The Book Jam Blog
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Immigration. This one word can bring many worlds and images to mind: undocumented workers, border crossings, coyotes, walls, xenophobia, citizenship, voting... And these terms can also evoke strong emotions and images, ones that probably differ for everyone depending on lived experience and exposure to people living behind the words. For instance, anyone who has been part of a naturalization ceremony is likely forever affected by the joy experienced there. Anyone who has known or is an undocumented worker may forever be marked by both the hope and the fear guiding their lives. For many others, there are books to lend insight. Luckily two works we've read recently provide gorgeous poetry and prose and a much needed window into the lives of immigrants, both documented and undocumented. We offer these reviews with the hope that they promote understanding and also provide you with two powerful, affecting reads.
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (2021). I fell in love with Ms. Engel's prose and stories while reading her 2010 debut collection of connected short stories chronicling life in both Colombia and New Jersey, Vida (I can’t recommend it enough). So it was with great excitement I saw she published a novel in March 2021. And it is the best one I have read thus far this year. I was dismayed when it ended as I would never again have the chance to read it for the first time; but, I’m excited that anyone who now sees this review will next have the chance to enjoy Ms. Engel's gorgeous, sparse prose and story telling skills. With this novel, Ms. Engel illuminates the immigrant experience, including what a life torn between two countries involves. In particular, especially in light of the recent coverage of US immigration policies under both Presidents Trump and Biden, she communicates how the decision to become "undocumented" is often not made in one fell swoop, but rather that it entails thousands of small decisions over time. The novel stunningly conveys how all five family members in this book each are affected by immigration, deportation, and varying legal statutes in the USA. Along the way, Ms. Engel movingly portrays the beauty of Colombia and the hope of life in the USA. For those who do not need plot summaries, stop here and simply seek this fabulous novel of family, loss, love, life, and immigration. Your heart will break, mend, break, and mend over and over again as you read this superb story.
For those who do appreciate a plot summary, we share more for you. The story begins with teenaged Talia breaking out of a correctional facility for girls in Colombia. She must return to Bogota in time to use a ticket to the USA - the place of her birth, but not of her childhood - that her mother has sent. The story then shifts to explore the lives of her parents - Mauro and Elena - in Bogota when they first met, in Bogota as they decide to flee Colombia's civil war and unrest, and in the USA before her birth. The novel's already acute sense of loss and musings about what makes a home, accelerates once her father is deported back to Colombia shortly after her birth. Her mother and her two older siblings - Fernando (US born) and Karina (Bogota born) remain the US because even as Elena and Karina are undocumented, Colombia is still not the safer option. Talia is sent back to Bogota to live with her grandmother as Elena can not work and care for an infant. Throughout, the novel cleverly alternates perspectives and shows each of the five family members curating their life as best they can. Mauro's feelings of despair and failure cause him to spiral to the bottom of many bottles of cheap alcohol. Talia feels the loss of her mother and the love of her grandmother. Karina is marked by fear of deportation. Fernando is bullied and worries about his undocumented sister and mom. Elena finds multiple jobs, endures abuse, and ultimately lands with her two children, in a caretaker's cottage, behind a large home, watching the owner's son.
This short novel, compacts a lot of plot and emotion in 191 beautifully written pages. Enjoy every one. (Note: my youngest son is adopted from Bogota, so I am predisposed to books about life there and life in the US for Colombian-Americans; that said, this novel is terrific.) ~ Lisa Christie
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (2017). A moving collection of poetry that illustrates the stresses, hopes, loves, and lives of undocumented immigrants in the USA. Sometimes a few well-chosen words are all that is needed to humanize a concept - in this case immigration - and show the impacts of policy on lives. We offer and example, an excerpt from To Abuelita Neli - "...You understand. Abuelita, I can' go back and return. There's no path to papers. I've got nothing left but dreams..." This collection is beautifully moving, often haunting, and always enlightening. A superb way to think a bit at a time about immigration, immigrants, the undocumented, and the power of sharing stories. ~ Lisa Christie