With immigration politics so deeply entrenched in modern headlines, Border Child is a more timely read than ever.
While it takes place several years after the events of Stone’s debut novel, The Iguana Tree, it’s hard to say that Border Child is directly a sequel. Stone allows her characters to labor at repackaging the plot of her first book, which offers newcomers the chance to dive head-first into Border Child without feeling like they missed a beat.
Set four years after Lilia loses her daughter at the U.S.-Mexico border, while attempting to reunite with her husband Héctor, Border Child picks up with the couple learning that there may be a chance at recovering Alejandra. Lilia and Héctor have since parented a son, Fernando, and are pregnant with a child of undisclosed gender (though Lilia strongly believes that it’ll be a girl). Héctor embarks on a mission to make enough money to travel to back into America, taking on a string of illegal jobs, while Lilia remains home in Oaxaca, both bed- and guilt-ridden over the events of the past.
With the recent political fallout of separating parents and children at the border in the back of my mind, I spoke with Clemson graduate Michel Stone about the societal implications of Border Child, in addition to discussing the craft behind the text.
Elise Demeter: Border Child feels both timely in some regards, and completely ahead of the political landscape in others. While writing this novel, I can’t imagine you ever could have predicted the way immigration has become such a hot-button topic in the news, particularly with the recent focus on the separating of children from their parents at the border. I’m curious if these headlines have affected the way you think of your story. Had you been writing Border Child now as opposed to it already being completed, do you think anything in the plot might have changed?
Michel Stone: My note taking for what ultimately became Border Child began long before talk of “building the wall” and before the outrage over children separated from parents at our border with Mexico. In 2012, I read a surprising statistic that something like 75-80 percent of families crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. were separated at some point during their crossings because of the nature of undocumented crossings. Crossing all together was too difficult and not feasible.
Undocumented immigration became a hot-button issue long before Trump, Obama or even President Clinton. I published a short story 15 years ago titled “Dance of the Coyote,” written from the perspective of a young Mexican mother whose husband had just left their village, headed to the U.S. border with a coyote, or smuggler. My stories have always been more about people than politics, so I’m not sure how Border Child would have differed had I written it today. The story I wanted to tell about parental love and sacrifice is the story I wrote.
ED: Border Child, and from what I’ve gleaned of The Iguana Tree, are stories rife with social commentary. Do you find yourself writing toward contributing to a national dialogue, or does this take the backseat to the narrative itself?
MS: The narrative is 100 percent my focus. Over a decade ago, while attending the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, I heard the wonderful author and writing instructor Richard Bausch say that fiction writers should eschew politics. He said: ” … You are in the business of portraying the personal life, the personal cost of events, so even if history is part of your story, it should only serve as a backdrop.” At the time I heard this, I was working on my first novel, and his words struck a chord with me. To me, it means just tell a story and tell it well, and perhaps that story may be universal, speaking for anyone anywhere. Immigration is the backdrop of Border Child, but the story is about a family being knocked to the ground and figuring out how to pick themselves up and take the next step. What choice do they have? What choice do any of us have when we face a dire circumstance? Border Child is a story of familial love, sacrifice and hope. I never say it’s a story about immigration. It isn’t.
ED: Perhaps it is a somewhat trivial scene, but one of the moments that stuck with me most occurred when we were with Ana Maria at Senor Juan’s Texas Rib Shack. At the onset of the scene, it is written:
Ana Maria would never understand people. Why not eat Mexican food when in Mexico? Americans intrigued her.” – Chapter 18
This isn’t the only incident where tourism is integrated into the novel. Why did you decide to include these native/non-native interactions? What are you hoping a reader takes away about the relationship between tourists and country’s native population?
MS: I’ve become increasingly aware that the lens through which I see the world is much more static when I remain in my comfort zone, meaning my country, and even my state or community. But when I’ve traveled to places such as Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico or really anywhere, the set of norms by which I’ve always gauged my world change. The expression “When in Rome,” attributed to a 4th century bishop in Milan, has stayed in use for a reason. It references, of course, the prudence of following the conventions of the culture one visits. I take that notion one step further in my fiction writing, and this gets to your question. I think we’d be wise to remember that people, all people, see the world through the lens with which they’re familiar, and that’s completely normal, but we are often quick to judge someone, to size them up, based on a set of norms we follow, but by which they are completely unfamiliar. What I’m trying to get at here is empathy. Fiction, like traveling to a different culture, helps us empathize with others whose worldview or lens has been shaped by different circumstances or conventions than our own. I hope to expand my reader’s lens.
ED: I’m sure this is a difficult question to navigate, but what is your attachment to the individuals you write about? What compels you—an American, an outsider, the “other” to protagonists Lilia and Hector—to tell this story? Do you feel responsible to play a role in the sharing of these narratives?
MS: I’m compelled to tell these stories because I love to illuminate ways we as human beings are alike, regardless of our various backgrounds or cultures, because I do believe we are much more alike than we are different. I enjoy studying different cultures. Parents across the world want to protect, feed, clothe, educate and raise children with strong moral compasses. We may go about how we do this life in a variety of ways, but we are all doing this life. The commonalities far outnumber the variances. The older I get, or maybe it’s the more global our world gets, the more the term “the other” rankles me. Our cultural differences are important, unique and often beautiful, but the ties that bind us across those differences, in spite of them, speak to our shared condition.
ED: I’ve read in previous reviews and interviews for The Iguana Tree that you’d performed numerous interviews with Mexican and Mexican-American immigrants in order to uncover their stories, which you gleaned from to remain faithful to the plight of immigration. In what ways has your research process changed or developed between The Iguana Tree and Border Child? Secondary to this, I love the way you include cultural touchstones in your writing that are specific to Mexico—the cliff-divers of La Quebrada, for example. What went into your decision to include these elements in your work?
MS: My initial research was simply an organic conversation that sprung up during a serendipitous encounter with an undocumented Mexican immigrant couple. That conversation and their tale haunted me and prompted me to dig deeper, and I came back to them numerous times for subsequent conversations. I began reading and clipping every news article on the topic I saw, keeping the articles in a file. I read quite a few nonfiction books, too, but the personal stories always mattered most to me, the human stories. I interviewed many undocumented immigrants, including children, in the U.S., as well as people in Mexico and Central America. No two stories are ever alike. Including cultural touchstones in my writing feels absolutely necessary to make the stories ring true. As I said earlier, while I do believe that people are more alike than we’re different, I also believe that our cultural differences are beautiful, each to be respected and treasured. It’s important for my novels’ settings to feel authentic.
ED: What prompted you to write not only from Lilia and Hector’s perspective, but to include the point of view of peripheral characters, such as Emanuel, Rosa, the village priest and so on? Was this a way of fleshing out the world around Lilia and Hector, or was it more of a way to maintain a checks-and-balances of Lilia and Hector’s decisions surrounding seeking Alejandra, or was it something else?
MS: Including others’ perspectives rounded out the characters of Lilia and Hector. I tend to write in limited third person, which is my favorite POV to write. But to better flesh out my protagonists, I needed to show readers the world from the peripheral characters’ eyes as well. By the way, the village priest is one of my favorite secondary characters.
ED: When writing from various perspectives, how do you distinguish one character’s voice from the rest of the cast? That is to say, were you conscious of the ways Lilia’s chapters might feel tonally in comparison to Hector’s, or either of the protagonists’ from a supporting character’s?
MS: I try to hear each character’s voice in my head, each unique pronunciation, the cadence of each character’s speech. Maybe each voice is based consciously or subconsciously on a real voice I know, and so it becomes part and parcel of the character. That is something I probably think about as I write the first few chapters, but then I internalize the sounds and rhythms, so that I just know each character’s voice. I am mindful of the difference in sounds between a native Spanish speaker speaking English, and a native Spanish speaker speaking Spanish that must be written as English for an American reader. So, for example, when I am writing dialogue between two Mexican characters that would clearly be in Spanish, but for the sake of my readers is written in English, the dialogue is much more free-flowing and I use contractions. But when one of those characters speaks to a native English speaker and uses his best English, the sound is more stilted, no contractions. I hope that makes sense. These are all nuances of dialogue that, if done properly, readers may not even notice, so I appreciate that question.
ED: Is this the end of Lilia and Hector’s story, or is there a third book lingering somewhere in your peripheral?
MS: The novel I’m writing now is unrelated to anything I’ve previously written. New characters. New story. I’ve learned never to say never. Maybe Hector and Lilia will resurface some day, but for now they remain among pages already published.