What is literature? If I had to define it, I would say nothing more or less than an examination and exploration of the human condition. Maybe that’s why I’m obsessed with reading story after story, digging through character’s psyches and contexts, trying to figure out life like everyone else. But, for me, stories aren’t always safely contained in books. There are real stories about real people out there too. The way we think about real human stories, the way we pass them on, the way we try to fit them into our own world views, those stories have real effects whether they are fiction, history or current events.
Sometimes those stories are haunting. Sometimes we can’t escape the stories of real people by retreating into books.
Having said that, I’d like to discuss two stories that are difficult, disturbing, the deaths of two migrant children, at the US/Mexico border, and the overall tensions and issues going on there. Jakelin Caal Maquin, who was 7 years old, died a mere 48 hours after she was detained in border patrol custody. She was initially reported as being healthy by her father, but shortly after that was unconscious and later diagnosed with sepsis. Just a few weeks later, on Christmas Eve in fact, Felipe Gomez-Alonso, 8 years old, also died in Border Patrol custody.
What does this have to do with literature, you might ask? I will say that this atrocity at our Southern Border is caused, in part, by not listening to people’s stories. This is what happens when people refuse to look, to examine, to listen, and instead dehumanize a group of people based on irrational fears and prejudices. It happens when we try to convince ourselves that other people are monsters, that their stories and ours are not of a piece.
It is an old song, and a tired one. When you can’t center others in their own stories, when you talk about them in ways that make them less human, you suddenly find that you can put babies in cages, hold children from their parents that they may never see again, because they have been othered; they’re “those people” the people from the scary stories you’ve allowed yourself to believe. You build a wall in your heart and head to keep their stories out of your ears. Only in this case, the victims of these fictions are living human beings.
If you listen, not to the stories that demean them, but to these people themselves, instead of villains, you see people willing to sacrifice everything to make a near impossible journey to save their children. You will see children who look and sound like your own. You will see your own heart reflected in their eyes. The Stature of Liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” That giantess allows every person the dignity of their own story, the story of hope and possibility. I hope we can do the same.
Listen, listen, listen to the stories that are all around you.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea, and tries to spend every spare second reading. Jarad is an English major. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!