When I first got this book, the controversy that surrounds the novel American Dirt and immigrant stories had not yet come to the surface. Yet, the conflict surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ novel is not really anything new. Since before post-colonialist studies became stronger in academia, and since immigrant and marginalised voices started talking about their experiences there has always been a question of who is allowed to speak, and more specifically, what are they allowed to speak about?
I do not want to centre novels like American Dirt in discussions on immigration, however, they are part of a bigger picture, and a bigger problem. Until publishing companies are willing to give marginalised voices the platforms they deserve, then there really is no equality. The question of who is allowed to speak is also wrapped up in the question of whose voices get the most praise? Or who are the voices that are the most uplifted in media and publishing? I am a small blog in the grand scheme of things, but I will use this tiny platform to try to do just that, praise and raise awareness of marginalised stories.
With that all said, let’s dive deeper into Twelve Unending Summers. The memoir explores the multifaceted identity of Bahamian-born Haitian Cholet Kelly Josué who immigrated to the U.S. when he was a teenager. His immigration story is complex as he came to Florida with the help of human trafficking boats from Haiti. His mother went first and then later brought him to the U.S. His immigration story is also a story of community and resilience. It is also coupled with grief and anger at the system that made him illegal in the first place. There is love for Haiti and his childhood, and there is also real pain at seeing the poverty and corruption in the country of his childhood.
“I was both sad and relieved to leave Haiti and return to my comfortable life, the guilt almost suffocating as I stood in the long line of passengers waiting to board the American Airlines flight back to Miami.”
Throughout the memoir Josué seems to grapple with the push and pull of Haitian culture and his subsequent americanisation after he arrived in Florida. The extreme’s of this coming out in the Haitian practices and superstitions surrounding voodoo, and learning how to do things, the American way.
“One of the main reasons some people feel they have no other options than to take the illegal route is that they realize that the immigration system has been corrupted across multiple borders, rendering it a transnational form of corruption.”
Having been an immigrant myself, and being married to an immigrant has given me, for better or for worse, a deep understanding of the fears and hopes that immigration stories share. People in government offices hold your life in their hands and you are forced to give over your agency to someone else. That person will ultimately judge you worthy, a ‘good’ immigrant, or not. Immigration laws tear families apart and the real anxiety and worry about keeping families together can feel overwhelming sometimes. On top of that, immigration laws can change whenever governments feel like it, so the rules that got you into a country might not be the same when you ask to stay longer.
Josué’s memoir offers another voice to the immigrant experience, one that is extremely important for people to read in today’s current political climate. I urge people to listen to immigrant voices and their individuality. Look beyond lumping everyone in the same tarnished group and look for compassion and understanding. Josué’s life is extremely lucky. He was one of the immigrants that was able to become legal in America. To obtain degrees and become a full functioning member of society as a doctor, yet his story is not the same for everyone.
What memoirs are you reading at the moment? As always, share the reading love.
Note: this novel was accessed through Netgalley for review purposes.