Children observe the movements of the US Border Patrol agents from the Mexican side where the border meets the Pacific Ocean, Tijuana, Mexico, on Friday, November. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Yesterday, The Nation magazine released an open letter to the US Congress speaking out against inhumane conditions at the US/Mexico border. You can read that post right here. I decided to put on my reporter’s hat and address this news story promptly. I was looking over the list of the over 40 prominent authors who cosigned and I noticed the one graphic novelist on the list, Anya Ulinich. Of course, my eyes rested on each and every participant given such an impressive list. But I concluded that I was unable to resist getting a few words from Anya Ulinich. As I said to her beforehand, I wasn’t expecting too many words, just whatever might come to her mind. When I asked her what it meant to her to be an immigrant, she said it simply meant that she went from living in one place to living in another place. And, yes, it should be as simple as that.
Ulinich went on to say that, “as a parent of two children, I know that every day that a child is put through fear and discomfort is traumatic. I can’t understand a person who would think that these conditions are acceptable for whatever bureaucratic reason.” As for hopes for the future, Ulinich hopes that The Nation’s Open Letter reaches Congress and that Donald Trump is not re-elected in 2020.
To hear the interview, just click the audio link below:
Children observe the movements of the US Border Patrol agents from the Mexican side where the border meets the Pacific Ocean, Tijuana, Mexico, on Friday, November. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
The Nation, a magazine known as America’s leading source of progressive politics and culture, has published a rare open letter cosigned by over 40 prominent authors, who are also immigrants and/or refugees, decrying the abhorrent and inhumane conditions reported in detention centers at the border.
A Call to Put an End to Inhumane Conditions at the Border
An open letter by Ariel Dorfman, Gabriel Byrne, Gary Shteyngart, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Wayétu Moore, Ilya Kaminsky, Reza Aslan, and more.
The signers—which include Gabriel Byrne, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, Gary Shteyngart, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Wayétu Moore, Ilya Kaminsky, Ariel Dorfman, Colum McCann, Reza Aslan, and countless more—implore public officials “to takeimmediate steps to rectify the atrocious conditions for asylum seekers being detained today.” They urge Congress to use its appropriation power to pursue four concrete actions to mitigate the crisis.
Dozens of immigrant/refugee authors—novelists, narrators, poets, memoirists, Pulitzer Prize winners, Oprah’s Book Club selections, and bestsellers from five continents—urge Congress to address the atrocities happening on America’s southern border.
Dear Members of the United States Congress:
We, like many of our fellow Americans, are appalled by the inhumane conditions in detention centers for asylum seekers at our southern border. The reports of death, abuse, overcrowding, untreated illness, malnutrition, and lack of basic hygiene are abhorrent, especially since many of those affected are children.
We appeal to you as published authors who are also immigrants and/or refugees. Many of us came to the U.S. as children and shudder to think how this country would treat us now. As such, we urge you to take immediate steps to rectify the atrocious conditions for asylum seekers being detained today.
The past three years have compelled millions of Americans, and many of our civic institutions, to reaffirm that this country remains the land of immigrants. People across the U.S. stood up to protest the White House’s refugee bans; faith leaders opened their communities to aid asylum seekers; local, municipal and state governments and the judicial branch exercised their powers to uphold and defend immigrant rights. Congress must act as well.
Many of you have defended immigrants and refugees with righteous eloquence, invoking our nation’s past and cherished symbols such as the Statue of Liberty. As writers, we appreciate the sublime power of words. But as immigrants, we also remember the brutal reality: when you’re walking in a strange land, herded by strange men who speak in strange tongues, when you’re stripped of basic human needs, when you’re hungry, cold and helpless, words aren’t enough.
We urge Congress to use its appropriation power to direct the following actions:
(1) Immediately direct all resources necessary to shelter migrants with decency and dignity by providing them access to medical care, nutrition and hygiene;
(2) Reverse the massive backlogs in the immigration justice system by allocating resources for judges to hear cases efficiently, with due process, as well as strengthening legal orientation to ensure every person understands every step of their proceedings;
(3) Forbid tax dollars from being spent on forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico or other unsafe third countries where they face danger;
(4) Reestablish safe and legal channels for migrants by tying immigration enforcement spending to the reopening of legal channels for migrants fleeing persecution and reversing the White House’s evisceration of the refugee resettlement program.
Polls show that the vast majority of Americans are horrified by the suffering unfolding in the camps. We call on you to leverage that public support to meet our moral obligations by ensuring those held by our own government receive elementary necessities like sanitation supplies and access to medical and legal personnel.
We remember well the experience of utter paralysis that’s part of nearly every immigrant’s journey: of standing before the US immigration system, praying to not be found wanting.
Today, those enduring unspeakable conditions at our border are praying, just as we once prayed, when it was our turn. They may be praying to a different god, or different gods or different entities, but it doesn’t matter; what matters is that the power to address their prayers lies with you, the United States Congress.
Please, do not let them go unheeded.
Alex Abramovich, author, writer, and professor, Columbia University School of the Arts
Mohammed AL Samawi, author and interfaith activist
Reza Aslan, author, commentator, professor, and producer
Ishmael Beah, author and human rights advocate
Livia Blackburne, author
Gabriel Byrne, actor, director, producer, and cultural ambassador
Lan Cao, author and professor, Chapman University
René Colato Laínez, children’s book author and bilingual educator
Ariel Dorfman, author, playwright, essayist, and professor, Duke University
Boris Fishman, author, journalist, and professor, Princeton University
Neil Gaiman, author, screenwriter, director, producer, and activist
Lev Golinkin, author and journalist
Reyna Grande, author and inspirational speaker
Roy Guzmán, poet
Roya Hakakian, author, poet, and journalist
Khaled Hosseini, author, physician and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
Abdi Nor Iftin, author and interpreter
Ilya Kaminsky, poet, critic, translator, and professor, Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts
Angie Kim, author and essayist
Imbolo Mbue, author
Colum McCann, author; member, American Academy of Arts; and professor, Hunter College
Yamile Saied Méndez, author
Maaza Mengiste, author and professor, Hunter College and Princeton University
Wayétu Moore, author; memoirist; journalist; founder, One Moore Book; and lecturer, City University of New York’s John Jay College
Paul Muldoon, poet and professor, Princeton University
Azar Nafisi, author, essayist, scholar, and fellow, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
Viet Thanh Nguyen, novelist and professor, University of Southern California
Bao Phi, poet, essayist, spoken word artist, and community activist
Garry Pierre-Pierre, photographer; founder and publisher, The Haitian Times; and professor, Brooklyn College
Carolina Rivera Escamilla, author, director, theater actor, and producer
Fariha Róisín , author, editor, poet, podcaster, and writer-at-large/culture editor, The Juggernaut
Nikesh Shukla, author, editor and podcaster
Gary Shteyngart, author
Jim St. Germain, author, social entrepreneur, presidential appointee, and co-founder, Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, Inc.
Chimene Suleyman, poet, writer, editor, and spoken word performer
Monique Truong, author, lyricist/librettist, and essayist
Anya Ulinich, novelist, graphic novelist, and short story writer
Ocean Vuong, poet, author, essayist and professor, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Sholeh Wolpé , poet, writer, literary translator, and inaugural author in residence, UCLA
Rafia Zakaria, author, columnist, book critic, and resident scholar, The City College of New York
Signers have endorsed this Open Letter as individuals and not on behalf of any organization.
About THE NATION: Founded by abolitionists in 1865, The Nation has chronicled the breadth and depth of political and cultural life, from the debut of the telegraph to the rise of Twitter, serving as a critical, independent, and progressive voice in American journalism.
THE JUNGLE, adapted and illustrated by Kristina Gehrmann
You may recall The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, from high school or college and it having to do with exposing the corruption in the meatpacking industry. Well, it exposed that and much more and remains quite relevant. The Jungle finds a whole new life, and a new way to reach audiences, with the new graphic novel adaptation by Kristina Gehrmann, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
This is the story of Jurgis and his fiancée Ona and the Rudkus and Lukozaite families, ten in all. They are bright-eyed Lithuanian imigrants looking forward to a new start in the United States, beginning with their arrival at Ellis Island in 1899. The story only progresses for a few years but much transpires as everyone is in for one rude awakening after another. America may be known as a melting pot and immigrants may have been acknowledged as having helped to make America great. But at what cost to the naive, vulnerable and poor? That question is at the heart of the novel.
A relationship at the breaking point.
The original 1906 novel’s exposé of the dangerous practices in slaughterhouses led to actual reform. However, other issues the novel addresses, such as fair housing, immigration, worker’s rights and sexual assault, would not be so readily addressed at the start of the 20th century. Due to Gehrmann’s compelling adaptation and artwork, the old becomes fresh, open for rediscovery and new discussion. Gehrmann combines a cartoony style with realistic touches, along with a Manga-like energy that keeps the narrative moving at a contemporary pace. The reader immediately relates with Jurgis and Ona, a struggling young couple trying to prosper but often just barely surviving. It gradually becomes a relationship at the breaking point. In the Sinclair novel, that was drama to keep a book with a socialist message moving along but, in the graphic novel, it is given an added dimension that will appeal to today’s reader.
The original novel by Upton Sinclair remains a powerful rebuke of those in power who would prey upon the weak. Kristina Gehrmann’s graphic novel adaptation provides an essential gateway to the revered classic and is a remarkable work in its own right. Disillusioned with the novel’s impact, Upton Sinclair famously said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.” This graphic novel helps to bring out to new readers the greater socialist themes found in Upton Sinclair’s original novel. This is a high accessible work that retains the power of the original novel while inviting a contemporary eye.
The Jungle, the new adaptation by Kristina Gehrmann, is a 384-page trade paperback, fully illustrated duotone graphic novel, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
The biggest fear for many, apart from death, is a fear of rejection! Well, I say, Fugetaboutit! In fact, if you’re in New York City, I encourage you to consider doing what I did: go up and do an open mic at a comedy club! Yes, that is what I did as part of an Airbnb experience, “Learn Stand-up with a Comedian,” hosted by Rishi and John, both NYC-based comedians there to show you around the NYC comedy scene. You can certainly just observe but I felt I was ready to jump in and go on stage.
New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world–and that definitely includes comedy. Within the closely knit area of Greenwich Village, are a number of comedy clubs all with their own energy and history. And, at the epicenter is the Comedy Cellar where on any given night you might get to see such legends as Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld. With the help of my mentor for the evening, comedian John Kim, I got quite an immersive experience. I learned a lot and was fueled with plenty of inspiration which made going up on stage for open mic all the easier. And what a stage! I couldn’t have asked for a better venue for a first-timer, The Lantern Comedy Club!
The Lantern Comedy Club
The great challenge is in confronting any doubts: Is the material good enough? Am I good enough? Yes, trust me, you’re more than worthy to go up on stage and just give it a try. More than likely, or let’s say it’s just about a guarantee, any misgivings will melt away once you start. Something will trigger in your brain: Go! Okay, here’s the next hook! Stop, try to pause. Go! Add this. Don’t say that just yet..okay, say it now.
As in anything, you get what you bring to something. I’ve been working on a particular character and his story arc for quite some time. I decided to put together a comedy bit and featured Maximo Viaje, a guy form Mexico City who has somehow stumbled upon a journey of self-discovery in the U.S. even though he entered the country illegally. For Max, that’s just a small problem in a much bigger picture. Okay, so this is a fictional character that I’m bringing to life on stage. Now, for all you fellow writers, tell me: Wouldn’t this be a very useful exercise for you? Check it out:
You get into a frame a mind and, yes, your mind is a beautiful thing and it’s in it to win it. Thanks to my beautiful mind and to such an insightful and inspirational guidance from John Kim, I did more than just get through my set. I really learned and grew from the experience. And, just like hitting the gym, you know when you’re in the zone and you know you want to get back to it again and again.
Our hero: Alpha, an Everyman for Today’s Immigrant.
The plight of the immigrant has never been easy and, currently, their fate could not be more dangerous. Many, fighting to leave threatening circumstances, stand no chance of finding the freedom they seek. This brings me to another unique work in comics that defies our expectations of the more traditional graphic novel format. The artwork here is not exactly in panels and there are no word balloons for the characters to speak from. Alpha: Abidjan to Paris is published by Bellevue Literary Press and written by Bessora, illustrated by Barroux, and translated from the French by Sarah Abizzone. Alpha, our main character, while symbolic of all immigrants struggling against the odds, readily engages the reader with his own set of specifics. In this way, the creative team truly gives a face to a problem demanding our attention.
Page excerpt from ALPHA
It was never an easy dream to fulfill but our hero, Alpha, finds he has no choice. Like so many others before him, Alpha is compelled to flee his homeland in search of a better life. In his particular case, he is leaving his home in Côte d’Ivoire to reunite with his wife and son who fled ahead of him and are supposed to be living in Paris with his sister-in-law. Alpha joins a vast number of Africans from varied regions united in plans to outwit ever-tighter border security, and find the right port of exit along the northern coast.
There are a number of detours that Alpha must take on his journey. Each side trip suggests the end of the road. But Alpha is quite persistent and his hopes never dampen even when he ends up in the role of the much despised human smuggler. At least, he fully appreciates that he is part of an necessary evil. That said, whenever he confronts a dilemma in his work, he can’t help but side with the migrant. He simply lacks that killer instinct to make that maximum or, in some cases, only profit. Many of his clients have been accepted on credit that he is unlikely to ever collect on.
ALPHA: ABIDJAN TO PARIS by Bessora and Barroux
Thanks to Barroux’s highly emotive artwork, the reader is quickly hooked in to what reads as a series of diary entries. The frenetic quality of the art is matched by the conversational tone in Bessora’s writing. Adding another layer is Sarah Ardizzone’s translation from the French which further unites the sensibilities of illustrator and writer. All in all, the results, with their raw sense of urgency, are quite captivating. Alpha has gone on to become an international award–winning graphic novel supported by Amnesty International and Le Korsa, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving human lives in Senegal.
A migrant once stood a much better chance of crossing a border to safer ground but not now. Once, a migrant could have a reasonable chance at mercy but not now. The fate of the immigrant is in crisis across the globe, including in the United States of America. Books like Alpha help to educate the public and help to build toward a safer and more merciful world.
Alpha: Abidjan to Paris is a 128-page, full color, hardcover now available. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Bellevue Literary Press.
THE BEST WE COULD DO, by Thi Bui and published by Abrams ComicArts, is one of those rare graphic novels with an in depth family theme. This sort of book belongs in the select group of titles like PERSEPOLIS and FUN HOME. In fact, you usually need to turn to the superhero genre, with all its universes and lineages, to find a story in comics that focuses on anything remotely to do with family. I say this tongue-in-cheek but it’s fairly true. Anyway, anytime you add family, you are likely adding something interesting to your story. What happens in Bui’s graphic novel is thoughtful, funny, and totally interesting. When was the last time you read an epic saga about a Vietnamese family? Well, this fills that void in a very compelling way.
Page excerpt from THE BEST WE COULD DO
Thi Bui studied art and law, thought about becoming a civil rights lawyer, but became a public school teacher instead. Someone with that kind of background is just the sort of cerebral and sensitive type of person who gravitates to creating comics. Bui was born in Vietnam and arrived in America with her family as a refugee from the Vietnam War. Her immigrant experience, without a doubt, is part of a continuum that will outlive our current political machinations. This is a story that goes beyond that and addresses the struggles that any family will confront as one generation must come to terms with another. It is also a story about finding one’s self both within and outside the context of family. As Bui discovers, close proximity to family does not necessary mean close ties to family.
Page excerpt from THE BEST WE COULD DO
Overall, Bui has adopted a solid alt-comics approach to her work. It has that intimacy and spontaneity that evokes work coming out of a sketchbook. While Bui is not a career cartoonist who has honed years of experimentation with comics, she provides an engaging and polished style. It will be interesting to see if she chooses to further develop her work in the comics medium. She has created a beautiful book.
Page excerpt from THE BEST WE COULD DO
“The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir” is a 336-page hardcover available as of March 7th. For more details, visit Abrams ComicArts right here. You can purchase through Amazon right here.
“Giant” is not quite as spectacular as “Gone with the Wind,” but it certainly holds its own. Both are colossal movies in star power, production, and size. “Giant,” however, is in a class all its own as it addresses head-on the curious relationship between the United States and Mexico and beyond. It is a powerful indictment on intolerance, expressed boldly and with audacity. And in 1956!
YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE.
The whole movie can be boiled down to one scene. In fact, the movie could very well have been made simply for the sake of this one scene. You may know it, or know of it. It’s easy to do a quick search and watch the clip on YouTube. But, like most things in life, we gain from digging deeper. You simply must see the whole movie to appreciate its significance. Like I say, this movie came out in 1956. We Americans still have much to learn, as a whole country, don’t we? Some people think all we need to do is build a wall.
HOLD ON THERE!
By the time we get to that momentous confrontation in a modest roadside diner, the main character of Jordan “Bick” Benedict (played by Rock Hudson) has grown by leaps and bounds as a human being. The suggestion is that so could America, as a whole, and anywhere else there is ignorance and hatred. It was there then. It is here now. We just pretend it doesn’t exist, at least too many of us do. That’s what Bick did. He never acknowledged, let alone cared about, all the Mexican people around him. He was the patriarch of a cattle empire in Texas. That’s all that mattered. Even if Mexicans worked on his ranch and cared for his children, as far as he was concerned, they didn’t really exist. So, if any harm came to them, that wasn’t his problem.
WE HAVE US A FIGHT!
Some people assume all is well with the world as long as they are doing well. They cannot, will not, see beyond what they consider to be important. Maybe it’s a sewing circle, or collecting recipes, or a family pet. In the case of Bick, all that mattered was the family estate of Reata. In Edna Ferber’s novel, faithfully brought to the screen by George Stevens, we find in “Giant” the sweeping epic story of Texas. We follow the Benedict family from about 1930 to 1950 and see how Bick reacts to the great transition from a focus on cattle to a focus on oil. The fate of the Mexican population seems lost in the shuffle but it is always referred to, demanding some kind of answer.
THE FACE OF A NEW AMERICA.
By the time we reach that moment of truth in that diner, Bick must act instead of just react. The precision drumbeat has begun to the rousing tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” on the jukebox just as Bick and his family walk in. The signal is clear, we have something big that’s about to happen. Bick’s eyes have been opened to the world. He can empathize. His own son is married to a Mexican. And they have a beautiful child, Bick’s grandson. When the family arrives at the diner, the diner’s owner is prepared to throw them out but hesitates. He barks an insult and cowardly walks away. A few minutes later, a serious confrontation is inevitable.
In just a few moments, Bick witnesses the diner’s owner manhandle a Mexican family that had just arrived. Bick is now in a position, in his mind and heart, to take a stand. As the music on the jukebox swells, Bick and the owner engage in a fight. First words, then fists, and then total mayhem. It’s the most direct and honest thing that Bick has ever done in his whole life and, to think it possible, in the defense of the Mexicans. While in may seem amazingly sophisticated and enlightened for such a major motion picture to have been made at that time, it really is not too much to ask. The tide was slowly turning towards social change. The general public, whether or not they admit so in public, know right from wrong. In fact, “Giant,” is a widely acknowledged icon. Like its name implies, it is too big to ignore and too big to dismiss.
Eroyn Franklin’s special accordion-style comic book, “DETAINED,” calls attention to a serious problem in the United States and world-wide: countless people who fall between the cracks of a faulty legal system and end up being detained, sometimes by mistake, and often for indefinite periods of time. These stories pop up in the news now and then. You might see them as that news item on your screen you bookmark for later or meant to read but never got around to it. Well, you really should.
Consider all of us human beings on planet Earth, and all the countries and governments and conflicts and wars and violence, and the outright need for people to leave one hostile place for another, hopefully safer, place. And then you need to think of what may happen to a lot of these people seeking asylum, a better life, only to be scooped up by a corporate net and held captive with little to no regard for their well-being. Just check out this recent article from The New York Times if you think detention centers are rare and far between. On the contrary, it’s a boom market for the companies who profit from them. The United States, along with other countries, do not run or closely monitor their own detention centers.
What Franklin does with her book is give you a taste of what it’s like to be a typical detainee. There are so many different stories to tell, some gruesome and heart-breaking. These two that Franklin presents are not overtly dramatic and yet even these more understated portraits give you a glimpse into the rampant violence, neglect and utter incompetence that goes hand in hand with all of these detention centers. In this case, it is Seattle’s former INS building and the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. What Franklin’s portraits do is paint a picture of what is most likely to happen. At the very least, if you are a detainee, there’s a good chance you shouldn’t even be a detainee, your stay will be indefinite, your stay will be at least as bad as any prison, and there is a contractor profiting from your stay with no motivation to see you leave.
The book focuses on two detainees: Many is a Cambodian refugee who had a few run-ins with the law as a kid but who shouldn’t have ended up in a detention center; and Gaby, a Mexican, who simply got rounded up and must do some time at a detention center. The more you read about detainees, the more you wonder who exactly needs to be in a detention center. Given the fact that these centers are run for a profit, the overriding need to house people to make money is the only thing that makes sense. It is good politics and good business to crack down on immigration so people like Many and Gaby must be punished. Some detainees can’t bear the stress of the abusive conditions and not knowing when, if ever, they might be released and so they kill themselves. Franklin refers to that as well as the fact that these centers are so understaffed that the inmates must work, basically as slaves. The beauty of Franklin’s work is in its understatement. You be the judge, she seems to be saying.
This is a compelling story told in a compelling way. The continuous panorama that follows these two immigrants is quite mesmerizing. You literally loose yourself in the comics as you get a sense of day to day existence in these centers. It’s no surprise that comics journalism can be quite effective in telling a story and this is a great example of it. The book spreads out to 26 feet of folded up panles, each story on one side, a total of 78 color pages. This also includes, incredibly, two full-sized posters! You can pick up your copy by contacting the artist. You can also just visit Eroyn Franklin at her site. And, if you happen to be in Seattle, you must go see her at an amazing small press expo called, “Short Run,” at the Vera Project at Seattle Center, on Saturday, November 12. Admission is free. You must go! And check out CLP, the Common Language Project that compliments this book at clpmag.org. You can also learn more at American Civl Liberties Union, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Detention Watch Network, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and One America.