Reyna Grande: a talk on immigration, butterflies, and The Distance Between Us

On April 9th, 2018, Reyna Grande came to my local library as part of our community read. This year, her memoir, The Distance Between Us, was chosen. Here is my review of that book. Grande was warmly received by a packed house. She noted that after she came to the United States and couldn’t speak English or tell people that she had crossed the border with her family illegally, she felt voiceless and invisible. Thus, she expressed how honored she was that an entire community chose to read her story, giving her a voice and a (literal) presence.

Grande noted she was inspired by Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter who created self-portraits throughout her career. Self-portraits are like memoir. In one such work, Kahlo paints herself twice, which Grande expressed reflected how she personally felt two of everything: Mexican and American, Spanish and English, belonging and ostracized. Personally, I enjoy writers who are inspired by other artforms and like to see the crossover in content.

Kahlo

Crossing the Mexican-American border was a life-changing experience for Grande, even though she was 9 and 1/2 at the time. She felt shame that she was a “criminal,” but also realized that if she could cross that border, one that many people die trying to cross, she can cross any border, especially metaphorical ones.

In addition, to cross a border a person needs a good coyote. Grande used the coyote as a metaphor for teachers who helped her along the way. When she couldn’t take the violence in her household anymore, she broke down and told her professor at the community college she was attending, and right then the professor took Grande into her home. Another professor, whom we were told would be discussed in the follow-up memoir, A Dream Called Home, helped Grande find her voice in writing and reconnect with Spanish (she mentioned her Spanish wasn’t good anymore because she’d worked so hard learning English). Mentors, Grande pointed out, are important because they help people have confidence and envision a future. When Grande felt that she wasn’t enough of anything — Mexican or American — her mentor pointed out that she was twice of everything: bilingual, binational, bicultural.

In college at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Reyna Grande was often the only Latina in her creative writing classes. When she wrote based on her lived experiences, her professors called her stories over-blown, melodramatic, and “so imaginative” (in a negative way). Grande began to lose her confidence because she was trying to write her truths — but no one was listening. This is something people talk about a lot in creative writing programs and elsewhere. How can colleges do better by students of different backgrounds so their stories are not dismissed? It sounds easier than it is.

Reyna Grande

Grande ended the evening reading a short essay she wrote that will appear in an upcoming anthology. It was about raising butterflies with her daughter. The significance is not only the transformation butterflies go through, but their migration from Canada to Mexico. That essay reminded her that because her father brought his children to the United States, her daughter and son will never have to live in a shack, go barefoot for lack of shoes, or be hungry. And Grande won’t have to make any of those hard decisions because her father already did.

Her experiences, she said, are not unique. The separation of parents and children happens all the time. I took this message to heart when I thought of all the Latino people sitting around me in the library and the numerous students in my classes whom I teach and have revealed quietly their own border crossing experiences.

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32 comments

  1. I read this one then realised that I’d missed the previous one (an account of her memoir) so I’ve read them both now. I’m really impressed that a mid-west town – which implies ‘conservative’ to an outsider, this outsider anyway – celebrates not just immigration, but illegal immigration. Lots of Australian country towns come to like the refugees who live amongst them but those refugees are often subject without warning to detention and deportation to their country of origin, and of course are demonised, as they are in the US, by opportunist politicians.

    • Indiana is VERY conservative, but my city is this weird, highly liberal dot in the state. The next city over has many publicized random deportations, including people who have been in the community for decades, own businesses, etc.

  2. Wow, that sounds like it must have been an emotional night. I think being Canadian I am sheltered from hearing more about Mexicans crossing your southern border, but I find it so fascinating/hearbreaking. I requested a fictional work called “Border Child” that’s been sitting on my shelf for a few months now, so I really want to read it after hearing about this author in particular.

    • I’m so glad! I can’t wait for your review. I’ve been reading/listening to more memoir lately, and I try to get books by authors from other countries. Right now, I’m listening to a Cambodian memoir. I’m a little confused by the politics, but the story is narrated in first-person present tense from the author at five.

      • ..and there I was trying to be not-too-specific. But, okay… the concept of self-portraits as memoir (Frida Khalo’s work is a good example of this but I hadn’t really thought about it like that until it was framed this way); how mentors are guides who not only teach you what they know but help you envision a future you want for yourself; but especially about being the only Other in certain spaces and how people (intentionally or not) want to limit your experience to a particular narrative (a narrative maybe that’s familiar to them)…I am not a person of colour in America but I am a Caribbean writer with aspirations to continue stretching in to other markets; often people see the Caribbean as a particular thing when we are so much more…I write my Caribbean as it is because it’s what feels natural to me and because my characters insist on it…and so the one review that kind of bugged me that one time (lol) was one that suggested that I had written my characters’ dialogue in a way to pander to the Western (specifically American ear)…because, no. I have been fortunate though that (knock on wood) Caribbean readers who have taken the time to post online reviews have more than once referred to my writing as unapologetically Caribbean and yet I’ve seen American readers comment on how they slipped easily in to the rhythm of the language and the world of the story…it makes me happy because it reflects a theory that I have (to quote from my poem Ah Write), “write true/and all the people will feel it too”. You don’t need to pander or dilute your/your characters’ experience, just be true to it and the reader who is open can step in to your/their experience. Having grown up reading books like Little Women and Jane Eyre and Charlotte’s Web and The Last of Eden and Tom Sawyer and To Kill a Mockingbird, which were far removed from my experience growing up in the Caribbean, I know this to be true. So, that’s where my thoughts went with the efforts to confine her to what Chimamanda Adichie described in her powerful TED talk as “a single story”. We (others) don’t have a single story, we have many stories, and many lives, and many ways of telling/writing those stories/lives. And the experience of doing so should not leave you feeling dismissed. So I think your question of how these spaces – I would add, not just classrooms but the world of publishing as a whole – can do better by marginalized voices is a powerful and vital one. Recently, I posted to my facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse) one Black American writer’s experience working with editors who wanted to prescribe for her what the Black experience looks like (the tragedy narrative) but that was not her story – we are many and so are our stories. My brain went there as well (I think I may write about all of this at some point…although I guess thanks to your follow up question, I’ve kind of started to do so). Of course, the other thing your post made me think about is all the people all over the world…the mass migrations of people (Caribbean people in to other spaces, Africans in to Israel, Africans and Middle Easterners in to Europe, Latin Americans in to America) who are often framed as a problem…and unwanted. Beautiful to read success stories like hers.

        • I, too, read that article about the black woman whose editors wanted something specific out of her that she didn’t feel was genuine. I also read an article about the gift of a black female editor, who served as a guide for a new writer, who was also a black woman. Your comment made me think of Zora Neale Huston, who was publicly scolded for writing her lived experiences in her novels, which included southern black dialect, poor people, country people, etc., because folks like Richard Wright felt like Hurston was making African Americans look bad–even though it was her life.

  3. Sounds like a wonderful talk! I loved the part where she mentioned that she didn’t feel “enough” of any one thing. As a half-Persian who speaks almost no Farsi and has very little knowledge of the culture I identified in a way.

  4. I really appreciate you sharing not only Grande’s story through your eyes but also the experience and reflections you had attending her presentation. I love listening to authors share their journies. It makes me sad to hear that Grande’s perspective was shut down in her writing program.

    I’ve never personally participated in a writing program, but I hear about these sorts of incidents happening in academia and the media everywhere. The worst part is that I believe in most cases this isn’t malicious. People don’t realize what they are doing! As the world becomes more and more enlightened (that doesn’t feel like the right word, but I’ll go with it) towards varying forms of oppression and implicit bias, it’s easier to see these moments in action as an outsider. The real thing I wonder is if anyone is working to help change this stigma, particularly in writing programs. What does your experience look like with this, Melanie?

    • In 2008 I entered an MFA program for fiction writing. My cohort has people from different ethnicities, countries, ages, and experiences, such as military tours of duty. While this sounds like a great place of diversity, everyone was SO different that there were many instances of people not reading their peers’ work because they didn’t “get it.” I found there were many voices silenced, and a lot of that has to do with how an instructor runs his/her workshop writing courses.

      • What a fascinating and depressing observation. I mean, this is why we have publishing companies and marketers — it’s important to get your work to the right audience. There is only such much reading outside one’s comfort zone which a person can take at once. I know my own threshold is actually pathetically small. Out of the quite immense amount of books I read each year, I think only 10-15% ever really challenge me.

        When you run a workshop and see voices getting silenced, do you take any particular actions? Are there things you would encourage readers to do to help promote these voices?

  5. Wow. It sounds like this presentation really had an impression on you. When I read stories like this, it really makes me take a step back and see all the privilege that I take for granted. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Thank you for this post. When I lived in San Diego years ago, there were signs at the side of the freeway that showed the silhouette of a family, to warn drivers that people routinely ran across freeways in order to reach safety. I’ve never forgotten that. One of the many perils people across the border face in order to have a better life. The recent parent-child separations at the border just bring the horror home even more. What disgusts me is how instructors and editors can shut people down so dismissively. I”m not a writer, so it’s a bit of a shock.

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