Saturday, April 28, 2012

Inside the Common Boundary

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By Meagan Meehan

When one contemplates the noun immigrant, seldom, if ever, is the word communal meditated upon. That is not to say contemporary individuals are incognizant of the multitude of immigrants who admirably find their niche in ethnic communities, but are more inclined to perceive immigrants as foreign and exotic, rather than readily assimilable. Thus, what intrigues modern readers of Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos 2010) is the anthology’s very title. Comprised of two seemingly simple words, the book’s main title makes a commendable statement of its own: the juxtaposition of “common” – an adjective connotative of sharing – and “boundary” – a noun denotative of a dividing line – suggests that, despite stark boundaries, a unifying (yet, underlying) aspect exists. Not surprisingly, then, Editions Bibliotekos has utilized its second anthology to consider the implications of such a paradoxical metaphor. The stories published in Common Boundary explore how immigrants themselves can be a part of others, while simultaneously being divided from them. In a recent interview, several authors from Common Boundary answered inquiries pertaining to their respective works; each response offers a glimpse into the author’s intentions, as well as – in some cases – his or her thoughts regarding immigration.

In “La Santa Papa,” a short story featuring the struggle of a Mexican immigrant to make sense of a giant Peruvian potato displayed at a state fair, author George Rabasa offers a reason for the story’s setting: “To a foreigner the phenomenon of an American State Fair is exotic, including the fetishization of produce and livestock. And while she doesn't think for a moment that the potato is God, she would recognize the ritualization of a relic or religious image from her childhood experience of a Mexican village church. Her sense of alienation is enhanced by her solitude and so in the dark quiet of the tent leads to her hearing the potato speak to her. Whether this is imagination or an auditory hallucination will vary according to the experience a reader brings to his or her reading of the story.”

In another story entitled “The Unmasking of El Santo,” Rabasa claims that the character’s decision to become a wrestler was fueled by a desire to assert authority in a society where his immigration status denied him freedom to do so: “Benito is overcoming his sense of impotence as a minority and a foreigner under the powerful influence of the dominant social order. He overcomes this sense of subjugation by donning the powerful symbols of the unbeatable Santo, easily the most admired of the Mexican wrestlers, a leading figure in the sport since the 1950s. The mystery of his identity has been long concealed behind the silver mask. So, Benito can become El Santo simply by wearing the mask. But secrets and good deeds beg to be revealed. So, Benito is dying to tell who he becomes after his shift at the bakery is concluded. He wants credit for persecuting bad guys, for contributing to the security of his community.”

Patty Somlo’s story “How He Made It Across” uses death as a metaphor to describe a loss of self after one immigrates to a new country: “The poor Mexican farmer that he was before crossing the border has died. My point there was that people become Americans almost as soon as they come to this country and leave the people they once were behind.”  As a former journalist writing frequently on topics such as immigration and Latin America, Somlo used her story as a kind of platform for public awareness, an opportunity not only to voice her own opinions, but also to enhance one’s knowledge of the American immigration system: “The story is one of a series I wrote on an undocumented immigrant named Alejandro. The stories were, in part, an effort to look at what I consider to be an unfair system, in which so many American businesses hire and rely on the work of undocumented immigrants, mostly Latinos, at the same time that there is an immigration system whose purpose is to keep them out of the country or, if they make it in, to deport them. To the immigrants, the entire immigration system is a faceless bureaucracy that they fear, and they refer to it in its entirety as ‘la migra.’”

Like Somlo, Omer Hadžiselimović “An Immigrant's Deal: Two Lives for the Price of One” serves as an account of Hadžiselimović’s personal views on immigration. When asked what made him think of America as strange and exotic, Hadžiselimović replied that it was about “cultural distance,” everything from America’s language to “the natural and built-up landscape, architecture, human behavior, and body language.”  Hadžiselimović particularly stresses the importance of mastering the language of the country one has migrated to: “Generally speaking, for an immigrant, learning the new language is essential, for it is the most important entry ticket to full integration. A people’s language is deeply connected with the life of that people, both past and present, so to know a language means to have a deeper understanding of the culture that has produced it. Words and expressions do not exist in isolation, and one cannot function fully in a new culture with a limited knowledge of its language.”

John Guzlowski’s biographical story “Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald” features a poignant story about his parents’ wooden trunk from Buchenwald, the site of one of Nazi Germany’s major concentration camps. When asked about the trunk, Guzlowski states that his regret for leaving it behind varies: “Sometimes I regret not having the trunk. Other times, I don't. When I wonder whether it was a mistake leaving it, I think about what my mother and dad would say to this. They were not sentimental people. Their experiences in the war taught them not to be sentimental. They were both people who had lost so much and left so much behind. I think that my parents would shrug and say, ‘So you left it, don’t worry.’”  Thinking retrospectively, Guzlowski agrees that, if given another chance, he would act differently – but personal circumstances prevented him from doing so: “Yes, if I had it all over to do again, I would save the trunk. I didn't because after a month of sitting with my mother and watching her die in a hospice, I was exhausted every way. Getting a trunk from Arizona to Georgia seemed impossibly difficult.”

Mitch Levenberg’s “The Plain Brown Envelopes,” highlights an anxious father preparing to bring his newly-adopted daughter home from China. The transition from China to her new home, Brooklyn, New York, is believed to bring the child “towards a future of hope and promise.”  Although Levenberg confirms that the narrator did feel “somewhat” guilty for taking his daughter away from her native culture and heritage, the narrator is confident that his child’s new home will ensure a bright future.
The stories published in this anthology explore the notion of a common boundary – a metaphor connotative of the paradoxical treatment countless immigrants endure on a daily basis: while immigrants do indeed share a commonality with the native population (they live in the same country, have the same government, etc.), they are also divided from the native population. Even among various immigrant groups (as these stories demonstrate), similar tales of hope, strength, courage, and love are told – a humble testament to the existence of a common boundary.
[Editor’s notes:
1. The writing of this article derives from questions generated by students of a freshman Honors seminar taught by Professor Ghazala Afzal at St. Francis College, which used Common Boundary as a course text. In preparing this article, we assume readers have some familiarity with the anthology.
2. Join us in congratulating John Guzlowski. His story, “Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald” (first published in COMMON BOUNDARY: Stories of Immigration by Editions Bibliotekos) has been selected by Pearson Longman (a global publisher) to be reprinted in an upcoming anthology with a print run of 200,000 copies.]