In the video above, "Between Two Worlds," the wonderful Bill Moyers (whom you may remember from his program on Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth) interviews a friend of mine from back in my Tucson days: Luis Alberto Urrea, who now lives with his wife and children up north, in Illinois. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Luis writes about the U.S./Mexico border region better than just about anyone, forming that work into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all of it highly recommended. (You'll find a discussion of his luminous novel The Hummingbird's Daughter in this previous post.)
In featuring this interview, I don't want to veer our exploration of borders into the contentious realm of immigration politics -- an important topic in its own right, but one that falls beyond the purview of this blog. Rather, what I want to spotlight here are the ways that writers (and other artists) use their gifts in response to the world around them: whether it's Elif Shafak telling stories of her Turkish childhood, or Miquel Angel Blanco preserving the old lore of Spain in his library of trees, or Rachel Taylor-Beales reinterpreting selkie myths to reflect on modern tales of exile and displacement, or Jackie Morris following a falcon's journey to the human world and back into the wild.
As writers and artists we use words and paint (among other materials) to witness and re-create the world -- whether we do this directly as journalists and creators of Realist works, or indirectly (but subtly and deeply) through the symbolism of Fantasy and Mythic Arts.
In his 1998 essay "Nobody's Son," Luis had this to say about the border-crossing nature of words themselves:
"Home isn't just a place, I have learned. It is also a language. My words not only shape and define my home. Words -- not only for writers -- are home. Still, where exactly is that?
"Jimmy Santiago Baca reminds us that 'Hispanics' are immigrants in our own land. By the time time Salem was founded on Massachusetts Bay, any number of Urreas had been prowling up and down the Pacific coast of our continent for several decades. Of course, the Indian mothers of these families had been here from the start.'
"Forget about purifying the American landscape," Luis continues, "sending all those ethnic types back to their homelands. Those illegal humans. (A straw-hat fool in a pickup truck once told my Sioux brother Duane to go back where he came from. 'Where to?' Duane called. 'South Dakota?')
"The humanoids are pretty bad, but how will we get rid of all those pesky foreign words debilitating the United States?
"Those Turkish words (like coffee). Those French words (like maroon). Those Greek words (like cedar). Those Italian words (like marinate). Those African words (like marimba).
"English! It's made up of all these untidy words, man. Have you noticed?
"Native American (skunk), German (waltz), Danish (twerp), Latin (adolescent), Scottish (feckless), Dutch (waft), Caribbean (zombie), Nahuatl (ocelot), Norse (walrus), Eskimo (kayak), Tatar (horde) words! It's a glorious wreck (a good old Viking word, that).
"Glorious, I say, in all its shambling mutable beauty. People daily speak a quilt of words, and continents and nations and tribes and even enemies dance all over your mouth when you speak. The tongue seems to know no race, no affiliation, no breed, no caste, no order, no genus, no lineage. The most dedicated Klansman spews the language of his adversaries while reviling them."
"I love words so much," Luis concludes. "Thank god so many people lent us theirs or we'd be forced to point and grunt. When I start to feel the pressure of the border on me, when I meet someone who won't shake my hand because she has suddenly discovered I am half Mexican (as happened with a landlady in Boulder), I comfort myself with these words. I know how much color and beauty we Others add to the American mix."
Over here in the old world of Europe, it's both easy and fashionable to look down one's nose at the crass racism of Little Sister America...and yet the immigration and refugee crisis unfolding on European borders is not so very different.
In Britain, as in America, there are those demanding that "they" be sent back where they came from (whoever "they" may be, Syrian children or Polish carpenters); and there are those reaching out a helping hand; and there are those going about their daily lives pretending none of it is happening...not necessarily due to hard-heartedness, but, sometimes, to sheer exhaustion from what their daily lives entail.
A question that often arises in our various discussions on this blog is: What, as artists, can we do about _____ ? Whatever _____ may happen to be: displaced people fleeing war and poverty, hungry families in Foodbank queues here at home, vanishing animal habitats, oceans ailing...forests falling to the ax...and on and on and on. I have no simple answer, for it's a question I still ask myself, in one way or another, almost every damn day. But what I do know is this:
I believe that the ability to create (in any form, whether at the desk or easel -- or in the kitchen, the garden, the community hall) -- is a gift, and gifts are meant to be passed on. They are meant to be used, to be of use, and that's a geis, a wyrd, I do not take lightly.
Some of us use our gifts in the direct service of activism; others, in the indirect service of creating "beauty in a broken world" (to use Terry Tempest William's phrase), as a means of lifting hearts, mending spirits, and reminding us of what we're fighting for. Either way, it is important, I think, to be mindful of what we're putting out into the world. Art can envision, conjure, build, bind, heal, witness, dignify, and illuminate. It can also destroy, distract, diminish, deflect, justify, obfuscate, and lie.
"I don't think writers are sacred," Tom Stoppard once said, "but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little..."
And so it bears thinking about just what direction we are nudging it in.
Like Luis Urrea, Terry Tempest Williams is a writer skilled in placing "the right words in the right order," such as these, which are tacked above my desk:
"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As a writer, this is my work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."
The beautiful art here, as you may have recognized, is by the Tucson-based photographer Stu Jenks. The top five photographs were taken in northern and southern Arizona; the lower seven in Devon and Cornwall while he was visiting us in 2013. Please go to Stu's blog to learn more about his art, music, and books.
Between Two Worlds appeared on American Public Television in 2012, and can be found online in the Moyers & Company archives. The passage by Luis Alberto Urrea comes from his essay collection Nobody's Son (The University of Arizona Press, 1998). The quote by Tom Stoppard is from his play The Real Thing (1982). The quote from Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview in Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature Culture and Eros by Derrick Jensen (Chelsea Green, 2004); you can read a longer passage from the interview here. All rights to the video, text, and imagery above are reserved by their creators.