Unaccompanied - Poems by Javier Zamora

Javier Zamora - Unaccompanied

Hold it to your ear. I’m tired

of my children leaving. My love for you

shatters windows with birds. Javiercito,

let your shadow return, alone,

or with sons, but soon.

-from Abuelita Says Goodbye

This collection, both beautiful and painful, traverses generations in five parts. It begins with the speaker as vulnerable, 9-year-old boy crossing from Guatemala through Mexico to the United States. The second part delves unblinkingly into violent national and familial histories; the third and fourth parts then continue to tell the stories of Javier’s family and friends, often from their perspectives. The fifth part comprises a single poem, fractured as a flashback, centering on the memory of Javier’s first plane flight, the last part of his journey to reunite with his parents. 

What I love about this book is its dedication to undocumented immigrants, its solidarity with survivors of trauma inflicted by geopolitical forces that intersect with interpersonal relationships. It’s not an easy read, but gorgeous lines do soften the harshness of the subject matter without minimizing it. 

Check out the Undocupoets campaign and fellowship co-founded by Zamora. In 2015 the campaign successfully petitioned leading literary publishers to remove the requirement that writers possess U.S. citizenship. The fellowship supports poets who are undocumented with costs related to submission, publication, and amplification. You can learn about the winners, listen to the Undocupoets on Commonplace, and support the fellowship with a donation.

Buy Unaccompanied

Two Graphic Novels on "Borders"

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Illegal

Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin

Illustrated by Giovanni Rigano

Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees

Don Brown

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

Two graphic novels, written for a middle grade and teen audience, respectively, address the refugee crisis in Europe. Both center the experiences of refugees, rather than centering on geopolitical causes and effects of their mass migration. 

Illegal weaves a fictional narrative from factual threads. Written in the first person, most of the book follows Ebo, a 12-year-old Ghanan boy, who leaves his village in pursuit of his older siblings. His brother, Kwame, left a note with friends in the village, promising that he would make it to Europe and pay for a helicoptor to transport Ebo to a better life. Ebo has his doubts; he’s heard stories about people going missing on their way to European shores. Not wanting to be left alone with his deadbeat uncle, he boards a bus to Niger. 

The rest of his story rings achingly familiar to those who have followed the news. Poverty, smugglers, traffickers, soldiers and police all threaten their safety. Ramshackle trucks and rickety boats, all overcrowded; hunger, thirst, and illness; and the desert and sea themselves claim hopes and lives. Ebo, a talented singer and hard worker, remains hopeful, though not unbelievably so in the face of all he suffers.

After the fictional narrative, Illegal also contains firsthand testimony from a refugee woman who made it to the United Kingdom from Eritrea. Helen’s story contains both explicit and unwritten traumas. She ends it with gratitude and hope.

In both narratives, readers confront what it means to be a survivor. Neither stories have an ending, only a stopping point. We care about what will happen next, and realize that we and our governments are largely responsible for that.

The Unwanted approaches narrative differently, in Don Brown’s signature style. He lifts quotes from news stories and places them in speech bubbles, in between matter-of-fact third person narration. He includes a bibliography at the end, as he does with all his nonfiction graphic novels. 

For those of us whose news cycles have been dominated by Trump and Brexit, The Unwanted serves as a primer or reminder of how the civil war in Syria has unfolded. Though the author states he could hardly contain all the nuanced events and political players in the short graphic novel, preferring to focus on the experiences of actual refugees, he effectively summarizes events from 2011 onward. 

The multiple narratives of The Unwanted offer glimpses. Refugees are quoted but not named, referred to instead as a man, a mother with two young children, two friends. Brown has a way of zooming in and out, from collective to individual experiences, factual context to commentary. As an afterword, he includes a few journal entries from his 2017 visits to refugee camps in Greece. Of all the observations he records, reports of youth suicides unsettle me the most. Surprised? No. I know how trauma affects the brain and the psyche. Still, the cost of neither preventing nor healing trauma far outweighs the cost of raising healthy kids in healthy communities. What would you do for your child? What would you risk?

The moral quandary of the writer who reports on calamities reflects that of the reader: have we any right to witness this suffering? Does it stir us to action, make us more compassionate than we were before, arm us with information with which to campaign? Are we posing as saviors, or helping? Ultimately, in such a dire, ongoing humanitarian crisis, hand-wringing seems too self-indulgent. We can listen, we can advocate, we can support financially when we are able. We can welcome, and be good neighbors. The creators of Illegal make a strong statement in support of human rights and dignity. A portion of proceeds from sales of The Unwanted has been donated to the International Rescue Committee. 

Across the Atlantic in the U.S. Southwest, elements of these stories struck me. Coyotes and cartels operate similarly to traffickers in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. The desert accumulates unmarked graves, like the deserts and seas of our opposite hemisphere. Refugees and immigrants flee torture, violence, political instability, and poverty. They’re often scammed out of thousands of dollars, only to end up in more dangerous situations. If one escapes exploitation, heatstroke, starvation, dehydration, kidnapping, and execution, arriving sin papeles risks detainment and deportation. We don’t have city-sized refugee camps, but we do have detainment centers, overcrowded apartments, and slaughterhouses. We have ICE raids and tear gas. We suffer xenophobia, fear-mongering, and economic pressures.

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We have no excuse to lose hope when those who migrate under such harrowing circumstances manage to keep it alive and keep working for a better future. As Sahir Noah, poet and refugee, writes, “I will write my dreams on the walls of hope.” A wall founded on hope, built on humanitarian principles, maintained with pragmatic and sustainable solutions, may be the only wall we wealthier nations can afford.

Silence at the Border

I should have been hollering from the rooftops about Issue 03. I didn’t, and so I will be extending the submission period. Expect the submissions page and Submittable form to be updated by the end of the weekend. In the mean time, I will be getting in touch with writers who have submitted work already. Then, I will have to find my rooftop and start hollering from it.

The problem is, I don’t know where to start.

When I conceived of wards, I thought “Borders” would be the most important and timely theme. Trump and his calls to build the wall had not yet won him the White House, but he was getting uncomfortably close. He amplified fear and nationalism, encouraging the voice of ignorance and economic insecurity to chant a nonsense phrase — and to not only chant it, but rally behind it, believe me.

I thought, optimistically, that even if he lost, it was our responsibility to seize the moment to talk about border security, to hone in on the humans affected by politics, to expose the abuses and dire needs at once on a national stage, and, damn it, address them.

I don’t know what to say, because I’m not the one suffering, not the one threatened by deportation, not the one separated from family members, not the one desperate enough to cross the desert. I really don’t know what to say that can get through to the people who describe human beings as “illegals.”

I thought about exposing a bit of my own family history. My Armenian ancestors weren’t considered white like me, weren’t welcome in America, and frankly didn’t want to be here — it simply beat mass extermination, it simply presented an open exit from a nation suddenly soaked in blood, a nation that didn’t want them and finally found an excuse to murder them on the streets in broad daylight. Yes, America was better. It was freedom, it was meritocracy. It wasn’t the life of wealth and prestige they left behind when my great-uncle got shot on the steps of the bank he owned, but it was life. My great-grandfather found work, and my great-grandmother followed. My grandmother, born here, strove to fit in, to break from old world convention and prove herself as an American. She joined the Navy, went to University, and raised three boys. I hear this story echoed in contemporary narratives, from many national origins, with varying circumstances I don’t think it can be echoed enough.

What else would I shout from the rooftops? I grew up in Massachusetts. I don’t know the southern border like those who live near it.

I met the border when I moved to Arizona. I was 23, and pretty fearless. I lived on my own, in my car or primitive camping on BLM land. That didn’t last long. Jobs were scarce around Tucson at the time, and the money I made busking and doing odd jobs wasn’t enough to live on. I used to drive through a border patrol checkpoint on my way to a campsite. Sometimes they’d ask me questions, other times they’d just wave me through. Then I’d park somewhere in the wilderness and pitch my tent.

I’d explore the desert, encountering cowpats and actual animal skulls (I thought that was a cartoon trope, not a real thing), plants I didn’t have names for, articles of abandoned clothing. At night, I’d wonder what the hell I was hearing, but they didn’t sound like human sounds, just wild sounds and weather sounds.

Mostly, the place was silent. It was 30-some miles north of the border, northeast of Nogales. A patrol car trundled by once when I was there. I found casings, but they had clearly been dropped a long time ago, more likely from a rancher’s shotgun than from a firefight or execution. That was good. I hadn’t gone near the border out of morbid curiosity. I went to isolate myself, breathe air and live softly in winter sun.

I looked at the hills and wondered if anyone could see me, a sad and perfectly legal transplant from thousands of miles away.

I should shout about detention centers, family separation, and the futility of a wall. I should shout, but I wanted to show you the land. I am thankful that people are shouting for justice and reason and humanity, that they have been doing so for decades, and are gaining power.

I didn’t want a political magazine, I told myself, and then chose the theme “Borders” knowing full well the political significance, and where I stand. Oh, well. Cat’s out of the bag.

Submissions will reopen soon.