Monday, April 20, 2015

Journey Through an Arid Land - a controversial novel by Gayle Davies Jandrey

Let me begin by admitting that I am not the world's most tolerant or compassionate person. While I do have a soft spot for the underdog, not all underdogs are created equal. Yes, I can be very harsh and judgmental towards groups who in my mind claim victim status frivolously.  At the same time, I don't believe in limiting my dialogue to only those people who share my point of view.  Reading Journey Through an Arid Land and interviewing the author Gayle Davies Jandrey whose political views are drastically different from mine was an interesting experience. As a first-generation American, who came to this country in the early 1990s and had to jump through all the hoops, I cannot help but resent those who attempt to bypass the traditional channels. Whenever I see illegal immigrants portrayed in a quasi-sympathetic light, something inside me snaps, and my blood starts boiling. I confess, was a challenge reading this book on the emotional level. Several times I had to subdue waves of anger. I'm sorry, but my heart doesn't swell with compassion when I hear about "people seeking a better life".  Well, gosh, aren't we all?  If you're looking for a better life, go to your nearest US Embassy and apply for a refugee visa. That's what my family did. But, I'm going to put my own indignation aside for a moment, because Gayle Davies Jandrey clearly has written a compelling novel. 

MJN: I realize you've worked in a school in Tucson where you had many "undocumented" children. How did this word "undocumented" arise? Was that supposed to be a euphemism? I would also be curious to see if the "undocumented" children mingled with the "documented" children of the same ethnic background. I imagine, some children whose families came to the US legally would not want to mingle with those children whose families ... bypassed the traditional channels.

GJ: From my point of view, the term undocumented migrant is not a euphemism, but a description.  These men, women and children mostly from Mexico and Central America, migrate to the United States without documents, i.e. visas, therefore they are undocumented migrants.

After 28 years, I retired from teaching in 1999 because my mother became ill and I needed to spend more time with her.  That said, back in the day, many of the kids newly arrived to the U.S., whom we called Mexican Nationals at the time, documented or undocumented, did tend to stick together.  Partly this was the self-defensiveness of teens, I believe, and partly it was language. First generation migrants speak mostly their native language.  The second generation is bi-lingual.  Unless there is a conscientious effort on the part of parents and grandparents, the third generation knows only the names for their ethnic foods and now to swear in their native language.  At least, this is my observation.

MJN: Are your students aware of your literary track? Many authors prefer to keep their teaching and writing track separate.

GJ: If they were paying attention, my students did know that I was a writer as well as a teacher.  They found it astonishing that someone who spelled so poorly could be a writer.  I used to give them extra credit if they found one of my spelling errors on the chalk board.

MJN: What fascinates me is that some immigrants - not all - want to take full advantage of the privileges and opportunities life in the US has to offer while retaining their prejudices and even certain hostility against the mainstream American values. Regardless of how you entered the country, legally or illegally, you are going to encounter some misunderstanding and rejection from the people who have lived here for generations. So do you think it's the initial rejection that makes an immigrant hostile, or is the hostile attitude of the immigrant that makes the native-born Americans more guarded? I imagine, it's hard to warm up to someone whose first words are "This is NOT how we do it in my home country."

GJ: I really don't know how to respond to this question.  I've not seen the kind of hostility to mainstream American values that you mention.  Perhaps there is some hostility from U.S. citizens, but certainly not from recent immigrants.

MJN: Your female protagonist's name is Wiona. A bit unusual. At first I kept reading Winona. Then I wondered if it was a variation of Fiona. What's in the name?

GJ: You're not the first person to mistake Wiona for Winona, the famous country singer.  The name Wiona is something of a hybrid.
My great grandfather and great uncle were rancher/doctors in California from the mid 19th century, into the 20th century.  They came up with some pretty interesting names for their children, among them Ione and Aruna.  My middle name is Aruna, after my grandmother, but I always liked Ione.  I put Ione and Aruna together, scrapped the R and slapped a W on it.

MJN: You were lucky to go to the Tucson book fair. I am on the East Coast, and couldn't attend. Around here, book fairs are not always very well attended, because there are so many other alternatives for entertainment. What does an author/publisher do to get noticed in the ocean of books at an event like that?

GJ: I was lucky to be invited to the Tucson Festival of Books.  Over 100,000 people attend our two day festival and there is so much to see and do, it's hard for a mostly unknown writer to draw attention.  When I attended the first festival as an author back in 2008, it was just a matter of sending in my book, A Garden of Aloes, and they put me on a panel with other writers whose setting was Tucson.  In the case of the 2015 festival, I had a friend who introduced me to someone who was already on a panel, Women Who Broke the Mold, which she had proposed.  As it turned out, one of her authors backed out and she needed a third woman. Wiona, fit the bill, and I was invited to join that panel.  All of the panelists used social media to get the word out.  The venue held 100 people and all seats were filled.  Bear in mind that the big guns draw hundreds.  People have to get a free advanced ticket to get in to those venues.

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