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Defying Literary Borders with Memoir: Immigration and the Meaning of “America”

A Q&A with José Orduña

José Orduña
Photo credit: Laurel Fantauzzo

Happy Publication day to José Orduña and his memoir, The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and DisplacementThe Weight of Shadows chronicles the process of becoming a North American citizen in a post-9/11 United States. It is a searing meditation on the nature of political, linguistic, and cultural borders, and the meaning of “America.” Our executive editor Gayatri Patnaik spoke with Orduña to discuss James Baldwin’s influence, Orduña’s hopes for the book, and how he crafted the narrative. 

GP: I was thinking back to when I first received your project in February 2014 and, as a naturalized US citizen myself, was compelled that your book was the antithesis of the ‘good immigrant’ assimilationist narrative. Do you suspect that the range of emotions you share—especially anger and ambivalence—are shared by many immigrants who are working to or have become US citizens? 

JO: Most of the immigrants I know share in some form of ambivalence or anger toward the notion of becoming a US citizen, and toward the United States in general because the people I know never wanted to come here, they had to come here because their lives were made unlivable at home. I don’t think people should have to perform goodness in order to be treated justly. This is one of the major problems I see with some of the immigration activism that is getting the most media attention. Why should someone whose home country was devastated by military violence and/or economic opportunism need to receive a college degree from a US college or university or serve in the US military in order to be granted a sliver of justice?

GP: I know that you’ve been profoundly influenced by James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. What impact did it have on you when you first encountered it? 

JO: Notes of a Native Son has a ferocity that I hadn’t read before. I remember reading some of those essays for the first time, and feeling my face flush. It showed me that I could be angry on the page, and that anger didn’t mean uncontrolled emotional ranting, but constructed prose with real teeth. It was a text that changed the course of my reading and thinking. Notes of a Native Son was foundational for me. I don’t know that I would be writing about the things I’m writing about, or writing about them in the essay form, if I hadn’t read Baldwin. 

The Weight of ShadowsGP: I often found myself thinking of Teju Cole and writers including Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat as I was reading your memoir. Which contemporary writers do you enjoy reading? 

JO: I love reading the writers you mentioned. I’ve also loved reading the work of John Berger, Maggie Nelson, W.G. Sebald. I just read an amazing book that I highly recommend called ATTA by Jarett Kobek. I think Arundhati Roy does incredibly essential work. I could go on forever, but I think I’ll stop here.

GP: As you know, Richard Rodriguez has written a glowing endorsement of you memoir and noted it “...violates—in a most exciting way—a number of literary borders.” Can you talk about the writing process and how you achieved this? 

JO: I think a lot of that has to do with how I fell into writing. I really became serious about it when I took a class with the preeminent essayist David Lazar. I always semi-jokingly refer to him as my essay-father because his class really opened a world for me. As he taught me, the essay form is an anti-genre, a slippery trickster that goes where it pleases. That meant that, for me, producing cohesive narrative isn’t my main concern, in fact I don’t have a fixed main concern. Each essay demands something different, and I serve that as best I can.

GP: I believe you got married recently. Do you imagine that will shift your relationship to this country? 

JO: I’m getting hitched to the inimitable poet Caitlin Roach at the end of May! I don’t know how marriage will change me, but I don’t think marrying a white woman born in the United States will change the way I feel or think about the nation-state, or this nation-state in particular. I don’t tend to become close with people who feel an affinity with a particular nation or flag, per se. I think there is a big difference between taking pride in ones cultural traditions, customs, language etc. and feeling pride for destructive institutions, especially the ones people tend to feel pride for, like the military. Quite simply, I can’t get down with that.

GP: What reaction(s) or insights do you hope readers will take from The Weight of Shadows

JO: My hope is that people will be devastated in a way that will challenge their notions of immigration as an issue. I hope that some might even be motivated to read further into the history of migration to the United States, and maybe someone somewhere will be motivated to act.


About the Author 

Orduña, JoséJosé Orduña was born in Córdoba, Veracruz, and immigrated to Chicago when he was two. He is a graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and active in Latin American solidarity.