Alejandra Oliva is the author of Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration, a Summer/Fall 2023 Indies Introduce selection.
Oliva is an essayist, embroiderer and translator. Her writing has been included in Best American Travel Writing 2020, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was honored with an Aspen Summer Words Emerging Writer Fellowship. Her book, Rivermouth, received a Whiting Nonfiction Grant. She was the Yale Whitney Humanities Center Franke Visiting Fellow in Spring 2022.
Alana Haley of Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, Michigan, served on the panel that selected Oliva’s debut for Indies Introduce. “In Rivermouth,” Haley said, “the important topic of immigration is addressed through compassionate and beautiful prose, in short digestible bursts, with a translator’s thoughtful and precise eye. Rivermouth examines the immigrant journey from beginning to end: the border, the application process, the final court decision of who may stay and who gets deported. It is a personal, human centric account of our system, how broken it is, and how it fails us all. The author, herself Mexican-American, bilingual, with a foot planted in two worlds, is ideally suited to frame the discussion.”
Here, Oliva and Haley discuss the creation of Rivermouth.
Alana Haley: How did you decide the structure of the book like you did — in three distinct parts?
Alejandra Oliva: There was a point in about 2019 where I had around 100+ pages drafted — not the whole book, but a really sizeable chunk of it — and I realized that the structure just wasn’t working. I was bouncing around from the border to the courtroom to my time interpreting in New York City, and it kind of felt like I was running out of room. Every time I wanted to add something new, it felt like I was distracting from about eight different running plotlines, and like I was just overcramming the space I had.
At some point that summer, I wrote out summaries of all my sections on index cards, hoping to find some magical order for them that would help me move forward with the writing, and in doing so, color coded them based on location and/or subject matter. After completely monopolizing the floor of our living room for a couple days, I realized that it made the most sense to group the stories and the people I had met based on the geographic location that I was in, and that it made sense to put those in order that a migrant might encounter them: the border, a legal clinic, a courtroom. That winter, I visited the detention center, and it made sense to add that to the section on the courtroom because of the ways in which the legal and carceral systems are so intertwined in immigration.
AH: The approach of the book is intimate and personal while tackling big, overwhelming topics. What led you to take this approach?
AO: I think immigration is a big and overwhelming topic when we think about it as a system, but it’s actually very intimate and personal when you realize that, foundationally, it happens at the level of an individual person. Even when you’re thinking about these big systemic issues like discrimination and dehumanization, it’s still individual people that happens to. Centering the discussion on people feels like a way to remind people that that’s what’s at stake, not imaginary ideas about nationhood or the economy or whatever. It also felt important, particularly as someone who is often perceived as having personal stake in immigration issues — based on having a Spanish name, based on being a first-gen daughter of immigrants — to really lay out where I stood while discussing ideas of asylum.
I do have a personal stake in these questions and debates, but it’s not as simple as a lot of narratives would make it seem. My family came to this country with a boatload of privilege — financial, academic, cultural — and while we’re often grouped into this larger idea of Latinidad or immigrants, there are so many different stories that fit under that umbrella, so many different outcomes and realities, and it felt really important to talk about the ways that things like class, like family history and reasons for immigrating might have on the outcomes someone is able to have in this country.
AH: The art of translation figures largely in the book. While written primarily in English, parts of the text are in Spanish. How did you decide where to leave untranslated Spanish in the text and why?
AO: I felt like it was important to take translation from this place of theory — which I clearly love — but also show how it works and feels in the real world. It’s incredibly disorienting to be presented with a language that isn’t your own, especially when you’re not expecting it. I wanted monolingual English readers to be reminded or learn how strange that feels, and I wanted Spanish-language bilingual readers — who are, in part, who I wrote this book for — to also feel what it’s like to have both of your languages activated and engaged.
I think as far as deciding what to translate or not — I think as much of the direct speech as possible in the book remains in the language it was spoken in originally. The sections in Part 2 are conversations that include interpreting but also have long blocks of Spanish both show why interpreting is important, but I also wanted to show the reader what it looks like or how it works when you’re just in a session. I think Spanish/bilingual readers will be able to understand those a little more fully, but even a monolingual English speaker will be able to see the rhythms of a conversation in interpretation a little better.
AH: The prose in Rivermouth is so lovely. I found myself regularly tagging passages that were particularly moving. Do you find that being a translator enhances your writing? If yes, how so?
AO: Thank you so much! I really find that it does — translating is essentially being a kind of super-close reader, and teaches you to pay attention to things like sentence structure and word choices, to really look closely at the decisions that were made in crafting any text. Being attuned to writing at that level when it’s someone else’s words makes it a little easier to find that same level of editorial closeness when you’re looking at your own writing, which hopefully leads to more considered, interesting prose.
AH: Can you talk about how translation theory led you to believe that translation might also be activism?
AO: Translation theory, like so much other theory, has for a long time been the province of the academy. In the last 20 or 30 years, interpreters and translators have done a ton of work into bringing those questions outside of the academy and into real relationships and justice work particularly. I didn’t discover this, necessarily, until after I had gotten involved in activist translation, but the work of scholars and activists like Roberto Tijerina, Alice Johnson, and the Antena Aire translator’s collaborative really showed me that it was not only possible but necessary to bridge that gap.
Antena Aire, which is made up of JD Pluecker and Jen/Eleana Hofer, really focused their work on the intersection and interaction of literary and activist translation. Their chapbook series really shone a light for me on the inherent power and possibility of thinking about translation as a means of achieving justice, on language justice as a foundational aspect of other kinds of justice.
Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva (Astra House, 9781662601699, Hardcover Nonfiction, $28) On Sale: 6/20/2023.
Find out more about the author on her website.
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