Truth, Accuracy and Immigration

It was the ‘70s and my brother and I were wandering around in Greenwich Village, probably looking for some good pizza. We were bantering about our reading preferences; Jon read non-fiction, while I preferred fiction and the occasionally well written autobiography (which today might be called memoir). Jon said that fiction didn’t really carry much information because it wasn’t true. And that’s when things really got interesting because, of course, we then launched into a discussion of truth and accuracy, yada, yada, yada.

I held – and still hold – that fiction and stories are filled with truth. In fact, somewhere along the way I’ve read that fiction could be considered the “lies that tell the truth.” And I quite like that characterization. Because even if the path is not a direct one, good stories do lead to the truth. But, the truth about what? Not to put too fine a point on it, stories lead us to the truth about our lives, the lives of others, and the entire human condition. They are the purpose behind learning by example; the function behind reasoning by analogy. Just as we learn our very language by paying attention to the interactions between actions and words, we learn our humanity by paying attention to the interactions between entities within a narrative structure. That is, we learn how to react to particular circumstances, to empathize with other humans, and to live effectively in society through the examples handed down to us through stories, be they formal or informal.

This constituted an undeniable stretch, from Jon’s perspective, and maybe from the perspective of others, as well. However, I’m pretty firm in my belief on this one. Many things I know because of the stories I have heard and many more things I know because of the stories I heard once, but then forgot. For example, I have a particular perspective on the whole issue of federal immigration policy based on having read a whole lot of fiction about immigrants, including “My Antonia” (Willa Cather), “Mama’s Bank Account” (Kathryn Forbes), “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” (Robert Olen Butler),  “The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love” (Oscar Hijuelo), “The Joy Luck Club” (Amy Tan), “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (Stephen Crane), “’Tis” (Frank McCourt), and “The House on Mango Street” (Sandra Cisneros). I am certain that those stories have colored my views on this issue.

By the same token, my views have also been colored by the immigrant stories passed down through my own family, as well as the stories my Aunt Gen told about serving as a social services counselor at Manzanar Relocation Center (Japanese internment camp in northern California). While the Japanese families detained at Manzanar were not immigrants in the strictest sense of the word, they were considered outsiders nonetheless. Our perception of these people as the “others” allowed the government to develop and implement policies — ostensibly as much for their own good as for the good of national security — that ultimately disenfranchised thousands of human beings, many of whom were actually legitimate U.S. citizens and second-generation Nissei.

At the same time, my mother was telling me stories, passed down from  her mother, about German immigrants through the Great Hall at Ellis Island in the first half of the last century. My grandmother worked for a time as an interpreter at Ellis Island and it was her job to explain the process to the  many Germans who filed through the Great Hall day after day. Many lost all of the belongings they’d managed to bring with them and a few even lost their names. Some of the stories were heartwarming, complete with teary reunions and a few were too sad to repeat. But, coming to America was what these people were about. Today, their descendants are our neighbors and our friends.

Stories such as these help us to know the faceless entities about whom we hear in terms of numbers and locations on the nightly news. We come to know them as who they really are: folks like us who have come here under varied circumstances, similar to many of our own ancestors. The fact that the stories from the 19th and 20th centuries reflect the same faces as do the 21st century versions reminds us that the people haven’t changed, even if official policy has. Decisions made without recourse to such exposure are not fully considered decisions. Platitudes lacking knowledge is really only foolishness.

Having heard the stories about Manzanar from my aunt, I grew intrigued and read more about the history of the Japanese relocation program and the camps in which these people were placed. At Manzanar alone, more than 10,000 people were “relocated” within a matter of months, resulting in huge logistical errors and affronts to human dignity. An undertaking of that scale created practical dilemmas never imagined in the rooms where men made the policy. Now imagine the task of relocating the more than 10 million “illegal aliens” said to currently reside in the United States. Such a policy sounds good, but stories from our past call this out as just so much political rhetoric rather than a real, feasible solution to a pressing social issue.


Sally Forth

My name is Sally and my life is just one long chain of stories, one after the other. I really don’t believe that I could even consider my existence or my consciousness or my being without doing so in the context of one story or another. In fact, one way or another, the stories surrounding me have to a very large extent colored my perceptions of the world and of myself, and have developed along with me until they pretty much are me.

Here’s an example: When I was very little, maybe four or five years old, I got the idea that I’d been adopted because an elderly couple visiting my parents kept asking me to tell them my real name. (“What’s your real name, little girl?”) They did this when my parents had left the room to prepare coffee service for the visit so that, finally, by the time they’d left, I was convinced I was not really Sally Donlon, but someone else altogether. That I was not my mother’s daughter nor my father’s daughter, nor my brothers’ siblings; that I was, in fact, a foundling. Or, at the very least, that I’d been adopted.

About a year later, embroiled in a row with my mother, I spat out: “What do you care? I’m not even your daughter!” This really enraged my mother, who set about graphically detailing all the particulars of my birth in an attempt to prove that I was, indeed, her daughter. Then, my mother asked me where I’d gotten such a crazy idea and I had to remind her about the visit that day a year ago with the nice elderly couple. My mother had never heard them ask the question or else had not taken much notice of it, but those four words – what’s your real name? – had seared themselves into my hippocampus and I knew that I would never forget the sound of the lady’s voice, soft and sweet, as she asked them. When I repeated the question, slowly, so my mother could feel them in all their horror, she looked at me quizzically for a moment and then threw back her head and laughed.

This turn of events was hard to take, and angered me even more that I had been when I’d blurted out my revelation. By this time, I was also confused. Finally, my mother got control of herself and told me the story of when my father’s mother, and my namesake, had returned from charm school, having reinvented herself, much like any modern woman of today. The year was 1891 and my grandmother was 18 years old. Sarah had grown up in Arnaudville, Louisiana, in the countryside, and had been called Sadie all her life. When she turned 16 years old, her father packed her off to New Orleans to learn how to live in the city and to become and elegant lady. Sarah took him to heart and returned calling herself Sally because that was considered the proper diminutive by her uptown friends. She would not answer to anything else and continued walking if addressed as Sadie. She was now Sally.

Even so, folks in those days understood that whether she called herself Sadie or Sally, she was still Sarah, and that anything else was simply a nickname, a vanity. So that when that sweet old couple who had known my father’s mother in their youth asked me that simple question, it was simply that: a simple question. They wanted me to say Sarah because that was what Sally really stood for, to their minds. Nothing sinister. Nothing untoward.

However, I was Sally – just Sally – and had always been. My birth certificate, which my mother made a point of pulling out to demonstrate my provenance, clearly said Sally, and it also clearly featured the names of both my parents. Even though I have always hated to lose an argument, I was very glad to see that document.