Memoir

Geography of Translation: A Review of Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River by Peter LaBerge

BY VALERIE WU

 Photo credit—Beowulf Sheehan. Francisco Cantú, author of  The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border  (Penguin Random House, 2018).

Photo credit—Beowulf Sheehan. Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Penguin Random House, 2018).

A nation’s geographical border can define its identity as much as its politics. No book is as much an examination of this idea as Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. A memoir that is primarily journalistic but also deeply personal, the narrative provides a series of snapshots into Cantú’s work as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, while also drawing from Cantú’s own academic background in U.S.-Mexico relations.

Yet the central idea of The Line Becomes a River does not address immigration policy, but the humans that are directly impacted by it. Throughout the book, Cantú emphasizes that the border serves as a microcosm for greater economic, racial, and human issues—issues that manifest themselves in the interactions along the geographical boundary of the United States and Mexico.

A vulnerability is present in Cantú’s writing that lends itself to his setting. Cantú is struck by the almost surreal quality of the landscape, juxtaposed with the very real violence that occurs there; the duality is one that Cantú will explore throughout the memoir.

Much can be explored regarding the function of Cantú’s own character as aggressor and advocate; at first, it is revealed that he joins the border as a real-life application of his academic knowledge. Yet, as Cantú ruminates on his time at the border, it appears that the decision to become a Border Patrol Agent was motivated by a desire to reconcile with his third-generation Mexican-American identity. By bearing witness to what occurs at the border, he begins to recognize that there is an inevitable connection between himself and those he has been taught to view as “other.”

It is at this intersection of a tangible geographical border and a figurative linguistic one that Cantú starts to understand the complexity of the situation. It is not just a matter of lines, but those on each side. Life and death are as compounded by human factors as they are by political ones. Those with the most deportations, Cantú says, become criminals in the eyes of the American government. But it’s this insistence on crossing for opportunity that reveals the commitment to family values—what is perhaps the primary facet of American identity.

Throughout his time on the border, Cantú struggles with the idea that his work as a Border Patrol Agent is defeating and destroying the migrants’ hope. At the same time, he believes that he is saving them from further pain. So when the agents “slash [the migrants’] bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze,” they are actions of love. The reader witnesses the toll this takes on Cantú’s physical and mental health; he begins to grind his teeth. His dreams consist entirely of ferocious wolves and faceless men. Cantú’s mother, a former Park Ranger, is no stranger to the implications of Cantú’s role on the border for both the migrants and himself:

You spent nearly four years on the border, she said. You weren’t just observing a reality, you were participating in it. You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison. And let me tell you, it isn’t something that’s just going to slowly go away. It’s part of who you’ve become. So what will you do? All you can do is try to find a place to hold it, a way to not lose some purpose for it all.

When Cantú addresses the institution, it is through the lens of an academic. He quotes the psychologist Carl Jung, saying that it had become “a political and social duty” to perceive “the other as the very devil, so as to fascinate the outward eye and prevent it from looking at the individual life within.” What he refers to here is the transformation of all migrants into “other,” but the fact that they are the same, all of them Americans. These migrants, Cantú states, were born into different circumstances, but they are just as human.

Towards the end of the book, Cantú focuses on the specific case of his undocumented coworker José, who is deported and unable to return to the United States after visiting Mexico for his mother’s funeral. This is a moment of clarity in Cantú’s life when he realizes that what occurs at the border has a ripple effect away from it; the implications of an action on the border are far-reaching and evident in the separation of families. It is a startling reminder that deportations are not just occuring along the line between the United States and Mexico, but in our own communities.

The book does not directly seek to address the economic implications of illegal immigration, nor does it enforce a political stance. Instead, it chooses to display the raw, human side of what occurs along the border. The line is defined not so much as its geographical boundaries as the people it represents. By prioritizing stories over statistics, Cantú allows his readers to develop their own relationship with the people on the other side. It is in fact this acknowledgement of migrants as humans that creates a basis for empathy, a means of solidarity that is paradoxically both universal and specific.

For Cantú, this realization of boundaries being imaginary occurs when he stops to fully acknowledge his surroundings as not a “border” but a bridge and river. “As I swam toward a bend in the canyon, the river became increasingly shallow...I stood to walk along the adjacent shoreline, crossing the river time and time again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood,” he writes. “All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as one.”

As Cantú emphasizes, there is no textbook way to solve the issue of the border. It is not an issue of policy so much as it is the reasoning behind policy; the ability to perceive these immigrants as human beings is what informs our policies. Translation of the immigration experience does not occur through headlines and harmful rhetoric. It occurs through empathy, which speaks to all.

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Valerie Wu is a high school senior in San Jose, California. She is a two-time National Gold Medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and has presented her writing and literary research at Stanford University, the University of California-Los Angeles, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Her work has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Manzanar Awards Committee, and the Columbia Political Review, among others.

Against Assimilation: A Conversation with Nicole Chung by Peter LaBerge

BY ADORA SVITAK

 Nicole Chung, author of  All You Can Ever Know  (Catapult, 2018).

Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, 2018).

Nicole Chung is the author of the memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in October 2018 and named a best book of the season by The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, TIME, Newsday, ELLE, the Today Show, and more. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Slate, Longreads, BuzzFeed, and Hazlitt, among many others. She is the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. Find her on Twitter @nicole_soojung.

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Adora Svitak: Your own journey of becoming a mother dovetailed with your discovery of your birth family. What did looking for them mean for you as you were expecting?

Nicole Chung: I had thought about looking for my birth family for years, ever since I was a kid, and yet at the same time I never seriously thought about it. I didn’t know how you would go about doing it. Sometimes people would say to me, “Have you ever thought about going on a TV talk show? They can find your birth parents for you.” And I’ve seen that—the reunions on television or private investigators—but it all just seemed so unlikely to me. I thought about it in the way I thought about any fantasy.

Becoming pregnant was that final push because for the first time, I had to think about the kind of parent I would be in a very real sense. Until you see the positive sign on the pregnancy test, it’s still very hypothetical. I kept coming back to these questions: what was my birth family really like, and why did they give me up?

Practically, there were also medical issues I wanted to know about. In my first prenatal appointment, they asked me questions about my family medical history and I had no idea how to answer. It was scary, and I remember thinking I should maybe try to find out more—not just for this pregnancy and the birth, but for after. What sort of questions will my child have? How can I provide those answers when I don't have them?

AS: You’ve written that thinking about race and identity for you started in college—can you expand on why that was?

NC: One reason was having the intellectual maturity to recognize when people said casually racist things to me. Growing up, I was pretty ignorant of when a microaggression was even happening to me. Remembering the stories now, it seems so obvious—kids pulled their eyes back or called me actual slurs. Eventually, I was able to recognize that as racism. But it took time to recognize the more casual things: people complimenting your English, always asking where you’re from, or the very particular type of microaggression adoptees get, which is hearing, “You’re so lucky to be raised here.” People would say to me, “You might have been murdered or something or abandoned or left in the street if you’d been raised in Asia—who knows if you’d be valued as a girl!” Well-meaning. But also gross. By college I could recognize those remarks for what they were. College was the first place where I had lots of friends of color; that had never been my experience growing up where I did in Oregon.

I was also a history major, and I don’t think there’s a way to study history without becoming very aware of systems of oppression. I had great professors who didn’t just say, “This all happened in the past.” They said, “[These injustices] happened here and this is why we still live with them, why they’re not gone.”

AS: There’s a lot of debate about what multiculturalism should look like in our society. I’m thinking here of the clash between Trevor Noah and the French ambassador, and assimilation versus hyphenated identities. How do you think questions of identity should be negotiated in multicultural society?

NC: When I talk to my kids, I don’t want them to feel that they have to choose between different parts of their heritage. They’re Korean and Irish and Lebanese. I don’t want them to feel like they have to hide or partition parts off. They are whole people, not fractions of this or that. America puts a lot of pressure on people of color and immigrants to assimilate, to not talk as much about race, not make such a big deal out of racism. Yet at the same time, as an adoptive person who was completely assimilated, I can say that assimilation doesn’t save you from anything or anybody. I couldn’t have been raised any whiter. I still experienced racism my whole life. Of course it is never enough for people, even if you are fully assimilated. So I think we shouldn’t [assimilate]. People should obviously do what makes them happy. I’m not worried about trying to please or trying to fit in because no matter what you do, for a lot of assholes, you will not ever be enough. So there’s a freedom now that comes from realizing that, a freedom to be who I am—and to try and teach my children to be who they are.

AS: When you write about your adoptive family in All You Can Ever Know, you mention they had a sort of “color-blind” attitude. What is the kind of attitude you wish white parents of children of color would take?

NC: It’s hard. I didn’t write the book to be prescriptive in any way, and I’m not an expert; there are counselors and social workers who specialize in interracial adoption. But speaking as a lay person and as a parent: we have to have hard conversations about race. And I think it is important for kids to not grow up as the only one [person of color in their community] if there’s any way to avoid it. I know it’s a privilege to think about moving or changing schools, churches, or community organizations. But you as a parent have to empathize with your children,  look at things from their perspective. Parents do this automatically. Before I go into a situation, I think—for both my kids, but especially my younger daughter who’s autistic—how they might experience that space. Is there a way that I can help prepare her for it? Is it a space that maybe isn’t the best for her, that she doesn’t need to be in?

We know from studies that many white parents of white children avoid talking to their kids about race. They may think that just raising them to be generally kind and tolerant is enough. We know it’s not enough. I know a lot of adoptive parents who love talking with their kids about culture and heritage but really struggle when they’re trying to talk about racism and bigotry and oppression. But if you’re really interrogating your connections, communities, your social circle and your family, you have some hard conversations. And you should bring them up; don’t wait for your child to always bring it up. They need to know from the time they’re verbal that it’s a topic, and that they can share their feelings or their questions. Not just about race but about adoption. They shouldn’t have to feel the burden is always on them to ask these questions, or to comfort you or make you feel like everything is great. Because that doesn’t make these problems we have as a country go away. Be honest and forthright. It’s difficult work. But it’s necessary.

AS: Knowing what you know now, is there any advice that you would give your younger self?

NC: I wish I’d had a word for what was happening to me throughout school—that I’d known to call that racism. At that time I thought of racism as something that looked so different, something in the past. And growing up in a white, conservative, and religious family, it took me a long time to start questioning certain things I was raised with. As an adoptee, I was sort of outsider in my family. Sometimes I didn’t agree with certain views, but the pressure to be “one of them” and to fit in—even within my own family—was so great, and I’d be the only one pushing back on certain topics. It was really hard to do that over and over, to be the only one. Often I just didn’t want to do it. I wish I had known it was okay to feel differently about these things in my family—looking back, the reason I felt differently was really obvious.

AS: Did you read any other memoirs that really inspired you while you were developing your book’s form and structure?

NC: I went in not knowing. You have an outline when you propose, but my book looks pretty different than my original outline. Structure was the hardest part of this. I wish I was the kind of writer who could read other people’s brilliant work and think, “Oh yeah, I totally see how they did that.” But I experience books I’m reading in the moment, so while writing I honestly wasn’t looking to any particular other books for form and structure. I’m teaching a class right now on this and this is everyone’s number one question: how do you figure out the structure? This was hard—I muddled through. I finished writing it in a year, and then had a few months where I took it apart and restructured.

AS: As a memoir by an Asian-American adoptee, All You Can Ever Know is groundbreaking in a number of ways. Why aren’t there more books like it?

NC: There are few memoirs by Asian-Americans. There’s Woman Warrior, and Amy Tan’s memoir just came out last year, and some others, but there weren’t a whole lot of examples when I started writing. And this book is very different than a lot of other books about adoption, because the discourse around adoption has been dominated for so long by people who aren’t adopted. Other people have told our stories for us or said what they should mean. So I really hope that if this book is at all successful, that it opens the door for more stories. As we continue to have an evolving conversation about adoption and transracial adoption in particular, I hope that the voices of adopted people are centered.

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Adora Svitak received her B.A. from UC Berkeley, where she majored in Development Studies and minored in South Asian Studies and Creative Writing (taking workshops with Vikram Chandra, Kaya Oakes, and Joyce Carol Oates). She was editor-in-chief of the Berkeley Political Review, and has previously contributed to Bust, TED, Social Science Matrix, Women’s Media Center, the Bold Italic, Slackjaw, Edutopia, and the Huffington Post.