This spring, I was invited to give an evening presentation that was partly craft (writing nonfiction) and partly thematic (writing about immigration). Specifically, we were going to chat about short-form nonfiction, and how and why I wrote and collected the personal essays in my just-released book, Green Card & Other Essays.
Half-way through the evening, and long before our Q & A discussion, a woman in the audience interrupted to ask about my current immigration status.
I smiled. I answered. I got back to my pre-prepared talking points.
Then, our woman interrupted again to ask about my former immigration status-as in, when I first landed here 32 years ago and during my first years in the U.S. of A.
What Not to Ask
Now, I’m sure you already know this, but it’s never polite to ask a stranger about his or her immigration status-no, not even when that person is fetching and carrying your suitcases or speaks with a blended or non-American or a full-American accent.
Not even when she’s chatting about a book on immigration.
Asking this is down there with, say, inquiring about someone’s bra size or bank account or sex life. In fact, these last three are not mired in partisan politics and our most recent news headlines and reports and arguments about separated families and detained children-and the public policies and atrocities that have made this happen.
Was I surprised here? No. After all, I was the one who had chosen to write and present on what has now become one of America’s hottest-button issues and topics.
A month earlier, during a separate, Saturday afternoon event, an audience member asked for my opinion on the current U.S. immigration policies and practices. I reminded our man that we were all there to talk about literature, not morality or politics, but that I’d be happy to answer his question one-on-one and off line.
He was very, very respectful. He was also very persistent.
I had been in that room, with that audience for almost an hour. So I felt that this man deserved to hear my truth. I talked about my own past and my current stance and what I see as my duty to reach behind me to advocate for other-especially newcomer-immigrants.
Public Events Versus Paid Writing Workshops
Now, these two were public, no-fee events, where the public have a right to ask whatever they choose to ask. By contrast, had I been hired and contracted to teach a creative writing workshop, I would have fire-walled my own opinions and stances from those of my hiring organization and its fee-paying students.
Immigration isn’t the only social justice issue or cause that I write about. I’m a passionate advocate for reproductive health access and health equity and women’s rights. I also love to tackle issues of social class. All of these issues are inter-related. They are built on the assumption that we in our (insert gender or social ranking or nationality or ethnicity) group are entitled to certain human rights or privileges, but others, by virtue of their sheer (insert gender or social ranking or nationality or ethnicity) groups are not.
Then there are those days when I’m tackling nothing. I’m not an advocate. Not a resister. Not a newly-minted U.S. citizen with a vote and a voice.
I’m just a woman with a pen and a notebook who hopes the writing can teach me something about myself and the world.
Writing for Advocacy and Understanding
Yes. As writers, we don’t expect all readers or audience members to agree with our stance. Given our druthers, we’d rather not be subjected to those in-person or online comments or questions that mangle the facts and that stymie, not enhance, our mutual understanding of our respective points of view.
And yet, as writers, don’t we sign up for all of it-even those public questions that are impolite or implicitly accusatory?
We’re not policy wonks. We’re not journalists. But when we’ve written about our social-justice causes, shouldn’t we be as ready to talk about those causes as we are prepared to talk about our craft of writing?