Javier Zamora on Trauma, Immigration, and Family History
Javier Zamora read from Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) on Thursday, November 9th at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House. Zamora is a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is a 2016 Ruth Lilly/Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow. He holds other fellowships from CantoMundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, Colgate University (Olive B. O'Connor), among others. In 2016, Barnes and Noble gave him the Writers for Writers Award for his work in the Undocupoets Campaign. He is an alumnus of the NYU Creative Writing Program and Washington Square Review published an excerpt from his poem "The Book I Made with a Counselor My First Week of School" in issue 39.
Assistant Web Editor, Nadra Mabrouk, interviewed Zamora about writing through Unaccompanied, the rupture in immigrant identities, and history/collective trauma.
1. By entering a different voice through a persona poem, we gain a much deeper understanding of the character. What was your experience like writing persona poems in the voices of those closest to you, at such differing stages in their lives?
Some of the persona poems come from listening to my family members’ stories. For some, they were slowly revealed to me over time. I would remember details, or write them down in my pretentious Moleskin pocketbook I used to carry around. (Now, I write in the backs of paper, or a full blown notebook I like to think is less pretentious). After writing the rough drafts, I would check in with the relative that told me the story (now a poem). By the time I was in college or had graduated, I used the excuse that I was doing it for research. I was a history major, and I was lucky my family liked telling stories for “history’s sake.” Near the final stages of revision, they would all deny what was written. But then, slowly, they would agree to the truth of the feeling the poem conveyed. It’s a process that has brought my family closer. I like to dream it has helped us start conversations we would rather have avoided.
2. I read in the New Yorker article, “An Immigrant Who Crossed the Border as a Child Retraces His Journey, in Poems,” that a lot of the memories of your journey to the United States were clouded, and the poems came to you in bursts, helping you realize certain moments you didn't know you remembered. Was writing this collection then, emotionally overwhelming at times? Were the poems interspersed between poems concerning other subjects/themes, or did they happen consecutively?
Writing Unaccompanied was certainly an emotionally overwhelming experience. Not all the time. Not every poem. The hardest time was writing the poems in the second section. What I like to call the “war poems.” There was research involved. I was a history major. I did my research on the Salvadoran Civil War. Wrote my thesis after watching countless hours of film, reading secondary and primary documents. It was a stressful time. I had to relive the stories of having an uncle disappeared. To call it that. To come to terms that he is long gone. That my family was part of this dark period. That we are refugees, that the US government doesn’t see us that way. Etc. But also, that another side of my family was complicit in the right-wing government, the US-backed side, the side that killed the most people. All of this was happening when I was an undergrad. All of this when I was undocumented at UC Berkeley. In the MFA, I returned to another overwhelming section of the book, the poems about my crossing. My own trauma. The traumas I had ignored. It was in the MFA that I learned to cope better with the writing. I began to work out regularly. To binge-watch shows. To treat myself to good food. Writing toward these hard topics taught me how to self-care.
3. So much of the immigrant experience here lives within that deep schism in our identities as it tears between two different countries/cultures, yet so many of us still feel rejected by American politics, particularly now. What are you working on in the current state of affairs?
Currently, I’m trying to write into what happens to Central Americans inside Mexico. More of us die on Mexican soil than at the US-Mexico border. In the United States, this is rarely talked about. I think it’s important to shed light into how nationalism is the problem. How colonialism is the problem. Imperialism, etc. How it doesn’t necessarily have to be a white person to harm a colored body (though we all know this happens more often). How we do it to ourselves. I’m trying to explore why we do that.
Alongside these explorations, I’m trying to learn to love the nine year old that crossed the border. I’m trying to write a better world for that part of my childhood that was taken away. I’m trying to love myself.
4. This collection deals with personal/family history and collective trauma, in turn shedding light on the grim reality of so many lives. Was there a particular poem from Unaccompanied that was the most difficult to write/break through?
The two long poems in the book, “For Maria de los Ángeles and Israel Zamora,” and “June 10, 1999” were the most difficult to write. Not because of their length, but because of their deep trauma. Both began as short poems. I kept writing about the same topic. Eventually, something clicked (at different times) where I included all the poems about the same topic in the same word document. Then, started revising from there. For both of these, it took years to revise into the shape they are found in now. I kept revising after these poems were accepted by journals. I kept revising after the book was accepted (deep into it). The trauma didn’t want me to let go of these poems.
5. Let’s say for some strange reason, you’ve only one photograph in your possession for the entirety of your existence. What is it a photo of?
I wish there was a photo in which my Mom, Dad, Aunts, their children, and both my grandparents were all in front of our house in El Salvador. Before any of us left.