My writing brain went into hibernation during the pandemic and stayed in its cave for months after my father died. But I never stopped reading. Books have given me solace and hope these last few years; they have kept me from succumbing to that death-in-life, numbness and despair. I want to recognize here several authors, all of whom are friends, whose writing has inspired me. My writing brain has now yawned, stretched, and looked around hungrily at the world; I can finally write this long-overdue post.
Donna Miscolta and E. Lily Yu, members of my pre-pandemic writing group, published fiction recently that urgently demands recognition of the humanity of people too often denied it. In On Fragile Waves, Lily tells the story of Afghan refugee Firuzeh and her parents and brother, who journey to Australia only to be imprisoned in a camp. Years after Lily began writing her novel, people are still imprisoned there.
Throughout the novel, the children’s parents tell them stories to guide them through this fraught existence. As they leave home, their mother says she will protect them the way Rostam in the Persian epic protected his horse Rakhsh. Similarly, Lily’s story is a guide for readers, most of whom have never had to seek asylum. We share our world with refugees, her novel tells us – lyrically, beautifully, painfully – and we cannot forget. Or look away.
Late in the novel, an American writer contacts a nun involved in refugee support and meets some of the asylum seekers. The sister asks why she is writing this book, and the writer says, “I want to say kindness, or righteous anger. That I’m fixing the world. But that wouldn’t be true.” Doubt troubles her. The sister, though, identifies the writing as a calling, a calling to care and, however inadequate, to do something. And the writer does.
Donna’s book, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, also follows a girl’s journey. It distills each year of Angie’s education into one significant episode as she navigates misogyny and racism. In kindergarten she glimpses the complicated racial dynamics as her teacher singles out Angie, one of two children of color in the class, for punishment. Her transgression? Bringing an apple to the teacher, who has already been given one by a white girl. But her teacher gives her one gift, a new word: Nevertheless. Angie’s love of words begins.
As with On Fragile Waves, one theme of this book is storytelling and writing. Angie finds increasing power and satisfaction in putting her ideas on paper. By her senior year, she is writing provocative editorials for the student newspaper. Although they result in other kids calling her “commie” and “women’s libber,” her resulting sense of alienation feels right, “Or was it righteous?” Uncertainty plagues her, but she marches forward, one sentence, one paragraph at a time.
I loved reading these stories as Donna brought them to the group; Angie is so charming and guileless and fierce. I rooted for her each year as she grew older, felt her embarrassment and pain, laughed at her wry observations. I have urged Donna to write the next chapters of Angie’s life.
Someone else who marches relentlessly forward is Pramila Jayapal. I met Pramila many years ago at a party, and we ran into each other at a post-September 11th march through Seattle. As we marched, we talked about the horrifying surge of anti-immigrant abuse and violence that had followed the World Trade Center attacks, and she said, “I’m going to start an organization called Hate-Free Zone.” I was astonished when, over the next months and years, Hate-Free Zone, now called OneAmerica, emerged as one of the most influential immigrant rights organizations in the country. She had done it.
Where Pramila has gone big – she is now in the House of Representatives — I have gone small: donations, some letter writing, work to change policy and pedagogy at my community college. But she reminds us in Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change that while “our efforts may seem too small given the scope of the problem,” they get us ready for the moment when we reach a tipping point and big changes are possible. She asks us to remember times when we made a difference and use that hope and optimism to propel us forward.
These books have reminded me that I am not alone on this anxiety-drenched journey. May we listen to these stories, focusing not only on pain and fear but also on the opportunities for connection and rejuvenation. The nun in Lily’s novel tells the writer: Don’t focus only on the suffering of the refugees. Ask about their joy: “How do you laugh? How do you see beauty? How do you still show kindness and love?” These questions, too, are important. May we listen to the answers.