A Q&A With Francisco Cantú, Author of February’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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Indie booksellers selected The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border (Riverhead, February 6), the debut memoir from former U.S. Border Patrol Agent Francisco Cantú, as their top pick for the February Indie Next List.

The Line Becomes a River coverThe book, which Pat Marsello of Bookworks in Albuquerque called “beautiful, with haunting and detailed descriptions of the deserts, the immigrants, the cartels, and [Cantú’s] own fears,” is a detailed account of Cantú’s time stationed in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas from 2008 to 2012. He and his fellow agents track migrants who attempt the dangerous border crossing, bringing in the dead and detaining those who make it across alive. But when Cantú, who is the grandson of Mexican immigrants, returns to civilian life after years of patrolling the Southwest’s smuggling routes and drug corridors, his good friend José is detained, and the cruelty of current border policy becomes truly real to him for the first time.

Cantú, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, is a former Fulbright fellow and the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award. His essays and translations have been featured on This American Life and in Best American Essays, Harper’s, Guernica, Orion, n+1, and Ploughshares. He currently works at the University of Arizona, where he coordinates a field studies program that provides local research opportunities to MFA students who are interested in writing about the border.

Bookselling This Week spoke with Cantú about why he joined the Border Patrol; the current politics of immigration, including President Trump’s proposed border wall; and the ways in which the border wreaks violence on both sides of the line.

Bookselling This Week: Why did you decide to write this book?

Francisco CantuFrancisco Cantú: I’m asked a lot whether I joined the Border Patrol thinking that I would write a book about it, and I definitely didn’t. In college I read a lot of border literature, pretty much anything I could get my hands on, and so I really joined thinking it would be a way to deepen my understanding of the border and that I would be able to use that understanding later on in my career as an immigration lawyer or a policy maker.

But after joining the patrol in order to answer all of these questions I had brought with me from my undergraduate studies, I had the experience of feeling like none of those questions were answered, and those questions themselves become more complex and seemingly more unanswerable. When I quit the Border Patrol, reading and writing seemed to be the only way to go down a path toward answering any of those questions and make sense of my own time there. So I started writing about it to make sense of my experience.

BTW: Did you also write The Line Becomes a River in part to help readers see the border as more than just an abstract idea?

FC: Yes, once I realized I was writing a book, applied for an MFA program, and had the tools to start thinking about it as a larger project that would be read by others, then the drive became to present the border in a very honest way that I felt represented the nuance and complexity that I saw. So that’s definitely a big part of what I hoped to accomplish with the book: to present it as something that isn’t black or white. I think, especially right now, there is a tendency to talk about the border in these sort of quick sound bites and easy answers, like stopping immigration by building a border wall. Especially as someone going into it with questions and not having those questions answered, my experience was that the border is such a huge, complex place; it’s a violent place but it’s also a beautiful place, and I wanted to try to capture all of that and present it in a way that was ok with not finding solutions or answers.

BTW: The book’s structure consists of detailed recollections from your time as a border agent, accountings of your dreams at the time, and essays on the history of the border. How did the book’s varied structure come about?

FC: The very first writing that I did about my experience in the Border Patrol really came out of this journal I kept during the first year or two in the field. There was the gradual process of eliminating the journal format and then finding a narrative arc to represent those experiences. The second part of the book seems very distinct from the first because I was working in the intelligence field doing a very different kind of job.

The third part of the book, when a friend of mine left the country and was apprehended trying to cross back into the U.S., didn’t happen until I was already in the process of writing. I was so marked by that experience, and it was so intensely emotional, that I sort of realized that this was also a part of my story of understanding the border. It was the first time that I really started looking behind the curtain of what happens to the people I was encountering as an agent and then just sending on their way; I really had no idea what was happening to them after that. All of a sudden, I was seeing all the ways that that small moment of being apprehended in the desert reverberated through the life of a person and their family.

BTW: What was the timeline of writing this book? Were you still writing it during the recent presidential campaign that brought immigration issues to the forefront?

FC: I had been working on the book more or less since I left the Border Patrol in 2012, but I guess I really started working on it in 2013. We actually sold the book to Riverhead before the election, so I think everybody involved was imagining that this book would be published in a much different political landscape. I think the thing that is important, though, is that so many people are focused on the border now — so many people are seeing this issue in a new light just because of the political climate and because of this drumbeat toward building a wall or deporting Dreamers. So it seems really awful to people now, I think. There’s this idea that things are so much worse now, but for a lot of people who live along the border, we know that this has been going on for a long time and it’s been bad for a long time. José’s situation in the book was unfolding under the Obama presidency, and the militarization of the border, the weaponization of the landscape, people crossing and dying, have all been going on through Clinton, through Bush, through Obama, and now through Trump. It’s almost outside of politics in that way.

BTW: Now that you’ve had these experiences, where do you come down on border security and other immigration issues in terms of how things should actually work?

FC: To be honest, I didn’t write this book because I think that I have some profound solution to our country’s border issues. To me, the most important thing right now is that there is an opening to start talking about immigration reform, border security — all of these things. What I think is missing from that conversation is acknowledging this as a huge and nuanced and complex issue, and also acknowledging the actual human cost of the current policy, before we even start to talk about how we’re going to change that policy.

For me, my first and primary concern when I start to think about a conversation about immigration reform is all of the people who die trying to cross the desert; you don’t hear people talking about this. There are hundreds of deaths each year, and those are just the ones that get reported.

Whether or not it’s intentional, the policy as it exists is enforcement through deterrence: Deterring people from crossing by counting on the fact that the landscape is so rugged and imposing. One thing that surprised me in looking at this whole thing and looking at José’s experience is that no matter what version of hell you put at the border, people will endure it to cross over to the other side. I think what we have now is a total humanitarian crisis that is happening in Mexico and on our own soil, but we’re still not acknowledging the people who die crossing over. We don’t know their names, we don’t mourn their deaths. To me, that’s the first thing that I hope changes.

BTW: What’s been the role of indie bookstores in your life?

FC: I love bookstores so much. I’m such a book nerd and a bookstore nerd. Any time I go to a new city, the two things I seek out are the local bookstore and a good coffee place; that’s kind of my way of traveling around the country and the world.

I also love curating books from a book nerd standpoint, and I’ve even thought a lot about opening a bookstore in Tucson. I’ve got a business license to sell books in a pop-up capacity, so I’m able to do small, curated shelves at different events and stores downtown. Right now, I’m learning about the bookselling world on a very small scale and I love it. For me, it’s so fulfilling to be the Indie Next List pick just because I really feel that booksellers are my people, and I understand from a super personal standpoint how important your local bookshop is in getting books into people’s hands.