Unaccompanied: An Interview with Javier Zamora
Javier Zamora’s debut poetry collection, Unaccompanied, published by Copper Canyon Press in September, chronicles his harrowing migration from El Salvador to the United States following the Salvadoran Civil War (1980–1992) and its aftermath. And while his poems tell the particular story of the U.S.-backed violence that ravaged Central America during the 1980s, their meditations on familial loss at the hands of state violence and forced migration couldn’t be more timely. The Civil War in El Salvador, prompted by an authoritarian regime and prolonged by U.S. military and economic aid, resulted in the deaths and disappearances of more than 75,000 people and the displacement of over one million of the country’s 5.3 million inhabitants. Most of those who fled sought sanctuary in the United States, and most were denied visas. Some were provided shelter through the Sanctuary Movement, a network of religious organizations and dedicated individuals like Mexican American poet and journalist Demetria Martinez, who provided safe havens for Central American refugees (Martinez’s poetry was ultimately used against her in court when she faced conspiracy charges for allegedly transporting two Salvadoran women). Many Central American refugees were deported—a de facto death sentence—and many stayed on to lead the precarious life of the undocumented. Javier Zamora’s poetry endeavors to document the undocumented, as he writes in “June 10, 1999”: “I sit here type it’s Monday / it’s Tuesday it’s Friday / type first day inside a plane I sat by the window // everyone’s working / Mom Dad Tía Lupe Tía Mali / working under different names / I sit here writing our names.” To recount the history of migration from El Salvador, Zamora reminds us, is to account for the history of U.S. implication in the very forces that drive refugees to enter the United States and refuse to grant them citizenship within its borders: in “Cassette Tape,” he writes, “I won’t be back soon. I can’t vote anywhere, / I will etch visas on toilet paper and throw them from a lighthouse.” Zamora’s story is thus both exceptional to and representative of the experiences of so many immigrants from the rest of the Americas: he migrated “unaccompanied” to the United States in 1999 when he was nine years old, following the migration of his parents during and shortly after the war. His trip was supposed to take two weeks; it took two months. In the years since, he has lived as an undocumented immigrant documenting immigrant life. This is the story of our times; this, as he describes in his poem “Citizenship,” is the landscape we face: “booth road booth road booth road office building then the fence / fence fence fence.”
Deborah Paredez: How did you come to poetry? Tell us that migration story.
Javier Zamora: I came to poetry my last year of high school. A visiting poet brought some of Neruda’s work. I got obsessed with Neruda, and my mom bought me my first poetry book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, for my eighteenth birthday. The book was the first time I saw Spanish and English, side by side, with equal importance. This had a profound effect on me. But I was not completely “convinced” of poetry just yet.
Since Neruda wrote about the place where he had grown up, Temuco, described the hillsides, volcanoes, the sea, I started writing about my own birthplace. In this pursuit, I googled to see if there were any Salvadoran poets who had done the same. One name kept on coming up: Roque Dalton. It was Roque’s use of the Salvadoran slang, curse words, and leftist leanings that finally showed me the path that I’ve taken.
Both of these poets showed me that landscape and politics are the same as poetry. The two served their political ideologies differently, but served nonetheless. I started writing my own political and landscape-driven poems. Ones that spoke to my immigrant experience and undocumented background. Like Roque, I could be angry on the page; and like Neruda, I could long for a home I had not returned to.
DP: One of the middle sections of your book is preceded by an untranslated epigraph by Roque Dalton: “País mío no existes / sólo eres una mala silueta mía / una palabra que le creí al enemigo.” You then launch the last section of the book with this same Dalton quote translated into English. Can you discuss why you chose this particular Dalton passage and the significance of its reappearance in translated form?
JZ: Dalton is a mythic figure in Salvadoran letters. We still can’t forget him, and at times it seems that we can’t move on from his work. Everything is compared to him and most of us come through his lineage. I certainly would not be a writer had I not encountered his work very early on—Poemas Clandestinos was the second poetry book I owned. My book is a certain homage to his legacy. The book’s epigraph comes from his second most famous poem, “Poema de Amor,” a sort of second anthem to Salvadorans. This quote is also very well known, and I think is quite perfect to describe the exiled/immigrant experience: Country as an idea, country as something that doesn’t exist, country as something continually changing because of outside forces. Country as a word from the enemy, meaning the empire.
I don’t translate the quote midway because it’s between the sections that talk about my family’s and my own time spent in El Salvador. Because of war (funded by an enemy, by the empire) the country they’d known before war, changed, it could not exist any more. We fled to the empire and the same could be said: the country we’d known changed. It became something like a shadow. Our language also changed. Unaccompanied is written in the enemy’s language.
DP: What is it about poetry’s relationship to language that made you turn to it to capture your story of migration and your experience of (un)documentation?
JZ: The literal shortness of poetry, its ability to fit on one page, that “completeness” of a first draft, spoke to me. I could hold something I’d created in my hands. When writing about loss/trauma/longing, I think this immediate impact, of holding something concrete, is why poetry “works” for writers. For me, a teenager suffering through the complexities of being undocumented, this ability to finish something and ponder it and later revise it and revise it until I was happy with it, gave me a control I could not enjoy in my day-to-day life. I felt powerful. I felt heard and seen, two things I did not enjoy in my public life in 2008. Undocumented people were beginning to be “out of the shadows.” Fear still dominated us. Anxiety. Poetry helped me cope with this.
DP: What is your own migration story that you aim to bring “out of the shadows” in your work?
JZ: The exposure of my life comes from my influences. I do not believe I can speak for a group, but I can speak about my own life and that of my family. In telling this story, I am seen. It is important that I am seen because of who I am politically.
I am an immigrant who crossed the border at the age of nine. This is a fact. I hope that people can see why I immigrated when I was nine. No one wants to leave their home. There are reasons why people leave and will continue to leave their homes, their countries. Oftentimes, that reason is imperialism. Actually, that reason is always imperialism. The United States has been part of Salvadoran history for a long, long time. Yet we are not treated as refugees.
My parents suffered through a civil war. My grandparents are suffering through a civil war now, but no one wants to call that a war. And no one wants to call them refugees. My dad left when I was one year old because he had leftist leanings and was accused of stealing money from a cooperative he managed. He fled. Mom left three years later because no one could find a job during the “aftermath.” A woman in El Salvador was expected to sleep with her bosses in order to have a secretarial job (one of the few jobs women could hold). She was groped during interviews and decided this was not going to be her reality, so she fled. I was to follow when I was nine. The trip was supposed to take two weeks, but it took two months because the smuggling network failed.
No one knew where I was for five weeks. I was lucky to befriend a gangster who was fleeing his gang. He took me under his wing, and we made it to Tucson, Arizona.
The more I write this, the more I’m surprised by what I experienced at a young age. It’s unfair that this is still going on, not only at the U.S.-Mexico border, but in Europe, in Asia, and in other places. No wall can stop this wave of refugees. We will continue to come, unless the reality in our homelands changes.
DP: How would you describe your literary lineage?
JZ: After Dalton and Neruda, I continued with the Latin American lineage, which brought me to [Nicolas] Guillen, Vallejo, Huidobro, Pizarnik, Bolaño, Zurita, Alegría. I gravitated toward the Latin American poets for obvious reasons. These poets had experienced a similar political repression that occurred throughout Latin America in the twentieth century. Some were exiled and their exile spoke to me. Later, I made the leap to the contemporary American poetry scene. Here, the work of Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Etheridge Knight, Alberto Ríos, Charles Simic, and June Jordan really shaped me. These poets have their own followers that we can trace to the current contemporary landscape. It was the work of these seven poets that shaped me before the MFA.
At NYU, I was lucky to study with three of these poets (the reason I chose that program). Now my influences are varied and wide-ranging. Another book that really shaped me was leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess, which I read in Poetry for the People (a program June Jordan founded at UC Berkeley). Jess’s book and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz inspired my ambition for Unaccompanied. I loved the array of voices in these two books—the historical through the life of an individual, the lush description and different forms that didn’t bore the reader.
DP: Can you talk a bit about the community of poets beyond the MFA that have supported your development as a writer and how and why specifically they have shaped you and your work?
JZ: At a Cave Canem reading, Cornelius Eady spoke about how fortunate our generation was to have spaces like VONA, CantoMundo, Kundiman, and Cave Canem. Now, at least, writers of color have spaces where we can feel safer by being among our own. It’s in these rooms that we can begin to ask the hard questions about craft after voicing our everyday struggles by simply existing in white America. It’s hard being a person of color. Harder still if you’re queer and darker-skinned.
CantoMundo shook me at my core and let me be in a room with Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and Lauro Vazquez, the first two immigrant writers I met. I felt comfortable with these two poets. Knowing we’d been through similar struggles opened up possibilities to talk about other things, to discuss our writing, to discuss our frustrations. We would imagine and dream together.
At VONA, I had the opportunity to study with Willie Perdomo in 2010, early in my writing career. He gave me the confidence I needed to continue on this journey of talking about my immigrant experience. He has stayed in touch and continues to share wisdom. I owe a lot to Rigoberto González and Eduardo C. Corral for their advice. They have shown me what it means to be a mentor, and they are dedicated to bringing younger writers up. I want to do the same. I’m very lucky to have had these examples. I think it’s important to continue this work—to open up the doors that have been opened for us.
DP: What is your approach to poetic craft and/or process in this book?
JZ: The oldest poems in Unaccompanied are from the time I was eighteen, when I first began to write. “Saguaros” and all the poems about crossing the Sonoran Desert have taken me the longest to revise to a place where I’m happy with the narrative. It’s a narrative that was difficult for me to write because of all the trauma that it addresses.
Similarly, as an undergrad I majored in history, and my focus was the Salvadoran Civil War. It’s through this research, as well as reading leadbelly and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that the war poems were first written. Some of the poems in the book are taken from others’ accounts of the war because I was only two when the war “stopped.” Specifically, the poem “Documentary” was taken from a testimony from the documentary The Houses Are Full of Smoke.
Reading Manlio Argueta’s A Day in the Life, a pivotal work in literature as it was one of the first testimony books in Latin America, also gave me the freedom to include my parents’ childhood testimonies of war. In Latin America, there’s a strong precedent of using prose poems when talking about war. It’s for this reason that prose poems are dispersed in the second section of the book.
DP: The middle sections of your book include poems in the voices of your parents and your Tía Mali, and in this way present a moving, multivocal, collective autobiography. Can you talk a bit about why you chose this particular approach and how it is a part of a larger tradition of Latin American or Central American or U.S. Latino literary traditions?
JZ: There are many arguments about when the “testimony” tradition began. A lot of people think of I, Rigoberta Menchu, but not many think of Argueta’s A Day in the Life. These books were testimonies: a public recounting of war throughout Latin America. Writers were murdered, as occurred to Argueta’s friends in El Salvador, the most famous of whom was Roque Dalton; or writers were exiled, as Argueta himself was to Costa Rica. In Chile, Raúl Zurita started writing his own testimony of what he’d seen, what he’d experienced during the Pinochet regime.
After reading A Day in the Life and Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I wanted to give voice to those I knew who had lived through the main cause of our migration: the Salvadoran Civil War.
I wanted my family to be part of the book because they are part of my life. I wanted them to be heard with their permission. My mom has agreed, but she’s still nervous people will know her business. But I like to remind her and my readers that these are poems, not actual testimonies.
As to the importance of testimony, it’s perhaps what my family and many immigrants lack, an understanding of their traumas. Our petition for refugee visas was denied, and we faced deportation proceedings in 2001. The petition was denied under a lack of evidence we were persecuted or felt in danger in our homeland. This fact is also why I felt it important for my family’s voices and trauma to be heard. I hope readers see multiple reasons for leaving one’s home—the simple desire to experience “the American dream” not being one of those reasons.
DP: What are the other forces that inform the process of creating your work or the shape it takes?
JZ: All of this direct contact with my family’s and my own trauma has taken a physical toll on me. I’m grateful to have health insurance now, and so the doctors have found that I suffer from “eye migraines.” It’s something that began when I was at NYU. I lose all sight in my right eye for about five minutes, but then it comes back. No one knows why this happens, and it’s typically a sign of future full-blown migraines.
For the longest time I did not know what was happening, and I thought they were going to go away. Now that I know what they are, I’ve started to see when they occur. They occur when I’m deep into revision. I’m working on a long poem about addressing my recent privilege of flying and staying at hotels to give readings and juxtaposing that with the realities of people in my country who fear leaving their home at night. Revising this poem has given me many “eye migraines.”
I think it’s for this reason that I’m a slow writer. Even when I’ve published poems in journals, I revise them. It’s hard for me to be content with a poem because they are so tied with my personal life. I feel exposed. Though on the page, I can control how that exposure occurs.
DP: One element of the book that particularly stays with me is your exploration of the arduous process and repeated attempts that are so central to both the migration experience and the efforts to write about that experience. The title of your poem “Let Me Try Again” refers to both your multiple attempts at crossing national borders and at narrating this experience: “I could bore you with the sunset, the way water tasted / after so many days without it...” And again in your final poem, “June 10, 1999,” you write: “javier here you go / about same shit / when will your status change.” Can you talk about how and why you came to make this illuminating connection? And how, or if, writing repeatedly about the process of migration has affected your “status” as a poet and/or an “undocumented” Latino?
JZ: When I started writing this book, it was rare to hear narratives of immigration from immigrants themselves. We’re talking circa 2008. The first drafts of these poems started back then, as did most of the drafts of the poems that deal with the physical act of “crossing the border.” These are old poems. I became bored with my retelling and with editing this part of my work. I could not be content with the poems because I’m still not content with the outcome in my regular life. I’m still exploring the topic of being in a land that’s not my own and the reasons why I’m here.
In a recent interview for Divedapper, Nick Flynn mentions how Stanley Kunitz said writing a first book was like creating a myth for yourself. How it’s impossible to “get it perfect in your first book,” how “you’re going to return to these things and keep circling around them.”
I’m still circling even though I circled so much while writing and editing Unaccompanied. In the same interview Flynn mentions how poetry gives a perception of control, when in reality, there’s none. I’m beginning to see that. The trauma has not gone anywhere. It’s frustrating. It’s why we need counseling. You can’t just write a book and be done with the trauma. It took me a while to realize what I was doing: sharing a very private thing, publicly. This realization may sound obvious, but it wasn’t for me. It took time to see how my narrative also fits into a now played-out narrative of crossing the border.
The topic of immigration seems to be everywhere in poetry nowadays. My frustration is: where were these poems, these editors, when it mattered to people like me?
I’m happy to see all the immigration poems published from immigrants themselves. These are important. It’s our turn now. But it’s also our turn to shift the conversation. I’m wondering where else can this narrative go? How can we push this narrative further?
This interview originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2017 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2017 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member online.