This is the third in an ongoing series of interviews and essays we’re running alongside the release of the fifth season of the Organist, the arts-and-culture podcast we produce with KCRW. This piece coincides with our latest episode, Borderlands.
Javier Zamora is a poet whose work explores the troubled terrain of memory, place, and the intertwined, deeply political fates of his homeland of El Salvador and his current home in the United States.
When Zamora was nine years old, he crossed the border into the U.S. by himself to reunite with his family, who had earlier fled to escape the Salvadoran civil war. His latest collection, Unaccompanied, documents that journey, chronicling the perils of crossing the desert alone, the psychological impact of an omnipresent threat of danger, and the longing for a lost motherland, one filled with natural beauty.
The first time I spoke to Javier was in the fall of 2017, when his book had just been released. We recorded the interview in his home in San Rafael, CA, the town he grew up in after migrating to the United States. I spoke to him again in early summer 2018, over the phone. He was thousands of miles away, in the house he grew up in, in the coastal town of La Herradura. It was the first time he’d been back since he left for the United States nineteen years ago.
These two sections are excerpts of the separate conversations we had. They have been condensed and edited for clarity.
— Hannah Kingsley-Ma
SAN RAFAEL, 2017
There’s a lot in this book about the trauma of the war and the violence in El Salvador, which is separate from the beauty of the country, and the feelings you have of missing it, and remembering it fondly. I wonder if you feel like there’s an absence of those beautiful images in the way that Americans see El Salvador.
I think the media only portrays us as gangsters, especially now, with the Trump administration. Or as unaccompanied minors—which I was. I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate that part. I wanted to show the beauty without seeming exotic, and I’ve gotten that critique as well.
I got asked this question at a reading yesterday: why so many trees and fruits? And it’s because I grew up in a house where we had five different types of mango trees. We had bananas, we had coconuts, we had soursops, sweetsops, everything. I could just walk up to a tree and eat it. We had different types of animals. We had iguanas, we had dogs, we raised our own chickens, we got eggs from the chickens that we grew. And I could walk to the beach. I could go pick up a crab and eat it. That was the childhood that I think I missed a lot growing up here in an apartment complex in San Rafael.
How did you know what shape the book was going to take?
I didn’t. I didn’t know the shape that the book wanted to be. [At first] I just wanted a book that would be read without any section breaks, but I think that the content of the book calls for stops. Because it’s intense, traumatic work.
How did you know that writing these poems was the work you wanted to do?
My very first poem that I wrote knowing it was a poem was called “Mi Tierra” — my land. It addressed what I left, and I’d never had that medium to release all that pent-up anger and angst and longing. I liked it, I kept on doing it, I kept going back to the page. I wrote other works and then eventually I was writing about my immigration story. Because I didn’t see those stories on paper as poetry. I kept on looking for work [by immigrant writers]. It wasn’t until 2010 that I found the poet Javier O. Huerta, who was an immigrant and who immigrated here. But still I didn’t find any Salvadoran immigrant who had written something. So when I started writing I felt this need to see myself on the page. Kind of like what Toni Morrison says: write a book that you want to read. I think that was what I was yearning for.
One of the things that struck me is that even the parts that were really traumatic and really harrowing were still kind of beautiful. Was it strange, that process of beautification? Making a poem feel resonant and lush in the way a poem is, when writing about something so stark and brutal?
Art is beautiful. And I think that is the pressure in revising these memories — these poems… If somebody I was with [while crossing the border] was reading this work, I want them to read it and see some beauty in that experience they went through. Because I think the best poems are beautiful, and beauty doesn’t have to be happy. Beauty manifests itself in different ways, even in a traumatic experience.
I think being a kid — immigrating when I did as a nine-year-old—I could still see the beauty and the nature around me because I wasn’t so aware of the danger. And it’s only after growing up that I began to realize, oh shit, I was so close to death. You know, having cravings in the desert because you’re hungry and thirsty is not a beautiful thing.
Now that your book is being received and written about, is there anything around the narrative of the book that you feel is not being said? What do you wish people knew that they don’t?
What people are not saying about the book — and I wish they would — is that there have been children immigrating to this country since before we made headlines two or three years ago. At the time I was not the only child. It’s been happening for years and years. It just happened to peak recently. I wish people would pay attention to that and look at the patterns. And also mention the political poems in this book that directly address the hand the United States has in refugee crises all over the world.
I think another part of the book that I want to be acknowledged — and I think this about all the accolades that I’ve had — is that you may think that I am a good immigrant, that this is what could happen when the quote-unquote American Dream is satisfied. I don’t feel like I’m in no fucking dream. And it was important to me to include poems where I say, “I’m literally fucked up,” where I’m drinking, where there’s a lot of despair. Because I think those are the realities that even Dreamers and good valedictorians go through. And I think there’s a lot of pressure to be the good immigrant who graduates from UC Berkeley and has straight As, you know? I certainly felt that pressure, and it wasn’t happy and it wasn’t a good time trying to fulfill those roles that the media and the politicians want us to fulfill. I think they want us to fulfill it so they can leave most of the immigrants out…You’re either a complete criminal or a straight-A student. But most of us are in the middle.
What sounds do you associate with crossing the border?
I think silence. Or no — it’s like the lapping of waves on the boat. Even in the desert, I craved the water. And I craved being close to the ocean. Because that’s where I grew up. And that’s the sound of my hometown.
I think I was lucky because my elementary school separated us [newcomers]. There were five of us that had immigrated, days or weeks from each other. And we all had to get counseling. This counselor made me retell to her what had just happened, and she made me draw. So I have this book that I drew with her, and that helped me a lot. And it helped me forget what I had just gone through.
On the way up here, we inherently learn to keep some things private… These are all the things that get tied to you. And counseling helps, unlearning all those things that helped you survive but are not healthy in the regular world.
Is it hard talking about it now? Talking about it so much?
It’s actually good. Having the book out, it literally distances something inside of me from my body. It’s regenerative and healing.
Do you have people approach you after your readings saying, “This is something I’ve never seen before that really speaks to me”?
Yeah, I’m really touched when immigrant students come up to me. The coolest story was at the very first reading. Somebody bought a book — she’s a poet, and she works at a restaurant. She has a Salvadoran coworker. She was reading the book, and the coworker was drawn to the cover. And she asked, “What are you reading?” She said it was a work by a Salvadoran. The co-worker said, “Oh, can I see it?” And she gave it to her. The poet saw that the Salvadoran coworker kept on reading and reading, and she asked to borrow the book. She borrowed the book that night and she came back the next day and said thank you. And she was crying. She said, “I’ve never seen a book that talks about El Salvador and the experience that I’m going through.” This was like September, right before my book officially dropped. It was like a blessing. I was crying. I was like, this is why I wanted to write this book.
LA HERRADURA, 2018
When you interviewed me for the first time you were at my home, in the garage. And now I’m talking to you from my living room where I grew up.
I thought it was going to be emotionally tough to be here. But it’s been quite the opposite. I feel like a chapter of my life that has haunted me for a big part of my life — nineteen years — is finally closing. And it feels… it actually feels like closure. And I don’t even know how to describe that.
The way you write about your home in your poems is so full of longing. What is it like to be faced with those same images that you generated in your poems? Does it feel like you’re living in your poems a little bit? That you’re now walking amongst the images you’ve used repeatedly in your poetry?
It’s cool to be walking amongst my poems, but it’s also cool to be surprised by the things that my memory didn’t write, and couldn’t remember, and are all around me. And nature. I can pinpoint why I like nature so much now. Because it’s all around me. I think that’s why some people have categorized me as a nature poet. And I think it’s because of my childhood, and the house that I grew up in.
I wonder what it’s been like to experience this news cycle, with stories of children separated from their families at the border — while you’re in El Salvador.
I can feel it more being here, what people don’t understand about the situation in my country… By the time the sun sets, nobody walks in the streets. Everybody is at home. And I think that is the result of the violence and the fear. I go to sleep at 9 p.m., 9:30. My family doesn’t say that it’s because of the fear. But I can feel the fear. And I know it’s because of fear, and the violence. It didn’t use to be like this.
The book has been out for a while now. Have you been surprised by the way people are responding to it?
I’ve had other friends who are poets who have published books, who mostly read to white audiences. I was very afraid that was going to happen with my book. I’ve been very lucky; I’ve only read to two predominately white audiences — meaning more than fifty percent of the people in attendance were white. And I’ve probably done around forty events or more. The other times it’s been predominantly people of color, and predominantly Latinos. If we had an idea of who my target audience would be, it would’ve been Salvadorans. And those people have found that book.
The best experience that I’ve had is an entire class in Washington D.C. read my book. And some of the students were Salvadoran, or of Salvadoran descent — some of whom had recently immigrated themselves. Those students translated my work into Spanish, and read it before I went up and read my own poems. And that to me was what I intended. That was amazing. I couldn’t ask for more. If that was the only reading that I ever did, I would die happy.
Listen to the latest episode of the Organist to hear more from our interview with Javier Zamora and excerpts from his poems. In addition, you’ll hear from Porter Fox, who navigated the U.S.-Canada border, from end to end, by canoe, freighter, and rental car, encountering an increasingly policed border, Native American uprisings, and the unmistakable impact of climate change.