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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Author Sonia Nazario Discusses Writing About Immigration, ‘American Dirt’

 February 25, 2020 at 10:22 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:01 Sonia Nazario is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who has documented the plight of unaccompanied minors making their way to the U S she's best known for her book and Rico's journey, which was the first selection of KPBS as one book, one San Diego program. She's the featured writer tonight at the writer's symposium by the sea at point Loma Nazarene university. She spoke with KPBS mid day edition cohost Jade Hyman earlier this month via Skype about her work and the recent controversy over the immigration novel, American dirt. Here's that interview. It's been nearly 15 years since Enriquez journey was first published. It's the story of a Honduran teen who comes to the U S searching for his mother and what they face along the way. You started looking at this phenomenon two decades ago. Did you expect this story to still be relevant today, all these years later? Speaker 2: 00:55 Well, it's not only relevant, it's, it's more relevant than it was when I first started looking at this. You know, and Rica is a boy whose mother leaves him in Honduras when he's five. And, uh, 11 years later, he sets off on its own to come and find her. And when I started looking at this, there were perhaps, you know, 48,000 children traveling alone from Mexico and central America to the U S entering unlawfully last year. It was 76,000. Just the number that were apprehended of [inaudible] and, uh, the circumstances why they're coming has changed in terms of the violence in these countries. But I never expected that this phenomenon would grow, that we would see ever more children come North, not just to find their moms, but to escape the danger. Someone, a gang member, a narco cartel, someone trying to kill them back in these central American countries. Speaker 1: 01:50 Hmm. And as we see the migrant situation playing out on the border with central American asylum seekers being returned to Mexico, um, how have the conditions in Honduras changed from the time you were working on a, in reggae's journey to today? Speaker 2: 02:04 Well, I think what, what we saw six, seven years ago was the U S was spending billions of dollars to try to slow the flow of drug flights, drugs that start in Latin America and Columbia, cocaine and make their way to us. Uh, the largest consumer of drugs in the world. And those drugs use flights used to come up through the Caribbean. But we squeezed those routes. We spent billion $8 billion trying to uh, stop that or slow that. And so the narco simply turned left and started landing four out of five of those flights in Honduras and many of those Narchos joined with the gangs in these countries to control this, the turf to move the drugs North to us and started forcibly recruiting 10, 11 year old boys, um, to work with them. Um, you know, as I said, be in San Diego for the writer's symposium by the sea conference. Speaker 2: 03:03 Yeah. This year's theme is writing that liberates, um, can you reflect on what that day means to you? Well, I see my role as a writer now to try to take some of the biggest, most polarizing issues and make sense of them for readers. I think we get hit by so much information, a barrage of information every day that it's difficult with these big issues like immigration that are so polarizing to figure out what's what. And I feel like after covering immigration for 30 years, I've stepped more and more into that role of saying, listen, I actually know what works and what doesn't work on this issue. And, uh, instead of listening to both sides that are screaming from opposite sides of the political divide and we're getting nowhere, let's try to look for some pragmatic, compassionate policies that would actually work to move the needle on this issue so that more migrants can stay at home where they're, where they would actually rather live on the child of, uh, immigrants. Speaker 2: 04:10 Um, and, uh, we can, we can try to slow this flow foot folks North and, uh, make this less of a hot button issue. And, and so these experiences are personal to you, you know, so I want to ask you about the immigration novel, American dirt. Uh, it's about a woman fleeing Mexico with her son trying to make our way to the U S the author, a white woman has been accused of sensationalizing the border crisis and writing about experiences she's unfamiliar with. Uh, I'm wondering if you've read the book. I have read the book. What were your thoughts? I think that, uh, initially the conversation was, uh, are people who are non Mexican allowed to write about Mexico? And I, I, I think obviously we don't want to censor people. I think that when I wrote and reggae's journey, uh, I spent three months writing on top of freight trains through Mexico. Speaker 2: 05:02 And I believe that when you're on top of a train with a bunch of immigrants and they look like you and they, they wave their hands around like you do and they have the same cultural norms, they're more likely to open up to you and trust you and tell you the things that are going to make it a better story. So I think given the same abilities, probably a Mexican or Latino author might've been able to tell the story in a better way. I think many Latino authors feel they've been shut out, that they've had to try to sell their book. You know, they've gone to the book industry, which is Lily white. If I wander through the halls of these big, uh, publishing houses in New York, they're, they are Lily white. And so, uh, this felt to me like a book that was written by someone who didn't understand Mexico deeply and was geared to a white audience in the United States to try to convey, uh, the immigration issue. So it's not a terrible book. It's not a great book, but it's certainly the good part about it is it's highlighted this need to, uh, bring more diversity to the publishing industry and bring more voices to that industry so that everybody's stories are told. Speaker 1: 06:17 And finally, you know, for those aspiring writers listening right now, is there any advice that you'd like to leave them with? Speaker 2: 06:24 One big one is that, uh, my, my book has been used by a hundred universities as a common read and hundreds of high schools and junior highs and, and, and so there you're not preaching to the converted, you're getting every student. And I get emails every day that usually start the same way I was forced, usually forced is in capital letters to read your frigging book and then their tone softens. And often they say, you know, I was raised racist, anti-immigrant hate all immigrants. I didn't know there was a different way to look at this. I watch, you know, we watched the media that we already believe Fox news or MSNBC and they made me read your book and you put me in the shoes of a migrant boy. And it changed my perspective. And many of these students then get involved to, um, build shelters, build schools and Honduras or work with migrant shelters in Mexico or work with migrants in the United States or, or, or, uh, advocate for, you know, the refugee protection act now, which would halt some of the most noxious things that we're seeing towards, uh, migrants. At the border. Um, they fight for change and because they have seen a different way to look at this. And, um, Speaker 1: 07:40 that's the best thing about this journey for me. I've been speaking with Sonya Nazario hold prize winning journalist and author of Enrique journey and opinion writer for the New York times. Sonia, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you. I appreciate it. Author Sonia Nazario will be speaking tonight at seven at the writer's symposium by the sea at point Loma Nazarene university.

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Nazario will be speaking Tuesday at the 25th annual Writer's Symposium by the Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments