Visiting Writers Series: Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the award-winning author of three travel memoirs: Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana; Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines; and All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands (2017); as well as the best-selling guidebook 100 Places Every Woman Should Go. Stephanie has taught and performed around the globe, and is currently Assistant Professor and Margaret R. Shuping Fellow of Creative Nonfiction at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She’ll be joining us for AU’s Visiting Writers Series on Wednesday, February 14, at 8:00 p.m. in Mary Graydon Center, Room 5.
Last year I heard you speak on an AWP panel that addressed “blending genre in creative nonfiction.” The panel examined the, perhaps unnecessary, divide of sub genres—memoir, literary journalism, travel writing etc. I remember quite clearly how you talked about being advised to add your story to your first book Around the Bloc, after writing drafts that were largely journalistic. How did you approach the question of how much “I” to include in All the Agents and Saints?
Let me start by greeting everyone in AU/MFA-landia. I am so looking forward to our visit next week. Many thanks for the invitation, as well as these insightful questions. My first two books were originally conceived as works of literary journalism. Around the Bloc was supposed to be a documentary of life in the Communist Bloc after the meltdown of Marxism, while Mexican Enough sought to expose the conditions leading up to narco warfare in Mexico. My agent wasn’t able to place either book with a publisher, however, until I surgically implanted a memoiristic strand in each. This was difficult, as I had been trained in a succession of newsrooms to be an objective journalist, not an opinionated memoirist. My goal was to cast light on issues of social justice—not myself. Yet publishers were more intrigued by how my travels impacted my identity as a Latina.
That’s how I first started fusing forms into a hybrid of literary journalism meets travel writing meets identity memoir. Over time, I came to enjoy writing that way—so much, that it became not just my primary genre, but how I processed the world. When I fused forms in All the Agents and Saints, however, publishers wanted straight-up journalism instead. What a tailspin! Fortunately, we convinced an editor that, because I was writing about my homeland, a memoiristic strand was integral to the narrative. My family migrated from Mexico in the 1850s to work on the cattle ranches of South Texas—land that has since become a graveyard for far too many migrants who die trying to cross it. Hailing from the southern borderlands also helped me gain access to indigenous communities in the northern borderlands. Rather than view me as an Outsider, Akwesasne Mohawks welcomed me as someone who understood the challenges inherent to the borderlands, as my community was grappling with them, too. So in the end, my editor and I worked out a compromise wherein I whittled down the memoiristic passages of All the Agents and Saints to maybe 15 percent of the total narrative (rather than its original 30 percent). And that turned out to be just as difficult as adding myself in to my earlier books! Once you create a “character” out of yourself, it’s hard to leave her at home.
About midway through the first section of All the Agents and Saints, you reference Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s talk on “the danger of a single story.” In this section, you mention the dangers “when a community internalizes a single story about itself. In this sense, the drug war has erected a border wall that surpasses anything that Congress has constructed, only in reverse. Far too many of us have stopped crossing the border to find stories of our own.” Seemingly, you interview everyone in this book, everyone from activists to Minutemen to artists to border patrol agents to spiritual leaders, and provide far more than the “single story” that too often surrounds depictions of these borderland regions. What was the most challenging aspect of providing this full panoramic view? Whose perspectives were the most difficult to share, and what stories did you have to work the hardest to convey?
“The Bonder and the Dealer” was probably the toughest chapter to write. Drug-related violence has become such a “single story” in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, I couldn’t decide if it was more problematic to write about narco warfare, or to leave it out entirely. I spent years searching for someone who confounded the stereotypes. Then I met Sophie, the daughter of a French diplomat who gallivanted around the world until she fell in love with a watermelon grower down in Falfurrias, Texas. There, she opened two businesses: a French bistro and a bail bond agency. She regaled me with her adventures hunting down drug dealers in her high heels with a taser tucked into her purse. Narrative gold. Sophie wound up providing unexpected levity in the otherwise tragic story of drug warfare. And that felt important, because no matter how strenuous life gets in the southern borderland, people never lose their sense of humor. Even in the bleakest situations, you’ll still hear music, laughter, and prayers.
While the two sections are presented separately pairs of chapters from each section feel like they are directly in conversation with each other (perhaps most powerfully, the closing chapters of both sections that feature spiritual rituals). To what extent did you think about how chapters in one section of the book might have a corresponding pair in the other?
My goal was to recreate the déjà vu I myself experienced relocating from the southern borderland to the northern one. Practically every story I’d heard growing up in South Texas was echoed at some point during the year I spent at the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne. To illustrate that, I split the book in two, with each chapter in the first half having a corresponding soul mate in the second half. Together, these two halves form a testimonio, or document of witness, of life on the periphery.
Towards the end of the book, you’re invited to a Longhouse ceremony and asked not to bring your notebook. In thinking about this request, you observe, “Compromising is rarely a good artistic decision. When documenting worlds not your own, however, it might be the only conscionable one.” How often have you found yourself faced with this type of conundrum? How does holding a notebook impact the relationships you build with the people whose stories you share? Specifically, I’m thinking here as well of how you describe your friendship with “Keetah” and how “Forging friendships with my ‘characters’ is one of the many ethical minefields I negotiate.”
I always keep my notebook in full view, to remind everyone (including myself) that I am there first and foremost as a documentarian. Yet I spend so much time with my subjects, I inevitably see or hear or even say things that I probably shouldn’t—and no one remembers to shout: “Hold it! That’s off the record.” So, it’s tricky. While working on Around the Bloc, I implemented a policy that I’ve upheld ever since, of sending the final draft to key subjects for fact-checking, prior to handing in the manuscript to my editor. I do this because my foremost priority as a writer is justice, and it feels deeply unjust to withhold the contents of a book from its subjects. If they have any concerns about their representation, we talk it through. Interestingly enough, that rarely happens. Just as I respect my sources enough to share the text with them, they respect me enough to honor the way I have portrayed them. Occasionally, someone wants to change their name or certain identifying characteristics, but mostly they fix little errors and add perspective that improves the text immeasurably. Only twice in my career has anyone requested a change that felt unacceptable to me. In one case, I eliminated the subject from the story altogether. In the other case, I kept everything as I wrote it—and promptly lost a friendship. Though excruciating at the time, I don’t regret either decision.
It seems impossible not to ask about the timing of this book’s release. While your research all took place under the Obama administration, the book was released after Trump took office. Though, I do fear that by overstating this significance, I’m falling into a bit of an idealistic trap. What you document in these communities—deportations, deaths, massive failures of government agencies—all occurred under Obama’s watch. Yet, quite obviously, Trump’s election has also galvanized virulent hatred. In a way, it seems that who happens to be in power matters both not at all and a great deal for this book? Would your approach to writing this book have been substantially different if you were conducting research now?
Just a few weeks after I sent All the Agents and Saints off to press—after a decade of working on it—I kept vigil by the television until 3 a.m. one night, watching Trump win the U.S. presidency. In that moment, the planet seemed to slip off its axis. My foremost concern was for immigrants, followed by the desert landscape that had been threatened with even more architecture violence (aka border wall). Admittedly, I also had a panic attack about my book getting consigned to the annals of history before it had even hit the shelf. But then I called my Mohawk friend “Keetah,” and she set me straight. No matter what political party holds power, her nation still must fend off a dozen different jurisdictions that try to wield authority over it. Their native language remains endangered from a century of Indian residential school. Their rivers remain polluted from the Superfund sites that surround them. Certainly, the situation could worsen. But I could have spent the rest of my life documenting the nefarious ways our indigenous and borderland communities are treated. The major takeaway of All the Agents and Saints is that somehow, some way, our communities manage not just to survive but thrive.
Image: Author website
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.