In What's New, Writing

Someone recently reached out to me to share this interesting piece, called “Dreamers: Living Undocumented in Contemporary Young Adult Fiction” written by Dr. Amy Cummings,  an Associate Professor and English Education Coordinator in the Department of Literatures and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley for the journal Theory in Action, Vol. 13, No. 2, April (© 2020). The professor uses three books about the undocumented experience in her analysis of how the topic is being treated in young adult literature, and I’m honored that she chose THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY as one of the three.

With the announcement of my new book, LOVE IN ENGLISH, I’ve spent some time thinking about why I do what I do. There’s a lot of conversation in the young adult literary community about what stories should be told, and by whom. When my book announcement dropped, it was pointed out that I am white, and that maybe I should sit down and let people of color do the talking on this issue.

It is true I can’t genuinely access the feelings and experiences of kids of color. There are many other writers doing that well, and we need even more of them. But I can speak to the undocumented experience, having had that status until I was eighteen. I can share what it felt like to not understand English, and that’s the focus of LOVE IN ENGLISH. So I appreciate the need to stay in my lane, and also the urgency for telling stories about experiences like mine.

When I wrote SECRET SIDE, Obama was in the White House. DACA, giving cover to kids brought over undocumented as children, had gone into effect as I was writing and two years before the book was published. Although it wasn’t enough, since what they need is a path to citizenship, it felt like things were trending in the right direction. I had been active in a non-profit in my area helping undocumented day laborers, and through that organization was plugged in to news of progress on drivers’ licenses and other key issues. I saw my work of chronicling the undocumented experience as something like bearing witness, like getting the record down as things were improving, so stories like mine wouldn’t be forgotten. Of course, I was naive. I had no idea how much worse it could get for immigrants. I feel tremendous survivor’s guilt about the plight of immigrants today compared to the safety I now enjoy.

So as we look at the broader sweep of history, we need to understand the many intersecting ways immigration in the United States is complicated. It brings up issues of race, of mixed-status families, of language, of privilege, of identity. As this piece by Dr. Cummings rightfully points out, fiction doesn’t do that. That’s for historians and political scientists and journalists to do. With SECRET SIDE, I strove to do what fiction can do: put a human face on a situation many may never know personally. It feels good to see that effort recognized.

Click here to read Dr. Cumming’s piece.

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