Jackson Bliss | Longreads | March 2019 | 13 minutes (3,149 words)
In 2002, when I was living in Portland, Oregon, I got a call from a friend of a friend who worked for an immigration lawyer. One of her colleagues needed a French interpreter in a pinch. Could I help out? I met with the asylum lawyer and a refugee who I’ll call Yacoub to go over a few things in his family history and adapt to each other’s accents. Yacoub and I were listening to words we already knew, but couldn’t always recognize coming out of each other’s mouths. He had a Mauritanian accent and like most West Africans, he rolled his R’s. According to most French speakers, I had a Belgian or Swiss accent. As we spoke, we became victims of dialect, urgency, and defamiliarization, but we pushed on with our flawed cultural exchange because his life depended on it.
On the day of Yacoub’s asylum interview, we met in the lobby of the I.N.S. building. The air was stagnant like in every government building, filled with the weight of human words, confessed and unspoken, official and unwritten, stamped and erased. After all, this federal agency was a de facto dictionary of American citizenship, defining Americanness in the sense that what was called American and what wasn’t (i.e., who became American and who didn’t), was continuously defined, interpreted, and redefined here, not by linguists, philology scholars, or grammarians, but by civil servants carrying suspiciously thin folders that reduced human struggle to bullet points. Above the x-ray machine, the dual portraits of Bush and Cheney practically snickered at me. There could have been dialogue bubbles coming from their mouths that said, Good luck kid. This country isn’t a free ride and we don’t give a shit about Mauritanians unless they bring over a corporation. I grabbed my satchel from the X-Ray machine and took the elevator to the 9th floor, my feet tapping the ground to break up the silence. As Yacoub’s translator, silence meant loss and loss meant deportation. For both of our sakes, I vowed to fight that silence and defeat my own self-consciousness to the very end, so that I could be the advocate he needed. This moment forced me to reconsider the power of my own words.
Eight years earlier, after spending an entire summer in college working on a coming-of-age novel and some shorter nonfiction pieces, my mom mentioned my prodigious output to my brother, who got annoyed and blurted out that my writing was “just a bunch of words.” That slogan became forgotten artillery ordnance in a proxy war of identity, language, and vocation until the first explosion. The delayed violence of those words was disguised to me until the exact moment I tripped over them unwittingly. For seven years, whenever I started seeing myself as a writer, even for a brief moment, I’d hear his barb again and watch the world around me detonate into rubble. The fact that my brother and I have been extremely close since I was in junior high didn’t diffuse the explosiveness of his words. I was too vulnerable to criticism and afraid of failure. I was sensitive to his dismissal because my writing career had always been suspect at best and aspirational at worst. It was only after a stint in the Peace Corps and a series of volunteer gigs working with refugees that I learned the power, the necessity, and the redemption of language, the way it could literally help some people achieve cultural reincarnation in America.