Redux: In Dire Straits




This week, we bring you three pieces about immigration from our archive. Read Dany Laferrière’s 2017 Writers at Work interview, in which he bemoans complacency in the face of suffering; meet the narrator from a war-torn country in Gretchen Herbkersman’s short story “Thor”; and travel to impoverished Detroit, the city in which the American immigrant dream once lay, in Philip Levine’s poem “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.”

Dany Laferrière, The Art of Fiction No. 237
Issue no. 222 (Fall 2017)

To watch someone see you, when you are begging or homeless, and the person isn’t scandalized. He’s not happy about it, but he is thinking if someone has to be homeless, it might as well be you. If you saw that someone you went to school with had become homeless, you would be scandalized. You’d say to yourself, It can’t possibly be! But for all the others who are homeless, it can’t possibly be either! But it’s like that when you don’t know the person—you are categorized by race, or as a part of society that we accept seeing in a miserable situation. Native Americans drinking on a street corner or blacks in dire circumstances—these are things society thinks are normal. I’m not saying they accept it, but it’s something they’ve always seen. Well, I’ve been in that situation. I’ve been seen that way—He’s an immigrant and not white, and he’s in dire straits, that’s normal. There is nothing more extraordinary than seeing compassion in someone’s eyes, but not the slightest surprise at your situation. That is what it is to be a desert island, with no one to protect you—which could plunge some people into despair, bordering on insanity. But for a writer, it can be interesting. Because you can observe society, since you are completely invisible. No one sees you. People will say and do anything in front of you.


Jacob Lawrence, The migrants arrived in great numbers, from the Migration series, 1940–41.


By Gretchen Herbkersman
Issue no. 62 (Summer 1975)

We are used to war in this country. I mean, we are used by war, as wood is used by flame. Trees have no knowledge of fire in their inner parts until the forest is ablaze, or until they are cut into kindling. I cannot imagine that one gets used to combat or that trees accustom themselves to burning.

I say “we” as if I were a native, but I was then and am still a registered alien. Nearly everyone here is foreign, immigrant, here because they’re starved for land and space in which to breathe—but in wartime the air is thick with the smell of chemicals and the dust of blasted buildings, and all the land one can claim, even temporarily, is that on which he stands or lies.

I am as foreign as the ones who drop the bombs. I came here, as the invaders say they come, looking for peace. Yet I could never get it into my head to move away from this crowded city which is always the first hit, giving the rest of the country time to mobilize and start sending supplies—blood, drugs, food, young people. This is a city which is always being rebuilt after the last raid. Of course it is never rebuilt.



A Walk with Tom Jefferson
By Philip Levine
Issue no. 104 (Fall 1987)

Between the freeway
and the gray conning towers
of the ballpark, miles
of mostly vacant lots, once
a neighborhood of small
two-storey wooden houses—
dwellings for immigrants
from Ireland, Germany,
Poland, West Virginia,
Mexico, Dodge Main.
A little world with only
three seasons, or so we said—
one to get tired, one to get
old, one to die …