Source of book: Borrowed from the library
This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. While we don’t do this every year, sometimes we join the “One Book One Bakersfield” project put on by our local library. Some years, the selections have been great, while others have been pretty meh. The fun thing is that they usually get the author to come and lecture (or, in the time of Covid, put on a virtual meeting) to discuss the book. This year, my wife and I were able to stream the audio while we were driving back from a quick getaway.
The three previous One Book One Bakersfield selections I have read are:
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman
I wasn’t familiar with Reyna Grande before reading this book, but apparently she has written a few novels. This book is a memoir, although it really is part two of a memoir, with the first being The Distance Between Us. Grande alludes to the facts in the first part quite a bit, so you can at least get an idea of her early life. This book picks up right after she has graduated from Pomona Community College, and transferred to UC Santa Cruz. From there, she gets her MFA, finds a job teaching in Los Angeles, has a kid, and eventually meets the love of her life and gets her first book published.
In some ways, this is the less interesting part of her story. In the first part, she was born in Mexico, her father left for the US to make money to build a house, but her mother ended up joining him, she lived with her abusive grandmother, then later with her other, not-so-abusive grandmother, before being smuggle across the border at age 8, living with her father and his abusive new wife (mom having abandoned the family to marry another guy), and manage to get through high school with help from a teacher. Whew. And she was also, obviously undocumented, at least until the amnesty bill in 1986 (remember when Republicans were pro-immigrant?) It sounds like quite the story, and she mentions most of that in various places in the book. The second half is interesting, with some good moments, but as we discussed in the club, Grande doesn’t really bring out any emotional resonance in the story.
Some of that was the writing style, which is both somewhat simple, and a little flat. The simplicity I attribute at least in part to her intended audience, which is fellow immigrants. A straightforward telling, without the difficulty of more advanced writing, would likely be more accessible to the average first-generation immigrant. You know, the ones who didn’t go get a creative writing degree. Grande seems very concerned as she describes her life that stories like hers be told, so that people like her and her family (and she is the only one with higher education) can see themselves represented. I have no quibble with her writing how she feels will best connect with her audience.
(For a totally different approach, but a similar refusal to cater to a white, monolingual audience, check out America Is Not The Heart by Elaine Castillo.)
I would say that in general, I found the passages about her family more interesting than those about school or writing. I felt her frustration with her younger sibling, who she tried to take in, but who eventually ran off with her boyfriend while in high school. I found the way her mother tried to start a perpetual garage sale on her front lawn quite amusing - yes, people did that in the neighborhood I grew up in. And yes, her mother was/is insufferably entitled. I also liked the scenes involving her husband when they were dating, from his accidental eating of a Thai chili, to his remarkable good behavior when visiting her family in Mexico. If you didn’t already know he was a nice guy, you would have known it from how he was a good sport throughout. He appears to have gotten that from his parents, who come across as thoroughly decent sorts who truly embraced their Minnesotan son marrying a Mexican-American immigrant. Not all in-laws are that accepting, to say the least.
On the other hand, before meeting him, my goodness was Grande horrible in her choice of men. Gah! The whole time I was thinking, “No. No. Don’t do it. Don’t even think about hooking up with him.” And of course she did. At least she got a good guy in the end.
Just a few quotes that I liked:
When I was seven years old, my father left my mother for my stepmother, and she was never the same. She didn’t want to be a mother to us anymore. It was as if when my father divorced her, she in turn divorced her children.
You can also get a feel for the language of the book in that quote.
Grande ends up rejecting religion altogether by her 20s, and I think she makes a good case for why. She can’t actually tell her grandmother, though.
What would she say if I told her that I rejected any religion that made me feel devalued as a woman, or which pressed upon me the belief that being poor was a good thing, or that all the misery in my life was God’s will and I should shut up and not complain?
Although I have not left religion completely, I have left organized religion, and for these reasons. (And some others…)
One final mention. In 1986, the Republican administration and congress passed the last true immigration reform we have had. (Let it sink in that we have been unable to make changes for the last 35 years, despite vast changes in geopolitics and an explosion of refugees around the world. Thus are racist politics in the US of A.)
In practice, what this means is that immigrants of my age (like Grande) had opportunities that today’s Dreamers do not have. One of the most devastating realizations of the last few years is how many in my extended family (to say nothing of people at our former church) genuinely think that we should deport 12 million people. In any other context, we would call that ethnic cleansing. But I have found that I do not actually share moral values with many people from my earlier life. (Including family.) We cannot even agree that ethnic cleansing is a bad thing, or that people like Grande who came here as children should not be evicted or marginalized. This is not mere politics. It goes to the core of moral values.
I guess in summary, I found the story interesting, the writing a bit bland, but definitely a worthwhile read. I also agree with Grande that these stories need to be told. Her story is the story of America too, after all.
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