By Tim Sheard
National Writers Union-NY
New York City — Tears, cheers and laughter filled the room as the speakers in the opening plenary of the WRITING ACROSS BORDERS conference discussed how they write about the immigrant experience. Brought together by the New York chapter of the National Writers Union, Esther Armah, from Ghana & London, looked at the speakers and commented, “This is what a group of writers talking about immigration is supposed to look like: a black woman from Africa, a Mexicano from the American southwest, and a Filipino woman who has been in prison under the dictatorship in her home country. This is the diversity that represents writers who cross borders.”
The speakers went on to talk about the dominant narrative about immigrants, which robs them of their individuality and their dignity, and how writers can and must defeat that narrative with story. Sergio Troncoso read a brief selection from his latest collection of essay, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, that brought tears to the eyes, as he described chatting in Spanish with two women sent to make up his room in a fancy hotel.
When the women learned Sergio was a Chicano who had come from a humble background and worked his way up to become a successful writer, they confessed they had to work sixteen hour days and had no time to learn English. Sergio gave them a copy of his book and suggested they ask their children to read it to them so that they would see what is possible for an immigrant who has a dream.
The speakers talked about how publishers, school boards and book reviewers shun books by immigrant writers – even award winning authors – in favor of mainstream, white writers. The biased selection process reflects an exploitative system that uses immigrants for cheap labor, or, as transnational Filipina Ninotchka Rosca pointed out, for the unpaid, dehumanizing labor of trafficked women and domestic workers toiling for years with no political rights and no legal safeguards.
Writers, Esther reminded us, can and must fight to change the social order by changing the dominant narrative. We must write the stories that bring immigrants into the light of individuality and dignity. “There is a morality of description,” Sergio pointed out. “If the protagonist is always an educated white male or white woman and the people of color are always crooks or invisible people with no personal lives, that narrative choice is an immoral use of language.” Esther agreed.
“Such writers refuse to call a thing what it is: it dehumanizes and de-individualizes a group of people – especially people of color – and the writing supports their exploitation and degradation.”
All agreed that when we write about immigrants with honesty and compassion we begin to change the dominant narrative and advance the cause of human rights and social equality.
A lively series of questions continued the discussion, which ran a half hour over the two-hour time limit. No one wanted the discussion to end. But with four more writers waiting to take their turn in the next panel, we closed the plenary with a round of applause for these courageous writers of color.
A video of the session will be posted by the Empire State College, which they will share with the National Writers Union and with the world.