The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (2015)

This really good novel from expert NF writer and journalist John Vaillant takes you alongside Héctor, a young man from Mexico who is currently sealed into an old empty water tank on the back of a truck in the middle of the Arizona desert. He’s not by himself: jam-packed into this small hot space are also others from Mexico and elsewhere, all of them trying to smuggle their way into America for a chance at a better life for themselves and for their families. Their coyotes have left to go for help, and none of them has any other options except to sit and hope that help will come before the heat kills them.

It’s a brilliant set-up for the novel: a group of unrelated strangers, all with the same goal, stuck into a small enclosed environment, waiting…

As the reader makes his/her way through the plot, Vaillant gradually drops little nuggets of information about Héctor and his travelling companions through the clever tool of having Héctor use his dying friend’s cellphone to leave voice messages for whoever he can reach who lives in America (or even sounds like an American person). Going through his friend’s contact list, Héctor comes across a name that has an American area code with its number and this is to whom Héctor narrates his story. (His story is also the story of so many other hopeful immigrants as well…)

It’s really well done. As you read what Héctor is recording on his rapidly-fading phone, you get to know and understand why Héctor has taken this enormous risk and, just as in a more traditional epistolary books, you are given access to his thoughts and feelings, more so than if the character was only allowed to have conversations with other characters. Héctor is so much more open and honest than he would have been otherwise, and by giving the reader this avenue to meet him, you’re allowed a much more intimate view than otherwise. You also grow more sympathetic with his plight (although who wouldn’t be sympathetic with a guy in his awful situation?)

As the situation goes from bad to terrible, resources start to run low: people start to run out of food, water and patience; under the brutal Arizona sun, conditions inside the metal cylinder become deplorable and claustrophobic – and deadly.

And so although Vaillant has chosen a hard-hitting (and very relevant) topic, the book is still un-put-downable as you’re gradually sucked into the lives of these unwilling captives, caught in a dark and empty water tank with no way out.

There’s an argument that it’s also reflective of the actual living situations from which many of the immigrants were running from: they had also been trapped in situations in their original countries which they could not change or impact, apart from leaving in this high-risk way. They exchange one prison for the other with only the optimistic hope of things getting better at the other end of the journey.

And so what happens in the end? Does Héctor escape? Does the group get rescued? Aaah. That would be telling, so I’ll only point you to the book and recommend that you also read it to find out.

Super-good read.

(The only slightly off-putting thing for me was that Vaillant, as a white male author (and with all the privileges that that identity entails) is writing as Héctor, a poor Mexican immigrant. Do you think that, in this situation, Vaillant is co-opting being a character of color and in him being a person of privilege, is that offensive? Shouldn’t he (Vaillant) have “let” a true POC with this backstory tell his/her own narrative?

OR – is this being too sensitive? What is the answer if no POCs have written this story yet? Should Vaillant, as a prize-winning journalist, have gone and found this story with real-life sources (if they exist)?  Is this the same situation as perhaps someone moaning about an author pretending to be, say, a dragon? Since dragons don’t exist, would that be more acceptable for an author to take on that identity him/herself? Any ideas/comments?)

For a true NF account of life for migrants crossing the southern border, try this one by Luis Alberto Urrea: The Devil’s Highway (2004).

Bye Bye Summer…

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Well, somehow the end of summer has arrived, and I am now immersed in the annual ritual of going back to school. I had a great summer, and now I’m looking forward to a lovely autumn. My favorite month – bliss.

It also means that (hopefully) we are on the downside of moving to cooler temperatures, but it will still be a while yet. It was close to 100 degrees outside yesterday, so I’m very thankful that I happen to work in an office with air conditioning.

August turned out to be a busy and fun month. I finished up teaching the writing class I was handling as a summer class, and then I met up with my lovely mum and sister up in Toronto (one of my favorite cities now). Had great fun and walked our little legs off. Now I’m trying to find another time to visit all the other things that we didn’t get to see in our last visit… Did love Toronto though.

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Niagara Falls (from the Canadian side of things.)

After that trip, we had time to wash our clothes and do a jigsaw puzzle with my mum who stayed with me a few days post-Toronto. Good fun, as always.

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My lovely mum loves jigsaws as much as I do…

Then, the Superhero and I went for a long weekend to sit on one of the lovely beaches in Mexico. We stayed at an all-inclusive resort so it was worry-free, apart from deciding what we wanted to eat and drink at intervals! (Very nice.)

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Pretty nice view… 🙂

Now it’s back to school. I have two classes I’m teaching now: both writing-intensive (which means grading-intensive for me), but as I love words and writing, I’m excited about getting to know this batch of college students. Lots of smiling faces right now. 🙂

Reading – I’ve been doing that, but I’ll save that for another post. Just wanted to pop in here and let you know that I’m alive. I’ve just been out there living a busy life!

Hope your summers were stupendous as well.

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Us playing with the mirrors on top of the   CN Tower. 

Catch-Up…

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It’s been a while since there’s been a general catch-up post on life, and so here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to.

The Summer of Liz continues at a really enjoyable pace. The first summer session at the university where I work was filled with a demanding (but rewarding) completion of a writing class. I was taking it for professional development, and it was really well taught which meant that I learned a lot from it. It was a lot of work, so I was a bit relieved when it finished. (Glad I did it though.)

This second summer session is keeping me pretty occupado, but this time I’m on the other side of the desk and teaching which I really enjoy. (It was fun, I must admit, taking the part of a student for a few weeks. I’ll definitely repeat that experience again at some point.)

So the next weeks will be busy in the mornings with teaching, prepping for class, and grading, and then that leaves the afternoons mostly free to play. I do have a work-related conference to attend in Dallas this weekend, but I love this event so I’m looking forward to it. I always learn a lot when I go and feel energized when I return. Lucky me, I know.

Since, as I mentioned yesterday, my mum is coming out to visit, I’ve been preparing for a trip we’re doing (with my sister as well), this one to take us to Toronto. I’ve never been to Canada, so I’m pretty psyched to see how life is up there.

One thing that I know for certain is that it will be cooler than West Texas, thank goodness. I checked the weather in Toronto the other day, and it was a rather nice high 70s. (High 70s is high for some places, I know, but when we’ve been averaging 100 degrees most day, hanging out in such an amenable climate will be lovely, especially when I’m with the fam.)

(Quick question: Is Toronto humid? I’ll have to find out.)

We’re up north for a few days, then my mum goes with my sister to visit in CA, and then she comes to stay with me here. Then, when she leaves Texas to go home, I have a couple of days to hang out, and then the SuperHero and I are off down south to sit on a beach in Mexico for a bit. The goal: to do not much except enjoy the place where we’re staying and chill out. (Oh, and a bit of reading, no doubt.)

And, then, when we return from Mexico, it’ll be almost time for back to school for the fall semester, and then it’s back to business again.

I’m starting to plan some of my books to read when I’m traveling, and in Canada, I’m going to visit a bookstore (or five) with the aim of buying some titles by indigenous authors. If you have any titles/authors that you recommend, I’m starting a list so please let me know your thoughts.

In the meantime, it’s teaching, grading, hanging out, and going to the gym. Not a bad way to live at all.  🙂

Into the Beautiful North – Luis Alberto Urrea (2009)

A really enjoyable novel that starts in a small village in Mexico with Nayeli, the young female protagonist. Her father has left the village and her family many years ago seeking work in the US, and Nayeli’s village is suffering as he was not the only adult male to leave. Such an exodus has left the village and its inhabitants an easy target for bandidoes and drug cartels, so Nayeli makes a plan.

The village doesn’t have much to do, but it does have a rather small and decrepit cinema which plays old movies. After watching “The Magnificent Seven” movie, Nayeli and a few of her friends leave to go to the US to recruit their own “Siete Magnificos”, their own group of men who will all return to the village and protect and repopulate it.

The journey north is long and filled with unforeseen twists, the group’s membership ebbs and flows, but the goal remains the same: for Nayeli to find her father in his last known location in Illinois, and to bring back some men to her village.

This was a really fun and quite happy novel to read, and I enjoyed every page of its well written prose. (I was also quite happy to see that it didn’t have magical realism in it, which can be somewhat annoying, I think, if you’re not prepared for it.) I have another of Urrea’s book (A Devil’s Highway) and have read an earlier work of fiction (The Hummingbird’s Daughter) and an earlier non-fiction (Across the Wire). This was just, overall, a very satisfying read. Loved it.