The Power to Write People IN – Not Write Them OFF


My heart often breaks for fictional characters I create. I feel their pain, their longings, their shame. But today, my characters—some of whom are from Central America—are hurting for us, here in the real world.

They are worried about the government policies that threaten to deport thousands of undocumented, at-risk children back to Central America. I’m having a hard time explaining to them why the United States isn’t protecting these vulnerable children.

Two weeks ago a young man I knew was murdered in Honduras. The killer shot him on the street and stole his motorcycle. Charly was a son, a brother, a friend, a role model. And they killed him for a piece of machinery.

They stole so much more than a motorcycle that day because Charly was the embodiment of hope for a group of children who cling the dream that they can one day escape the poverty, the violence and the gangs that surround them. I didn’t know Charly well. We only met a couple of times, but I know his family and his friends. For the past twelve years I’ve been involved with the orphanage and school in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where Charly grew up. Although his family loved him, they couldn’t afford to take care of him. He lived at the orphanage, graduated from high school, and went to college.

He resisted the pressure to join the gangs. He was going to be the change his country so desperately needs. For the other children, Charly was a role model. He was proof that you can rise above the oppressive poverty and avoid the gangs and the violence—instead of trying to cross the border into the US illegally.

Last Saturday morning, only a few days after Charly’s murder, I woke up to this New York Times headline: “U.S. Will Step Up Deportations, Focusing on Central Americans.” I read further to learn that President Obama’s initiative will focus primarily on women and children who came to this country illegally since 2014. Most of them are from El Salvador and Honduras.

This news disappoints me not only by its content, but because it comes from a leader who has the ability to change the conversation about illegal immigration.

What are we sending these kids back to?

“Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, in a statement joined by other House Democrats, said, ‘To conduct these enforcement actions against women and children who have fled violence, and who will face violence if they are returned, is not just hypocritical, it is plain cruel.’” —NYT, May 13, 2016.  U.S. Will Step Up Deportations, Focusing on Central Americans

Most young people from Central America who enter this country illegally do not come looking for a government handout or free medical care. They just want to survive. They don’t want to be forced into a gang or murdered because they wouldn’t join.

Parents often send their children on this journey to the United States alone. As a mother, I can’t imagine a state of desperation that could push me to send my young children, either alone or with questionable traffickers, on the dangerous journey to the United States.

Would I do it so they could be more comfortable? No.

Would I do it for better healthcare? Education? A bed in a detention center or a voucher for a cheap motel room? No.

Would I do it if I feared for my children’s’ lives? Yes.

These are the undocumented immigrants our government wants to send back to Central America. Most of the mothers and children being targeted came from Honduras and El Salvador, both countries mired in poverty, drugs and crime. Many of the immigrants now detained in the US were smuggled here in the trunks of cars or clung to the undersides of moving trains. No one does that unless they have no other option.

I realize that illegal immigration costs this country a lot of money. I agree we need to take a good, long look at our immigration policies. And I understand that we are a country of laws, including laws governing immigration. But I also know that if my family was threatened, I would do whatever it took to get them to safety, and I have a hard time condemning others for doing the same.

The national rhetoric about building walls, banning Muslims, and mass deportations deepens the perception that immigrants—or any people who don’t look like us—are “The Other.” But they aren’t. They are us.

What we need most right now is compassion.

I’m going to dive back into my novel now and continue this conversation with a few of my characters, several of whom come from El Salvador. We’re going to talk about the politics of immigration. They are heartbroken to hear about about Charly’s senseless death and disheartened to learn about the increased deportation of vulnerable children.

My characters understand. Some of them are afraid of being deported themselves. I’m not sure how to comfort them.

The literary community has been engaged in an ongoing, deep conversation about diversity in literature—diversity among the characters in books and the authors who write them. And we discuss the sensitive issue about members of the majority writing characters who do not look like us. We risk tropes, stereotyping, offending people, and writing with an inauthentic voice.

But what is the risk of leaving them out of our stories? What is the consequence of not welcoming them in?

I didn’t invite the Salvadoran characters into my novel. They are not the main characters, and it isn’t a story about immigration. My main character looks and acts a lot like me. But as I wrote my book these other characters just showed up. Why? Because they are part of my real life, and to leave out characters who are part of my own experience would, in itself, be inauthentic—especially if I left them out because I was afraid. And yes, I am afraid.

As a white American, I know I open myself up to criticism by writing characters who don’t look like me. What if I get it wrong? I worry about that a lot. But to me, it’s far riskier to leave them out.

We all need to do our research, find beta readers and experts to dig out inadvertent tropes or unintentionally offensive representations. We need to listen to the communities we write about. But just as importantly, if they truly belong in the story, we can’t leave any characters out of our writing because of the fear of criticism.

I travel to Honduras as often as possible. I am constantly moved by the resilience of the children in the orphanage and the adults who care for them. But that isn’t enough. I need to work harder. I need to listen more.

 “You want to write a character with a different race, sexual orientation, religion, or gender ID than yours? Okay. But before you set that character loose into the world, do your research. Do some basic work in understanding what obstacles are faced by the communities your character belongs to — what narratives are most offensive to them? Are you replicating tropes that are used to dehumanize and erase members of that community?” —Mikki Kendall, diversity consultant.  Diversity, Political Correctness, and The Power of Language: Why Sensitivity Reading Matters

As Lisa Cron writes in her book Wired for Story, stories are what keep us going. The cautionary tales and tender stories in fiction can expose truths or open our minds to ideas we might not otherwise consider. Stories can change us. The act of writing carries serious responsibility.

We need to tell stories about young people like Charly. Because as long as gangs are killing the real-life heroes, these nameless, faceless children will continue to run for the US border. They are already here. Instead of branding them as “The Other,” we need to understand where they came from and why they came. We need to hear their stories.

“[I]t turns out that a powerful story can have a hand in rewiring the reader’s brain — helping instill empathy, for instance — which is why writers are, and always have been, among the most powerful people in the world. —Lisa Cron, Wired for Story

My characters, like millions of real immigrants in this country, are part of the tapestry of our nation. I don’t pretend to represent them. But I can at least try to give them the respect they deserve. Over time, maybe it will be stories, rather than headlines, that help us understand the undocumented children crossing the border in the United States.

I hope our country chooses to write them in, not write them off.