Politics and Prose

Marie Myung-Ok Lee finds herself conflicted about attending a controversial author’s reading and wonders: what does “speaking up” actually mean?

Marie Myung-Ok Lee | Longreads | May 2018 | 15 minutes (3,630 words)

 

“Walls are built in the mind.” — Wole Soyinka

“The whole country is outraged and outspoken and you should be too

because if you’re not, then you’re not doing your part.”

— Rachel Coye, “New Year”

As a writer, a books columnist for the literary site The Millions, the co-founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and a literary citizen with prolific and brilliant friends whose readings and performances I could probably ink every night on my calendar, let’s say I go to a lot of book signings. Some have food, some have wine. Some have people who wander in and ask irrelevant questions with disarming earnestness.

At one reading where I acted as interlocutor, the novelist I was interviewing took out a package of Swiss chocolate she’d brought with her from Geneva, and instead of putting it on the plate with the wine, handed it to me with a sly smile. I’ve been to several readings where I have been the sole member of the audience. I was asked to do a reading that would involve live exotic animals as accompaniment. I went to one on the Lower East Side, back when it was truly gritty, where the writer was accompanied — overpowered, really — by a person blowing random high notes on a flute. Each reading offers something different, delightful, educational, new.

But I’ve never been to a reading/book signing that had protesters. Especially not for a book the Cleveland Plain Dealer called a “Beautiful, eloquent, and timely” memoir authored by a young writer with a new MFA, a Fulbright, and a Whiting Award. In the era of Trump, where there is something new to protest every day (women’s rights, the EPA, the NEA, gun control, tax cuts for the rich, healthcare…), what would cause the lovely indie bookstore, Books Are Magic to send out a warning on Facebook before the event?

***

My spouse, Karl, is a historian of the American West and I am a novelist. That means we have equally towering, but separate piles of books by our bed. His: books about the American West, environmental history, Reconstruction, Native American history — from his field of 19th century American history. Mine: mostly novels and memoirs, the ones by friends staring at me particularly accusingly, because I never have enough time to read.

It was a books-meet-cute moment when Karl and I independently expressed interest in an upcoming release, The Line Becomes a River, a memoir by debut author Francisco Cantú, a meditation on the US-Mexico border that came about from his time with the Border Patrol in Arizona.

Karl and I share an obsession with borders. His work literally as a borderlands historian grew out his childhood crossing the US-Mexico border to visit his grandparents’ ranch in Álamos, Mexico, and then back to Concord, Massachusetts. My fiction and nonfiction work for the last 10 years has been researching the U.S.-led partition of Korea, an arbitrary political border that separated my parents from their parents, and presaged their leaving Korea as refugees after the Korean War. This border feels particularly sharp today, as it vilifies my parents and millions of others, turning them from “Koreans” into “North Koreans.” On Facebook there are people from my hometown who think of themselves as kind Christians, calling for the genocide of North Koreans to keep “us” safe, and I can’t believe what I am seeing.

It was a books-meet-cute moment when Karl and I independently expressed interest in an upcoming release, The Line Becomes a River, a memoir by debut author Francisco Cantú, a meditation on the US-Mexico border that came about from his time with the Border Patrol in Arizona.

I spent my Fulbright year much like the protagonist of the novel I was working on then, speculating about the missing pieces of my story, having parents too traumatized by war to talk about where they came from. I also imagined what my life could have been like having a relationship with grandparents, like all my friends had.he war meant that of my four grandparents, we only have a picture of my paternal grandfather. Or,, had my parents been deported (more on that in a minute), what kind of Korean would I have become? Or what if they’d never made it out of North Korea at all?

***

Back to our own fraught borders of the present: Shortly after the Trump border wall prototypes were unveiled, Karl and I were invited on a press tour. At Otay Mesa, the port of entry in San Diego where the big trucks (and much of the illegal drugs) enter the country, we were escorted behind the taxpayer-funded barbed wire fence protecting the eight thirty-foot prototypes, keeping them safe from vandals and Banksy-type artists itching to point out just how futile, mean-spirited, and impractical this Ozymandias-style “build a wall” bluster is. (And, to be fair, this is a continuation of George Bush’s Secure Fence Act of 2006.) To get there, we had to pass the actual border fence itself. It was made of steel mesh, with various people-shaped cutouts and subsequent patch-jobs forming a topographical map of migrants determined not to let the fence stop them. (Again, to be fair, this double- and triple-layered fencing was originally authorized by Bill Clinton via the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996.)

On the Mexico side of the field where the prototypes are, the border fencing is made of rusting decommissioned Vietnam-era metal landing strips. They’re not terribly tall; from where we we stood at the prototypes, we could see some children, standing on a pile of dirt, eating ice cream, leaning over it like a suburban picket fence, watching us watch them.

The border patrol agents encouraged us to touch the wall prototypes. Some of them looked nice on the American side; one had concrete pressed to look like charming brick, another had spikes angled so that they were only visible on the Mexican side. Most of the prototypes were just 30-foot-tall slabs of concrete. One had slats on the bottom, so I tried to force myself between the rails (got one leg through), half hoping I’d get stuck and cause an international incident. This was all anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican border theater, after all.

After San Diego, I proceeded to a writers’ residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to work on my novel about partition — Korea’s. One of the best things about a residency is ample time to read, which I did both randomly and with purpose. I picked up a back issue of Ploughshares that was in my studio, and opened it serendipitously to an essay about the U.S.-Mexico border. The most vivid thing I took away from it was a fascinating image of a snake repeatedly banging its head on the mesh fence, as it tried to traverse the desert landscape where America meets Mexico — the place where we’d just gawked at the Trump prototypes —but also the Sonoran desert in Arizona where Karl crossed the border with his mother as a child. What an interesting coincidence: while I’d left San Diego for a retreat to think about the Korean Demilitarized Zone, that other border was still following me.

Reaching the end of the essay, I noticed that the author was Francisco Cantú. He was the one, I suddenly recalled, whose book Karl and I were both eagerly awaiting. Cantú had years before reviewed Karl’s borderlands book, Shadows at Dawn, about a massacre of Apache Indians in Arizona, for Guernica, a publication I also write for. Cantú had done an incisive job reviewing a book I know very well.

Karl and I looked forward to Cantú reading and discussing The Line Becomes A River at Books Are Magic. For two border geeks, this was the perfect date night. Traveling from our Harlem apartment to the southern tip of Manhattan — crossing the border from staid Manhattan into hipster Brooklyn — gave the whole thing the feeling of a mini-vacation.

Just walking down Smith Street toward the bookstore, we were amazed by the abundance of food choices: Korean tapas, old-school Italian, a half-dozen gastro-pubs, the usual scrappy bodegas — but with the word ORGANIC painted on their awnings — a Cuban deli, Venezuelan fast-casual. We ate at an upscale Vietnamese restaurant with hipster Kentucky bourbon artisanal soy sauce. There were little kids at the bar doing their homework at the bar as their parents enjoyed their craft cocktails and phở. The kids’ parents toted their razor scooters. One little girl had taekwondo paraphernalia: a foam helmet and a hogul chest protector hanging from her backpack. Also, in Brooklyn, cautioning the server that you need to avoid gluten, as I do, gets you a welcoming nod and a double-check from the chef on the unbattered fried shallots, as opposed to the eye-roll you’d likely get in Manhattan, or an uninformed, “There’s mustard in it. Mustard seeds contain gluten, right?” (They don’t.)

***

Outside the bookstore, as we approached, we saw a crowd of young people huddling by the door. The usual beards and Patagonia outerwear; I presumed they must be the writer’s friends gathering before the reading. But I noticed they were carrying signs and someone handed us a leaflet as we walked up:

NO PLATFORM FOR BORDER PATROL

U.S. Border Patrol agents have contributed to the deaths of over 7,000 people and the disappearance of thousands more in the last decade…

Francisco Cantú spent years as a Border Patrol field agent and intelligence officer, working for a racist organization known for its cruelty.

“We’re asking people to boycott the reading!” someone shouted. We said we were planning to attend. They stepped aside. Nothing more was said. I still had the odd, breathless sensation of crossing a picket line.

The reading, though a launch for Cantú’s book, was (perhaps wisely, in hindsight) set up as a panel with another writer and a moderator. But the minute Cantú started to speak, shouts began: “What are you going to do with that money?” “You are normalizing the violence of the Border Patrol!” “Will you state that you support the abolition of the Border Patrol?”

The minute Cantú started to speak, shouts began: ‘What are you going to do with that money?’ ‘You are normalizing the violence of the Border Patrol!’ ‘Will you state that you support the abolition of the Border Patrol?’

When the author attempted to read, the yelling started again, loud enough that we couldn’t hear him. A person sitting behind us yelled at the protesters in Mexican Spanish, “No mames güey. Cállate el hocico!” loosely translated, it means, “Quit f**ing around you dickheads and shut your f**ing traps!” This was met by a silence indicating a lack of understanding of colloquial Mexican Spanish. A latecomer strode in, carrying a glass bottle of expensive iced tea. The protesters began yelling about Cantú’s Whiting Foundation fellowship, demanding to know how much his book advance had been. I thought about how, when I was an investment banker dreaming about being a writer, I wouldn’t have known what an “advance” or a “Whiting” was. This was, for me, the most Brooklyn reading ever.


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The protesters, mostly men and a woman or two, were rumored to be aligned with the group that calls itself Antifa, for anti-fascist. They are a loosely knit group whose ideology centers on taking direct action to oppose fascism, primarily that of the Trump/Pence administration. There’s also a famous video of an Antifa punching the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer. I hesitate to call them “leftist” or “progressive” as I consider myself progressive, politically, and there’s something inverted and weird about having a white man telling me to boycott a reading that he alleges is apologia propaganda for the border patrol and ICE, when my own parents were almost deported by the former version of ICE (INS). I am probably the last person who needs to be immigration-splained. The leaflet we were given accused Cantú of saying the border patrol “does good work,” a phrase that I did not find, after a quick Google Books scan of his book.

The moderator wisely switched his attention to the other writer (a poet), but the protesters started yelling anytime Cantú attempted to speak; the people yelling back at the protesters only added to the din.

***

If there’s a “good” thing to come out of the Trump administration, it’s that its urgencies have caused people to take an active stance to defend their beliefs. Resisting Trump means taking vocal action, protesting. It’s become clear in people’s minds that taking no action in the face of atrocities is a kind of capitulation, if not complicity in them.

I object to Trump’s immigration policies and country-of-origin bans, as my parents were caught up in both. I commend the protesters for their passion. At the same time, I wanted to hear Cantú read and hear what he had to say. I understand that many of us are frustrated by the terrible turn immigration policy is taking these days; ironically, I believe that night, protesters and attendees were, actually, on the same broad page. So why were we stuck, like two cars coming down a narrow alley, where neither can move because both refuse even the smallest concession? This is where the madness of the Trump administration has driven us to “polarizations within various micro-worlds,” according to Nobel Prizewinner Wole Soyinka. .

Protesters recently shut down Richard Spencer’s appearance at Michigan State University by shouting him down and trying to prevent access to the venue. Was this similar at all? And how so? A column in the Arizona Daily Star characterized two earlier bookstore protests, in Austin and Oakland, as “Allies protest Tucson author’s book on border,” with protesters calling Cantú a vendido, a sellout. And yet, the reporter points out, these “allies” were protesting an author who also does not support Trump’s border policies. His story, to be sure, is complex, but isn’t complexity and thoughtfulness more necessary now than ever, now that that sitting down and listening is harder and takes more time than firing a #resist tweet or slapping on an Impeach Trump pin?

Back at the Brooklyn reading, given the standoff between the protesters and the audience, a decision was made to redirect the conversation toward the other guest. But even the relative quiet in the curtailed version was spring-loaded. It was distracting waiting for the next outburst to begin. Cantú, for his part, sat quietly and calmly, even though he’d been silenced at his own reading.

The question and answer session was strangely bereft. The protesters had left by then. There were a few desultory questions, so bland that I can’t remember them, and certainly no answers about what to do about our fraught borders. I was surprised the protesters had given up so easily, but when I spoke to a bookstore employee later, she said the “second owner, who looks like a cop” had been called in to speak to the protesters. Whatever he did, was peaceful and had been effective because they had left the premises. But if the protesters had waited until the question-and-answer portion, perhaps it could have been a space for productive, rather than reductive, dialogue.

When I got home and read the leaflet a little more closely, it got me thinking: On the face of it, two liberal subsets of privileged, mostly white people duking it out over whether a book by a Whiting award winner is “racist propaganda” and “normalizes the state violence that has created a crisis of death in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands” reads almost like a New Yorker cartoon.

On the other hand, while visiting the Trump border wall prototypes, I couldn’t help seething at our Border Patrol guides. Especially at their pride in the militarized way we were trying to keep implicitly unwanted people out —Trump’s recent use of the word “animals” to describe migrants is a stone-cold dog whistle calling for blood. It’s the theater of anti-immigration and racism, while the real problem, the bales of drugs coming into the country, were the generic trucks that were passing by not that far from the border wall.

And our border patrol guide, Vinnie, was quite an affable young person. He was from the Bronx and had a family. His father had some severe medical problems. And Vinnie was, like we all were, working to make a living. He was drinking a milky Starbucks drink, and when they dropped us off, he wanted a hug. Two hugs! A hug! I kept thinking to myself, why would I want to be complicit with the brutality of the Border Patrol? But then: he seemed like a genuinely nice guy.

***

Back to Cantú’s book, is it witness? It has “Dispatches” in the title; it’s clearly one way we’re meant to take it. But is it also, like Vinnie, complicit in a system that dehumanizes and abuses migrants? Does beautiful writing make up for complicity?

One of the accusations on the leaflet is Deliberately destroying the food and water that keeps migrants alive in the desert.

Cantú doesn’t deny it. In fact, he writes, “It’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze.” But he tells himself that maybe destroying and defiling these lifegiving supplies is good because ‘they’ll save themselves, and struggle toward the nearest highway or dirt road to flag down some passing agent.”

In investigating my parents’ deportation case, I came across one of my father’s legal appeals to stay in the U.S. as a Korean War refugee doctor who helped make lifesaving advances in open heart surgery.

This may be true. But does someone who wants to save desperate migrants urinate on their meager belongings?

I don’t have an answer. I only have more questions. I appreciate the author’s honesty about what he did. But if it doesn’t help us in any way to think about — and thus to help remediate — institutionalized violence, then is publishing a book about it mere commerce? Is the author a vendido, a sellout?

I had mostly considered Cantú a fellow literary writer, one whose essays I admired. I am a child of refugees, he is a grandchild of an immigrant. We both won Fulbrights. For mine, I spent a lot of my time in Korea on U.S. military bases, cataloguing brutality, particularly sexual abuse of Korean women. But how would I feel if, even for the sake of immersive research, I had participated in a job that trafficked in this brutality, a job where I saw my coworkers brutalize humans — and I did nothing?

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune called Cantú an “uncommon leading man: the U.S. Border Patrol agent with a heart of gold” — which uncomfortably brings in the glamorous language of publishing and movie tropes and layers it like a sparkly frosting atop one of the most horrific of American institutions, the highly militarized Border Patrol.

***

In investigating my parents’ deportation case, I came across one of my father’s legal appeals to stay in the U.S. as a Korean War refugee doctor who helped make lifesaving advances in open heart surgery. He also worked in an underserved rural area that had trouble attracting native-born doctors, and he was the father of three young children. This was in the 1960s when, ironically, people from Mexico could cross the U.S. border freely but the anti-Asian Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1924 made all immigrants from Asia “illegal.” Asian Americans turned to the courts for help, and a judge granted my father’s appeal to extend his visa, but the Attorney General at the time rejected it, which set our deportation in process. This AG was none other than Robert F. Kennedy, champion of civil rights. Does this revelation make me reject all the good that RFK did? No. I once served as a judge for one of the journalism awards given in his name. But does it make me see him in a more complicated light — less reflexively adulatory and perhaps more real? Yes.

Again, I have questions. I’m not sure there are answers.

Karl had brought Cantú a bottle of bacanora, a tequila-like agave hard liquor, and we all shared a quick drink afterward. Cantú seemed unfazed. I wondered if the protesters had moved on, maybe to go get phở or a drink at the gastro-pub, or maybe they were cruising the aisles of the nearby gigantic Trader Joe’s, side-by-side with the bookstore audience they had just been trying to shout down. I appreciate their political involvement, that they are trying to “do” something. However, stating in their leaflet that the author says the Border Patrol “does good work” is also misleading. I believe they took this quote from this NPR interview:

I remember sort of bandaging her feet and cleaning her wounds, which is this very, you know, direct, tangible way of helping someone. I think it’s almost biblical, in a sense, to clean someone’s feet. And I remember her looking down at me just kind of, like, very tenderly and thanking me. And I felt like, “Don’t thank me. At the end of the day, I’m taking you back to a cell and I’m sending you on your way to be sent back to this place that you’re literally risking your life to flee.” And so, yes, it’s true that the Border Patrol does good work and rescues people and saves lives, but there’s tension there.

So even as they accuse the author of mischaracterizing his work, this incomplete quote is also a mischaracterization. As a writer, I suppose I list toward Cantú’s side. We write, we tell our stories. That’s what we do. His is beautifully told — and yes, also problematic. It’s not the whole story, but he’s not saying it is.

I’m also grateful to the protesters for making me more closely consider what I am reading and tacitly — as bookselling is a business — supporting. And I’m grateful for a spunky corner bookstore that became a space for literature and peaceful, if vociferous, protest.

* * *

Marie Myung-Ok Lee‘s next novel is on the future of medicine. She teaches at Columbia and shares a hometown with Bob Dylan.

Editor: Sari Botton