The Aliens Created by Nation-States: A Review of Voices on the Move: An Anthology about Refugees
Domnica Radulescu and Roxana Cazan, editors, Voices on the Move: An Anthology by and about Refugees. Solis Press, September 28, 2020. ISBN 978-1910146460
“The alien is even more animal than the animals,” Brandon Shimoda wrote in his hybrid memoir, The Desert. The legal terrain occupied by refugees and stateless persons is not human. The intractable exclusivity of citizenship as conferred by modern nation-states ties one’s rights to the blessing or curse of birthplace. Every citizen should be haunted by this.
The world’s most vulnerable, at-risk humans are the displaced, the refugees, the migrant laborers, the stateless, as anthropologist Ruth Behar reminds readers in the foreword of Voices on the Move: An Anthology by and about Refugees, edited by Domnica Rădulescu and Roxana Cazan. How we treat the vulnerable depends on how (and whether) we view vulnerability. The anthology arose in the context of Trump’s travel ban, his zero-tolerance policy for undocumented persons, an explicit, tactical dehumanization and abuse of humans on the run. The editors (both of whom identify as Romanian-American immigrants) begin by invoking the names of Black Americans killed by police. Insisting on the moral obligations of bystanders, the editors take listening as a form of action.
Anchored firmly in hybrid aesthetics and polyphonic palettes, the anthology combines lyric poetry, historical vignettes, memoirs, plays, and documentary art. Geographic location, itself, becomes a blur, a liminal, uncertain space that requires navigation. Khaled Al-Maqtari’s photographs of life inside a Yemeni refugee camp in Djibouti shook me—the images of children fishing with their fathers on pieces of wood, or sitting in the desert sun at school desks combined hope with privation. As a resident of this camp, Al-Maqtari uses the lens to reveal that these children are dreaming; they are waiting for a future that can hold them.
Bilingualism recurs as a formal strategy to engage the divided self. Poet Marjorie Agosin, for example, writes from inside the bilingual body in “Tristeza / Sadness,” “Confiar / Trust,” and “Mujeres / Women,” a triad of poems that read like tone-paintings, defining abstractions in tiny brushstrokes and visual impressions where the borders of hue bleed into each other.
In her play, “J’y suis, j’y reste / Here I Am, Here I Stay,” Cristina Bejan uses bilingualism as a site of tension and a kaleidoscope of silences, offering a chronology of scenes in which the immigrant decides to leave the homeland, and the dialogue takes place in Romanian, with English translation in parentheses. Across the biographical chronology spliced into scenes, one notices the world changes in its expression, or in its primary language. In North Carolina, the immigrant’s daughters ask in English for Romanian bed-time stories. This exile from language, this revision into American, takes place in every immigrant body that comes to the US. Few are fortunate enough to live in communities that sustain their first languages; usually, we lose ourselves to the demands of the market and performance of visa-worthy behavior.
Catalina Florina Florescu’s bilingual play, “Chalk/La Tiza” is dedicated to her “DACA students at Pace University,” to the dreamers and the people whose lives have been politicized by xenophobia. The characters include Alegrias, two social workers, ICE officers, and the parents Alegrias left behind. Here, the social workers are agents of cultural erasure and assimilation who help deport the parents and place the protagonist in foster care. After being naturalized, the speaker wants to return and get his parents, only to discover they were killed in a car accident. The conflict hinges on preserving one’s name, one’s language, and one’s self from disappearing. “Write the word you are most scared of and then give the chalk to someone else,” Alegrias tells himself—and then writes his given name on the chalkboard.
“We cannot talk about refugees and not / talk about war or water,” Lee Peterson warns in her poem, “The Language of Water.” The ocean is a geography, an in-between land, a symbolic rendering of limbo. Leila Chatti dedicates her poem “Upon Realizing There Are Ghosts in the Water” to the memory of refugees who drowned when crossing the Mediterranean. Oceans are “tombs for refugees” rather than tourist cruises. As I read it, my pulse rose, realizing there is no past tense. Although the poem gives us the hauntedest of a poet looking in past tense at this water, the drownings continue. The deaths accrue. The turkeys stay seasoned for football and consumerism.
Juxtaposing images and historical facts enables Florinda Ruiz’s essay, “Human Cries Keep Falling Like Summer Rain,” to build a chiaroscuro of intolerance in the air. In the finger outstretched to test the air, to sample the seasons of intolerance. We learned about the Roman seizure of Iberia, and the Moors, or Spanish Muslims, who were expelled from their Spanish Homeland in 1609. Ruiz gives us the facts and then brings famous artworks and paintings to bear on the conversation, leading us to the present, where the missing migrants project tracks death and migration since 2014. Open Arms, a Spanish NGO, continues to aid immigrants at sea with rescue boats. Ruiz gives us the district’s, but she knows that they are not enough, and she argues for dialogic presentation of poems and visuals, foregrounding the role of aesthetic engagement in softening bigoted hearts and minds (see Spanish photographer Santi Palacios).
Where are you from? Where are you doing? Who deserves to be placed and displaced? These questions animate the anthology. In the poem, “Alien Resident,” Mihaela Moscaliuc ends with the mother – “her jars of preserve / ticking under the mattress like hand grenades” – but she begins “In the Promised Land” with the American dream as a site, as a location in the mind’s book of longings. “Each border-crosser bleeds. / On parole from the American dream, / I daymare;” Moscaliuc neologizes the word she needs for the endless intrusiveness of traumatic memories, a word to hold the flashbacks of famine.
Experimental form is a way off the official route of immigrant stories – one that more closely mimics the uncertainty of migration routes and journey. Eric Garcia’s cartoons reconfigure the American icons of Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty as threatening stone-hearted statues who keep the doors closed; Lana Spendl essays the child “cradling the memory of Bosnia through tough Florida high school nights.”
Diasporas have their own politics and hierarchies. Barbara Mujica layers proper nouns, pop-culture, and Yiddish in her story about growing up Jewish in the Spanish immigrant part of town—she writes about the most illicit subject, namely, the hierarchies among diasporas competing to belong in the US, and how this competition leads them to dehumanize other immigrants. This aspect of the struggle for status and acceptance plays out in the private sphere, in the particular ethnicity that parents chose to position themselves above. I valued Mujica’s honesty about ethnocentrism and racism in immigrant communities, and I realize this may be less applicable to wealthy immigrants who are privileged enough to cross borders with their status assured.
The problem of translating the self across borders and languages appears again and again. In Eugene Garcia-Cross’s short story, “Miss Me Forever,” a young Nepalese male emigrates to the United States, but the story returns to the UN camp where he left his sister. The story ends in the memory of struggling to translate his farewell. There is no closure following the act of disclosure here. There is no entire self.
Symbolic objects are used to carry the pain of exile and rejection. In “That’s Not Nostalgia,” poet Olga Livshin returns to the site of immigration as a Russian Jewish refugee—encountering the old resistances at the gate where a symbolic bird carries the dehumanization of not being “a face.” D. A. Lockhart’s poem, “Swallows Sing the Night to Sleep …”, gives us a map of how a space become settled – and ends in a sort of mixed diction (“With / rain shall come unseen shoots.”) With water shall come new immigrants.
The one who leaves is guilty of abandoning the family, the kin network, the language. In “Montage: Iran Present Tense,” Elizabeth Eslami layers the mistrust among Iranian diaspora members with the American images of Iranians that don’t distinguish the people from their government. “I am a liar,” Eslami insists, “I told my grandmother in Iran that I’d come to visit her before she died. That I’d leave this America that swallowed her son, that I’d be the one, finally, to return.”
I returned to Claudia Bernardi’s essay,”La Bestia / The Beast,” again and again—it is a model for pedagogy, a powerful exploration of the role art plays in the artless, inhumane treatment of children who cross the US southern border. Subtitled “A Visual Investigation of the Journey of Undocumented Unaccompanied Central American Minors Crossing the Mexico-United States Border,” Bernardi’s essay combines images of the mural created by “undocumented unaccompanied Central American incarcerated minors” fleeing on the roof of “La Bestia,” the train that forms part of the Mexican crossing. Unlike passengers on an Amtrak or Eurorail ride, the Beast’s passengers were often killed, raped, robbed, or pushed off. Stories by survivors illustrate various “windows” of the mural.
Speaking of hauntedness, the editors of this anthology make no secret of their own. Combining poems and prose, Roxana Cazan’s “When the East and West Collapse” uses the essay form itself to collapse distance between genres—to locate her own flesh and corpus as the hybrid polyphony of marriage to an Iranian-American man, and the mother of a infant with so many spaces, traces, and histories. Domnica Radulescu’s play,”Bienvenus à la Jungle de Calais/Welcome to the Jungle of Calais,” invokes Maria Irene Fornés’ influence. Fornés’ opera libretto, “Manual for a Desperate Crossing,” was culled from interviews with Cuban refugees who fled on rafts and small boats in the early 1990s, reappears. In Radulescu’s play, intertextuality transcends time—the play is set somewhere between “dream and reality”—and the use of a Chorus plays with the ancient Greek fatalism while also subverting our acceptance of it.
American academia has its own silences. One thinks of tenured professors who extol dictators while refugees who fled those dictators learn how power works, which is to say–they are instructed in which to tell about the homeland they fled. Can one speak about reality without being drawn into the ideological fetishes of American political binaries? Can one acknowledge the complexity rather than be conscripted for the ideology? When will immigrants and refugees not be commodified for the superpowers’ bombs, sacred dicta, and endless wars?
We are responsible for the harm our country visits on its Black and POC residents–we are complicit in the systemization and institutionalization of those crimes. And we are guilty of murder we permit when turning the vulnerable away from our borders – when screaming at them to get out of our yards, when calling the border police to report the presence of unwanted persons, we are guilty of the insularity, bigotry, and entitlement that these institutionalized silences require. We sustain those silences by choosing to pretend they have nothing to do with us.
“Memories are a commemoration against forgetting,” Claudia Bernardi writes. “Each border-crosser bleeds,” Mihaela Moscaliuc reminds. In literary conversations about hyphenation, the dominant discourse becomes that of the powerful, or those who insist on redefining “American” to include everyone. But some humans don’t want to lose their language; some don’t desire the semantic branding of literary assimilationism; some prefer to stay broken, divided, with one foot on many sides of the superpowered maps. We are listening.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize (April 2018). Alina’s poems, essays, and fiction can be found in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, Poetry, BOMB, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for several journals, reviewer and critic for others, and Co-Director of PEN America’s Birmingham Chapter. She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.
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