration story has got to be told with passion
and backed up with facts and with numbers. But, this is why people like
Trump and Modi and Putin are so afraid of journalists
and writers. This is why writers,
journalists, authors are getting
persecuted, shot, imprisoned, audited, all over the world. We are the ones with the
truth tellers and I think in my motto the great
[inaudible] the checkpoint who won the Nobel
Prize once said, for anyone else not
telling the truth can be a tactical maneuver. He can just say silent when there’s a moral
crisis or emergency. But a writer who is not
telling the truth even if he is just saying
silent is lying. [ Applause ]>>Carlos Lozada: We
have two mics here if anyone has questions
for any of our authors. [ Silence ]>>Unknown Speaker:
Thank you, very much. We have been talking
about immigration that the current administration
is against immigration. But aren’t we missing the point? If– I think I’ve heard that
if an immigrant is coming from Norway he’s most welcome. But somebody coming from the
S-hole [phonetic] countries, is not. So isn’t this really
a discussion about racism and
not immigration?>>Aleksandar Hemon: I
don’t think those are mutually exclusive. I mean we know what
anti-immigration is. I don’t think that–
I mean it’s kind of killing two flies
with one hand. It’s controlling– it’s
enabling– how would I put it– enabling the endurance of
white supremacy on the one hand but also controlling– I
really cannot differentiate between those two. It is absolutely racist
because people of color and poor people migrate. But people from Norway
do not come here because Norway has healthcare. They have free healthcare. Who would come here from Norway? So, you know, it’s
Trumpian nonsense. But for people and people
of color migrate more– far more likely than
Norwegians or Scandinavians. So, yes. I mean those
are two things that are really two
different names. Anti-immigrants, and racist. That’s really the same thing.>>Unknown Speaker: So you basically are
saying is the same thing, but from the American point–
the American point of view, you know the 1924 Act–
I’m not an expert on that but I’m just speaking
generally, the cultural system that was here I think
Heller act of 1924. After the 1920s was
giving a culture to the North European countries. Not even the southern
European countries were allowed in that system. And then later on of course
it took about 30, 40 years, in the 1960s you had a reversal
of the [inaudible] system and [inaudible] when other
immigration laws were passed in 1965 allowed this
unification of family and from the Third
World countries. So, what I’m saying is that
it’s basically targeting– it’s kind of racist more
than it is anti-immigration. So that was my point.>>Reyna Grande: Yeah. And that’s a great point. And I think also it’s not just
racism but also classicism because we discriminate
poor immigrants. And we have seen that you
know through out the history of this country how we have
discriminated immigrants because of class and it just
one quick example is the Irish. You know? The Irish
were discriminated because they were the
poor Catholic drunk Irish and now look, the Irish
have become white. And now they are in mainstream
America whereas before they were not wanted here. So it’s classism, racism,
also religion plays a big part in which immigrants we want
and which ones we don’t.>>Unknown Speaker:
That’s a good point.>>Suketu Mehta: To add to
Reyna’s point, in the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin started
raining against this group of people who were coming into the Commonwealth
of Pennsylvania. He said these people– they
don’t speak your language. They don’t follow our customs. They are lazy. We shouldn’t let
them in Pennsylvania. He was talking about
quote [inaudible]. Human Germans the ancestors
of our current president.>>Unknown Speaker: Thank you.>>Nora Morales:
Hi, good afternoon. Thank you so much
for your panel. My name is Nora Morales, and I’ve brought 11
immigrant students. Please stand up. From Identity. And they came all the
way from Gaithersburg, Maryland to meet Reyna Grande,
because we read her book “A Distance Between Us”. But we would like you to
please give them some advice. They are about to
enter middle school and they all are immigrants
and have an immigrant story. So what advice do you have
for rising middle schoolers?>>Reyna Grande: Yeah, good
luck it was middle school. [ Laughter ] You will survive. [laughter] But most
importantly – I want you to be
in survival mode. I want you to learn
how to thrive. And that goes for
the rest of your life that no matter what
obstacles come your way, don’t just survive but
thrive and rise above it all. And most of all, don’t forget
where you come from because where you come from is
something to be celebrated. So don’t ever be ashamed
of where you first started. Buena suerte. [ Applause ]>>Aleksandar Hemon: Along
those lines, stay bilingual and that trilingual and
quatral-lingual [phonetic]. Get as many languages
as possible. [applause] And read, read, read.>>Unknown Speaker: Well, I’m not an immigrant,
though my husband is. But something that you
all mentioned spoke to me and caused me to wonder
about your relation with your audiences
who are not immigrants. And that’s the concept of home. I grew up on a small farm in
Maryland, and though my siblings and I all moved away
it was always an anchor and whenever I thought
about home I thought about that beautiful
little farm in Maryland. But my parents had to
sell it eventually. And I felt like part of my
sense of home was gone forever. And so, that’s how I connect
in some way with your stories. And so I wonder if you consider
that or when you are relating to people who are
not immigrants, the fact that everybody–
most people at some point– lose their home or
some part of their home and how you can connect your
stories with people like me who are not immigrants but
have lost a certain sense of their home.>>Reyna Grande: Well, I think
first of all, we really need to remember that we
are all human beings. So we can start from that place. We have so many things in
common and it’s so important to start there because
it’s easy to get lost in what makes us different. But let’s celebrate instead. What connects us? And I would like to say
that you know for me, called like you know this is
an immigrant memoir and I feel like it’s just a memoir. You know? This is the story
of the human experience. Right? [ Applause ] So, that’s how we connect. And I think ultimately you know, we are all in this
fight together. We are all in this
country together. And it’s all of their
responsibility to make sure that nobody feels that
they don’t belong here. [ Applause ]>>Carlos Lozada: I’m afraid
we are being told that we need to wrap it up thank you so
much, Reyna, Aleksandar, Suketu, for your work and for
your insights today. [ Applause ]

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