On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with poet Javier Zamora about his work, which explores immigration, being undocumented, and the impact of El Salvador’s civil war. They discussed creating poetry that transcends the categories of fiction and nonfiction, and how he uses writing as a way to process memories of trauma. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: You have a poem called “Exiliados,” in which you write about romance: “In my humid pockets,/ my fists were old tennis balls thrown to the stray dog/ of love bouncing toward the Hudson down/ to South Ferry.” I love that line so much, because I can feel my hands fisted inside of a pocket. I can feel the nervous energy of romantic feeling and sexual feeling. Do you think about the tension in your own position as a poet who’s brown, who’s from El Salvador, who has this particular experience of coming to this country in the way that you did? Do you feel like you have to write about that, and not write about romance, or art, or mortality?
Javier Zamora: For a long time, I did. I thought that I was only my trauma, and I was only this grand, epic story. Sharon Olds was the teacher who pushed me toward the sensual, and she made me realize that my book, Unaccompanied, needed some of that balance. If I were to self-critique my first book, I think I needed to do more of that work, because it’s very trauma-heavy. So thank you for pointing out that poem, because I did try to show that we’re not only our experiences. At the same time, the idea that my personal life is what defines me has been difficult to do away with, and I’m still trying.
You’re not just a performance of trauma, you’re a full person, but also in that political moment, there was this necessity of being reminded of the simple existence of the immigrant in this country. It’s almost as though suggesting that those people are also human—and love their children, or want to have sex, or drink too much, or whatever it is that makes us human—would come later, but first, we just needed to be told these people exist. It feels like your book is an argument for that. It’s saying, “Here I am, I exist.”
You used the word epic to describe your journey into this country, and I wonder if you feel comfortable explaining to me what that journey looked like without the veil of poetry.
I think writing poetry was me beginning to dig. There’s a lot of gaps in the poems, due to the hardships that I experienced as a 9-year-old kid. The memoir starts the day that I leave, and it ends the day after I cross the border. It all takes place in the present tense, and reliving that couldn’t have happened without the poems.
The short synopsis is that my parents had both left El Salvador. I grew up from the ages of 5 until 9 with my grandparents and my aunts. We tried the legal route to go to the U.S. Embassy and apply for status. That did not happen. We tried multiple routes. Eventually, this man was supposed to take me and a group of six other Salvadorans from El Salvador to the United States. He promised that that trip was going to take one week, two weeks max. We spent two weeks in Guatemala. My grandpa was there with me. Then we traveled to other Central American places, and my grandpa had to leave.
I’m left with strangers. We spend another week in Guatemala at the coast, and then we take a boat from Guatemala to Oaxaca—almost a day in the ocean. From there, we get robbed by Mexican police, and then we go to Acapulco for a day, and then we take a bus to Guadalajara. We stay there three weeks, and from there finally we make it to the U.S. border, where we attempt to cross through the Sonoran Desert, multiple times, until we successfully make it. All of this takes place in eight weeks, eight, nine weeks.
I am crying listening to you talk about this. I’m struck by what you’ve said, which is that the poems are almost a first draft of you understanding your own life. Now you’re writing about it in a memoir form, from the vantage of adulthood, trying to remember something that happened to you when you were just a kid. I can’t remember anything that happened to me when I was 9, let alone a sustained period of eight weeks when I was 9 years old. It’s very hard to actually hold on to that stuff.
There’s a poem, “Saguaros,” in the book. In my memory, I could guarantee you that I saw huge cacti—saguaros. I couldn’t go back to the border, because I didn’t have papers until last year. I’m in Arizona right now, trying to finish this book in the landscape. I’ve gone to the border, trying to see where exactly it was that I attempted to cross. I think I’ve narrowed it down to the area, and there are no saguaros there. They rarely grow along the border. In my memory, I’m like, “Oh, that did not happen factually, but it did feel like that emotionally.” It rings true in poems, and now I am trying not to do that in prose, because it’s not fiction and I’ll get into trouble.
That’s an interesting tension because poetry isn’t fiction, but it’s not nonfiction—it doesn’t have to be testimony. What is the purpose of writing a poem about this imagination that you had of what the landscape looked like? What’s the goal of that?
Essentially, it’s creating empathy. I want the readers to really feel what I felt, in order for them to truly understand what it’s like to be a child immigrant. Once they have that knowledge, if I did my job correctly, then they’re not going to vote Republican. That, I think, is the goal.