A journalist who reports on immigration responds to Chinelo Onwualu’s “What the Dead Man Said.”
Immigrants know what is like to deal with restless ghosts from the past. Some of us are haunted for the rest of our lives by the inability to have closure. But when the opportunity presents itself to face our demons, it’s never like what we imagined in our heads.
Chinelo Onwualu’s short story “What the Dead Man Said” speaks to and delves deeper than that universal theme. The reader enters a futuristic society suffering from climate change–induced disaster and migration, a place where human bodies of those once enslaved are treated as a commodity and where unhealed trauma lies beneath the surface.
Onwualu’s main character Azuka takes us back to New Biafra after more than 30 years of being away from her motherland and living in Tkaronto—what colonizers called North America. She returns for her estranged father’s funeral, where she is forced to peel the scabs of childhood sexual abuse. She exists in a world that, very much like herself, is coming to terms with the loss of what it was before it was broken by the “Catastrophe,” the floods and drought caused by human-made climate change. It is a threat that looms large today. One recent study from the World Bank estimates that in just 30 years, 143 million people will be forced to migrate within their countries due to the impacts of climate change. Many others will have to leave their nations altogether.
“What the Dead Man Said” might take place in fictional New Biafra after Igbo separatists declared their independence from Nigeria and called for the return of “its children in diaspora”—both those forcefully taken from their homeland during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and those who migrated voluntarily in recent decades. But it echoes an all-too-familiar contemporary Latin American narrative. As a South American journalist living in Arizona and reporting in the borderlands, I have witnessed the unspoken grief and trauma of immigrant and refugee communities.
Asylum-seekers arriving at the southern ports of entry of the U.S. are not afforded the luxury of carrying many of their belongings on the treacherous journey through Mexico, but they do carry invisible burdens. On their arms some women hold babies who were the product of rape by gang members, while in their hearts they are hiding childhoods of sexual abuse. Before therapy is even part of the equation, these women are placed in jails and separated from their children. If they are lucky, they are released and experience a taste of living in the shadows of the American dream: an underpaid job as a maid in a hotel with no health care benefits, a school principal sending the police to their front door, perhaps a new husband whom they don’t love but is their only ticket to some form of stability.
Other indigenous women and youth currently arriving at the Arizona and Texas borders from rural Guatemala are often labeled “economic migrants” when they are truly not—they are the casualties of global warming. In Guatemala, agriculture represents 21 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Drought and unpredictable rainfall tied to climate change and other weather phenomena like El Niño are threatening the livelihood of farmers, leading to malnutrition in children and hunger. Guatemala is the country with the highest rate of food insecurity in Central America, according to a report from SGCCC, a group that includes academics in universities and Guatemalan government agencies. The SGCCC identified indigenous people and rural communities who live off the land as the most vulnerable to climate change.
Guatemalans are coming to the U.S. in record numbers. In fiscal 2018, most of the families apprehended at the U.S. border came from Guatemala, and the numbers have tripled in the past eight months. When their land is obliterated by climate change, they are forced to trade farming for the promise of an American job. Yet they cannot escape the weight of duty to family and the guilt of what they leave behind. Sometimes they say goodbye to young sons and daughters who will be raised by grandparents while they, in the U.S., babysit other people’s kids.
In Onwualu’s narrative, Azuka gets a change to confront the ghost of her father for emotionally abandoning her after she was sexually abused by her uncle. But it’s more than that, a sense of feeling bonded to a place and not being able to fully escape its shadow after leaving. Onwualu exposes an a common dynamic in many cultures: the secret kept that takes on a life of its own. So when Azuka speaks about her father’s death, she is also telling us how her relatives sweep unpleasant memories under the rug. “I’d forgotten how quickly my people whitewash the truth about our dead. We fear that speaking ill of them will invite death on ourselves as well.”
Unlike Azuka, many of the migrant women in our current world may never have an opportunity to confront the “dead” of their past. Their stories might include sexual trauma, but also broken promises, dysfunctional families, the responsibility of being one of the “survivors” who made it to “America.” As they try to come to terms from afar with what they could not heal at home, they grapple with a feeling of impotence.
I know because I am one of those women. So is my mother. She left Uruguay in 2002 because of an economic crisis. I was 20 when I left with youthful romantic dreams, a bubble that burst when I realized that countries in the north wanted our labor, but not us.
My journey was privileged in comparison to my mother’s. I arrived in the U.S. on a rare visa that allowed me to teach Spanish at an American high school. She, like many other South Americans of Italian descent, went to Europe to settle in the Canary Islands with an EU passport. There, working as a hotel maid, she faced discrimination and rejection from her Spanish co-workers.
Over the past 20 years, we both have learned what it is to grieve alone.
By the time my grandfather died in Uruguay, my mother—who calls herself a professional migrant—had settled in mainland China. We met in Hong Kong under a cyclone warning to say goodbye to him together, from afar, because it was the fastest and most affordable thing we could do. She reminisced about those hard conversations she wished she’d had and the surprises she wished she had given him before it was too late. And she also told me about the sharp edges of their relationship that I had not known about. We did not get to bury his ashes or attend his funeral. Still, he stood dead as a powerful force over our lives.
For decades now, the United States southern border and the country’s virtual fence of policies to curb immigration have not just kept new immigrants out; they’ve also kept those who are here landlocked. And all the while, the strings of family pull tight, as Azuka describes her own ties to New Biafra: “One cannot cut the invisible threads of familial indebtedness by simply running off to a distant land.”