JANUARY 14, 2017
JOSÉ ORDUÑA IMMIGRATED with his parents from Córdoba, Veracruz, at the age of two. An only child, he lived with his family in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood for most of his life. Eventually, he went to Columbia College, where he studied video and film, and in 2011, he was naturalized as an American citizen. Soon afterward he applied and was accepted to the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, graduating in 2013.
His literary debut, The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration & Displacement, is an insightful and introspective look at his journey toward US citizenship. Along the way, he provides a sharp critique of the American immigration system, as well as its effects on himself, his friends, and his family. Recently, he and I discussed not just the book, but also the geographic and sociopolitical conditions that compelled him to write it.
MICAH MCCRARY: You write, of your family, that “[w]e would always have a complicated relationship with Chicago, but it’s where I first remember coming into consciousness.” Why do you describe that relationship as “complicated”?
JOSÉ ORDUÑA: Chicago is a city I love, but it’s also a place that reflects, through fractured geometry, an unlivable reality. Racism and class oppression are apparent everywhere in the movements, concentrations, and intensities of the city. Space is deeply segregated through formal and informal mechanisms, and it’s quite plain to see. It’s a city of immigration raids, with a robust tradition of discriminatory housing practices, a place that closes public schools and public mental health clinics, a city that shoots its unarmed children. It’s really many cities that are so disparate that residents of one area will never step foot in, or even drive through areas fewer than 15 miles away. It can feel as though there are hard border walls between these cities within the city.
I grew up in a neighborhood called Bucktown, during the late ’80s and into the ’90s. The experiences I had there were colored by the particularities of those blocks: the dirty orange light cast over everything when the streetlamps came on at night; the bells of paleteros in the summer layered over each other, and over the rushing hollow sound of the Kennedy Expressway; the heat radiating from the concrete basketball court in the late afternoon; the constant, almost aggressive laughter of kids causing trouble in order to kill boredom. It was rough, sometimes, but it was where all the moments that feel like hinges happened for me.
The chapter about your parents, “Martín y Yoli,” seems to straddle a formal line between documentary and autobiography. How did you decide what form, in the end, that chapter would take?
I really wanted “Martín y Yoli” to be a chapter that focused on my parents as people with lives that existed before and beyond me. My mother is an incredibly strong-willed, independent woman, so it was particularly important to represent her in ways beyond being my mother, or my father’s wife. Another idea I wanted to communicate in this chapter and in the book is that “my story” didn’t begin and end with me. So I decided to begin the chapter before I was born, and it felt like it had to take this kind of documentary perspective, at points, because it happens in a time before I had memory. So I couldn’t write through the lens of my narrator’s perspective, and I wanted to limit a reflective voice as much as possible to make Martín and Yoli’s presence more felt. I think that often, when writing about one’s own experience one can be lulled into forgetting that the retelling of an event is much more a reconstruction than a conjuring, and that it involves so much beyond the self.
How much risk did you feel in composing The Weight of Shadows? In making this story public?
There were moments when I felt apprehension in writing this book. Some of it was because I wanted to make sure people who wanted to remain anonymous remained anonymous. Some of it was because adequately writing about this issue, which is really a complex of so many issues, seemed out of reach for me. I felt the vulnerability many memoirists feel when they expose parts of their lives, and the vulnerability essayists feel in exposing their thinking. There were many things I chose not to write about at all, and some things I decided to write around in various ways because I didn’t want the central project of the book to be a kind of confession.
This is also my first book, and I don’t have many previous publications, so putting a 200-something-page polemic based on my life experience as someone whose position in the world is a contested “political issue” was pretty anxiety-inducing.
When you expose your own life, aren’t you exposing others’ lives, too?
Yes, I am. There’s the cliché: No one likes to have their dirty laundry aired. I believe the reality is even more severe than that. I think no one likes to have their laundry, any laundry (even clean laundry), aired by someone else. I think it’s perfectly natural to want to be in control of your own narrative, especially for people who have had their stories exploited, distorted, and/or erased. I try to write about my experience, and by extension others’ experiences, with compassion, and in an earnest attempt toward producing art that complicates and expands the discourse surrounding immigration, to assert that it doesn’t begin and end where the mainstream media and politicians say it does. To do that, I had to write my own story, which includes others’ stories, and I had to do it in a way that I felt was honest.
What kind of authorial persona do you sense yourself inhabiting when you write between two languages rather than translating (i.e., narrating in English but including Spanish dialogue)?
Spanish was my first language, but English has become my dominant language. When I wrote there were certain words or phrases that needed to be in Spanish, because being in Spanish made them more precise or allowed for certain connotations and associations I wanted to retain. This book comes from a bilingual writer and narrator, and many of the people whose stories are included are bilingual, so it seemed pretty strange to translate my experience and thinking into a monolingual text. I also didn’t want to presume that readers would be predominantly monolingual English speakers, and if they are I want them to feel the rub of alienation when encountering a language that’s foreign to them, and maybe, hopefully, think about how some of the people being written about in the book feel when they leave home entirely.
In many ways, English is the language of power, and as a subject of this North American empire I wanted to speak back to it in its own language, but not entirely so. One of the most nefarious aspects of assimilationist logic is the notion that culture needs to be conserved as it has existed. This denies people arriving into new contexts (either by birth or migration) their right to shape the world around them, and instead we’re told we have to bend to what is already there and simply reproduce it.
How did you find history and global affairs playing a part in the shaping of your narrative?
One of the things I love most about the essay as a mode of writing is its ability to move freely between the personal, the general, and the abstract. I think it’s a particularly apt form for attempting to grapple with the intractable, often incoherent realities in which we find ourselves living. In this book, I really wanted to write based on my experience living as someone whose movement, presence, and identity are politically contested. I think that in many ways, people living in this country during this particular historical moment have been conditioned to imagine themselves as individuals, and their idea of what being an individual means is a very strange, illogical, and vague thing. I don’t think that idea would hold up to very much attention: it’s like when you attempt to make an image of a familiar face in your mind, even with your husband or wife or child or dad, and it’s impossible to do without giving them a body, clothing them, and setting them in a location. The idea of an individual — distinct, disconnected, and radically isolated from others and from the context others are constantly and collectively making — doesn’t make sense to me. So my story doesn’t begin when I was born, and in order for my experiences and movements to make sense I need to situate them in the world. Setting and landscape are really important for me, but setting and landscape also means to me that I not only describe the walls and the trees, but that I also veer into history, politics, and many other areas that complicate narrative and that create something wild, unruly, and alive.
In the chapter “La Soledad de Octavio,” you write about being “the first brown person these young people [your students] have ever seen in person, let alone spent meaningful time with.” How did the ways in which you felt you were read by your students, your teachers — in a place like Iowa — influence your identity-formation as a writer?
I never had any kind of macro-level, racially tinged incident with any of my students. For the most part, their blunders were minimal.
I was pulled over a few times in Iowa; once while I was driving my girlfriend’s Mercedes. My passenger was taken to the squad car and asked a series of questions about me. Once, while going to visit my family in Chicago, an unmarked cop car pulled my girlfriend and me over in the same black Mercedes. Again, the cop took her to his car to ask questions about me.
The program I was in, the Nonfiction Writing Program, is very prestigious, and pretty white, but not as homogenous as the rest of Iowa. At times, I felt alienated because of my skin color, but very often I felt alienated somewhat because of what my particular skin color meant in that specific context. Most other students came from middle-class families or above, while my family was pretty squarely working-class, and had been working-poor. I remember times as a kid when my mom and dad would skip a meal to make sure I had something to eat. Most of my peers came from generations of accumulated wealth — I’m not saying they were wealthy, but they existed in families and communities of accumulated wealth so that they would be supported if they failed. I think these kinds of subject-positions really shaped our conversations, concerns, and considerations about art and literature, and I found myself reacting against that a lot — not necessarily vocally, but by engaging in my own course of study with the time afforded to me.
You also write that you’ve been turned into a representation “of what [social theorist Brian] Massumi calls the ‘self-renewing menace potential.’” You write: “We are the ‘future reality of threat,’ the threat that America will not remain American, and what this reality really means is the possibility that the United States will not remain white and English-language-dominated. And who is scared of that?” Between the time of writing your book and the present, how much have you had to reevaluate this notion?
I haven’t reevaluated the notion. I’ve thought about it, and it remains clear to me that this is just another cycling through of the same thing that has always happened with Latin American immigrants in this country. When the economy is down, anti-immigrant sentiment goes up. I think fear, blame, and hate of others has always been part of the politics of the United States. In this regard I don’t think Donald Trump is much of an outlier, which doesn’t mean I don’t think he’ll be a horror show. But I’ve seen this horror show before.
In our current cultural climate, are there parts of The Weight of Shadows that you would rewrite? That you’d expand or interrogate further?
I know that some writers like to edit endlessly, and would do so if given the opportunity, but I don’t share that feeling. I think that presupposes the possibility for an ideal version of what one is attempting to write, and I don’t think that’s really possible, at least not in the essay. I think essays, at least the ones I like most, always contain some aspect of failure and incompleteness. They contain an exuberance in this way, like they’re alive and contingent on everything that was going through the essayist’s mind and life at the time. Take a book like David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. Every one of those essays is so lucid and wild. Wojnarowicz’s spirit feels not only present, but bucking and thrashing against injustice.
When I sent in the final draft of The Weight of Shadows it felt like I had passed something from my body and soul. I was glad to be done.
Can you say what’s next on the writing front for you?
The way it seems to work for me is that each thing I write leads to the next. Sometimes this comes down to my own reaction to the content of a piece. I might find something really interesting or troubling that feels vital and calls me to revisit it and interrogate it further. Sometimes it’s a reaction to the form or aesthetics of the work. Usually, though, it’s some combination of those two things along with what I’m reading and what’s happening around me.
For me, writing essays is about looking unflinchingly at the world — its graces and its horrors — recognizing that they are so often bound up and muddled, and making some meaning from that. If the culture continues to be shaped by state violence and our response to it, I’ll continue writing about that. But I’m not sure what the work will look like, since the next four years are a very big question mark for all of us.
Micah McCrary’s essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Essay Daily, Assay, Brevity, Third Coast, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, and is a doctoral student in English at Ohio University.