To Tell the Truth … To Be Seen: Poet Javier Zamora (’12) on Unaccompanied
UC Berkeley alumnus Javier Zamora (’12) published his first book of poetry, Unaccompanied, in 2017. Fleeing a civil war and gang violence in El Salvador, Zamora’s parents immigrated to the United States when he was two, leaving him with his grandparents until his own migration, alone, at age nine. The poems of Unaccompanied explore that family history, its larger contexts, and contemporary American politics of the border, racism, and economic injustice.
Zamora has received many scholarships, fellowships, and awards, including the Writer for Writers Award from Barnes & Noble for his work with the Undocupoets Campaign. He is also a member of the Our Parents’ Bones Campaign, whose goal is to bring justice to the families of the ten thousand disappeared during El Salvador’s civil war.
This summer, graduate student Evan Klavon sat down with Zamora at Casa Latina Bakery in Berkeley, and asked about his development as a writer, his time at Cal, and the relation of poetry to history, trauma, family, and truth-telling. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
Evan Klavon: I’d like to start with some questions about the influence of your education on your development as a poet. Your author bio mentions that you participated in the Poetry for the People program while you were an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. (Founded by June Jordan and housed in the African American Studies department, the Poetry for the People program gives undergraduates the opportunity to lead poetry workshops in the greater Bay Area community and at UC Berkeley.) How did that experience affect you at the time and as you were starting to write the poems of your book?
Javier Zamora: I came to poetry through Pablo Neruda and Roque Dalton, so trying to be an activist was always part of the dream. I thought that was what all poets were like. Through that branch, eventually I found out about June Jordan—I was a history major, so I always looked at the bios of the poets or the writers I read, and I saw that she taught and created this amazing program at Berkeley. By sophomore year I was beginning to get more serious about writing—I took the route of the creative writing minor, P4P was one of the courses.
Taking that course was amazing because I’ve always also wanted to teach, and if you take the regular course, then the second semester ten people get to train to teach the course the next year—it’s a three-semester course if you go the whole way. I was teaching other undergrads, and in the second part of that course I got to teach continuation school in Berkeley, and then also teach an ESL course at the Berkeley City College, which to me is like activism. June Jordan wanted to take down the walls of academia as a way to bring the community into academia, so I was very interested in that aspect of her worldview.
EK: Do you see teaching as something that’s on the side, or does it come into your sense of what you’re doing in your writing?
JZ: I think now it’s more to the side, but that’s only a recent thing. Right after undergrad I applied to MFAs, and I turned programs down because they didn’t want you to teach. I taught my very first semester at NYU, because I asked if I could do it—not necessarily for the extra money, although that helped, but because I was very committed to the idea of teaching other people. I’ve taught, thankfully, every semester since. Even here at the Stegner Program I’ve taught a Levinthal [seminar]—it’s not really a class, it’s more one-on-one—and I like that more. So now the teaching has taken a step back. Also my book is out, and I’m very disorganized, so I have less time to come up with a syllabus. But next week I’m going to start teaching a workshop at the Asian American Museum [of San Francisco]. Even before I wanted to become a poet, I wanted to become a professor. My first dream was to become a history professor, which is what I majored in at Cal, but then later poetry happened.
EK: How did majoring in history influence you as a writer?
JZ: It was history that got me into poetry. When I was in high school, I learned about Che Guevara, the leftist movements in Latin America, and through them, I found out about Neruda and Roque Dalton. Because of my high school love of Latin America, I majored in Latin American history. My thesis as an undergrad was on the Salvadoran Civil War, which my parents hadn’t really talked about. I also tied in Roque Dalton’s death in 1975, which pretty much began a branch of the FMLN that started the civil war—it was the student branch, and there was poetry involved, it was called the FAPU. All of that influenced me, especially the part of my book that deals with prose poems. Those prose poems are deliberate because in Latin America during the 70s and 80s, when there was a lot of civil wars, the testimony became a huge thing, and those testimonies tended to be in prose poems or prose-like.
EK: Did you take any English courses at Berkeley? Did studying English or American or other Anglophone literatures influence you at all?
JZ: I think for the minor you only have to take two English classes. So I took Margaret Ronda’s modern poetry course, and I learned so much. For me, a writer of color, I always felt a certain distancing—whether it was real or fabricated, I always felt a certain way about the English department. But Margaret Ronda changed my perception about the English department.
EK: How did her class change things for you?
JZ: To start, she taught Jean Toomer’s Cane in a very political way. She was saying the right things. We read Pound’s Cantos and she took him to town. I appreciated her understanding of the politics of the time. The appropriations of other cultures by that generation, etc. I still think back on George Oppen’s trauma and how the war manifested itself on the page through the white space. I don’t know, my high school teachers never incorporated trauma and politics in the way she did.
Then I took Chicano Literature in the English department with Genaro Padilla, and that was also mind-blowing. I didn’t know how rich Latinx/Chicanx literature was. I took two of his courses. So I took more than I needed to, because by then I was convinced that there were other outlets.
EK: Let’s shift to Unaccompanied now. Given that most of the poems in the book represent events that happened long before they were written, I’m curious about your process in writing them. Did it involve a series of attempts and/or drafts over long periods of time? Were there some topics you knew you wanted to write about but had to wait until you figured out the right way to approach them? Did you return to older poems you thought were ‘done’ as you added new pieces to the manuscript?
JZ: All of the above. The oldest poem in the book is the longest poem—“June 10, 1999”—and that poem is made up of a lot of other failed poems. I think the oldest one I wrote when I was 17 or 18. That became a topic that was very hard to write about. It wasn’t until I graduated from Berkeley and I was at NYU that I really took the immigration poems head-on. I had shitty drafts—I would write something and put it away because it was too traumatic for me. I think the poem with the least drafts in the book is like 50, because I’m very obsessive — changing a title or cutting a word would be a separate draft for me.
At Cal I wrote a lot of the persona poems and the war poems, because I was a history major and they coincided. My idea under the history major was to interview my parents and write a thesis based on their experience during the war. But the History department was like “no you can’t do that”—it was unethical because I was too close to the material, etc. That was disillusionment number one with the history major, which I think is why I wrote it creatively, as poetry. So it’s been all of the above. It’s been really very hard. The book took me like 9 years or 10—from when I was 17, and it got published when I was 27. It’s hard.
EK: Let’s talk about those persona poems. Some of your poems are written in the voices of other members of your family, or they present moments of dialogue that address those family members, or they address you. Elsewhere you express anxiety about writing poetry “here in a language / [your Abuelita] don’t speak” while “everyone’s working / Mom Dad Tía Lupe Tía Mali / working under different names.” Did your family ever criticize you about your writing and ambitions, or were those concerns self-generated?
JZ: Just this past weekend, an article was published in my home country, in the major newspaper there. It was all in Spanish, with some translated poems that I translated myself. My grandparents were very proud of it. I think it was the first time that they truly understood, or began to understand, what it is that I do as a writer. They always thought that I was a high school teacher: when I told them that I taught, they thought ‘He can’t be at the university, he must be teaching high school or elementary.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with that—but it was very hard to explain, it’s hard because of a different worldview, different realities, and also a different language. So I’m going through that with my grandpa in particular, because I never even read poems to him. With my grandma, even though there’s a language barrier, and my aunts, I would translate the poems that are about them, and they would cry. But they never told me ‘Don’t write that,’ and they never told me that it wasn’t true.
Even with my mom and dad, who both speak English, they would go to my readings at the very beginning, when I was 17 and 18—very rough drafts, very mean rough drafts, because for me poetry was very therapeutic—and it was the first time that I actually confronted my parents. Sadly, it was a public confrontation, but thankfully they didn’t shy away from that, they kept on coming to the readings. They never told me ‘Don’t write that.’ I very much thank them for that. And I very much thank the writing process, because it was the writing process that healed our relationship. My relationship with my mom is now the best that it’s ever been—same with my dad.
There was fear, you know—‘Oh no, your immigration status, what are you doing?’ There was also the reality that, especially back then in 2008-09 not a lot of people were really reading poetry by immigrants, you know, so I was like ‘Mom, we’re OK, the government’s not going to come after me because of this.’ There was also a reality check that they didn’t want me to be a poet, because poets don’t make money—they’re very worried for my well-being. And also, my dad was scared that something was going to happen to me, not immigration-wise, but safety-wise. Because he grew up in El Salvador at a time when they were killing or exiling writers, so that was his own trauma.
EK: Unaccompanied documents the story of your (and your family members’) migration, and sets those personal movements within the context of history’s unfolding. And yet, individual poems often seem stuck in time and place, or oscillate between times and places in the remembering and longing of exile. “Cassette Tape” features sections that fast-forward and rewind past each other. Another title invokes montage, and your lines often seem to collage causes and effects out of order. Would you talk about such uses of anti-narrative (rather than narrative) forms for telling the stories of these moments and your family history?
JZ: Thank you for picking up on that! For me, “Cassette Tape” and “Montage” are some of my favorite poems. I also included a lot of letter poems. All those three mediums were mediums of communication while I was in another country. In the 90s, those were the means through which my narrative was constructed. I like that you say it gets stuck in place, because even in a letter I would write something that I would want my parents to immediately respond to, but it would sometimes take two weeks or a month, and it was like we were having a separate narrative, as opposed to the reality—which is pretty much the act of writing. We would also record ourselves on cassette tapes and VHS tapes. All those things freeze time. And it took me a while to understand this: the book is a time capsule. The El Salvador I wrote doesn’t exist any more. And even the El Salvador that I constructed—I didn’t know this until I recently went back—was the imagination of a 9-year-old. That was all I had, it was only 9 years. I’ve gotten critiques by Salvadoran writers in El Salvador, because they’re like ‘This is not the El Salvador that we know.’ And it’s not, that’s not the El Salvador that they knew, even though they were alive at the same time that I was there.
For all my poems, and because of my trauma, I was aiming for a linear narrative. I’ve also gotten critiqued for that, that all of my poems are narrative, I guess that’s not in style anymore. But for me it was necessary to try to recreate all these little pieces that, in my brain, because of my trauma, were like little pieces of a puzzle, or like cuts and bits of a montage, or letters that were found years later all mixed up in a drawer. All of which did occur, and which sparked a memory. My trauma is like that, it’s very anti-linear—it’s like blacking out at a party and remembering some things. That’s what the trauma of immigrating here did to me as a nine-year-old. So, thank you for calling it anti-narrative, but I think the aim was to be more narrative.
EK: In “from The Book I Made with a Counselor My First Week of School” you quote your mother’s advice “never tell them [gringos] everything, but smile, always smile.” It seems to me there is a tension between, on the one hand, a desire to educate your audience about where Salvadoran immigrants are coming from (both literally and figuratively), and, on the other hand, a resistance to commodifying this information for easy consumption — you don’t want the book to be like “the pier’s stores [in El Salvador before the Civil War] where tourists once bought / cocktails from yachts.” Is my sense of this accurate? If so, what have been your strategies in navigating this double-bind (if you see it as a double-bind)?
JZ: I put that poem very early on in the book, for this very reason. And also, a similar line at the end of the very first poem: “they don’t know shit.” Which people laugh about, but it’s also that distancing. I was very much interested in putting an arm between myself and any reader, in particular a reader who has never heard of El Salvador and is just coming to it through my work. I didn’t want to over-explain things.
I have a chapbook that I published when I was 19, I even included a glossary, and that was a learning experience. I felt so icky about that, like I was selling my trauma, my culture, etc. That taught me a lot, and none of those poems made it to this book.
I still—you might think I’m telling a lot of things, but I’m still not telling everything. That’s for trauma reasons, for legal reasons. That’s always been a reality in my choosing to write about this, that I don’t have the privilege to say everything as it happened. I was lucky that I chose poetry to tell this. Maybe inherently I knew that I couldn’t say everything, because had I written a non-fiction book, my story would be different. I think that is a story that every immigrant here knows. It’s also very hard, there’s a certain mistrust of others who haven’t been through our experiences. It doesn’t necessarily have to be along racial lines, but mostly that’s most evident. I have a friend who volunteers for an immigration center—a lot of the kids don’t open up to her, or open up at a much lower rate. (You can also see this in Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends.) When I interact with the kids that she has been working with, all they have to hear is my Salvadoran accent, because a lot of them are Salvadoran, and they open up, a little quicker. Not that they don’t open up to her, but it took her a lot more work than it did for them to open up to me. I think that’s a reality of a lot of immigrants, and I think that’s a reality that people like my mom know, and to me that’s like the quintessential lesson of coming to this country: don’t ever tell them everything.
EK: To switch from that withholding of some of the truth to the truth-telling that you do engage in: Your book also points to the long history and continuing effects of the United States’ colonialism and imperialism. “San Francisco Bay and ‘Mt. Tam’” ends on images of “gringos: foreign and invasive like pampas grass.” “Disappeared” names “Bush Sr., Ronald Reagan [the] CIA [and] Jimmy Carter” among those responsible for the 75,000 civilians killed during the 1980-1992 Salvadoran Civil War. And in “June 10, 1999” you write: “I wasn’t born here / I’ve always known this country wanted me dead // a white man passed a bill that wants me deported / wants my family deported.” What is your hope for poetry that speaks these truths? Is this an ethical responsibility for you, an aesthetic choice, a political act?
JZ: In all of those—you know, I think you have it on the money again—it’s truth-telling. Going back to June Jordan and Roque Dalton and Neruda—I come from a background where poets are the vanguard. And what does that mean? For me, it means to point at things that are wrong and search for the truth.
I think that’s also why I wanted to become a history major, because I was obsessed with answering questions with the closest thing to the truth, which is always subjective and it always changes with the point of view. But for me there was a lot of misinformation. Now, because of the quote-unquote unaccompanied children crisis—which, it’s not a crisis, it has been happening for a while, and I’m a testament to that, I came here in 1999, and I was not the only child immigrating at the time, and I was by myself, and the other children were also by themselves—but anyways, now, we are learning. My book also benefitted from this quote-unquote crisis, but when I started writing it, nobody was talking about it. So it’s my obsession with wanting to tell the truth and wanting to be seen, wanting to be understood, and wanting other people that were like me—meaning Salvadoran immigrants, Central American immigrants, immigrants period—to be seen as complete human beings and to be not held culpable, but to really be understood as to why they would come to this country. I think the why is something that’s very close to a truth.
And the truth to me is always about US imperialism, and about whiteness, and about who has agency and who holds power. So those three lines that you chose were very deliberate. As we can tell now, the president, a white man, wants my family deported. Even after this president, another white man’s going to step in and want my family deported and write a bill. That’s just our reality, that not a lot of people were talking about, and even now are not talking about. Perhaps they will stop once there’s a president change, which occurred during the Obama administration, but it was still—he wasn’t white, but I don’t think whiteness is a literal thing, whiteness is a power thing. It doesn’t have to be Trump, it was Obama as well.
EK: Towards the end of the book, referring again to your border-crossing, you write “I’m tired of writing the fence the desert / the van picked us up / took me to parents / I’m tired it’s always that.” Do you feel like you’ve now finished writing that event, or do its continuing ramifications continue to draw you into addressing it again, as in the book’s last line, “nothing has changed”? What have you been writing since finishing Unaccompanied?
JZ: I was tired of writing about the fucking border since I began writing the book. And I’m tired of it now. Being tired is something completely different than ‘having to.’ And I think every writer has their obsession, or their ghost, that they can’t escape. For me, it’s always going to be immigration. What I am trying—since eventually I was like OK well fuck, this is something that I’m going to have to always write—so what I’m exploring is writing about that in other forms. I’m exploring essays, prose, in ways that approach the same topic.
In poetry, I am censoring myself now, cutting even more any mention of El Salvador or trauma. I am, finally, more aware that the book is sad as shit—and that is not the complete reality of my life! I also lived very happy moments, and I live a joyful life. And I’m trying to write into that joy. I also love, and I can write those happy love poems. It doesn’t always have to be about the trauma. That’s what the line tried to address.
There’s also this deep obsession with trauma in the literary world, and in America as a whole. I think we just consume trauma. Now, after having written a book about trauma, I am in a position of privilege to question that, to question how and why my book has gotten the attention that it has. Now I’m more concerned and interested in immigrant joy.
EK: One last question: After they’ve read Unaccompanied, who are some other writers you’d recommend to readers interested in Salvadoran poetry, migrant and immigrant experiences, or, more specifically, immigrant joy?
JZ: I learned that term (“immigrant joy”) through Yosimar Reyes, he’s a poet and playwright and he’s very interested in that work. He works for Define American with Jose Antonio Vargas. Jose Antonio Vargas won a Pulitzer and he was the one who came out as an undocumented journalist in The New York Times Magazine. The stories that they publish on Define American are very much concerned with this obsession with the trauma of immigrants. So I would check that out, first. Yuri Herrera, who’s writing about the Mexican border—he’s Mexican, but he’s writing about it in an almost noir, not as over-the-top trauma way, which I’m really into.
About Salvadoran writers, there’s a lot in El Salvador, there’s a lot here. But I will start with William Archila, Leticia Hernández-Linares, Alexandra Lytton Regalado, Cynthia Guardado … and that’s just the beginning of the list. And there’s also upcoming books by other younger Salvadoran writers: Christopher Soto, Willy Palomo, etc.
There’s a memoir that’s upcoming by another poet, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo—Children of the Land—it’s going to be dope, because I think, I might be wrong, I think it’s going to be the first memoir, from a first-person perspective, of somebody that has gone through the immigration stuff. And Valerie Luiselli, her book Tell Me How It Ends, is really dope. And the guy from Define America, Jose Antonio Vargas, also has a book coming out in September, so check that out.