Tag Archives: immigrant stories

An Interview with Óscar Martínez

12 Feb
Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants to the United States through Mexico. His reports were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, collected in the book Los migrantes que no importan, and translated into English as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez lives in El Salvador and edits El Faro‘s “Sala Negra,” a continuing investigation of gang violence and organized crime in Central America.

In this interview, Martínez discusses telling violent stories, the verisimilitude of a hit man, and planning trips into areas controlled by drug cartels. You can read Martínez’s original answers in Spanish, along with English translations. (Thanks to Chris Dammert for helping with translation and interpretation.)

To read the first chapter of The Beast and exercises on ending stories and distinguishing fact from fiction in essays, click here.

Michael Noll

You write about Saúl, a 19-year-old who is deported from Los Angeles to Guatemala. He is beaten and captured by a gang led by a man who turns out to be his father. The story ends this way: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.” That last sentence is stunningly short. How did you know or figure out which details to leave out and which to include?

Óscar Martínez

For me, there is a logic to the narration of violence: don’t embellish or elaborate what is already a very heavy subject. To add my assessment to Saul’s already convincing story would have been a distraction. His story is valuable just for that: how distinct and forceful it is. The only proof I have that it is true is because he told it to me in such a very frank way and with a context that made it plausible. I obviously never knew his father. Sometimes the narrator of nonfiction puts the reader in this dilemma: do you believe me or not believe me? It’s your decision.

Para mí hay una lógica en la narración de la violencia: no pretendas exagerar, no pretendas engordar lo que ya es pesado de por sí. Agregar mis valoraciones a la contundente historia de Saúl hubiera estado de más. Hubiera generado distracción. Su historia-mínima es valiosa por eso, por lo contundente, por lo integral, por lo sucinta. La única prueba que tengo de que es verdad es que así lo creo, que me lo contó de una manera que me pareció franca y que en el contexto su historia es verosímil. Yo, evidentemente, nunca conocí a su padre. A veces, un narrador de no ficción pone en ese dilema a su lector: ¿me crees o no me crees? Es tu decisión.

Michael Noll

You describe a migrant on the train as crucified on the front of the car and talking with his cousin and two Nicaraguans. Other writers might have focused on the danger but not the dull routine. How were you able to find this balance?

Óscar Martínez

Other writers would have ruined the story. This is how it happened, how it was told to me. It was right this way. The daily nature of the scene adds verisimilitude to the lives of these people: Who the hell flees, kills, dies all the time? People need to shit, get tired, play cards, eat, discuss, fall in love, and think. If they don’t, they don’t exist. Who empathizes with Rambo?  Can you see your brother or father as a hit man all the time? I don’t think so. Sometimes in nonfiction we create Martians, people who cannot exist. We take pieces of them that are thrilling. But that kind of story, without those real moments of calm, would be boring, empty.

Otros escritores habrían arruinado entonces la escena. Así ocurrió, así me lo relató. Así era justo contarlo. Lo cotidiano de la escena agrega verosimilitud a las vidas de estas personas: ¿Quién demonios huye, mata, muere todo el tiempo? Los personajes necesitan cagar, estar cansados, jugar cartas, comer, discutir, enamorarse, peinarse. Si no, no existen. ¿Alguien puede sentir empatía por Rambo? ¿Alguien puede ver reflejado a su hermano o a su padre en un sicario a tiempo completo? No lo creo. A veces, en la no ficción creamos marcianos, gente que no puede existir, de quienes solo recortamos aquello que es emocionante. La acción, sin sus remansos reales, es aburrida, vacía.

Michael Noll

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

You often became a participant in your story. For example, your photographer frightened bandits off the train by shining all of his lights at them. As a result, I wondered why the cartels allowed you to move about in their areas. Are they so powerful that they simply don’t care if anyone finds out what they’re doing? Are they so focused on drugs that someone interested in migrants doesn’t matter? Now, you’re working with Sala Negra. Have the cartels and organized crime organizations become less tolerant of your reporting?

Óscar Martínez

The simple reason: time. I had time, we created a project with my paper that allowed me to do pre-production on each one of my trips. I had time to find a reliable source to plan my route, to find hostels. In short, to crack the system of the criminal world. Sometimes we would get counterintelligence against the mafias in order to penetrate their areas. With respect to life at Sala Negra: yes, it is more difficult. El Salvador is not Mexico, where I could take a trip to Tamaulipas or a trip by train to Tenosique and then return to a city like Mexico City, where I was anonymous. We would go one month and then we would take time to write what we had seen, to edit the photographs. In San Salvador, even though I live a privileged life, I live much closer to that black mass all the time.

La respuesta es sencilla: tiempo. Tuve tiempo, creamos un proyecto junto a mi periódico que me permitió hacer pre-producción de cada uno de mis viajes. Yo tenía el tiempo que deseaba para encontrar a la fuente de confianza, para planificar mi ruta, para permanecer en un albergue. En fin: para quebrar esa lógica de dominio criminal. A veces, hacíamos contra-inteligencia ante las mafias para poder penetrar en sus zonas. Respecto a la vida ahora en Sala Negra: sí, es más difícil. El Salvador no es México, donde yo realizaba una incursión a Tamaulipas o un viaje en tren o una visita a Tenosique y luego volvía a una ciudad como DF, donde era anónimo. Íbamos un mes y luego nos retirábamos para escribir lo que habíamos visto, para editar las fotografías. En San Salvador, aunque mi vida es privilegiada, vives mucho más cerca de esa masa oscura todo el tiempo.

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Texas Observer, you said that people in the United States have “no idea at all that what the migrants are going through is actually a humanitarian crisis.” The same is true in Mexico. Many people don’t know or don’t want to know. How does it affect the way you tell the story when you’re one of the first people to tell this story?

Óscar Martínez

For me it was a luxury. Being one of the first was what gave us such a wide, panoramic view, unlimited possibility, virgin territory in many places. Tenosique criminals never imagined that an international reporter would be interested in getting to Ranch La Victoria or Macuspana, which was why they didn’t have any way to detect us. That being said, it was a ninth-month process to organize the book. To tell what hasn’t been told much makes the task even greater because you have a blank page and the possibilities are unlimited. You have notebooks that are full, hours of recording, videos, photographs, and yet a blank page that’s asking, from all of this, what will you tell? And what will you leave out?

Para mí eso fue un lujo. Ser de los primeros fue justamente lo que nos dio un panorama tan amplio, unas posibilidades ilimitadas, un terreno virgen en muchos lugares. Los criminales de Tenosique nunca se imaginaron que un reportero internacional se interesaría por llegar al Rancho La Victoria o a Macuspana, por eso no tenían controles para detectarlo. Eso sí, fue un reto de nueve meses ordenar el libro. Contar lo que se ha contado poco duplica el reto ante la página en blanco, porque las posibilidades siguen siendo interminables. Tienes libretas llenas, horas de grabación, videos, fotografías, y una página en blanco que te pregunta: ¿Qué de todo eso contarás? Y por tanto, ¿qué dejarás de contar?

Originally published in May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Amanda Eyre Ward

29 Jan
Amanda Eyre Ward's new novel, The Same Sky, has been called "the timeliest book you will read this year."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s new novel, The Same Sky, has been called “the timeliest book you will read this year.”

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of six novels. Her most recent, The Same Sky, follows two Honduran children who migrate to Texas in order to escape the violence of her home. She spent much of 2014 visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children, and hearing their stories. Ward was born in New York City and has traveled in Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, Greece, and Central America and worked as a journalist, librarian, and teacher. She earned her MFA at the University of Montana and now lives in Austin, TX.

To read an excerpt from The Same Sky and an exercise on writing understated violence, click here.

In this interview, Ward discusses traveling to research her novels, the challenge of writing about places you haven’t visited, and writing novels that cause people to yell during readings and prisoners to write letters.

Michael Noll

I love that the first paragraph of the novel ends with “Old Navy.” On one hand, it makes sense since the store is so essentially American—the style of its clothes, the interior of the store. But on the other hand, the choice of that store seems to carry with it a choice in tone. You didn’t choose Wal-Mart or Target or Banana Republic. Did you ever consider other stores or other ways to establish the tone so quickly? How did you happen upon Old Navy? 

Amanda Eyre Ward

That’s a great question with a simple (not so insightful) answer. The dress I chose for Carla’s mother to send to her daughter in Honduras is a tiny dress with the figure of an ice skater on it (Carla has never seen ice). My own daughter owns the dress, and it’s from Old Navy.

Michael Noll

Some of the novel takes place in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and along the migrant trail in Mexico. How did you approach writing about these places? Did you visit them? The other major setting of the novel is Austin, TX, where you live in real life. Did you ever worry that the details you know so well about Austin would outweigh or overwhelm the details about the places you knew less well?

Amanda Eyre Ward

Uh oh, now I am worried they did! Writing about Tegucigalpa was very hard. I have not been there, though I’ve traveled a lot all over Mexico and Central America. I wanted to go, but I didn’t. Here’s how I wrote about Tegu: I took a pile of my sister’s snapshots from when she built a school in rural Honduras and I lay them all over my desk. I printed maps and watched YouTube videos from Tegu and Honduras in general, and the migrant trail, and even Mexico City. (One two or three-day rabbit hole involved watching Mexican gang videos, but I digress.) I read everything I could find.

I closed my eyes and listened for Carla’s voice and wrote. Later, I found (via Facebook) two or three people who lived in Tegu and I sent them all the sections set there. It turns out I was wrong about some things, so I changed them. I could never pin down where Carla’s EXACT village would be, so in the final draft I made up the name of a fictional village rather than changing details of her home that were important to me and to Carla’s voice in my head.

When I wrote about Khayelitsha Township outside Cape Town, South Africa, I went there and it changed the entire book. It was also pretty dangerous and changed me. So I’m still wrestling with these issues. My sister, who often comes with me on research trips as a photographer and bon vivant, has asked that I try—just try—to set a novel somewhere luxurious, like a spa.

The new book is set in Houston, New Orleans, and Grand Isle, LA…so at least that’s closer to home.

Amanda Eyre Ward's novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, "This one's going to haunt me for a long time."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, “This one’s going to haunt me for a long time.”

I also did a huge amount of research on East Austin and even BBQ towns like Lockhart, TX. I wanted to know both where Jake came from and where Carla was headed. I drove around taking notes on East Austin immigrant communities: high schools, motels, supermarkets, parks, etc. Then I spent most of a year in these places, sometimes bringing along a friend who spoke Spanish to translate the goings on. I went to the East Side College Prep homecoming football game and dance, sitting in the corner of the gym like a nut job, and sent Stacy Franklin about a thousand emails. Just for research, I ate at most restaurants in the area, and my kids played at Metz Park for a summer.

In the end, though, I try to trust the voices in the novel (whether first or third); trust what they need to mention and know and understand. Too much research can drag a book down, as can too much detail. I’m a complete cynic in every part of my life except writing—a novel coming together is absolute magic and a gift. I just try to make my brain ready, give it details and slow-smoked brisket and hope for the best.

Lastly, I find that immersive research is great for a parent. There’s a lot of down time when I want to be writing but can’t, and that furious feeling of words trapped in my body on a Saturday when I’m in charge of the kids (like literally right now when my family headed out to take Nora to ballet class and give me an hour by myself and she threw up in the car and now they’re not only back but standing next to me AT MY DESK) can be eased by taking them to a place I’m researching, or eating a food I’m researching, or sitting at a neighborhood park staring into space and daydreaming.

Michael Noll

Who would you guess the audience is for this book? Immigration into the United States is such a politically charged topic. Did you assume anything about your readers’ beliefs—that they were sympathetic to the stories of these children or that you needed to pay special attention to justifying the immigrants’ actions? How does the larger political debate factor into the writing of such a novel?

Amanda Eyre Ward

I try not to think about this at all (though of course I do). I read a lot and buy novels and I try to write the kind of book I’d want to read: smart, funny, thoughtful, dark, carefully crafted, and filled with rich characters. When I came to the topic of unaccompanied minors, they were not yet in the news. When I told my friends and family what I was researching, it was the first time most of them had heard about these kids.

(At the border, it was another story—everyone knew the issue was about to blow up because the numbers of minors were rising alarmingly and the stories the kids were telling were getting worse. The worst part is that the numbers of kids are going way down and no one yet is certain why. Oscar Martinez has done some reporting on this and it’s truly terrible…kids are being pulled off trains by both immigration authorities and gangs and they are not reaching the US. They are leaving their homes…and then they are disappearing.)

Having the issue become a huge one this summer was bizarre and I can only hope will inspire more people to help these kids.

In summation, I write about what obsesses me. That’s the best part about being 42 and a few books in—I trust that my obsessions will lead me somewhere good. I often don’t have a political opinion before I start. I’ve had audiences yell at me during readings (Sleep Toward Heaven and Forgive Me) and I’ve gotten letters from prison inmates (Close Your Eyes) and teenagers (How to Be Lost). So I’m happy.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in the way you approach the inherent violence in the story. The murder of Carla’s teacher is handled quickly, without much emotion or drama—almost as if Carla is numb or accustomed to such things. I can imagine another writer really stretching out the discovery of the bodies. Was this an approach that you always use, or was there a particular reason for it in this particular scene and novel?

Amanda Eyre Ward

I’m so glad you noticed this. It’s exactly the way the kids I interviewed at the border spoke. They looked at me, and sometimes at their hands, and they told me the most awful things I’d ever heard. Some of them had eyes that were just…blank and dull. I don’t know if it’s PTSD or what, but it was chilling. That said, they had so much hope, too. And they played just like…kids. I think about them all the time.

January 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Understated Violence

27 Jan
Amanda Eyre Ward's novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, "This one's going to haunt me for a long time."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, “This one’s going to haunt me for a long time.”

In stories, violence has a way of dominating the scene, elbowing out character and setting so that the violence is all that you can see or remember. This is fine for some stories—sometimes violence does take over—but for other stories, it distracts from more important things.

So how do you keep violence in the background? A great way to learn would be to read Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky, which begins with a murder and a reaction that is noteworthy in its understatement. You can read the opening chapters here.

How the Novel Works

The novel begins with Carla, a young girl living in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Her teacher has gone missing, and so she sets out to visit his house along with her friend, Humberto. The scene that follows immediately introduces us to a discovery of disturbing violence:

The front door was open. Our teacher and his wife were dead, lying next to each other on the kitchen floor.

Imagine the range of sentences and details that could follow this discovery. It would be natural for the characters and us, the readers, to dwell on the bodies, to become fixated on them, noticing and remembering particular details: some gruesome and some strikingly normal. But this isn’t what Ward does. Notice how she makes something else the focus of the scene:

The robbers had taken everything in the house. Our teacher, like me, had a mother in America, in Dallas, Texas, a gleaming city we had seen on the television in the window of the PriceSmart electronics store. The point is that our teacher had many things—a watch, alarm clock, boom box, lantern. Luckily, our teacher did not have any children (as far as we knew). That would have been very sad.

Humberto cried out when he saw the bodies. I did not make a sound. My eyes went to my teacher’s wrist, but his watch was gone. His wife no longer wore her ring or the bracelet our teacher had given her on their one-year anniversary. The robbers had taken our teacher’s shoes, shirt, and pants. It was strange to see our teacher like that. I had never seen his bare legs before. They were hairy.

Instead of grisly details, we’re shown their possessions. In fact, we see the possessions first, through a brief bit of context, and then we see their absence. It is through that absence that the bodies are revealed:  “I had never see his bare legs before. They were hairy.”

This misdirection accomplishes three important things:

  1. It keeps the gore at bay. Remember, this is the opening chapter of the novel. If those first pages contain a high level of uncomfortable detail, it begins to set a tone for the novel as a whole—a tone that might not be appropriate for the story. This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino film.
  2. It reveals the characters’ relationship with violence. Take this same murder and put it Austin, TX, where Carla will eventually end up, and the reaction would become quite different. In fact, Scott Blackwood has just published a novel about just such a murder: See How Small. The emotional resonance in that book is very different. In The Same Sky, the characters have become accustomed to murder and violence. As a result, they’re less visibly jolted when it occurs—whether through numbness or its routine nature.
  3. It gives us a sense for the characters’ real concerns. More important, perhaps, than what they don’t notice is what they do notice: “a watch, alarm clock, boom box, lantern.” It’s like the line from Sherlock Holmes: “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most.” What these characters notice tells us what they value and need, and it is those values and needs that will help shape their decisions in the novel.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write understated violence, using The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward as a model:

  1. Decide on the type of violence. There are many kinds, not all of them physical. Some are emotional and mental. You can even think large scale and consider cultural violence: the aggression that groups enact against each other. An important distinction to consider is the difference between violence suffered by a person and violence witnessed by a person. Someone witnessing violence can, in some cases, turn away. But if that isn’t possible if the violence is being perpetrated against them—or, it’s more difficult and requires, perhaps, an interior numbness or turning away.
  2. Choose the new focus of the scene. Ward has the children focus on their teacher’s possessions. This makes sense because these are things that would be present in the house, along with the bodies, but their children’s familiarity with them allows the scene to step out of the moment and recall how they appeared before the violence occurred. So, think about what is in the room or place along with the violence: room furnishings, plants, cars, colors, sounds, smells.
  3. Create a reason for the character to pay attention to this new focus. What does the new focus (the thing, smell, color, etc) remind the character of? How does it make the character feel before the violence actually occurs? Does it highlight a scarcity or bounty in the character’s life?
  4. Add the violence to this setting. This addition will, of course, create a kind of contrast, a juxtaposition with the thing you’ve focused on. This contrast will create tension: where does the character look? It’s possible that the more severe and disturbing the violence, the more difficult it will be to look away. The more familiar or mundane the violence, the easier it will be to retain the character’s attention on the thing you’ve focused on. The closer you entwine the violence with the new focus, the more heightened the tension will become. This tension is important because only a severely disturbed person could totally ignore a scene of violence. The key, then, is to background the violence and, thus, insert the tension into the character’s thoughts. That tension will likely stay in their thoughts even after they’ve left the scene.

Good luck.

An Interview with Óscar Martínez

1 May
Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants to the United States through Mexico. He visited places and people (sites of cartel massacres, coyotes who work for the cartels, mountain trails where migrants take their chances) that almost no journalist had ever seen. His reports were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, collected in the book Los migrantes que no importan, and translated into English as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Martínez lives in El Salvador and edits El Faro‘s “Sala Negra,” a continuing investigation of gang violence and organized crime in Central America.

In this interview, Martínez discusses telling violent stories, the verisimilitude of a hit man, and planning trips into areas controlled by drug cartels. You can read Martínez’s original answers in Spanish, along with English translations. (Thanks to Chris Dammert for helping with translation and interpretation.)

To read the first chapter of The Beast and exercises on ending stories and distinguishing fact from fiction in essays, click here.

Michael Noll

You write about Saúl, a 19-year-old who is deported from Los Angeles to Guatemala. He is beaten and captured by a gang led by a man who turns out to be his father. The story ends this way: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.” That last sentence is stunningly short. How did you know or figure out which details to leave out and which to include?

Óscar Martínez

For me, there is a logic to the narration of violence: don’t embellish or elaborate what is already a very heavy subject. To add my assessment to Saul’s already convincing story would have been a distraction. His story is valuable just for that: how distinct and forceful it is. The only proof I have that it is true is because he told it to me in such a very frank way and with a context that made it plausible. I obviously never knew his father. Sometimes the narrator of nonfiction puts the reader in this dilemma: do you believe me or not believe me? It’s your decision.

Para mí hay una lógica en la narración de la violencia: no pretendas exagerar, no pretendas engordar lo que ya es pesado de por sí. Agregar mis valoraciones a la contundente historia de Saúl hubiera estado de más. Hubiera generado distracción. Su historia-mínima es valiosa por eso, por lo contundente, por lo integral, por lo sucinta. La única prueba que tengo de que es verdad es que así lo creo, que me lo contó de una manera que me pareció franca y que en el contexto su historia es verosímil. Yo, evidentemente, nunca conocí a su padre. A veces, un narrador de no ficción pone en ese dilema a su lector: ¿me crees o no me crees? Es tu decisión.

Michael Noll

You describe a migrant on the train as crucified on the front of the car and talking with his cousin and two Nicaraguans. Other writers might have focused on the danger but not the dull routine. How were you able to find this balance?

Óscar Martínez

Other writers would have ruined the story. This is how it happened, how it was told to me. It was right this way. The daily nature of the scene adds verisimilitude to the lives of these people: Who the hell flees, kills, dies all the time? People need to shit, get tired, play cards, eat, discuss, fall in love, and think. If they don’t, they don’t exist. Who empathizes with Rambo?  Can you see your brother or father as a hit man all the time? I don’t think so. Sometimes in nonfiction we create Martians, people who cannot exist. We take pieces of them that are thrilling. But that kind of story, without those real moments of calm, would be boring, empty.

Otros escritores habrían arruinado entonces la escena. Así ocurrió, así me lo relató. Así era justo contarlo. Lo cotidiano de la escena agrega verosimilitud a las vidas de estas personas: ¿Quién demonios huye, mata, muere todo el tiempo? Los personajes necesitan cagar, estar cansados, jugar cartas, comer, discutir, enamorarse, peinarse. Si no, no existen. ¿Alguien puede sentir empatía por Rambo? ¿Alguien puede ver reflejado a su hermano o a su padre en un sicario a tiempo completo? No lo creo. A veces, en la no ficción creamos marcianos, gente que no puede existir, de quienes solo recortamos aquello que es emocionante. La acción, sin sus remansos reales, es aburrida, vacía.

Michael Noll

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

You often became a participant in your story. For example, your photographer frightened bandits off the train by shining all of his lights at them. As a result, I wondered why the cartels allowed you to move about in their areas. Are they so powerful that they simply don’t care if anyone finds out what they’re doing? Are they so focused on drugs that someone interested in migrants doesn’t matter? Now, you’re working with Sala Negra. Have the cartels and organized crime organizations become less tolerant of your reporting?

Óscar Martínez

The simple reason: time. I had time, we created a project with my paper that allowed me to do pre-production on each one of my trips. I had time to find a reliable source to plan my route, to find hostels. In short, to crack the system of the criminal world. Sometimes we would get counterintelligence against the mafias in order to penetrate their areas. With respect to life at Sala Negra: yes, it is more difficult. El Salvador is not Mexico, where I could take a trip to Tamaulipas or a trip by train to Tenosique and then return to a city like Mexico City, where I was anonymous. We would go one month and then we would take time to write what we had seen, to edit the photographs. In San Salvador, even though I live a privileged life, I live much closer to that black mass all the time.

La respuesta es sencilla: tiempo. Tuve tiempo, creamos un proyecto junto a mi periódico que me permitió hacer pre-producción de cada uno de mis viajes. Yo tenía el tiempo que deseaba para encontrar a la fuente de confianza, para planificar mi ruta, para permanecer en un albergue. En fin: para quebrar esa lógica de dominio criminal. A veces, hacíamos contra-inteligencia ante las mafias para poder penetrar en sus zonas. Respecto a la vida ahora en Sala Negra: sí, es más difícil. El Salvador no es México, donde yo realizaba una incursión a Tamaulipas o un viaje en tren o una visita a Tenosique y luego volvía a una ciudad como DF, donde era anónimo. Íbamos un mes y luego nos retirábamos para escribir lo que habíamos visto, para editar las fotografías. En San Salvador, aunque mi vida es privilegiada, vives mucho más cerca de esa masa oscura todo el tiempo.

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Texas Observer, you said that people in the United States have “no idea at all that what the migrants are going through is actually a humanitarian crisis.” The same is true in Mexico. Many people don’t know or don’t want to know. How does it affect the way you tell the story when you’re one of the first people to tell this story?

Óscar Martínez

For me it was a luxury. Being one of the first was what gave us such a wide, panoramic view, unlimited possibility, virgin territory in many places. Tenosique criminals never imagined that an international reporter would be interested in getting to Ranch La Victoria or Macuspana, which was why they didn’t have any way to detect us. That being said, it was a ninth-month process to organize the book. To tell what hasn’t been told much makes the task even greater because you have a blank page and the possibilities are unlimited. You have notebooks that are full, hours of recording, videos, photographs, and yet a blank page that’s asking, from all of this, what will you tell? And what will you leave out?

Para mí eso fue un lujo. Ser de los primeros fue justamente lo que nos dio un panorama tan amplio, unas posibilidades ilimitadas, un terreno virgen en muchos lugares. Los criminales de Tenosique nunca se imaginaron que un reportero internacional se interesaría por llegar al Rancho La Victoria o a Macuspana, por eso no tenían controles para detectarlo. Eso sí, fue un reto de nueve meses ordenar el libro. Contar lo que se ha contado poco duplica el reto ante la página en blanco, porque las posibilidades siguen siendo interminables. Tienes libretas llenas, horas de grabación, videos, fotografías, y una página en blanco que te pregunta: ¿Qué de todo eso contarás? Y por tanto, ¿qué dejarás de contar?

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Nahal Suzanne Jamir

9 May Nahal_Suzanne_Jamir
Suzanne Jamir

Nahal Suzanne Jamir’s story “In the Middle of Many Mountains” was first published in Meridian and is the title story of the new collection from Press 53.

Nahal Suzanne Jamir’s debut collection of stories, In the Middle of Many Mountains, grapples with a question that is perhaps unanswerable: Where did I come from? What values and cultures combined to make me who I am? In praising this bold, new book, the writer Debra Monroe puts the question succinctly: How do “we lonely humans trapped in a single life seek the wisdom handed down to us and chafe against it, too”?

Nahal Suzanne Jamir earned her PhD from Florida State University. She’s won numerous story prizes, including First Prize in the 2012 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize, by Ruminate Magazine, for “Stories My Mother Told Me.”

In this interview, Jamir discusses family betrayal, story truth, and why the best fiction resists formal tidiness.

Michael Noll

The story opens with uncertainty—the narrator isn’t sure how to begin. I can imagine a workshop leader claiming that the story should simply start after it’s figured out where to begin. But that seems like poor advice here. In this case, the story seems to be, in part, about the narrator trying to wrap her mind around something awful that has happened—and will happen. The story is about her search for narrative as a way to understand. As you worked on this story, how did you think about the question of where to begin?

Nahal Suzanne Jamir

Yes, and I did get some of that type of feedback when the story was workshopped. I think some readers, workshoppers, and authors expect characters and the stories they live in to be too neat–despite this overwhelming stamp of approval that postsecondary institutions give to postmodern and experimental literature. Yet, stories may be raw both in form and content. We can’t expect the main character to have an inner conflict and insist that the form or approach of every story be neat or rigid. I love stories and novels that de-evolve, like Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. So, I wanted to try to start at that point, to use its rawness and see how far I could push not just the characters but also the form. A neat beginning was out of the question.

The question of where to begin with this story was also strongly influenced by my nonfiction writing. As a younger writer, I only wrote two stories where I engaged with semi-autobiographical material, and I felt odd using material from my life. I felt like I was lying instead of telling the truth. So, in 2004, I started writing nonfiction, and that task required me to retell stories—family stories, religious stories, to even “retell” letters. Retelling epitomizes the struggle to find one’s place and to understand others, especially those who came before.

In the Middle of Many Mountains by Nahal Suzanne Jamir

The stories in In the Middle of Many Mountains by Nahal Suzanne Jamir have been described as “a magic that is real.”

The narrator of “In the Middle of Many Mountains” isn’t sure how to begin because she hasn’t wrapped her mind around all of the different facets of her life, and toward the end, you see the struggle to begin a story linked with her retelling stories.

Though tertiary, with this story, I was also inspired by the Canongate myth series in which authors like Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood retell myths. Winterson’s Weight, a re-telling of the Atlas myth, in particular caught my attention. She merges the myth with her own autobiographical material and has this recurring line “I want to tell the story again.” I love this notion because she uses this line and this notion to link her myth and her (real-life) story. So, she is retelling her story when retelling Atlas’s, discovering both.

Michael Noll

The story asks a fascinating question: “Who is the betrayer?” The suggestion is that the answer won’t be clear, otherwise the question wouldn’t be necessary. How do you tackle such a complex, multi-faceted idea in a story? Was this a story you had to sit with for a long time? Just as the narrator struggles to wrap her mind around the events, was it difficult to wrap yours around the nuances of the betrayal?

Nahal Suzanne Jamir

The notion of betrayal is one that has always been intrinsically linked to family because families are supposed to be a certain way. We have family “duties” and “roles.” But I didn’t want to let any of the family members off the hook in this story. When something goes wrong in a family, it usually affects all members. It’s a mess, and no one behaves well. The questions don’t stop. The guilt and anger don’t stop. I also made a conscious choice to have the family be a family that wasn’t new, so to speak. They’d been together as a family for a while. The parents are old. The daughters are not these young innocent children. The betrayals are small and large. The role of the betrayer belongs to each family member—even the mother because she cannot save her husband or her daughters. Marjan betrays by betraying herself (her body) and by leaving the family. The eldest daughter betrays her students and herself by quitting her job, which is her passion. The eldest daughter can also not save anyone and continues contact with the father. The father’s betrayal is obvious and rather cliché, but he also gets betrayed by his own idealism, what he believes a romantic relationship should be.

Most importantly, this line, this question, appears in the story right after the subject of language, the Persian language, which the eldest daughter doesn’t understand. Yet, on a broader level, language or communication betrays all of these family members. Sometimes, though, the misunderstandings that result from these problems with language are funny or even beautiful.

With all of this family trauma unraveling, with all the betrayal, I tried to control the drama (keep it from being melodrama) by using a fragmented form so that no one character and no one scene could go on and on. I also tried to control the drama by contrasting it with stories and information that were tangential yet still relevant. Finally, when I got to a certain point, I realized that the story was long enough. I didn’t want it to be too long.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a place (Nayriz, Iran) where the narrator has never been. It also offers words and phrases from a language (Farsi) that she doesn’t understand well. How do you write about a place, language, and culture when the narrator has only a limited knowledge of them? In other words, the narrator and the reader cannot fully understand the mother without understanding her language and history, but that knowledge isn’t fully available to her or us. That’s an exceedingly tricky, yet often true to life, premise? How did you approach it?

Nahal Suzanne Jamir

At a certain point in my development as a writer, I started to enjoy the challenge of writing far outside of my realm of knowledge. On a literal level, one can obtain information and become some sort of expert on any number of subjects, but for me, acknowledging the lack of knowledge—for myself and for a character—is the most interesting approach because then the story becomes about the struggle. So, admission—or telling the truth or letting the truth just be—my first move with this story and the culture and language that neither the main character nor I knows. In “Good Form,” Tim O’Brien writes, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why the story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” So, I’m not going after authority but authenticity through story. I do have a lot of story-truth about Iran passed down to me that I can use or re-create.

The struggle is the story and vice versa. Moreover, the struggle shows both what is known and what is not. The main character in this story has some knowledge, and those pieces are present. I hope that her lack of knowledge also is present, just as white space is in poetry. I think this narrator does search and seek, despite a great deal of confusion on her part, and this is a concept very present in some novels that I greatly admire, like Percy’s The Moviegoer and Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Michael Noll

Near the end of the excerpt, you write about the feeling the narrator gets while talking to her younger sister. She thinks, “I don’t want to see. Her, barely there, five-year-old limbs stretched out to form an adult. We are always playing with dolls.” As someone with younger siblings, I know this feeling exactly, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen it so perfectly and eloquently captured. How do you create a description like that? There are two common metaphors about the writer’s experience, and I wonder which applies to you. Are you the medium transmitting a voice from beyond or the sculptor chiseling away at a rock to reveal the statue hidden within?

Nahal Suzanne Jamir

It begins with this strange moment when you look at someone you knew as a child and you can see that child overlapped with this adult in front of you. Sometimes, my mother will turn to me and say that a look or a sound I’d just made was the same one I’d been making my whole life. And I think we’re always trying to make these connections with our changing bodies. Of course, there is that strange phase where adolescents really do look stretched out. In the story, though, Marjan is anorexic and has done this to herself. So, there is this physical manifestation of her emotional state and reaction to her family’s changes. I feel that there are so many horrible images of those who suffer from anorexia, and there is definitely a stigma attached to it. I wanted to present it in a slightly different way, where her loss of weight brought her back to childhood somehow. The notion of dolls refers to the sisters’ childhood. Yet, the notion of dolls points to, of course, the false representation of the female body (Barbie dolls, etc.). More importantly for me is the notion of playing with dolls, playing out stories and scenarios, that act of creation, which is an act of control—and how by manipulating her own body Marjan is playing in both child-like and adult ways.

The Kingdom by Lars von Trier

The Kingdom by Dutch filmmaker Lars von Trier  inspired  Steven King’s Kingdom Hospital and, now, “In the Middle of Many Mountains” by Nahal Suzanne Jamir. The critic David Moats writes about the appeal of this subtly twisted and influential series at The Quietus.

I also have to admit that the description was influenced by a series titled The Kingdom, created and co-directed by Lars Von Trier. To say this series is weird would be a gross understatement. Toward the end of the series, a child is born to one of the doctors, and this child grows much too quickly. The child develops into a strange adult body (about 10-feet tall) in a very short time, and his voice and his desires remain those of a child. The hospital staff has to build a makeshift scaffold to hold the child up. It’s a haunting image that I’ve admired for a while.

Von Trier always struck me as a writer/director who transmits voices from beyond. I don’t really view my process that way, or as a sculptor either. If anything, I’m the kid who broke that vase that had been in the family for generations—and I’m putting it together piece by piece…and before anyone can figure out what I’ve done and punish me. Gloria Anzaldua writes of one of her books having a “mosaic pattern” that in the end is an “almost finished product. . . .an assemblage, a montage, a beaded work with several leitmotifs and with a central core, now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance. The whole thing has a mind of its own. . . .It is a rebellious, willful entity, a precocious girl-child forced to grow up too quickly, rough, unyielding, with pieces of feather sticking out here and there, fur, twigs, clay.” I think there is intense fear, anxiety, and even shame involved in the writing process. This process is very messy and very personal for me. The writing process is not just about hard work and understanding your craft. It’s about not having control. If you’re lucky, I think you have brief moments of sanity and balance.

May 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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