Category: Reading & Writing

Meeting author Sonia Nazario during her recent visit to UW Madison

Since I  had worked with children in highly vulnerable situations in Honduras, the same country where Enrique’s journey begins, I was especially  interested to meet Sonia Nazario, the author of  Enrique’s Journey, when she came to UW-Madison on October 27th to talk about her book, the 2011 GO BIG READ.

Born to immigrant parents in Madison, Wisconsin (!) Nazario came of age in the dirty war in Argentina, and has spent many years of her life covering social issues as a journalist.   I felt humbled by the extent to which Sonia put herself at risk so that she could accurately tell the harrowing story of Enrique’s journey from Honduras to the United States to find his mother.  As she explained the many safeguards she put in place before she travelled by bus across dangerous borders, spent time in communities rife with social and political tensions, and rode on the tops of trains (students, please don’t try this at home!),  it was clear that she had been brave and selfless. She was also honest and self-critical about some of the harder truths about fly-on-the-wall journalism  –it is your job to watch the suffering play out, and, unless someone is in imminent danger, you offer no help.

The next day I met Sonia at a luncheon with a group of my students who were reading the book for an honors seminar. When I told  her that I had lived in Honduras and worked with orphans for two years, she wanted to know what I thought about children like Enrique.  What should we do?   It impressed me that several years after publication, this prize-winning author, who had already done such thorough research, was still at work on the story, asking questions rather than giving answers, wanting to get it more right.  She asked me to make public-health oriented suggestions for the “how to help” section on the Enrique’s Journey site  There are already some great ideas there, and I am looking forward to working with my students to contribute more!

I did not expect Enrique’s story to move me as it did. The book was covering terrain that I had lived, in a place that I once knew well.   The story of his family of origin was sad and authentically told, but familiar to me.  Like Sonia, I was aware of and disturbed by the family life patterns that are emerging with our global economy, in which domestic workers from many countries come to sweep floors and rock babies in the US, so they can send money home.  But the visceral realities of Enrique’s journey and crossing stopped me cold. The hunger and thirst, the raw cruelties and occasional kindness, the feeling of being hunted. Even I, having lived in Central America, did not know the extent to which children are wandering alone, preyed upon, in places that we are unable to even police.

Sonia Nazario has taken us on Enrique’s journey so that we can understanding the suffering of immigrant youth who make the crossing the way he did. It would be a mistake, however, to read this book as a background piece on Central American immigrants in a “this is their story” kind of way.  Such a reading would be a misuse of a well-written, well-researched story and a denial of the human complexity behind every story.  Enrique and his family are not a prototypes — they are people.  It would be an over-simplification to assert that mothers who are in the US working have all been forced to choose between raising their kids in garbage dumps and migrating  for work. It would be naive not to recognize that it is possible to both run toward love and flee from abandonment at the same time, and I think that is what happened with Enrique.  Some immigrants “go north” because they are desperate, some do it because they are dreamers, and some are both of these at once.   To address the suffering portrayed in Enrique’s story we have to address the root causes of the problem.  While poverty is a primary driver of migration and should be addressed,  substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, family violence, unequal status of women, and the breakdown of the extended family all impacted the lives of Enrique and Lourdes.

Enrique’s Journey, which Nazario describes as the story of one boy, one mother, and one train, is a call to action on behalf of all children in this situation.  I hope that for students at UW-Madison, this Go Big Read is the beginning of another kind of  journey, where they both act on what they learned from this book, and continue to read and study and live in ways that allow them to continue growing in their understanding of issues related to the well-being of children everywhere.

To blog or not to blog?  For me that wasn’t even a question!  As a life long diarist, I believed that the best place for my private thoughts was  a notebook tucked between my mattresses.  Blogging seemed narcissistic –all that living out loud seemed to contradict everything I believed about the inward life, the importance of the unobserved moment, the value of words in ink on paper–just one original that can be hidden or crumpled or burned.  You can even write in code, which I did for the better part of 1979….

Why would anyone trade the raw authenticity of journaling for the prettified blog, that revises as it records, and distorts as it edits. I held my travel journals close to my chest…. Blogging seemed like a recipe for self-deception and vainglory.  (Would I ever say vainglory in a journal?)

So why am I here now, blogging, imagining you?

It began when (Oh God I just found myself making something up … luckily I caught myself and deleted it) a colleague asked me to blog at a Global Health Conference over a year ago (see September 2010 posts).    I didn’t dislike what I wrote, and I found that a number of my students had followed and enjoyed the blog… I did a mildly clever one where I pretended I met Bono, and people got it.  I found that I was more focused in the conference sessions because I knew I had to blog about them.  And when I nervously pressed “publish” for the first time, I realized that accountability comes along with the admittedly “selfy” act of blogging.  I began to see that there is discipline and courage here too.

During the course of the following year, as I wrote in my journal about my global health work in Ethiopia, Ecuador, and Mexico, it occured to me that some of those entries, as well as older travel journals and  more local reflections, might be worth sharing if I had a blog. I was learning through the writing, challenging myself, and sensing life more fully.  I realized that if I could muster up the courage to let others read and write along, my writing had the potential to create a voice and space for the people and places and issues that I care deeply about.

Can I combine the rush of blogging with the introspection and raw truth of my journals?  Probably not.  But I can try.  I can share my experiences and honest reflections with family, friends, students, and even readers who I don’t know…  I can try to blog like there’s nobody watching.  Of course I know the reader is there, and because of that I will polish and edit and censor a bit (not a bad thing, actually),  but I hope always to write  (almost split that infinitive, but no, not here!) with my whole self, whatever that means and whatever the cost.

We all carry so many identities, and we don’t always realize the cost of keeping them separate and expressing them selectively.    As a writer-teacher-learner-mentor-mother-wife-daughter-sister-friend-seeker, I want to explore what it means to speak from the core of my whole self.  In spite of the fact that my three children have forbidden me to blog about their lives (and I will honor that within reason), the well-being of the world’s children, beginning with my own, but by no means ending with them, is my life compass.  I blog to better understand what this all means.  I have this foggy notion that if I try to blog out what I believe I may actually behave better….

I hope that I can be a witness to beauty and joy, and I hope I am kind and generous in my words.  I may also get angry about suffering or injustice, and speak uncomfortable truths about myself and my world.

In case you are trying to remember the rest of that quote about dancing, and you don’t already own the T-shirt, here is the full text:

“You’ve gotta’ dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.
(And speak from the heart to be heard.)”
-William W. Purkey

This is a great read by a UW Madison professor!

This intimate and richly contextualized study of medical education in Malawi paints a vivid picture of how western medicine is being taught, internalized, adapted and owned by African medical students and physicians. Wendland begins by describing the role that medicine has played in Malawi’s history; the detailed and nuanced picture provides the reader with a deep understanding of a particular African reality, as well a framework for viewing the role of medicine in other African settings and globally. Wendland follows the students from their villages and and preparatory schools, through their academic training, and on to their first days of service in African hospitals. This journey provides insight into how the students experience the promise of medicine, as well as it’s shortcomings, and also shows how they bring their own history, culture, and life experience to their medical practice. The work is further enhanced by first person narratives of the medical students recorded during their training and early years of practice, as well as several case studies of patients that illustrate the fullness and power of viewing health and disease through an anthropological lens. Wendland’s evocative prose and unflinching self-awareness complement these other elements, making “a heart for the work,” an example of medical anthropology at its best. — L. DiPrete Brown, October 24, 2010