If your reading is inspired by seasons, celebrations and commemorations, then June is a great time to take advantage of books centered around gay and lesbian characters and stories. According to Wikipedia, ‘the month of June was chosen for LGBT Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969. As a result, many pride events are held during this month to recognize the impact LGBT people have had in the world.” Since the literary world has been greatly impacted by LGBT writers and stories, there is much to read. As such, let’s get started with yet another list (not in any particular order):
- PAPER IS WHITE - Hilary Zaid
Set in ebullient, 1990s Dot-com era San Francisco, Paper is White is a novel about the gravitational pull of the past and the words we must find to make ourselves whole.
- LESS - Andrew Sean Greer
Who says you can't run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can't say yes--it would be too awkward--and you can't say no--it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world. This is a unique, hilarious travel romp as well as coming-of-age in the middle of your life story. It’s easy to understand why it won the Pulitzer Prize.
- STRAY CITY - Chelsey Johnson
A thoroughly modern and original anti-romantic comedy, Stray City is an unabashedly entertaining literary debut about the families we’re born into and the families we choose, about finding yourself by breaking the rules, and making bad decisions for all the right reasons.
He Will Either Compel or Repel- Ocean Vuong Stands Out as a New Voice in Fiction
ON EARTH WER’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, is a unique story with an even more unique approach and style by poet Ocean Vuong. The novel is written as a letter from a son, at the time in his late 20s, to his mother who is illiterate. The letter/story, the narrator-protagonist called Little Dog, reflects back on his life as the son born to a Vietnam immigrant single mother. Throughout, he gives images of harsh upbringing and struggles with his sexuality and lack of acceptance. The harsh background was due in part to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother, a pattern carried on because she too had been abused throughout her life in Vietnam. It’s as if when she beats him, she is in a trance and unaware of what she is doing and the toll it will take on his young life.
In his teen years, Little Dog, has a connection and friendship with a white classmate, Trevor, who too comes from a one-parent household, and also victimized by that parent, his father. Trevor’s father is a tough, macho type of guy, who is also bitter and an alcoholic, often going off on his son in fits of drunken rages. It doesn’t take long for Trevor and Little Dog’s friendship to deepen, giving way to first time sexual experiences for them both. While Little Dog falls in love, it is uncertain that Trevor adopts such feelings, or allows himself too. Either way, their sexual relationship and any romantic feelings, remain a secret. That is until Little Dog confesses to his mother, all the while anticipating banishment as a result. Given his cultural background, steeped in homophobia, and his mother’s background, steeped in over-sensitivity and abusiveness, he broaches the subject with trepidation.
Sometimes, when I’m careless, I think survival is easy: you just keep moving forward with what you have, or what’s left of what you were given, until something changes- or you realize, at last that you can change without disappearing, that all you had to do was wait until the storm passes you over and you find that-yes- your name is still attached to a living thing.
A few months before our talk at Dunkin Donuts, a fourteen-year-old boy in rural Vietnam had acid thrown in his face after he slipped a love letter into a classmate’s locker. Last summer, twenty-eight-year-old Florida native Omar Mateen walked into an Orlando nightclub, raised his automatic rifle, and opened fire. Forty-nine people were killed. It was a gay club and the boys, because that’s who they were- sons, teeenagers- looked like me: a colored thing born of one mother, rummaging the dark, each other, for joy.
The pages are filled with ruminations on being beat down by life and survival, as well as really seeing each other, and the importance of throwing out a life line to one another. Stylistically, it often bounces in and out of thoughts and rhythms, more liken to stream of consciousness writing than a traditional format or pattern. By design, and unapologetically, there is no plot. There is also no means to an end or “gotcha” moments. Some will In that beautiful and engaging, while others might find it a bit contrived and too tricky to navigate. Either way, do not be fooled by the books brevity. Clocking in at just under 250 pages, it’s still not a quick, easy read. On one hand it’s a statement on a mother-son relationship fraught with both love and troubles, but on the other, it boldly goes into literary territories exploring issues of race, class and sexuality, without supplying solutions.
it is not surprising that Ocean’s background is rooted in poetry and ON EARTH WER’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, would serve as his transition into literary fiction. It’s an impressive debut novel with a distinctive voice that will not be for everyone, but sure to be appreciated by many.
Photo credit: Deborah Feingold
A Dynamic Fictional Rock Band Makes for a Great Summer Read (and movie)
For a fun romp through 70s rock music era, wonderfully mixing sex, drugs and rock n roll, look no further than “Daisy Jones and the Six.” Taylor Jenkins Reid (TJR), author of the “Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” and pictured above, uniquely presents her characters through a series of interviews. Initially and throughout much of the book, we do not know who is conducting the interview, and there is no need to. What is important and utterly captivating are the subject of the interviews, which is made up of members of the young new band, The Six, the deliciously sexy and talented singer/wanna-be- songwriter, Daisy Jones, and their entourage, family and friends. The purpose of the audio documentary is to uncover what brought the group together, and more importantly, what tore them apart. While the Q&A writing style can initially be daunting, maybe off-putting, after a quick mental adjustment, it feels just like reading any other traditional novel format. In very little time, readers will be hooked on the disparate, carefully crafted characters and TJR’s addictive writing.
Daisy is a product of her LA upbringing in the late 60s and her non-attentive artist parents. At the tender age of fourteen, she frequently slips out of her house and into seedy parts of the city, including sneaking into clubs on Sunset Strip. She’s intrigued by the music and drugs, while boys in the bands are intoxicated with her stunning beauty. While she’s growing up wild in LA, across the country, two brothers hone their musical talents and form a band with nominal notoriety. Over the next several years, and while they the time they make their way to LA to cut a follow up to their debut album, Daisy has come into her talent as a singer and determined to be taken seriously. Their worlds collide through a common manager, who susses out that in order for The Six to get more attention for their next project and on the road, they need Daisy, and she could use them to launch a career. The results of the union are explosive on every possible level. While a musical hit is made in studio, taking it on the road proves more challenging. Like many a 70s rock group, temptation is rampant, tensions run high and personalities clash with Daisy and the Six. Will they survive their own passions and demons? Ultimately, the journey through their ups and downs; the break ups and make ups, is as heartfelt and poignant as it is exhilarating. The end will both surprise and slay you.
Thanks to the intrinsic details of each wholly realized, engaging character and believable situations, it’s easy to forget this is fiction. Every step of the way, you are there-in the recording studio, on the road, in hotel rooms, in rehab, in clubs and stadiums. Likewise, you feel you can hear the songs and see the tie dye shirts, floppy hippie hats, frustrated record producers, hot sex and omnipresent groupies because with every aspect, Reid successfully transports the reader. As a result, it's been endorsed by Reese Witherspoons Book Club and picked up for film rights. Look for it to come to a movie theater near you.
An Enchanting Tale of Magic and Harsh Realities
It’s easy to approach the debut novel "She Would be King" by writer Wayétu Moore with an odd mixture of excitement and skepticism. Excitement because there had been much buzz within literary circles that Moore was a welcome fresh voice to fiction and that her novel was unique and fanciful against the backdrop of the harsh topic of slavery. The skepticism among some, like myself, due to my unfounded bias against magical realism. As it were, the very elements one would think could work against this ambitious work of literature, is in fact it’s greatest strength. It is instead a refreshing blend of history, literary fiction and magical realism that absolutely and wonderfully works. This wholly unique retelling of Liberia’s origins is both powerful and poetic, and half way through the read, the thought comes across, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?!'
To tell her tale, Moore enlists the personalities and talents of three dynamic and unforgettable characters to shine light on the dramatic realities of the formation and liberation of Liberia. The characters come from different lands making up the slave diaspora, and end up joining forces in Africa. Gbessa, a young orphan who is a loner and unlike the other children in her West African village, is exiled and left for dead because the community believe her to be a witch. June Day a field-turned house slave of a plantation in Virginia is put in a situation where he can no longer deny or hide is epic strength. As a result, he successfully flees his people and circumstances only to end up on a ship bound for Africa. Eventually, June Day connects with Norman Aragon, a slave from Jamaica born of mixed heritage and touting the indispensable gift of being able to vanish from sight. All three meet in Monrovia where they’re shared history of being outsiders and feeling useless, find a new home, albeit still fraught with unique challenges. It is in their new found companionship that their special powers and storylines converge for the country’s greater good.
Beyond the book’s complex themes and dynamic and magical characters, is the sheer talent of Moore, the creative mind that brought this story to life. She seemingly writes with ease, clarity and confidence beyond her young age and limited experience as evidenced in the passage below.
In those days they called it Monrovia. Monrovia is where they would meet.
Norman Aragon had climbed onto the ship completely unseen, remained hidden under the quarterdeck for most of the two-month trip. He stole food from passengers and the crew to eat during the night. He vanished and toured the for anything he could find, and retreated to a hiding place in the midst of the cargo. Some weeks he went days without eating, and his strength lessened with the rolling tide. To distract himself from his hunger, he used the thin light from a crack in the ship to read and reread on of the three books he carried in his linen bag. I watched him through those openings; I spilled into his hiding places, turned the pages of his books. We did not have books on Emerson. That place where we lost our language, lost ourselves. They told us we had no history but darkness, so they kept the books away for fear we might understand the truth better, and thus find those lost selves.
Although Moore fled Liberia as a child with her family, moving to the U.S., the love of her country and interest in its history has been ingrained. With “She Would be King,” and at the age of 33 now, she is exploring ways to bring stories of her homeland to American audiences in a unique way. No surprise that people here and abroad are taking notice and anticipating what’s next from this unique, young talent
Two Women and a Piano Make for a Break-Out Novel of the Year
In this inventive and inspiring saga of a novel the reader is taken through decades and introduced to varying locations, with a Blüthner piano as the common thread between the two primary characters. “The Weight of a Piano” by Chris Cander beautifully and convincingly explores themes of memory and identity. After being given the backstory of the piano’s creation 1905 from trees deep in the Romanian hillside, readers are introduced to Clara, a twenty-something car mechanic living in present day Bakersfield California. She’s recently lost her boyfriend and apartment, but takes it in stride as loss is second nature to her. She’s been orphaned by two sets of parents- her actual parents, who’s deaths are somewhat of a mystery- and her aunt and uncle who took her in afterwards at the age of twelve. She’s a somewhat lonely and unambitious young woman who seems content just be a fix cars and shoot the shit with colleagues. She’s as skilled a mechanic as she is keeping friends and perspective romantic partners at arms length.
From Clara we go back in time to 1962 Soviet Union. There we are introduced to Katya as a young child and she has been bequeathed a Blüthner piano by a neighbor. It is not long before the piano becomes the love of her life, connecting her to her father and fond childhood memories. She revels in playing it, study it, letting her natural musical talent afford her academic opportunities far beyond her families financial limitations. After she marries and is made to immigrate to the U.S. by her husband against her desires and better judgement, she insists the piano be apart of their new life. Her husband agrees, but the reunion with her beloved piano ends up being many years in the making. Katya and her husband struggle greatly in America, driving her husband to drink, depression and abusive tendancies. For Katya, her nightmares have come to fruition; she aches for her parents and her homeland, and she fears the worst for her young son. After twelve long years, her one eventual glimmer of hope is realized when through a series of fortunate events, her Blüthner is delivered to her. It soon becomes her obsession and passion as she spends the days while her son is in school, practicing on her piano and giving lessons to others. It is a welcome reprieve from her husband’s depression and abuse, and it is a catalyst of much deserved romance in her otherwise miserable existence.
The good times are short-lived as it is then through a series of unfortunate events, that Katya is separated from her lover and is forced to relinquish the Blüthner in order to save it. As a result, it unexpectedly appears in 12-year-old Clara’s life. Unlike Katya, Clara never really learns how to play it, but she does develop an attachment to it, associating it to her father. Although practicality dictates she sell it, she cannot. She can, however, rent it out. But even at that, she feels compelled to follow it and the young man intent on using it for a photography project in Death Valley desert. Cander’s story of characters traveling through time and circumstance glides and entices, with alternating stories appearing in alternating chapters. In the hands of a lesser writer, this format could be tedious and the story overall could be melodramatic, but Cander lovingly develops Katya and Clara, weaving endlessly surprising twists and turns. The tragic and baffling connection between the two women and the Blüthner is powerful. While their story is compelling in and of itself, it is the novel’s themes beyond that of love, loss, letting go and accepting, that make it relatable and riveting. It is a testament to the resilience of womanhood and hope in the restorative nature of the human heart. All that coupled with Cander’s fluid and subtle yet potent style make for what will be one of the break-out novels of the year, and writer with a rising literary star.
Family Secrets Can Be Revealing
Few books combine elements of both beguiling mystery, yet deeply personal and effecting memoir. With writer Dani Shapiro’s latest work, all those elements are deftly woven together making for something that is insatiably readable and undeniably relatable. If you’ve never read a memoir or novel by Dani Shapiro, this latest book, “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love” is a great place to start. It is not only a stellar example of her particular writing prowess and smooth, affable style, it’s also an excellent example of non-fiction that reads like a spell-binding literary novel and a gripping genetic mystery. In 2016, Shapiro’s husband, Michael nonchalantly suggested she take advantage of the fact that he was submitting DNA for heredity analysis, and submit her DNA at the same time. Without much thought, she complied expecting to be bored with the results. What would end up happening, was anything but boring. In fact the life altering results would upend her very existence as articulated by Shapiro in the book’s first chapter. She doesn’t bury the lead, she doesn’t worry about spoiler or if others do as well in discussing her story. She puts it out front and center because in “Inheritance” it’s about the journey; it’s about feeling what she feels when discovering that she’s not her father’s daughter, genetically speaking, and the deep rooted Jewish traditions that informed her world, are not actually part of her DNA.
Now it is early morning and I’m in a small hotel bathroom though three thousand miles from home. I’m fifty-four years old, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been that girl. But here I am again, staring and staring at my reflection. A stranger stares back at me… The facts: I’m a woman, a wife, a mother, a writer, a teacher. I’m a daughter. I blink. The stranger in the mirror blinks too. A daughter. Over at the course of a single day and night, the familiar has vanished… On the other side of the thin wall I hear my husband crack open a newspaper. The floor seems to sway. Or perhaps it’s my body trembling. I don’t know what a nervous breakdown would feel like, but I wonder if I’m having one.
When Shapiro realizes she is not her father’s biological daughter, she questions everything and every family member. This is compounded by the fact that both her parents are no longer alive to mine for family facts. She suspects who her parents were and what their motives were. heir truth, and her own identity.It is challenging for her to not jump to conclusions or pass judgement. Was she adopted? Did her mother have an affair, or was Shapiro one of the first of the “test tube babies” experiments? These and many more questions are explored by Shapiro and you the reader right along side her. As her personal investigation ensues, she somewhat easily narrows down leads to her biological father. Contacting him and launching communication would turn out to only be half the battle. As understandably hard it is for Shapiro to come to grips with her new reality, it is equally difficult for her living 78-year-old biological father to face up decisions from his past and to trust the motives of someone he never really knew existed.
Although in a brief assessment of “Inheritance,” and at just under 250 pages, one might get the impression it’s a long infomercial for ancestry.com, thankfully you’d be wrong. For while her unexpected trail down a genealogy rabbit hole could convert the most DNA analysis skeptic to take the plunge or at least start watching Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Inheritance is so much more as the subtitle suggests. It’s a gripping mystery and a profound morality tale of one woman’s search for her family’s history, their truth, and her own identity.
There are five debut novels on this list, which is incredible! This list is also comprised of varying styles and genres within fiction, but whatever your preference, all are worth your time to explore and experience.
TIN MAN by Sarah Winman - see my full review in an earlier post
WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan - From the first page to the last, the reader feels like being on an adventure that covers several locations, issues and characters. At its center is the friendship between the two main characters, a young slave named Washington Black, and the brother of his owner who "frees" him, Christopher Wilde. Christopher is a bit of a mad scientist and naturalist who sees untapped talent in Wash and he enlists his services to work with him on projects, taking him from the Caribbean plantation where he is a slave, to America and then eventually to Canada. Their relationship is fraught with complexity and questions, especially as they part ways in the North, much to Wash's surprise and angst. From that point over several years, Wash questions his freedom and abilities and is in perpetual search for his long lost friend in one form or another. He eventually lands in Europe, expanding his academic horizons and personal search. This book maintains a deliberate pacing, absorbing the reader. The characters are vivid and wholly realized, dazzling the reader. The themes of friendship, betrayal and freedom are closely observed, making it a new slave narrative necessary for a new generation.
AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones -
Photo Credit- Studio 24
A Refreshing New Take on Sibling Rivalry
If the title of this gem of a book doesn’t draw you in, the first chapter made up of two sentences will. “My Sister the Serial Killer” by Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite (pictured above) is a delicious and disturbing novel that takes place in Nigeria and is comprised of what will become one of modern fiction’s most quirky characters - Ayoola- younger sister to narrator Korede. Ayoola is the favored daughter, simple, unambitious, spoiled and beguiling. Her beauty is mesmerizing, with men constantly falling under her spell. The impact of her allure is not lost on her and she takes full advantage when the situation warrants. Despite this, she is not without her flaws, least of which is the nasty habit of killing men she dates, for one reason or another. There, literally to cover up the mess is big sis Korede, who undeniably has a love-hate relationship with her sibling, painfully aware of their striking differences. Everything Ayoola is, Korede is not. She is plain, not stunning; smart, hardworking and kind. Although she loves her sister and is protective, she is also irritated by her obtuse demeanor and narcissism. She tries desperately to keep Ayoola her from her work at the hospital of which she is a managing nurse. She has a crush on her doctor-boss, but does not have the confidence to seriously pursue. The last thing she wants or needs is baby sis to come into her work world, diminishing her chances with Dr. Tade who she knows would fall under her spell, like every other man.
“I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realized that Ayoola was beautiful and I was ... not. But what I do know is that I was aware of my own inadequacies long before. Rumor has it that she was asked out on her first day by a boy in SS2. It was unprecedented. She said no. but I received the message loud and clear.”
Both in their 20s and still single, they live with their mother who is blissfully unaware of her youngest daughter’s disturbing ways. To her, Ayoola is desirable prize she gave birth to. She sees her as destined to, if not greatness, a great marriage, showered in wealth and appreciated for her attractiveness. In many ways, Korede seems to be more of a mother than her mother. She is the most aware and sane of the family. A role she seemed to embrace even before her father’s “untimely,” yet not necessarily unwanted death. He was a cheating husband and an abusive father, which may or may not have led to Ayoola’s deadly ways, and the dysfunctional threesome that the family has become. Since Ayoola’s murderous ways seemingly impact Korede more deeply, to what extent can Korede believe these killings are justified and far will her loyalty go? Likewise, can Ayoola trust her big sister completely and forever? The only person Korede can confide in and unburden herself of guilt is to a comatose patient, Muhtar.
“Femi makes three, you know. Three and they label you a serial killer.” I whisper the words in case anyone were to pass Muhtar’s door. In case my words are to float through the two inches of wood and tickle the ears of a passerby. Aside from confiding n a comatose man, I take no risks. “Three,’ I repeat to myself.” Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I syopped counting backward and sat at my desk, turning on my laptop. I found myself typing serial killer into the Google search box at 3 a.m. There it was: three or more murders ... serial killer.
“My Sister the Serial Killer” although well-written and captivating, is not lyrical and high literary fiction, but it is a smart, fun dark comedy. It succeeds in its conciseness and decorum. It’s not overreaching and it’s not trying to be anything other than what it is, taunting and daring the reader every step of the way. Wrapping up at just a bit over 200 pages, each chapter is short and intoxicating, like taking a tequila shot and making for a quick entertaining read. This refreshingly inventive, can’t-put-down novel is crying out to be the next binge-worthy mini series on a streaming outlet nearby. You heard it here first.
Photo from theLily.com
A Year Under the Influence of Drugs and Sleep
Craving alternative literature, an unconventional heroin and a downright weird premise? “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by award winning writer Ottessa Moshfegh (pictured above)is just what the literary doctor ordered ... And when you read this bodacious new novel, you’ll appreciate the aforementioned cliche. This weird and trippy novel, set in 2000 through 2001, is about a young, pretty Columbia University grad who after the death of her parents, breakup with her boyfriend, and dismissal from her job, is overcome with depression and lifelessness. She decides to drop out of life for a year through overmedication (prescription) and hibernation in her Upper Eastside apartment in New York. Of course, her inheritance affords her the opportunity to retire, so to speak, and retreat into seclusion. She is convinced that if she can just get enough sleep, she’ll awakened renewed and invigorated, back to tackle life in more traditional ways.
For the first six months, she is mostly dedicated to her personal cause and case study, only advancing from her cocoon for her monthly pharmacologist appointment, and sustenance, which consists of cola, coffee, tuna salad and animal cracker. In between such outings, she is occasionally and reluctantly rustled out of slumber by her one “friend,” Reva, who for the most part does not even notice that her friend has checked out. Reva herself is a depressed character who parties hard and perpetuates an ill-fated affair with her married boss. She insists entry into our heroine’s apartment after drug induced nights of hard partying and a need for company while she wallows in her sorrows. Out of frustration and pity, she is allowed in and forced to sit silently why the narrator re-watches a favorite old movie before giving Reva the boot and passing out. Despite Reva’s efforts for bonding, the narrator only becomes more resolute in limiting outside intrusion.
“I heard my cell phone ring but I didn’t answer it. ‘Happy birthday,’ Reva said in her message. ‘I love you.’ As summer dwindled, my sleep got thin and empty, like a room with white walls and tepid air-conditioning. If I dreamt at all, I dreamt that I was lying in bed. It felt superficial, even boring at times. I’d take a few extra Risperdal and Ambien when I got antsy, thinking about my past. I tried not to think of Trevor. I deleted Reva’s messages without listening to them. I watched Air Force One twelve times on mute. I tried to put everything out of my mind. Valium helped. Ativan helped. Chewable melatonin and Benadryl and NyQuil and Lunesta and temazepam helped. My visit to Dr. Tuttle in September was also banal.”
The following six months, finds the narrator more committed to her experiment, refusing to be distracted and enlisting the help of a former work associate who has a personal stake in a successful outcome. The book is mostly made of these hallucinatory sort of narrations and ruminations, which will either entice some readers within the first two chapters, or turn them off. This is an unsettling and unsympathetic character, and even stranger story, with not much going on but a clearly depressed person desperate to withdraw. Yet there is something intriguing about it all. The rare glimpses of humanity and vulnerability from the narrator are gems that perpetuate you to the next few chapters of her banal existence. And then there’s the final three chapter as she reaches the finish line, emerging from experimental year slumber and self induced alienation, creepy towards 9-11. Like the narrator, you feel as if awakening and a reluctant embrace of life such as it is, a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, these chapters are short and thin. Although successful in leaving you wanting for more, you can’t help but wonder if the 273 pages prior were worth the brief pay off at story’s end.
That being said, I didn’t think I’d finish the book, let alone find myself intrigued and appreciating it on several levels. Although I think it might have been better suited as a novella, it is undeniably unique. In addition to being considered literary fiction, one could be tempted to label this novel as black comedy, but in actuality it defies categorization and genre. Moshfegh has carved out her own niche and she does not suffer critics of her writing and characters lightly. You either get it or you don’t; hate it or love it, but you should try it on for size. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is writer Ottessa Moshfegh’s follow up to her award winning novel Eileen and her novella McGlue.
How the Most Famous Undocumented Immigrant Makes America Home
There are those all too rare occasions when reading a memoir is as inspiring, educational and imperative as it is entertaining and informative. Such is the case with “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” by journalist and immigrant activist Jose Antoni Vargas. Like much literature now, mostly fiction, Vargas is responding to the current political climate in which some bad actors are waging war on humanity, with little or no regard for contributing members of our society. Some of this is done out of politics as theater, but most of it is out of a lack of empathy and sheer ignorance. Vargas, who was born in the Philippines, came to America when he was twelve to live with his maternal grandparents and assuming all was normal and legit about his arrival to and status in the U.S. It wasn’t until several years later when he applied for a driver’s license, that he was informed that his papers were fake and he was an “illegal.” Thus began many, many years of struggling, in one way or another, with his status; of feeling like he had to hide who he was, misrepresenting documents and himself, personally and professionally. He was forced to learn at a young age what it is to be the other in America; to be other and living a lie. Those feelings followed him through high school, college and into a successful journalism career in San Francisco, New York and D.C.
“For more than a decade, I carried the weigh of trying to succeed in my profession - I need that byline, I need that story, I need to be seen - while wanting to be invisible so I didn’t draw too much attention to myself ... There comes a moment in each of our lives when we must confront the central truth in order for life to go on. For my life to go on, I had to get at the truth about where I came from. On that August afternoon, working on the biggest assignment of my life, I realized that I could no longer live with the easy answer. I could no longer live with my lies. To free myself - in fact, to face myself - I had to write my story.”
There is no easy way for him, and others in a similar scenario, to just change his status. There is no document to sign, no class to register for, no wand to wave. He is in limbo as far as DACA is concerned - being one or two years too old to qualify as a Dreamer. It was his internal and external struggles that ultimately emboldened Vargas to out himself as undocumented, sympathize with others in similar situation and take up their cause to be understood. Although he “freed himself up” through truth, it did not make his situation necessarily easier. He became a target, and still is. He has to be mindful of where he travels and cannot stay in one residence for too long. He fears for his deportation and the risk to his family. Making matters worse, he has not seen his mother since he left the Philippines. He can’t go there without risking never returning to America, and his mother cannot come to him. But what freedom he has experienced through truth, he continues to embrace and use for the common good of others.
Vargas makes it clear early on in “Dear America” that it is not a book about the politics of immigration, but rather “a book about homelessness in the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants find themselves in.” It is a book about lies and truth, and feeling like you have to pass as something else in order to maintain. Beyond all that, “Dear America” is as much about the kindness of friends and strangers as it is about Vargas’s challenges and causes. It is absolutely remarkable how much of Vargas’s success is attributed to these little moments when people in his life, as a child and adult, stepped up to inform, advice and help him, even at great risk to themselves.
“At every challenging, complicated juncture of m life - getting to college, getting a job, getting a driver’s license so I could have a valid proof of identification so I could get a job, keeping the job - a stranger who did not remain a stranger saved me.”
It is these life affirming struggles, successes and stories that permeate this short, but powerful memoir. This deeply personal and readable book delves into one of the defining issues of our time. It should be read now. It should be read by all.