We Are Here to Stay | A Conversation with Susan Kuklin

The acclaimed author, oral historian, and photographer talks about the undocumented teens who shared their stories and her book's uneven road to publication.

Susan Kuklin is well known for her photo-essays for young children and her oral histories, including Beyond Magenta: Transgender Youth Speak Out and Families. A few years ago, she spoke with undocumented youth about their journeys to and life in the United States. The resulting book was set to go to press until the 2016 election created uncertainty for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Kuklin and Candlewick Press decided to postpone the book's publication. After discussions with the participants and text and design changes, We Are Here To Stay will be available in January 2019. Here Kuklin talks about the teens who shared their stories and the book's journey to publication.

Outside of brief introductions to each person's narrative—and some great back matter—you are nearly invisible in this book. Can you talk about that decision?
One of the themes in We Are Here to Stay is that young, undocumented immigrants want to define themselves on their own terms. They told me that they were tired of hearing others—the press, political figures, even authors–telling the public who they are. The book didn’t need my voice, but it sure needed theirs.

One way to bring one’s voice to the page is through first-person narrative. I took parts of our recorded interviews and turned them into stories in a way that the participants would be empowered—at least in a literary sense. I believe that this technique enables a deeper intimacy between the participant and the reader than does writing in the customary third person. After my input, the teens approved my work on their stories.

These teens seem so open and willing to tell their stories. Were they?
Oh, yes. In order to capture so personal a series of stories, [I needed participants who were] enthusiastic, introspective, articulate, and passionate about contributing to the project...and mutual trust had to be established. I [had] to be certain that they would be honest and open; they [had] to be certain that I would bring their lives and voices to the page accurately and authentically.

I was very lucky with the people who volunteered. Each person brought fresh views to the book. The entire process felt quite collaborative.

When DACA was signed by President Obama, the policy transformed these teens’ lives and opportunities, and their relief is palpable on the page. While the current administration plans to phase out DACA, that decision seems to have politicalized a few of these teens rather than send them into hiding.
The teens in [the book] are growing up in American culture. They are being educated in American schools. They think. They are accustomed to speaking out when they see or experience something unfair, as is evident form their willingness to participate in this project. And, like many high school and college kids, they know how to organize.

The original book title was Out of the Shadows, Voices of Undocumented Young Adults. When first we met, these teens were beginning to organize and speak out. After the 2016 presidential election, the participants felt strongly that they did not want to go back into the shadows. Some argued that we should proceed exactly as planned. Others preferred a little anonymity. They all agreed that their stories must be told. To insure everyone’s comfort level, we all gave up something—names, photographs, and identifiers.

While you let the teens tell their own stories, you are visible in the black-and-white photo essay in the book, which details scenes at the Mexican-American border: the fences, patrol officers, the hostile terrain, and the detention center that awaits many. They’re as disturbing and as bleak as some of these teens’ stories.
Toward the end of Y – ‘s chapter, she visits the border and says, “That summer, many unaccompanied minors were crossing the border. I’m talking about children who are eight, ten years old. And people were screaming at them, ‘Go home! We don’t want you!’ … I couldn’t understand how seeing kids, unaccompanied minors, didn’t move people’s hearts…. Here’s the flip side: I visited a bunch of shelters. There were many American citizens who were first responders to this crisis. So many generous people donated food and time to care for these children … they saw human beings in trouble and wanted to help.”

When Y– told me about her border trip, I realized that in order to write about it I had to go there. I needed to see it with my own eyes and feel it with my own heart. Being there was eye-opening, and very moving. And because by then I had become so emotionally involved in the subject, it felt natural to include this section as part of the book.

Your photos also underline the activities of those who save lives near the border by their willingness to provide food, medical aid, and water to those who reach them.
I met or learned about many wonderful citizens who donate food, clothing, and time to help people in need. Reverend John Fife, co-founder of No More Deaths (No Más Muertes), showed me what the “walkers” faced in so forbidding a terrain. Volunteers and medical personal from all over the world live in very basic desert tents to assist the weak, the sick, the dying. They do not advocate illegal immigration. They do not advocate open borders. They simply will not stand by while another human being is thirsty, hungry, or dying. It is humanity at its best. I wanted readers to know this.

Can you talk about your decision to remove the teens’ photos after the 2016 election?
After the election, I was concerned about the status of the DACA holders in the book. I emailed all the participants that their safety was of upmost importance, and that I will not do anything without their approval. My publisher and I agreed to hold publication until we could be assured that there was a fair immigration law that protected DACAmented people. Everyone was disappointed. The following months seemed like a never-ending rollercoaster ride. The participants wanted their stories told. Friends and immigration specialists felt it important that people know more about these terrific kids who are being tossed around like a political football. Polls showed that most of the country was sympathetic to DACA. Eventually, we came up with a solution: tell the young adults’ stories but do it in a way that offered protection in case DACA is cancelled. (So far, the courts have protected DACA.)

No decision was made without the advice and consent of the participants. Some kids wanted to go ahead with the book exactly as planned. Some asked that I change their names. Others asked that I take out their photographs. I decided to err on the safe side: hide all personal identifiers.

We tried numerous layouts obscuring the photographs. These approaches felt disrespectful to both the participants and the photography. Curiously, the publisher and I arrived at the final resolution at the same time: simply remove the image, take out the colorful details, and keep the picture frame and caption. As a photographer, this was a painful decision. Really painful. But as an author who appreciated her subject, it was the logical way to go.

Although taking out the photographs and other identifiers was a heart-wrenching resolution and the result is dramatic, it’s the stories of the nine immigrants that make We Are Here to Stay a book. You may not see their faces–for now–but you will hear their words. They are the words of generations of immigrant families throughout our history who came in search of education, safety, and security.

From TeachingBooks.net: Meet-the-Author of We Are Here to Stay

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