"Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience" | An Interview

Sixty-four poems explore living between cultures, the pleasure and pain that memories can bring, and the power of poetry to express joy, loss, and pride.

Living between cultures, the concept of home, the pleasure and pain that memories can bring, and the power of poetry to express joy, loss, and pride are just some of the topics explored in Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond’s stunning anthology, Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience (Seven Stories Press, 2019; Gr 7 Up). Included are 64 selections written by both first- and second-generation immigrants from around the world. Teens will be familiar with some of the writers that they encounter here—Elizabeth Acevedo, Erika L. Sánchez, Bao Phi, Gary Soto, and Francisco X. Alarcón—and will discover many others that they won’t soon forget.

There’s so much to talk about but let’s start with the book, how did it come to be?
Patrice Vecchione: The idea for Ink Knows No Borders came to me shortly after 9/11. I was enraged by how certain Americans were treating others—fellow Americans as well as immigrants. The wrongness, the blatant racism made me want to respond with the honesty, beauty, and truth that poetry can provide.

It wasn’t until after the current administration entered the White House and racism became nearly sanctioned, not until I learned about children being separated from their parents at the border, not until the border wall became something serious to contend with did it become imperative for all other projects to be pushed aside so that this one could come to the fore.

To begin, Alyssa Raymond and I gathered about 200 poems, reading each of them multiple times, narrowing them down to 64 selections. We considered which would best suit a young adult audience, wanting to create a book that would speak to the range of immigrant and refugee experiences. There were themes we wanted to be sure to address—cultural and language differences, homesickness, social exclusion, racism, stereotyping, and questions of identity.

The collection begins with poems of leaving home and the experiences of younger children, moving into arrival, and concluding with young adult perspectives, demonstrating a deep complexity of thought and feeling. Our goal was to encourage readers to honor their roots as well as explore new paths, offering them empathy and hope.

The child’s memories of home and the lasting trauma of leaving it—whether or not it was under duress—are particularly powerful in these poems, especially in light of what is happening at our southern border.
PV: Poetry, with its sensory language and attention to detail, can provide readers with a sense of immediacy and intensity, a vivid portrayal of experience unlike that offered by any other form. Often, childhood experiences of trauma last a lifetime. It’s imperative that people in authority begin to act with this knowledge. And it was important that poems in our collection honestly address the impact of childhood experience—both the difficult and the beautiful.

In “Learning to Pray,” Kaveh Akbar writes about being mesmerized by watching his father pray: “I only knew/I wanted to be like him/that twilit stripe of a father.” Lena Khalaf Tuffaha begins her poem, “Immigrant” by saying, “I am not buckled safely into my seat/I am watching the road unravel/ behind us like a ribbon of dust.” Poems offer readers an emotional, intellectual, and visceral experience of life.

As Samira Ahmed writes in her poem “On Being American,” epithets and perverted patriotism can still shatter moments of your childhood. The idea of being made to feel “other” from childhood on is pervasive in these poems.
Alyssa Raymond: “On Being American” is a powerful testament to what many of these immigrants, refugees, and their children have always experienced—the struggle to be recognized as American and as being home in America, when you must fight against racism, xenophobia, “perverted patriotism,” and oppression.

As Ahmed has stated, the poem reflects her “first experience with Islamophobia,” which readers experience directly and forcefully through her use of the second-person narrative. It begins, “You are seven years old when a grown man screams at you,…/Go home, fucking Paki./...the ethnic slur is inaccurate.” For Ahmed, speaking out and standing up against racism and xenophobia are not “rebellion,” but “survival.” Her poem ends with a call to action to “claim your joy,” “lay your roots,” and “plant yourself./Like a flag.”

For many of these poets, home is a space rather than a place. It’s a feeling of belonging and empowerment that may come from being in between worlds (geographical, cultural, linguistic, etc.) and from embracing multiple, intersecting identities. For Craig Santos Perez, “home is not simply a house, village, or island; home/ is an archipelago of belonging.” This sense of belonging or community exists beyond boundaries or borders and transcends divisions established by nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion.

Many of the poems address both positive and negative aspects of experiences that many immigrants face. Did you set out with this intention?
PV: We wanted to create an authentically hopeful book because hope is honest and deeply necessary. Human beings are naturally resilient. The book’s poets find empowerment, discovery, joy, opportunity. Even in loss, strength and joy may be found. In his poem “My Father Takes to the Road,” Jeff Tagami writes about his father test driving cars he was never going to buy and what fun the two of them had doing this. “I know my father, who, after a hard day’s work,/relishes this drive which must come to an end….” Chrysanthemum Tran concludes her poem, “Ode to Enclaves,” by saying, “After all, if we’re gonna suffer, we’re gonna do it over good food.”

Particularly poignant are the many times the desire to be seen as a person is expressed in these verses.
AR: Many of these poems recognize that the fact that immigrants and refugees are human beings is largely absent from immigration debates and political rhetoric that relies heavily on dehumanizing language to describe immigrants and refugees as “laborers,” “animals,” “criminals,” and “terrorists.” As Eduardo C. Corral told PBS NewsHour, “We keep seeing immigrants from Mexico, Central America, as labor force. [We] see them as just…physical beings, right? No! Everybody has a mind, a heart, a soul…The cerebral, the mental, the emotional…gets often lost when we talk about immigration…we…need poets…from these kinds of backgrounds…telling their stories.”

In Corral’s poem “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” the speaker expresses great affection and admiration for his father who has had to endure and overcome anti-immigrant sentiment and dehumanizing rhetoric. An “illegal” who was “[p]acked into/ a car trunk [and]…smuggled into the United States,” his father has been called “Greaser” and “Beaner,” and everyone “wants to deport him.” In the Tex-Mex restaurant where he works, “[h]is co-workers,/unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.” This poem celebrates the speaker’s father as a real person, resilient and exuberant. When he picked apples in Oregon, “[n]ightly, to entertain his cuates, around a campfire,/he strummed a guitarra, sang corridos.”

Overall, our aim in putting together this collection was to convey and recognize the many diverse and individual experiences of immigrants, refugees, and their children. As Emtithal Mahmoud acknowledges in the afterword, we will all learn a lot by reading, listening to, and honoring their individual stories. 

 

Video and audio recordings of selected poems from Ink Knows No Borders

Chen Chen, "First Light" (audio)

Hafizah Geter, "The Break-In" (audio)

Jeff Coomer, "History Lessons" (begin audio recording at 2:30)

José Olivarez, "Ode to the First White Girl I Ever Loved" (video)

Jenny Xie, "Naturalization" (audio)

Safiya Sinclair, "Home" (video)

Sholeh Wolpé, "Dear America" (audio)

 

Listen as Patrice Vecchione introduces and shares some of the backstory for creating Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience (Seven Stories Press, 2019).

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Sonia Adams

There is a surge of global literature collections and anthologies that explore a wider range of themes and issues that counters the negative perceptions that some people may have of immigrants and refugees. Patrice Vecchione’s Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience offers a broader range of poets and poetry that speaks to the present moment where truth-seeking, knowledge, inclusion, and acceptance are made relevant.

Posted : Apr 10, 2019 01:05


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