The complete and fully searchable archive of ZYZZYVA’s 26 years of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art is coming soon. We’re working hard behind the scenes to make the entire archive available right here, free of charge. In the meantime, we hope you’ll enjoy browsing through these selections from our back issues.

‘Pack Time’ by Christina Olson: ZYZZYVA No. 111, Winter Issue

16209170178_243c5812f2_zChristina Olson is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Terminal Human Velocity (Stillhouse Press) and Before I Came Home Naked (Ankylosaurus Press). She teaches creative writing at Georgia Southern University. Two of Olson’s poems are featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111. Presented here in its entirety is the poem “Pack Time”:

In late May, the men succumbed to winter madness, shaving their heads and posing amid great hilarity while Hurley immortalized the moment with a photograph.
—from Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

Who can blame them—their ship sunk
in pack ice. The dark days looping
like a tape reel. The sled dogs snoozing
away in their dogloos. White noise.
Lentils and seal meat. In the Southern
hemisphere, summer is winter. One
morning, Hurley photographs ice
flowers and captions them as pink
carnations. The difference between
metaphor and madness is just five
letters. And a month is a false way
to mark time, a way to claim it
like a parcel of land. Nature the only
marker: pop of crocus, peel of sunburn.
On land, we flip a calendar page
like a badge, like a finger: we’ve survived
another thirty days. When the sun
never rises, men must make their own
calendars. They shave each other’s heads,
grinning with razors. They run hands
over each other’s pates, gleaming
in the lamplight. Their scalp skins
so white, like the ice. Like skulls.

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‘Still Life with Cacography’ by Dean Rader: ZYZZYVA No. 111, Winter Issue

 

Still Life with CacographyDean Rader is a professor of English at the University of San Francisco. His most recent poetry collections are “Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry” (Copper Canyon Press) and “Suture” (Black Lawrence), written with Simone Muench. You can see him in conversation with other ZYZZYVA contributors tomorrow at East Bay Booksellers. Two of Rader’s poems are featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111. Presented here in its entirety is the poem “Still Life with Cacography”:

“If some of those wonderful people had guns strapped right here— right to their waist or right to their ankle—and one of the people in that room happened to have it and goes ‘boom, boom,’ you know, that would have been a beautiful sight folks.”

—Donald Trump, four days after the Orlando Pulse shooting

We are in the car. My son Henry, who is four, asks, Dad how do you spell fart? I answer: H-E-N-R-Y.

To which he screams No! And before I can say anything else it’s
Dad Dad Dad what does hkjurotha spell, and I, having played this game before,

know better than to say that isn’t a word, so I say hook joo rotha, and he laughs, and then, Dad Dad what does ggtdxererererererhenruururur spell?

And he pauses for a second when I say ice cream, and he laughs even harder, and I want to believe he knows I’m teasing, and so when he says

Dad Dad Dad what does 4thy9998rgbvvvvvvvvv17 ortyhggggavin spell? Without pausing I say the name of his most loved stuffed animal,

and this goes on for many minutes, many miles, and later, I am listening to something else and have forgotten the game, the trees, the houses.

The bikers blur by like sentences we have jettisoned, which is why
he is confused when I answer nothing to his question of what the string

of letters and numbers he has placed together might signify, for he believes that every possible combination of letters makes a word, and I begin to think how

lovely that would be if the nearly in nite number of alphabetical arrangements had a corresponding word, like ifvzmoohj for “seeing the moon in the afternoon”

and wtiuklp for “Judy’s face after lemonade” or bnvaremc for “the distance between Cork and Limerick by wagon,” a different word for a different

day of his life, a word for every time I lose him at a park or in the store, a word for the uneaten grape on his plate, for the green monster

in his dream, the word for what it feels like when you are four and do not know the word for what you have lost. And I ask him

how you spell the word for when you talk to your dad and he
does not answer, and he says I don’t know, and I say how do you spell

the word when you call to your dad and he does not come, and there
is something again on the radio, and he says Dad how do you spell bam?

And then, Dad how do you spell pechew pechew pechew pechew?

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‘Understanding, Misunderstanding, and then Sitting Down to Write’ by Andrew Tonkovich: ZYZZYVA, No. 111

Andrew TonkovichAndrew Tonkovich is the co-editor of the anthology “Orange County: A Literary Field Guide,” published by Heyday, and editor of the Santa Monica Review. To ring in the new year, we’re presenting in its entirety his essay “Understanding, Misunderstanding, and then Sitting Down to Write” from ZYZZYVA No. 111

The following is an edited version of the closing talk given at the Community of Writers Workshop at Squaw Valley in July, 2017.

 “I live in terror of not being misunderstood.” —Oscar Wilde

I’m proud of at least the title of this talk, and the epigraph. If the rest of it falls at, I may revisit each, encouraging you to imagine that there was, early on, some weak hope or unlikely promise of revelation, insight, affirmation, encouragement. The title—which represents, alas, perhaps .002 percent of the actual lecture—offers elements that a title should, including action verbs, gerunds, some gentle wordplay, and direction, instruction, or expectation.

As further caveat or invitation, those who know me or can easily identify a living, breathing near-cartoon stereotype when they see one (the socialist-anarchist, peace-and-justice, pro-labor, anti-racist, anti-fascist, eco-feminist, vegetarian, hippie-punk, readerly-writerly, literary type) will be unsurprised that I take this opportunity to speak not only to writing but adopt a position, perhaps present a manifesto, rant or polemic (what we on the Left used to call an analysis) of how these might be understood just now. Although I expect buy-in on the title, I’ll understand if you argue with, reject, or ignore the balance of my spiel. All good, as the young folks say, notwithstanding the obviously difficult circumstances of life-art-politics, which are not all good, and why would we expect otherwise, in reality or in its fictional or nonfictional responses from or engagement by writers?

I have something urgent to share, however calmly delivered as a pep talk, congratulation, bon voyage into the everyday oblivion of writing, back home, alone, and away from the airy and elevated psycho-topography of generous workshop encouragement and stunning natural beauty. This tradition of mild provocation as send-off has been practiced by favorite writers with big ideas, Peter Mathiesssen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and each has undermined—as I will—formal expectations or, yes, tried to go those expectations one better. Indeed, that’s one of two options for the writer, and it’s pretty much my big and perhaps only observation and advice this morning. So, if you’d rather get up now for more coffee, care instead to stroll this indeed gorgeous, rugged alpine site for about seventeen more minutes, if you generally prefer trailers to the movie or, better yet, if you are off to organize a powerful grassroots direct-action campaign to take down a criminal political regime, here’s the takeaway:

As writers we can either produce a startling reiteration of a terrific story we’ve read before and somehow improve on it, or we can respond to, answer, undermine, and challenge other writers’ true and recognizable methods and strategies, and as a result produce strange, difficult, new ones. Both options are difficult, brave, require reading and hard work, sitting at the keyboard, but are worthwhile in their own ways, and might be considered in a helpful title, which I offer here, as promised.

Keep on reading!

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‘The Corps of Discovery’ by Kristopher Jansma: ZYZZYVA No. 111, Winter Issue

The Corps of DiscoveryKristopher Jansma is the author of the novel “Why We Came to the City,” published by Viking. His story “Chumship” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 105. Presented here is an excerpt from his story “The Corps of Discovery,” which you can read in its entirety in ZYZZYVA No. 111:  

We had a long way to go—this was the last comment my father made as we left Natalie’s house and eased westbound onto the interstate. He’d been over the route with me several times. St. Louis to Portland was just over two thousand miles. Six states, thirty hours. We’d stop in Nebraska that night, make it to Utah by the following day, and complete the trip late Sunday. All that time and distance stretching out on the other side of the y-spotted windshield was as real to me as the weight of my sister’s remaining things, stacked neatly in the truck behind us.

My father scratched at his beard as we drove out toward the edge of the city. I picked a blister forming at the base of my index finger. I was supposed to be back home in the Bronx, planning lessons. By early Monday morning, I’d be teaching eighth graders about Lewis and Clark, those explorers who, two hundred years ago, had set out not far from where we now drove. Following the Missouri River across a newly purchased Louisiana in search of a Northwest Passage to the Pacific.

“I-70 turns into I-29, then I-80,” my father said. “It’s almost a straight shot, really.”

Through the scratched window I looked out into the dark country for the green glint of mile markers. One every tenth, ticking down the distance. My father had taught me about these back when I’d first learned to drive, before GPS. Even now he would not turn on the location setting on his phone. Was there any reason for T-Mobile to know where he was every minute of the day? He was this type of father. Who’d delicately unfolded a broad white aaa map across the U-Haul’s hood before leaving Natalie’s. Even though we were traveling in “almost” a straight line. But we had to be ready for accidents—other people’s accidents. People were not to be trusted. Or, rather, they could only be trusted to be ill-prepared and unreliable.

Didn’t I remember the white Escalade, back on our trip to visit colleges? He’d bring this up soon. He did every time. How it had flipped as it tried to pass us at a hundred miles per hour. Like a great whale in the air ahead of us. If my father hadn’t been quick, it would have hit us.

And what about that old VW bus that had fishtailed right in front of the motor home we’d owned, back before Natalie had even been born? I’d been three, and could barely remember the RV, let alone the “hippie bus”—but I did remember it. Or I had grown up hearing the story so many times that it became the same thing.

I waited for my father to begin retelling these stories, but he was quiet.

Dry brown trees, cold and narrow, slipped by one after the other. I huddled inside the old army jacket that I’d found in Natalie’s closet. It had been mine before she’d stolen it. Now I guessed it was mine again. Heat spread slowly from the vents. Outside, in ashes of green, mile-tenths went by and went by and went by.

* * *

My father bought the Powerball tickets at an unusually festive rest stop in Kansas City. The whole place was decorated with chili pepper lights and sombreros. My father made no comment about this and neither did I. We hadn’t spoken in an hour and a half. We’d just driven along, rubbing sore hands and stretching sore backs. I had inherited the same extra vertebrae that had him at the chiropractor all the time when I was younger. He always used to tell me how sorry he was about that. He used to warn me that it would start to really give me hell when I got older. But not this time. Just listening to Natalie’s furniture shifting in the back of the truck. Smelling air freshener and listening to the radio.

“It’s actually just ‘Eagles’… not ‘The Eagles,’” my father would say when they came on the radio. Always like it was new information. Never with any awareness of having said it every time before, just as he routinely commented that the song most people called “Teenage Wasteland” was really titled “Baba O’Reilly,” as if he hadn’t told me at age twelve.

But not this time. It worried me. It worried me because I knew that we were both very capable of continuing this silence all the way to Oregon. The silence inside my father was the same one I heard inside myself. And I can only guess that it was the one Natalie heard, and that my grandfather heard. He’d passed away when I was seven, when my father was twenty- seven, the same age I was that winter.

Then he did speak, though not to me.

Order your copy of Issue No. 111.

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‘What If My Mother’ by Victoria Chang: ZYZZYVA No. 111, Winter Issue

What If My Mother
Victoria Chang is the author of four books of poems, the most recent being “Barbie Chang,” published by Copper Canyon Press in November. Two of her poems are featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111. Presented here in its entirety is the poem “What If My Mother”: 

What if my mother never protested
was never pro

anything never probed beyond
the small yard where

the bees lived with their constant
buzzing what if my

mother matched the bees in their
compliant striped

dresses minding their own business
afraid to wander too

far from the work that paid honey
afraid to wander too far

from the one queen they served
but maybe the bees

are not just working maybe the
bees make all that

noise because they are hiding things
because they don’t like

where they live are really livid not
timid not just little

serfs in striped furs maybe the bees
are not protégés to

one dictator but actually protesting
maybe the bees are

meeting each night in secret chambers
about the queen and

trying to make change to overthrow
her because she eats

all the royal jelly what if all I do is
have parties what if

I don’t do anything let others do
everything like my

mother who came to this country at
20 afraid to do

anything because she was finally free
what if we all do

nothing drink tea while filling our
notebooks like the

secretary bird with its long neck and
pen-like feathers fill the

sky with ideas ideations of ideas full of
ideology full of idiocy

that no one even reads one day the
moon will turn off

with a click like a light switch someone
pulls in a prison

we won’t be able to see the ideas anymore
our eyes won’t ever

adjust to the lack of light but in our ears
the bees will keep

screaming and we can only imagine
them disappearing

Order your copy of Issue No. 111.

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Giving Thanks: ‘Old Men at Sea’ by Andrew D. Cohen

Old Men at SeaPresented here is an essay we published back in our Spring 2016 Issue that we feel displays a sense of tenderness and empathy appropriate for this Thanksgiving holiday. We hope you’ll enjoy reading “Old Men at Sea” by Andrew D. Cohen in its entirety:

I’m driving my sons, nine and almost six, to their small, alternative private school here in Portland, Oregon, a school we send them to for the same reason we don’t let them watch television or use the computer—to keep back the world and its anguish for a few more years— even though some part of me, I confess, considers the school, the city, the simple lives they live, a bit too precious, too protected, because, well, they’re boys, and, old-fashioned as it sounds, I worry they won’t be tough enough to handle all that anguish when it inevitably comes knocking at their doors. I’m driving them along when Reuben, my younger son, still a baby, really, taut little body, round cheeks, wispy, soft hair, twisting a paper clip he grabbed off the kitchen table before we left, says, “Papa, how do you think the Eskimos took home the whales once they caught them?” and I pause for a moment, trying to figure out what he’s talking about so early in the morning, vaguely recalling a book we read weeks ago, when Ezra, my older son, lean and lanky, worrying as he does that we’ll be late for school, pushes up his glasses, and says, “I think they just towed them to shore with a rope,” which seems like a fair guess, a reasonable theory, until I remember The Old Man and the Sea, a book I loved back in college—for its adventure and excitement, its sheer feat of storytelling—and we’re still ten minutes from school, and my kids love a good story, so I say, “You guys ever heard of Ernest Hemingway?” which, of course, they haven’t, since neither of them has gotten through third grade, though I’m tempted to say something my father, a short-fused and hard-nosed businessman who believed our childhoods were too protected, would snarl: “What do they teach you in that fancy private school of yours anyway?” But I’ve worked much too hard trying to be a different kind of father for these two boys to veer so wildly off course, my high spirits notwithstanding, so I just say, “He was a writer, a great writer,” leaving out the part about his drinking and his lying and his misogyny, his boorishness and his obsession with this idea of manhood, and, of course, his suicide because these boys are too young for all that. Instead I tell them about Santiago, the old sherman from Cuba, and how he’s had terrible luck lately, hasn’t caught a fish in weeks, months maybe, such bad luck people won’t even talk to him. “But he’s tough, doesn’t give up easily—his luck is bound to change—and one morning when it’s still dark out he climbs into his little boat and rows and rows and rows out to the deep waters far off the coast where the big fish swim,” I say, looking in the rearview to see Reuben still pulling at the paper clip, fashioning it into some fabulous creation as he does, and Ezra, no longer worrying, just listening now, staring out the window with that dazey-gaze he gets while listening to the Mariners on the radio (our concession to the outside world), like he’s actually seeing it happen in front of him, everyone settling in, relaxing, even the sun making a rare late-winter appearance.

In this uncertain sea of fatherhood, you could say I’ve caught a good wind.

Continue reading

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‘The Story of a True Artist’ by Dominica Phetteplace: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter Issue

I was once a star on YouTube. With my friend Cam, we went by the handle Cam&Lo.

Our videos were all variations of the same theme, which we created together. Most of the screen would show whatever video game he was playing, with his joke commentary. The lower left of the screen contained a box that showed only the top of my head. Just my eyes, rimmed with liquid liner, and my blond hairbow headband atop my black hair. I would make various exaggerated expressions, depending on what was happening with the video game. That was my commentary.

At our peak, we had 800,000 subscribers. Which is a lot, though maybe not quite enough to justify calling myself a star. But I felt like a star. I got fan mail and hate mail. I got recognized at Celebcon, where fans would stop and ask to take selfies with the top half of my head.

My parents never understood what made our work popular and funny and interesting.

“I don’t get it,” they would say. “Can you explain it?”

“Exasperated sigh,” I would say. “If you don’t get it, then my explaining it won’t help. Shakes head.”

But I did have an agent, and that agent helped us get an endorsement deal from Taco Bell.

“It’s very important that the sponsored content you create remains authentic to your audience even while it elevates the brand,” she said on the conference call.

Cam and I agreed even though we knew this already. We agreed even though neither of us would ever be caught dead in a Taco Bell.

The video Cam put together showed him playing Battlefield, only all the bad guy heads had been replaced by Chalupas while the bullets had been replaced by Nachos Belgrande. The top half of my head was where you’d expect it, only my eyes had been replaced by rotating Doritos Locos Tacos that occasionally shot lasers to give Cam an assist. The hilarity was enhanced, as ever, by my hardworking eyebrows.

Actually, it was some of our best work. And we got $5,000 for it. My half was enough to put off foreclosure for another couple of months while my dad continued to look for a job. If we continued to get more deals like that and grow our audience, my parents might not have to work at all, and we could move into a Beverly Hills mansion with a swimming pool. That was the plan.

But after our big Taco Bell deal, Cam announced he was leaving YouTube, thus severing Cam&Lo.

“Sad face. It’s not you,” he said as he brushed his ironic Justin Bieber bangs from his face. “I need to pivot mediums in order to grow as an audience. This disruption will be good for the both of us. Find me on Vine, my handle is CAMCAM.”

Cam and I were artists in several different mediums, not just YouTube. We were best friends and collaborators. One of our installations in progress was the performance of trying to be popular. Like all worthwhile art, this was very difficult to execute, but we were making progress.

We had begun to eat lunch in the courtyard with the others. We went to parties on Friday nights. The ultimate goal was to continue to look down on the popular kids while being popular ourselves. It was going to be so awesome and meta, once finished. Now it was never going to be finished.

Cam ended us in first period.

In second period he was posting his first Vines.

By third period he already had 100,000 followers and counting.

At lunch I wasn’t sure who to eat with, so I went to the courtyard as usual.

“Facepalm,” he said when he saw me.

“Sigh,” I said.

“It’s just that the Popular Kids installation is going to be a solo work from here on out. Also, it’s now called Popular Kid, singular.”

I was too stunned to even say the words “stunned face” out loud, so I just turned and walked away.

“Wait,” he said.

So I stopped and paused a moment before turning around. I truly felt like the act of pausing and turning around would turn everything else around. Cam was wrong and would admit as much as soon as I faced him again and then things could get back to the way they were supposed to be.

“Yes?” I said when I was ready for my apology.

“My lawyer is sending you a contract. Check your email,” he said. Then I stormed off for real.

The contract arrived in fourth period. His lawyer used to be our lawyer. Now his lawyer was asking me to sign over my moral rights to Popular Kids for fifty dollars. Only a monster would ask for so much in exchange for so little, but financial straits being what they were, I took it.

I already knew my next installation would be the most powerful form of revenge I could think of.

The only way you can ever really hurt another artist is to create a work so awesomely brilliant and so similar to your rival’s that you obviate the need for your rival to exist at all. Aiming for suicide-inducing greatness sounds risky and cruel, but Cam was too much of a narcissist to ever self-annihilate. I could only hope to make him feel jealous and unnecessary, pretty much how I felt as I watched his follower count tick up, up, and up.

Of course each of us as humans contains the abyss, but by fifth period I felt like I contained nothing but the abyss.

How could he do this to me?

Order your copy of Issue No. 105.

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‘Good With Boys’ by Kristen Iskandrian: ZYZZYVA No. 109, Spring/Summer Issue

If you wanted a boy’s attention, you had to get it. You had to take it.

After dinner, I kept my eye on Esau. His mother was talking to Ms. Green and the two other parent chaperones. With a few other boys he headed toward Ornithology, which was fortunate, since it was adjacent to the Mineralogy wing, where I wanted to spend my time. I had some money to spend in the gift shop tomorrow and I was definitely going to get a few new polished rocks and minerals for my collection. Some agate, maybe. I did not want to lose sight of the educational purpose of this trip. I knew, deep in my bedrock layer, that Esau Abraham would come and Esau Abraham would go. I knew I had to keep a firm hold on my interests outside of boys. I stood looking at an exhibit containing necklaces of jade, peridot, and pink topaz, right next to the clusters of Mississippi pearls so creamy they seemed edible, and I felt stirred, filled with longing.

My desire for boys and my desire for certain other things—often inexplicable, sometimes beautiful, frequently plain, occasionally attainable, like a tiny plastic fifty-cent notebook charm complete with even tinier pencil, for my charm bracelet; sometimes not, like these exquisite jewels that came from places in the earth that no longer even exist—were knotted together as intricately as a DNA double helix. I wanted and wanted and wanted. I believed, like my great Aunt Jill, that objects had the power to protect me from harm—the harm of loneliness and my own impermanence—and I believed that boys had the same power.

My little voice told me, take what you want. Take what you can. Heal in the long shadows of the taking. My little voice and Aunt Jill’s little voice, maybe, were the same.

I realized I was standing with my hands and forehead pressed to the glass. I heard a few people enter the room and then Esau’s voice, “Adam— wait up!”

“Where are you guys going?” I asked, straightening up.

“Adam wants to go to the dinosaur room, right?” Esau asked. Adam was a shy boy, shyer than Esau, and obsessed with Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m not sure we’re allowed upstairs. I think we’re supposed to stay just on this floor,” I said, unsure of why I was taking the rule-abiding position, especially since I was planning on breaking a few unspoken rules later that night.

Esau looked at Adam. “I could ask my mom,” he said.

“Let’s just go,” I said. Being alone with Esau plus Adam was better than being alone without Esau. And it was fun to take the lead, exciting. “We can pretend we didn’t know.”

The three of us walked quickly to the lighted exit sign. I opened the heavy door to the stairwell and held it for Adam and Esau. I saw Mrs. Abraham craning her neck behind a few kids wandering between Botany and Mineralogy, looking, surely, for her son.

We hurried up a flight of stairs, laughing, which was the sound of our nervous bodies trying to expel their nervousness.

The Vertebrate Paleontology wing was cold and very dimly lit. We fell silent immediately upon entering, tiny insects beneath the impossibly tall ceilings. The air smelled liked stone—no, like bone. For a minute we stood there without moving, just inside the entrance. I felt a tingle in my body like a sustained high note, like I myself was an echo chamber for our collective giddiness. This would be a double trespass, I thought to myself. Once for being a forbidden area, twice for being an ancient era. We were moving through time in two directions, forward and backward. I wanted to be in charge of this moment, of being in this ideal place alone with two boys, like some better version of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my all-time favorite books. Surely it wasn’t too much to ask, to believe, that here under the spell of these skeletons and this flattering lighting they would both fall in love with me, and that although I would choose Esau, we would all remain friends and vow to undertake future adventures together. What good was a relationship, after all, with nobody around to witness it?

Order your copy of Issue No. 109.

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‘Alfonso’s Shadow Gets Away From Him’ by W.S. Di Piero: ZYZZYVA No. 109, Spring/Summer Issue

I dreamed my shadow left to find
its way alone. It jumped the moon
in a puddle by a curb and leaped
its greasy shadow leaping there.

It climbed a house and curtained down
upon a family of flesh-stalks gathered
by an almond tree, talking politics.
It eavesdropped on the uselessness.

I let it gleefully go as if it were
a thing of the past, its fortunes shot,
or a prayer or hymn or curse I left
in church or at the farmer’s market

where plums and pomegranates shine:
go, my shadow, and unbenison them.
I’m glad to live without you. Fasten not
your drear promise to me again.

Order your copy of Issue No. 109.

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‘Appetite’ by Victoria Patterson: ZYZZYVA No. 109, Spring/Summer Issue

Claire and I met at a party to celebrate the launch of her husband’s second book. My husband and I had moved from Colorado Springs to Los Angeles two years earlier, and an unsophisticated aura surrounded us, having both been raised in conventional middle-class Republican families. There was a certain type at parties like this: intellectual, vocally liberal, slightly bohemian, creative and with good taste, and quietly and mysteriously moneyed. I was watchful and impressed.

My husband, Jeff, taught history at a high school, most of his time consumed by a yearbook commitment he’d been pressured into taking, and I was on maternity leave from a secretarial position, though I’d quit soon to stay home with our newborn son, David. Jeff had heard about the party through a friend who hadn’t shown, and there was no one else we knew.

Displayed on a stand at a table where the book was being sold, Material Promises was more than 700 pages long, the cover a profile photograph of a somber and bearded and younger Richard, fist at his chin. Published by an academic press associated with the private college where he taught, his books were classified as experimental fiction. At that time I admired anyone who’d crossed that impenetrable threshold to publication and I hoped to meet him, though I didn’t yet want to think of myself as ambitious.

Richard sat at the corner of the living room, and I passed David—less than one month old—to Jeff. I made myself walk over. Though Richard gazed in the other direction, an almost imperceptible tug at his mouth led me to believe he knew I was there. I opened my mouth to speak, but in near synchronicity his head went back and his eyes closed and then he touched his eyelids with his fingertips as if in distress, so I retreated.

“Did you talk to him?” Jeff said.

I grimaced, letting him know he was no better at networking than me, and I took back our fussing son.

“Over an hour left,” I whispered, shaking my head no, wide-eyed, as Jeff gestured to the front door. We’d agreed to last at least two hours at the party.

Later I was breastfeeding David on a couch in a private den, his little leg poking out from the blanket that enclosed him at my chest, listening to his mmm-hmm-mmm sound, when I saw Claire studying a small landscape painting near the open door. She wore a simple black dress and absentmindedly fingered her jade choker, her hiccupping daughter facing her chest in a Baby Björn, splotchy legs and arms wobbling with each hiccup. Claire looked closer—and closer still—until it appeared her nose might touch the painting.

I knew she was married to Richard because I’d watched them earlier. She was affected with him and vice versa: they seemed to encourage it like a performance, both using the words “my love” with a condescending edge and an unnerving frequency. (“Pass me my drink, my love.” “Of course, my love. Here you are, my love.” “Thank you, my love.”) She was pale, elegant, and younger than Richard. I wondered how she remained so passionately thin—her figure like a boy’s—when like me she’d recently given birth.

Even before she turned and saw us—with a surprised step back and a smile—I knew she and her daughter would join us at the couch. And she did, unhooking Lily from her carrier and propping her forward on her lap, one hand at Lily’s chest and neck, tapping her back with the other. “Beautiful,” she said, glancing back at the painting. “The rest”—she gave a dismissive hand wave, while still supporting her daughter.

“Isn’t this your house?” I said.

“Oh, hell no,” she said in amusement and then added seriously, “It belongs to a colleague of Richard’s.”

For a long while we silently watched Lily bobble with each hiccup, a bubble of saliva forming at her bottom lip. The only other sound was the rhythmic patting of Claire’s palm against Lily’s back and David’s breastfeeding hum. Then Lily’s hiccups stopped and soon her head drooped in sleep.

Claire placed her at the couch between us, with Lily’s tiny arms and legs splayed. Claire and I shared notes: ages of babies (Lily three weeks older than David), our ages (both of us in our late twenties), and our birthing experiences (still viscerally recent and traumatic).

Then David drifted to sleep, his mouth barely tugging at my nipple, little ticklish nibbles. His leg shook outside the blanket, a convulsive twitch, and then he stilled, his mouth fully releasing my nipple and his leg and body leaden against me.

With both our babies asleep, our conversation became deeper, freighted, based on the profundity and strangeness of new motherhood and our mutual need for companionship. We talked about how we’d been mothered (hers a competitive intellectual Episcopalian, mine an anti-intellectual born-again Christian), and how long buried memories of our childhoods now came unbidden and unwanted. She paraphrased Germaine Greer, saying that once a woman has a child, her capacity for suffering deepens. We agreed that what we felt for our newborns was larger and more passionate than any love affair. Our marriages, our first loves, and our closest familial relationships paled. And how after we’d given birth, we’d both felt an uncanny awareness as if we were, as she phrased it, “at the center of an abyss.”

Purchase your copy of Issue No. 109 here.

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Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases

1. A Press Conference

It’s January 2013, and I’m watching some political theater on C-SPAN’s website. Senator Charles Schumer leans over a podium in a Senate pressroom. His glasses sit low on his nose, and he looks more like one of my great uncles than someone reading a policy statement to assembled reporters. But he and seven other senators have hammered out an immigration reform proposal, so this is News. “We still have a long way to go,” he says, “but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough.”

I take Senator Schumer’s announcement personally. Over the years, I’ve known many people who’ve been in the United States when the law said they shouldn’t be. I’m a public interest lawyer, but I’m not talking about clients. My list includes friends, my husband, and even my father’s mother and aunt, who as teenagers landed at Ellis Island with documents that weren’t their own. Crowded in the steamer’s steerage hull, they must have wondered, “Will it work?”

My great-aunt and grandmother’s papers weren’t doctored or stolen, though—they’d switched with each other. Aunt Mary had stopped growing after falling from a tree, and her family was afraid she’d be rejected at the border as physically defective. Her parents decided she should pretend to be younger, hence the paper switch with my grandmother, her younger sister. The trick worked. My grandmother and Aunt Mary both made it into the U.S. and wound up working in the garment factories. My grandmother, who could sew anything, left the garment shops to raise her family, but Aunt Mary kept working, sealing box after box, inserting slips of paper atop the folded clothing: “Inspected by Number 9.” When finally it came time to retire, she asked my father for help with her Social Security application and handed him a clutch of documents. Each showed a different birthday. My father settled on one, and she started getting her checks.

“She was such a dear woman,” my father says. Holding his hand just above his abdomen, he adds, “She was only about this tall.”

I never met Aunt Mary, so all I know about her is that she was a tiny, unassuming woman who once did something brave and illegal, abetted by my grandmother. People leap into acts such as these when they know the rules don’t favor their survival but they want to live anyway. I have many friends who, like Aunt Mary, did whatever it took to get into the U.S. They plodded through the desert, scrambled over fences, convinced border inspectors at the airport that they were coming as tourists, not to stay. One friend spent the night in a safe house in Tijuana, where she met women who were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador and had traded sex for rides all the way through Mexico.

Then there was an acquaintance who told me his family’s story through choking tears. He and his brother-in-law were entering the country at El Paso, because both lived in the United States with valid papers. The rest of the family was crossing illegally, away from the border checkpoint. “Whose bag is that?” the officer asked the man and his brother-in-law, seeing a purse left on one of the seats.

“My mother left it by accident,” the brother-in-law said, as if she’d forgotten the bag while sending the young men off on their journey. “A woman never just leaves her purse,” said the officer.

But, in the rush to cross with the coyotes, she had left it in the van. His face red with panic, the brother-in-law explained, “I haven’t seen her for fifteen years.” He’d been living in central Washington, and she in a small town in Jalisco.

The officer took pity and said, “Hurry and find her before she gets caught.”

This family was lucky, and some other friends of mine have been lucky, too, falling through one trapdoor or another in our immigration law. They got their papers and eventually became U.S. citizens. But many of my friends haven’t had that chance. They’re still waiting.

So when I see Charles Schumer on my screen, I hope he understands. His proposal comes with a catch, though. The border would have to be stamped secure before anyone could get their papers. By June 2013, Senator Schumer and his colleagues have come up with a bill, which includes border enforcement metrics and timetables; an amendment adds fencing, high- tech surveillance, and electronic identity checks in workplaces—hardly a surprise as the title of the bill starts with the term “border security.”

But perhaps the tripwires and sensors are props in a border security dream, rather than a depiction of border security reality. As I write this essay, I run an online search and pull up images of the border that show corrugated metal fence cutting through the desert. That fence is the picture we put to the word “border,” helping us believe in it as something real and constant, if vulnerable. It provides a place for the border, which the border needs if it’s going to mark the line we think it marks. We want the border to be clear and provide clarity. For almost twenty years, though, I’ve been trying to figure out where the border is and what it does, and I still don’t know.

2. Seeking Asylum, Filling Out Forms 

I didn’t grow up thinking of my family as refugees, but of course they were.

“They didn’t want to be drafted into the czar’s army,” I was told, or, “pogroms,” or “Grandpa’s older brothers and sister were revolutionaries.”

My family came with the stink of oppression on them. By the 1960s, we were upper middle-class, and I assumed that all American families followed this trajectory: the arc of the moral universe bends toward the suburbs. In those suburbs, my parents retained a sense of liberal responsibility. My father, a doctor, joined the nuclear disarmament movement and gave sidewalk talks on the medical effects of thermonuclear war. My mother opposed U.S. Cold War military interventions and on a file cabinet placed a bumper sticker that read, “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.” It wasn’t really, but from this I understood that El Salvador was more than just a far-flung place.

In the 1980s, El Salvador was steeped in a civil war in which the Salvadoran government committed massacres, tortured and disappeared its victims, fired on demonstrators, and murdered priests, nuns, and union members. I learned from my mother that our government was sending military advisors and supporting government death squads, which she thought we shouldn’t do. People were streaming from El Salvador by the tens of thousands, but my mother didn’t tell me about these refugees, because they weren’t arriving in the Philadelphia suburbs. I wouldn’t meet any until years later, when I helped a few apply for asylum.

That happened in 1994. I’d recently graduated from college and moved to Seattle. My boyfriend—now my husband—had come to the city from northern Mexico, and he found an apartment above the restaurant where he worked. The building was shabby, with second-story front doors along the balcony, motel-style, and access to the interior hallway (and laundry machines) through doors that opened directly into the apartments’ bathrooms.

I was working as a receptionist, and one day I saw a poster for an organization called the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), which provided legal services to immigrants. I called to see about volunteering. “We’ve got a training coming up,” the executive director told me. “Come by on Saturday.”

A paralegal, Julie, gathered us in the office’s dim conference room and taught us the basics of asylum law, showed us how to complete the forms, and told us what questions to ask the people we’d interview. She seemed to know everything. She explained that the circumstances of these asylum applications were unusual. Because the U.S. had backed the Salvadoran government—pressed it to continue the war, even—Salvadoran refugees had a very hard time getting asylum when they’d reached the United States. In fact, in the 1980s, immigration officials denied 97 percent of Salvadorans’ applications, even with all the murder and torture: bloody Cold War politics. Refugees and church groups sued, and the government finally agreed to give them another chance to apply.

The next weekend, I started interviewing applicants. The NWIRP headquarters was packed with men, women, children. I called the next person on the list into one of the offices and started asking all sorts of questions to make the application as strong as possible: the more terror a person had seen the better. But my interviewees didn’t easily produce stories of brutality. When I asked, “Why did you leave El Salvador?” they usually said, “Well, because of the war, like everyone else.” I didn’t know how to get them to say more, or know if there was more for them to say.

Across the hall, Julie stood in another office, tilting toward a seated client. She was saying, or I thought I heard her say, “Don’t you remember anything? You must remember something.”

She had a way of shaking out recollections. Maybe the Salvadorans’ memories lay beneath a tough rind of trauma that needed to be torn open. Or maybe they’d come to see horror as ordinary, not worthy of note. Either way, I learned that you can’t tell what people have been through by just looking at them. None of the people I interviewed came in maimed or disfigured, except for one man who was missing the top half of his middle finger. Instead of the digit, he had a smooth blossom of knuckle. He hadn’t lost the finger in the war, though. It had been lopped off when he’d reached his hand out of a moving car and caught it on a wire. I took his fingerprints for the application, and Julie told me to write in “missing finger” in the box where the print should have gone. The man and I shared a laugh over that. I was twenty-four when I did those interviews. Since then, I’ve met countless people who’ve been through hard things. I’ve met gay men raped by police in Latin America, Jamaican sugarcane cutters nickeled and dimed by rich growers in Florida, a woman who shot her stepfather, a woman who killed her own child in a drug fury. You learn to speak with people about difficult experiences.

But in 1994, all this was new for me. I began to get the hang of it, and when a Salvadoran interviewee said, “I just left because of the war,” I’d ask, “Did guerrillas or soldiers ever come to your house? Was anyone in your family ever killed?” And sometimes this helped people remember, and they’d say, “Oh, yes, there was that time …” I wrote in the answers, and in my memories I picture my interviewee and me in the dusty air of a dingy office, leaning over the application to review it together. The word “alien” appeared on the application in clear black letters, but I didn’t think of the Salvadorans as aliens. If an army bombs a person’s town with weapons provided by the United States, aided by training in the U.S., doesn’t that person have a relationship with the United States? How can we talk about that person as an alien, if there’s no border between us that really counts?

3. Making Our Map

And yet we have maps that neatly mark the boundaries and make them real.

But: there are parts of the United States that don’t appear on most maps of the United States. Pull up a map online, and you’ll get the contiguous forty-eight with Alaska and Hawaii shifted to the southwestern flank, as if pushed there by a finger of godlike proportions. You don’t see Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the other “unincorporated territories” of the United States. Although these places belong to our country—whatever the word “belong” may mean—the godlike finger has not moved them within our sight line.

RoughRider-pic

Which takes me to a photograph I’ve downloaded from the National Archives. In the photo, Teddy Roosevelt stands atop San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898, surrounded by his Rough Riders. They’ve just overrun Spanish forces, having advanced behind a line of Gatling gun fire. They moved, in Lt. John Pershing’s words, “as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees.” Now they’re posing for a photograph to portray their glory. That’s fine as far as capturing the triumph of that battle goes, but the photo also raises the question of border control. Because of the Spanish American War, the U.S. border was shifting again, and no one knew where it would make landfall.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, and the United States had taken it upon itself to liberate Cuba from Spanish tyranny. By the war’s close, we had a new set of territories, among them the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. President McKinley couldn’t locate these places on a map, but the country still had to decide what to do with them. Should they eventually join the U.S. on equal footing with the states? Should they be treated like nations-but-not-quite-nations, as with the American Indians? Or should the U.S. just cast the new colonies off right away?

These questions concerned the identity of the United States, a country founded on the idea of self-rule, and they weren’t easy to answer. Political leaders and legal scholars began developing proposals and examining the Constitution, while Congress held heated debates. The Anti-Imperialist League roused a crowd of ten thousand at its convention in Chicago, where Massachusetts Senator George Hoar warned the country against descending into “the modern swamp and cesspool of imperialism.” At that point, he thought we still had hope.

But scholar Abbott Lawrence Lowell, future president of Harvard, where he was a professor of government, believed this hope was misplaced: the anti-imperialists had misperceived the essential nature of the U.S. “(T)here has never been a time, since the adoption of the first ordinance for the government of the Northwest Territory in 1784,” he reminded his readers, “when the United States has not had colonies.”

Yet Lowell still saw something different about the new possessions that meant they couldn’t just be fed into the country’s mill of expansion. “The settlers in the West carried with them the laws and customs of the East, and the precious habit of self-government,” he wrote in 1899 in the Atlantic Monthly. Puerto Rico and the Philippines: they were filled with people different from those settlers, who were us. They had no history of self-rule, and, being insufficiently civilized, couldn’t bear the burden of it. It would be “sheer cruelty” to foist it on the Filipinos, Lowell warned, and even for the Puerto Ricans, “self-government must be gradual and tentative.”

The year Lowell’s words were published, my family lived in czarist Russia. We weren’t yet part of this us. Still, in 2014, I can sit at my desk, sort through Lowell’s article, and wonder, as an American: what was it like for us to question the nature of our country in the wake of those foreign invasions? A century later, we have more experience with this sort of thing. We know that occupying Iraq for eight years doesn’t mean Iraq is part of the United States, and it doesn’t mean Iraqis become Americans. We can enact our will on people without feeling like those actions shift our borders. This wasn’t always so clear, and the debates continued. In 1901, fruit merchant Samuel Downes walked into this open question when he attempted to receive a shipment of oranges from the Port of New York. Downes was a founding officer of the city’s Wholesale Fruit and Produce Association and a donor to the Five Points Mission. Probably he was a businessman of some influence in the city.

However, when he tried to get his oranges—thirty-three boxes shipped from Puerto Rico—he learned that customs was charging him $659.35 in import duties. He protested: Puerto Rico was part of the United States. But the customs officials didn’t agree, so, instead of letting his oranges rot, Downes paid the duties and hired a lawyer, Frederic Coudert, who’d been gathering test cases to take to the Supreme Court. Coudert planned to argue that Puerto Rico belonged to the U.S., and the Constitution barred customs officials from treating it any differently.

Much was at stake in the decision—and not just national identity. Oranges and other commodities meant big money, so while almost no one knows about Downes v. Bidwellnow, the case was a national event back in 1901. When it got out that the court was about to announce its ruling, spectators swarmed into the courtroom, eager for the decision.

The justices issued a ruling that continues to confound. For one thing, the decision had no clear majority and was cobbled together from a series of concurring opinions. For another, the justices decided Puerto Rico may belong to the United States, but that doesn’t make Puerto Rico part of the United States. In the decision’s most famous phrase, Justice White called the island “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense,” and I don’t know how any cartographer could express that paradox on a map, godlike finger or not. At any rate, Samuel Downes wouldn’t get his $659.35 back. The duty remained on the oranges, which were foreign.

But what about the Puerto Ricans? Were they also foreign?

This takes us to the case of Isabel González, chronicled by legal historian Sam Erman. In 1902, González sailed to New York in search of her errant fiancé, who was working at a linoleum plant on Staten Island. When she landed at the Port of New York, she was pregnant—making her sexually suspect in addition to racially undesirable—so port officials wanted to block her from entering as an “indigent immigrant.” She found herself in the middle of the debate over the status of Puerto Ricans, and she took a position, arguing that she was a United States citizen. Even after she married her fiancé and became eligible to enter the U.S. through this marriage, she kept it secret so she could pursue her case.

A federal appeals court declared her an alien. Coudert, Downes’ lawyer, wrote, “(A)s the law stands to-day, we have a new and seemingly paradoxical legal category of ‘American Aliens.’” He represented Gonzalez before the Supreme Court, arguing, Erman writes, that because U.S. citizenship really didn’t guarantee much in the way of rights, there was no reason to deny it to the Puerto Ricans. The court wasn’t willing to go that far. It declared that González wasn’t an alien, but she wasn’t a citizen, either.

It took fifteen years for Congress to extend citizenship—statutory citizenship, meaning not guaranteed by the Constitution—to Puerto Ricans, and President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill on March 2, 1917. Later that month Puerto Rico’s appointed governor, Arthur Yager, appeared before the island’s legislators and addressed them as “fellow citizens of the United States.”

“I welcome you into our great national family with high hopes,” the New York Timesreports him as saying, and I imagine him standing grandly at the podium, arms spread wide in imperial embrace.

That November, Governor Yager gathered at San Juan’s Municipal Theater with his daughter, the president of the House of Delegates, and other political and military leaders. They were there to draw eight thousand draft numbers for World War I, making a public ceremony of conscription. Miss Yager picked the first number. The Puerto Ricans went off to war, but the island still wasn’t fully part of the United States and isn’t to this day. You may find Puerto Rico on some U.S. maps, at the tail end of a string of Caribbean islands. It will be marked as “Puerto Rico (U.S.).”

4. Origin Stories

No matter what dangers my family escaped in the early twentieth century, they couldn’t have predicted the greatest danger, which probably would have consumed them had they stayed in Europe. Just as there are still Jews despite genocide, there are still Indians. (When I was a child the idea of an Indian seemed magical to me. In one of my earliest memories, I’m sitting with my family at a Phillies game in Veterans Stadium, plastic seats crummy with peanut-shell dust, when my father says, “I think that man over there is an American Indian.” I searched for the Indian in the stands, but if I saw him I don’t remember it; I recall only the feeling of fascination and surprise. There were still Indians! Now I wonder if some Nazis dreamed of the day that a few leftover Jews would fascinate rather than repel—but I shouldn’t stretch this comparison, because like unhappy families each genocide is genocidal in its own way.)

We could ask many questions about our American genocide, among them questions about borders. On state maps now, sometimes you’ll see the boundaries of reservations marked out, and sometimes you won’t. This points to the unsettled status of Native nations. They’re sovereign nations, but they’re also tangled up in jurisdictional confusion—among the tribes, states, and federal governments—that compromises self-government and, to outsiders, may make them seem like something less. One example is that tribal courts may not prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes in their territory. When the victims are Indians, the federal government is supposed to handle these crimes, such as rape, but it has a history of overlooking them, so it’s as if every non-Native American on a reservation carries diplomatic immunity. In 2015, the law is changing. Native courts will be able to try non-Indians for some crimes of intimate violence against Indians, which seems like a good development, but it doesn’t make jurisdiction entirely clear—jurisdiction and territory still won’t be the same thing, as we often assume they are.

It’s impossible to separate violence from the writing and rewriting of borders. In 1831, amid machinations to expel the “Five Civilized Tribes” from the South, the Supreme Court decided it couldn’t hear a case brought by the Cherokees, who were challenging Georgia’s right to extend state law to their territory. The court’s refusal to hear the Cherokee claim rested on an interpretation of geography. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “The Indian Territory is admitted to compose a part of the United States. In all our maps, geographical treatises, histories, and laws, it is so considered.” And so, the court determined, the Cherokee represented not a “foreign state” but a “domestic, dependent nation” lacking the right to sue Georgia in U.S. courts. If a border existed between the Cherokee Nation and Georgia, in this instance it couldn’t keep Georgia out.

I’m looking at another photograph from the National Archives. It depicts the delegation led by Spotted Tail, a Sicangu Lakota leader, to Washington, D.C. The official record indicates the photo was taken sometime between 1871 and 1907, but since Spotted Tail was killed by Crow Dog in 1881 the date range must be too broad. I don’t know who else appears in the photo or what Spotted Tail and his delegation were doing in D.C. I’ve only just learned that he ever existed, and all I see in this photograph of bygone Indians—with their moccasins, blankets, braided hair, and pipes—is a representation of inevitability, which is my fault and not theirs.

Spotted-Tail-pic

Spotted Tail was born eight years before the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia decision. Crow Dog, the man who killed him, was born just a couple of years after. Both came to live on the Great Sioux Reservation decades later, following years of war. Spotted Tail had been imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth after fighting in the Sioux War of 1855. Traveling to the fort under military guard, he passed by so many white farms and towns that he came to believe there was no way to defeat the United States. Crow Dog had fought against the U.S., too, and he also had to make his peace, although I can’t fathom how complicated it must be for a person to negotiate with a society that has committed genocide against him.

The peace treaty that created the Great Sioux Reservation (and set its boundaries) was a nation-to-nation agreement, but it put the U.S. government deep into territory that supposedly wasn’t within U.S. jurisdiction. There would be a U.S. Indian agent on the reservation and an agency office, along with a school, buildings for a carpenter and blacksmith, and provisions to turn the Indians into farmers.

In the end, Crow Dog and Spotted Tail both wound up living here and assuming roles of political leadership. Crow Dog became a tribal police captain. Spotted Tail, a chief, carried a rifle and threw his weight around. He removed Crow Dog from his position twice, and Crow Dog may have suspected Spotted Tail of pocketing tribal money. There were factions, differences of opinion, tactics, and maneuvering. This is what I understand from my reading, although I can’t really understand—I’d have to travel to a different time, language, culture, set of politics.

But I can get a sense of the difficulties. Spotted Tail, Crow Dog, and other leaders had the railroad expansion bearing down on them, the crushing forces of assimilation policy, the U.S. Indian agent right there in his office, boring the American state into Lakota territory. Crow Dog is perceived as being less willing to make concessions to the Americans, Spotted Tail less reluctant.

Yet it will always be a mystery why, exactly, Crow Dog killed Spotted Tail that day. Spotted Tail had attended a tribal council meeting at the Rosebud Indian agency, where the council was planning another D.C. delegation, which Spotted Tail would head. When the meeting disbanded, he mounted his horse and started home. He saw Crow Dog crouched next to a wagon, apparently tying his moccasins but really lying in wait. Crow Dog raised his rifle and shot Spotted Tail through his left breast.

That’s one version of the event. In another I’ve read, the events go like this:

Crow Dog was fixing a bar above his wagon’s axle, while his wife, Pretty Camp, waited in the wagon with their child. Spotted Tail galloped toward them, stopped, and drew his pistol. Pretty Camp yelled a warning, and Crow Dog fired.

In both versions, the tribal council met the next day and, according to legal scholar Sidney Harring, ordered a payment to Spotted Tail’s family of $600, eight horses, and one blanket, which settled everything as far as the Lakota were concerned.

But even if they thought the case was closed, the story continued. In the killing of Spotted Tail, Harring explains, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) saw a test case for pushing its policy of assimilation and establishing criminal jurisdiction in Indian country. The BIA pressed the Attorney to prosecute Crow Dog—the idea being that he’d gotten away with murder—and he was sentenced to hang. With his legal fees paid by the BIA, Crow Dog petitioned the Supreme Court, and once again the court had geographic questions on its hands. Did the treaties and federal statutes allow the federal government to cross the border and convict one Indian for the murder of another? The court said they didn’t. As “aliens and strangers” in Indian country, they lived by their own laws—a victory for tribal sovereignty.

But the victory didn’t last. For one thing, a different sense of geography had taken hold among the citizens of the United States. “The Supreme Court has rendered a decision which will startle most readers,” the New York Times announced. “The decision is that there are persons living in the United States and not subject to the jurisdiction of any State or Federal Courts.”

I can’t imagine Crow Dog believed he was living in the United States, and he wasn’t, really—he was in Indian country—but it’s striking that two sets of people can look at the same piece of land and understand it so differently. This case, maybe more than any other, shows how much the history of the border is also a history of imagination. It’s a matter of who has the power to impose their imagination on the other.

The BIA and white reformers, who wanted the Indians fed into their civilizing machine, didn’t let the Supreme Court have the last word. They worked the legislative process, using Ex Parte Crow Dog as fodder. They had the Major Crimes Act slipped into an appropriations bill and won criminal jurisdiction after all, kicking off another reworking of geography. Ten years later, Congress decided to turn the reservations into individual plots, with “surplus” land to be sold off. The Supreme Court gave its approval in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, which permitted Congress to reach into Indian land to administer it as it saw fit. Ninety million acres were absorbed into the United States, reservations rendered patchwork.

Through separate legislation, the Great Sioux Reservation was divided into several smaller reservations and whittled down. Crow Dog continued as a traditional leader, joined the Ghost Dance movement, and for years refused to accept his allotment.

I thought this would be the last I’d read about him, and then I came across a New YorkTimes article from 1903. That was the year my grandfather was born in czarist Russia, the Supreme Court decided Lone Wolf, and the year after the U.S. defeated the Filipinos’ war for independence—a good time for empire. Crow Dog was about seventy and had just left the Rosebud Reservation for New York City. The Times headline announced: “Indians Call on Mayor; Mr. Low Cordially Greets Crow Dog, Who Bears Honors as an Assassin.”

Crow Dog had joined a delegation of fifteen Indians in traditional dress, and they stopped in on the mayor on their way to Coney Island, where they’d perform that summer for the city’s heat-drenched masses. An interpreter handled the introductions in the mayor’s office. “This is Crow Dog,” he said, “who assassinated Spotted Tail, chief of the Arapahoes, some years ago.” The mayor shook Crow Dog’s hand and, after enjoying the company of the costumed Indians, “bid them all adieu.”

5. Borders and Bodies

My favorite constitutional amendment is the fourth, which protects the people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Bill of Rights overall limits how government intervenes in our lives, but the Fourth Amendment feels most personal, most visceral, because searches and seizures involve state incursions into our homes, our belongings, and even our bodies. The Fourth Amendment also works a kind of legal alchemy on the border, changing its substance.

In 1983, Rosa Montoya boarded a plane in Bogotá, having first swallowed eighty-eight balloons filled with cocaine. She carried in her body the balloons, potentially small bombs of poison, into the airport in Los Angeles. When she landed, she was questioned by customs officials, who locked her up for about twenty-four hours, until they got a warrant and a doctor performed a rectal exam. The doctor fished out the first of the bags, and the rest she passed. Her case wound up before the Supreme Court.

For Justice William Rehnquist, writing the majority opinion, Rosa Montoya was a criminal who during her detention refused food and drink, refused to use the bathroom, retracted her consent for an X-ray, then falsely claimed to be pregnant. Justice William Brennan, in his dissent, paints a different picture. He mentions the snapshots of Rosa Montoya’s children that she extracted from her purse whenever someone new entered the lockup room. He discusses the strip-searches she endured and writes that, when told she couldn’t leave until she excreted into a waste basket, she responded, “I will not submit to your degradation, and I’d rather die.”

I don’t know anything more about Rosa Montoya than this. But ultimately United States v. Montoya de Hernandez isn’t about her. It’s about what the government can subject a person to at the border, where usual Fourth Amendment protections don’t apply. That’s why the court found her detention reasonable, and why to this day people can find themselves locked up at the border, hours on end, with no idea what they’re suspected of having done wrong. I’ve become used to the idea that the government has more power at the border and people less, so stories like these don’t surprise me, and sometimes I find myself more astonished at people’s outrage when they’re put through extensive questioning than at the treatment itself. It’s the border. What did you expect?

To shake me back to reason, it takes a lawsuit like one filed by the ACLU of Texas in December, 2013. The ACLU’s client says that, after a drug-sniffing dog jumped on her at the border crossing, she was strip-searched, probed anally and vaginally, shackled to a hospital exam table and probed again, given a laxative that made her defecate, and put under X-ray and CT scans. She asked the border agents if they had a warrant. They told her they didn’t need one and asked her to sign a waiver if she didn’t want to be billed. She refused, and the hospital sent her a statement in the thousands of dollars. At every step, the men who searched her found no drugs.

Does the border mean that strange men can put their fingers in your vagina, again and again, without your consent? In his dissent in Montoya de Hernandez, Justice Brennan raised a warning about this kind of abuse—although he may not have imagined abuse of this magnitude. “Indefinite involuntary incommunicado detentions ‘for investigation’ are the hallmark of a police state,” he wrote, “not a free society.”

There’s another element of strangeness that isn’t acknowledged explicitly in the Montoya de Hernandez decision. The border that Rosa Montoya was trying to cross wouldn’t show up on the map as a border. It’s somewhere in the L.A. airport, not at the line between Juárez and El Paso, or at Peace Arch International Park, which links Washington and British Columbia. In legal terms, border points such as those at airports are called the “functional equivalent of the border.” They also include territorial waters, spots where roads coming from the actual border converge, UPS sorting hubs, etc.: places that aren’t exactly the border, but close enough.

In other words, to conduct a border search or detention you have to be at the border, but where is the border? On this question, one court has explained, “the border is elastic.” What’s important isn’t that the search takes place at the border but that the person or thing being searched be associated with the border. There’s a three-pronged test to see if this association exists. It asks: Can we be reasonably certain the person/object crossed the border? That the person/object didn’t materially change since crossing? That the search was carried out as soon as practical? Then there is the “extended border” doctrine, with its own approach. These are the kinds of legal tools that, after some time in law school, you begin to see as entirely reasonable. And maybe the tools do make sense, but at some point the inquiry should begin to feel a little metaphysical.

The border is elastic, like a rubber band? Such an idea should make the phrase “border security” evaporate into fantasy.

But if it’s a fantasy, it’s enacted in real life. The ACLU has identified a “Constitution Free Zone” radiating one hundred miles from the border. In this zone, law enforcement sets up checkpoints and patrols bus and train terminals, asking people for papers. And legal scholar Jennifer Chacón has written about border powers washing into the interior, becoming part of everyday policing. In Arizona, with their “papers please” law, state legislators have been explicit in their belief that everyone should be prepared to show the badge of their belonging. But they don’t really mean everyone, and the Supreme Court has held that government agents may consider race when deciding who to stop near the border. So, maybe the border isn’t just a place but also a trait some people take with them wherever they go.

6. Being and Not Being

Since three of my four grandparents passed through Ellis Island, I think of it as a symbol of belonging, but it also stands for a strange idea: that a person can be in the United States without being in the United States. In the 1950s, this happened to Ignatz Mezei, whose story is documented best by law professor Charles Weisselberg.

Born in Gibraltar, Hungary, or somewhere else—it’s never entirely clear—Mezei had moved to Buffalo in the 1920s, where he lived for more than twenty years, working as a cabinetmaker, selling war bonds, serving as an air-raid warden, and so forth. In 1948, with Europe still in turmoil after the war, he traveled to Romania to see his dying mother, but Romania denied him entry. He wound up stuck in Hungary for nineteen months, unable to obtain an exit visa. When he finally got the visa, he headed back home from France on a steamer, but immigration officials stopped him at Ellis Island. The government had received a confidential tip that he was a subversive. There would be no hearing in which he could argue otherwise. The attorney general declared his entry “prejudicial to the public interest” and ordered him permanently excluded.

Detained on Ellis Island, Mezei endeared himself to the people in charge. He fixed things—the pool tables, the couches—and later the guards and officials remembered him fondly to the New York Times, calling him “a nice man.” While he tinkered and waited, the government was looking for another country for him. “During his detention,” the Times reported, “he was twice put on French Line ships for return to Europe, but was rejected by England and France.” Hungary didn’t want him, and various Latin American countries didn’t, either.

Throughout, Mezei asked to be let back into the United States, where he was but wasn’t. He filed five habeas corpus petitions to at least get a hearing, and finally he won the fifth. He left Ellis Island under a $3,000 bond, and reported to immigration officials in Buffalo every week while his case continued. During this time in Buffalo, legally speaking he remained on Ellis Island, waiting to see if he’d be able to cross the border into the United States.

The government appealed the grant of habeas and won in the Supreme Court: because Mezei hadn’t entered the United States, the decision went, he didn’t have the same rights to a hearing as if he’d been in the country. It didn’t matter that he’d been detained for so long on Ellis Island, the court said, because “harborage at Ellis Island is not entry into the United States.” The time he spent out on bond in Buffalo didn’t count, either.

After the court’s decision, Mezei headed back to the island to resume his indefinite detention. A photo in the New York Times captured him on this journey: a man in late middle age with graying hair and a neat mustache, dressed in a suit with vest and tie, framed between two bars aboard the ferry. He looked almost jaunty, but the caption called this his “journey to nowhere.” He’d brought along “a bag of upstate apples in one hand and his tools and clothing in the other.” He still struggled with English and, through his Hungarian-speaking attorney, said, “I feel as if I was walking to death.”

His case got press attention. Finally, the U.S. attorney general decided to let him go before a board of special inquiry. The hearing revealed that Mezei’s life had some complications. First, there was a criminal conviction. Back in 1935, he’d bought seven bags of stolen flour and received a ten-dollar fine. His wife attempted to explain: he’d thought she’d ordered the flour, it was a mistake, but no matter—the conviction made him excludable. Then there were the political activities, namely his participation in the Hungarian lodge of the International Workers Order, which had been placed on a list of subversive organizations. Mezei denied being a communist; the government produced witnesses—one later revealed to be a paid perjurer—who testified that he was. On April 19, 1954, the board declared him a security risk, and it seemed he’d be on Ellis Island forever.

In August, though, the Justice Department granted him parole for reasons unknown. As a parolee, Mezei left Ellis Island and boarded a train for Buffalo, all still without legally being in the United States. Even in western New York—where, banned from the Carpenters Union, he subsisted on bottom-of-the-barrel jobs—he took the border with him and never managed to cross over.

A few years ago, I saw that Mezei’s name had come up in the case of seventeen Uighurs, Muslim refugees from China who’d been scooped up in the war on terror and imprisoned at Guantánamo. There they spent year after year in grim isolation, even after the U.S. government determined it had no authority to keep them locked up, because: where to send them? They couldn’t go back to China, which they’d fled and China was pressuring other countries not to take them. So, the Uighurs proposed making their lives in the United States, and why not? The U.S. had reached into Afghanistan and taken the Uighurs. The Obama administration considered the proposal, but the politics got messy. Elected officials from both parties objected, and then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Associated Press that Americans “don’t want these men in their neighborhoods.”

The Uighurs sued and won a favorable ruling from a district court judge, who ordered them released into the U.S. The victory was short-lived: the appeals court reversed with language that chills. “An undercurrent of petitioners’ arguments is that they deserve to be released into this country after all they have endured at the hands of the United States,” wrote Judge Raymond Randolph. “But such sentiments, however high-minded, do not represent a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of the political branches.” In this settled law, he included the decision that would have kept Ignatz Mezei confined to Ellis Island for the rest of his life, without so much as a hearing; many scholars had considered Mezei a legal relic.

I read Judge Randolph’s words and find them astonishing. Shouldn’t the Constitution protect these men—refugees from Chinese repression—from perpetual detention in a prison camp? No, said Judge Randolph, pushing the Uighurs beyond the edge of the Constitution. Despite recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the rights of Guantánamo prisoners, he declared that “the due process clause does not apply to aliens without property or presence in the sovereign territory of the United States.”

In this case, I don’t know how to think of the border as anything but a bald exercise of power and a heartless practical joke.

The Uighurs aren’t on Guantánamo anymore. Their lives being not entirely their own, some were sent to Albania, others to Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, and the last to Slovakia. In 2012, two were shipped off to El Salvador, the country that started me wondering about the oddity of borders.

7. Arrive and Forget

It’s the spring of 1992, I’m in my maternal grandparents’ apartment in Philadelphia, and my grandmother is commenting on the Haitians: specifically, the boat people we’ve seen on television lately, bobbing in overloaded vessels as Coast Guard officers lean from sleek cutters, poised for rescue.

In his working life, my grandfather was a neighborhood pharmacist who’d vaulted himself into the lower middle class. Now my grandmother and he live in a tidy apartment filled with family china and ceramic bowls generous with Pearson’s Coffee Nips and other wrapped candies.

“They’re so ragged looking,” my grandmother says of the Haitians, who are risking their lives to reach the United States.

The Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has been overthrown, and paramilitaries are beating people, killing them, taking over opposition radio, broadcasting threats on its own station. From what my family and I know of Haiti, this kind of violent repression is nothing new; we remember the days of the Duvalier dictatorship, before Aristide’s election, and in my mind I recreate an image of Michele Duvalier, slender and elegant wife of dictator Jean-Claude, smoking a long cigarette as her family flees to the airport in their Mercedes. But the boat people are not elegant, and my grandmother asks, “What can they possibly do here?”

She’s forgotten that she comes from boat people, too. She was born in the Lower East Side in 1908, months after her family landed, following a journey that must have involved trains, worrying, waiting, and bribery, all before the trip over the ocean. They traveled steerage, which reeked of vomit and shit, and they must have reeked themselves when they emerged into sunlight and squinted at their new city. They didn’t have a penny to their name. When my grandmother learned to speak, she learned Yiddish first. What did her family do here in the United States?

I suspect they did pretty much anything they could. They sewed and haggled. They were people in transition, and it’s this transition I see when I look at historical photos of the arriving Jews. I see both their dark foreignness and the Americans they will someday become, two inseparable qualities. For me, that’s the best of the United States: the constant change and renewal, not necessarily a Puritan move toward perfection as much as a fortunate inability to be a single, unchanging thing, no matter how much we may try to fix that. My family slipped past the border before it was drawn against them in 1924, when Congress said no more Jews.

Almost seventy years later, when my grandmother and I looked at the Haitians in their boats, we saw black people whom our government was trying very hard to keep from becoming Americans. I didn’t know then that it had been presidential policy since 1981 to have the Coast Guard net the Haitians before they hit our shores—in fact, before they even reached our territorial waters. Over the years, this policy took different forms. For a time, the Coast Guard was warehousing Haitians on Guantánamo, leaving them to languish in tent camps, if it thought they’d be persecuted in Haiti. The rest the Coast Guard ferried back. Then, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush decided there was no more room at Guantánamo and ordered that, from then on, all Haitians be sent back, refugees or not.

It seems to me that at the heart of Bush’s executive order lay a border control problem as—or even more—complex than the one he was trying to solve. The order announced that the United States had no legal obligations to refugees outside our territorial waters—their rights began only at the border. But what about the power that the U.S. exercised in the name of law enforcement? This didn’t stop at the border. The Coast Guard traveled into the high seas, stopped foreign boats, questioned passengers, demanded papers, and forced the Haitians back to Haiti.

Reaching Port-au-Prince, the Coast Guard had to hose some of the returning refugees off the boats—because the refugees knew what they were facing. As a writer for the Miami New Times, Steve Almond reported the stories that some repatriated Haitians had recounted to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. They told stories of the military hunting returnees down, herding them onto trucks, shooting them to death. Many fled again.

Haitian community groups sued the administration. In March 1993, the Supreme Court heard the case challenging the new executive order, and the plaintiffs argued that the government was barred from repatriating any refugee, regardless of where it stopped them. The court ruled that the refugee statute and the U.N. treaty on refugees gave the Haitians no protection in international waters and also set no limit on what the U.S. government could do there. The relevant law, the court said, is “completely silent with respect to … possible application to actions taken by a country beyond its own borders.” Only Justice Harry Blackmun dissented.

I first read this decision in the 1990s and still struggle with it. The U.S. was venturing as law enforcers into a place where refugees had no rights. Was it a lawless zone or not? I know people will say this question is naïve. The government was dealing with reality, a challenging refugee crisis, etc.

But that’s not all that’s real. When the Haitians were heading toward Florida, I was a twenty-two-year-old college student and understood nothing about Haiti. I certainly didn’t know that, by 1992, Haiti and the United States had a “long, torrid relationship,” in the words of journalist Amy Wilentz. I don’t think that relationship began only in 1915, when the U.S. invaded Haiti, ostensibly to save it from chaos only to occupy the country until 1934 and establish what historian Donald Cooper called a “thinly-disguised military dictatorship.” Still, the occupation is a pretty significant element of our relationship with Haiti—the starting point for “treat[ing] Haitian governments, at best, as rubber stamps for U.S. policy and for American businesses working in Haiti,” as Wilentz argues—and yet something few Americans know anything about.

This is another thing about the border: it veils what we see and what we know, even about ourselves. It protects our sense of virtue, creates a world in which we can act as empire while believing that we don’t. So, if our law regards Haitian refugees as “strangers,” it may be telling the truth, but they’re only strangers to us; we aren’t strangers to them. And maybe my family and I carry the border, too, but not like the people who are racially marked by it. We’ve assimilated it into our Americanness, so that it changes what we see, and we don’t recognize any part of ourselves in the Haitians anymore.

8. Adorning the Fantasy

When I read the map-making judicial opinions, I fall into their funnel of logic. The justices examine statutory language and precedent, and their conclusions seem inevitable. In the Haitian repatriation decision, Justice John Paul Stevens devotes several paragraphs to discussing whether section 243(h)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act applies only to the attorney general or to the executive branch more broadly. Congress carefully drafted the statute, so the distinctions are important if we are to have a government of laws. I walk through the parsing of language and feel the weight of statutory grammar—I’ve drafted legislation, so I know the details matter.

But then I step away from the decisions, and rather than retaining their logic they become patches in a jagged whole. This is the opposite of what occurs with a pointillist painting, where distance produces clarity. Justice Henry Billings Brown seems to experience this incoherence, if for just a moment, in his opinion in Downes v. Bidwell, the Puerto Rican oranges case. He is reviewing the history of the country’s expansion, and he spends page after page examining the legal framework. He looks at the Constitution and its amendments, along with various treaties and statutes. Legally speaking, how has the country brought in new states and territories? His attention to this question is scrupulous and stultifying. Eventually, he turns to the case law and concedes, “The decisions of this court upon this subject have not been altogether harmonious.”

Although, let’s not be coy: this is about power, not just textual interpretation—power braided of words and violence. The words unleash the violence, American hoses pressing down on Haitians, washing them into the hands of military assassins. The Supreme Court said this was legitimate; the border put the Coast Guard beyond law. We used law to escape law. I want to ask how we can make sense of this, though I also don’t want to ask. There is a way to make sense, but that sense comes with its own brutality and silences.

It’s been more than a year since Charles Schumer announced the bipartisan immigration reform proposal. The Senate passed a bill, but nothing is happening in the House of Representatives; border security is a priority for Republicans, we hear. It’s important to Democrats, too, but neither party means border security for people who aren’t us.

I can’t imagine that Crow Dog, on his way to New York City to perform his Indianness, believed that the borders of the United States had provided him national security, or much security at all. And what about the Uighurs, who’d escaped persecution in China and initially had seen the American troops as liberators? “We were happy when we were handed over to the Americans,” Abu Bakker Qassim told the BBC in 2012. “They usually help Uighurs.” This time the American government didn’t help. It banished the Uighurs to a dismal detention camp on Guantánamo and then cast them out to Albania, Palau, and other places they had no reason to know anything about. The border didn’t protect them at all. It’s not “high-mindedness” to say that border security—or the meaning of the border itself—is a matter of perspective. It’s nothing so abstract.

The border isn’t a place. It’s a tool we put to use. As I write, the border is on the move, doing its work. Border Patrol agents and state troopers are roaming highways, demanding to see people’s papers, and the border is moving with them. The agents are sorting who belongs from who doesn’t. But the border doesn’t just divide us. It also connects us in ways that can be brutal, like a torturer’s line of electricity. It ties us to the Uighurs we confined in Guantánamo and the Haitians we repatriated. When I interviewed Salvadorans in Seattle, I saw the weight of the border on them: we can do what we want in your country, but you don’t belong here. The denial of a relationship is part of the relationship. So, it makes sense that we’d want to think the border is elsewhere, confined to a distant desert. We can adorn this fantasy with troops and electronic surveillance and place faith in it. But I doubt that will give us border security. Even in our most vivid imagination, we have no idea what a secure border would look like. We’ve never seen such a thing.

Julie Chinitz has worked in public policy and community organizing since 2000 and is the former policy director at Alliance for a Just Society in Seattle. 

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Three Poems for Inauguration Day: ‘I Used to Be Much Much Darker’ by Francisco X. Alarcón

I used to be
much much darker
dark as la tierra
recién llovida
& dark was all
I ever wanted:
dark tropical
mountains
dark daring
eyes
dark tender lips
& I would sing
dark
dream dark
talk only dark

happiness
was to spend
whole
afternoons
tirado como foca
bajo el sol
“you’re already
so dark
muy prieto
too indio!”
some would lash
at my happy
darkness but
I could only
smile back

now I’m not as
dark as I once was
quizás sean
los años
maybe I’m too
far up north
not enough sun
not enough time
but anyway
up here “dark”
is only for
the ashes:
the stuff lonely nights
are made of.

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