The November issue’s focus on immigrants touched me deeply. Have we forgotten that we all have relatives who came here from somewhere else? Have we been here so long that we have ceased to remember our own stories?
Madeline Ostrander’s interview with Pramila Jayapal [“Without a Country,” November 2008] is the best piece on immigration I’ve ever read. Immigrants are blamed for so much, while employers and consumers reap the benefits of their cheap labor. For years I have wished immigrants could organize a walk-off strike for a month so that everyone would finally realize all that they do for us.
The U.S. immigration system is broken, and Congress knows this but isn’t courageous enough to address the problem. It’s sad that our so-called democracy is ruled by the love of money, which creates most of the injustices immigrants face.
When I read the interview with Pramila Jayapal, I felt a small surge of hope. She was so articulate, so reasonable, that for the first time I could see the immigration problem as our problem and not just a problem for people trying to make a new start here or businesses trying to find employees. It is a problem for me as a citizen and a human being with a modicum of compassion.
In this era of politically motivated spin, Jayapal’s clarity is refreshing. If all I can do is write to my representatives in Washington, at least now I can do it with a better understanding of the issue.
I am offended by Pramila Jayapal’s statements about immigrants. She has no regard for the fact that some immigrants are not here legally. She says they “forgot” to renew their visas or they can’t read the paperwork. Then how are some of them going to school here if they can’t even read English? Immigrants used to learn English so they could become part of society.
When I was out of work, I went looking for any job, including service jobs. I, an American citizen, was turned down while immigrants, both illegal and documented, were given those jobs. I ended up on welfare.
There is another side to this story.
I’ve just begun a relationship with a beautiful young Brazilian who has a good heart and a fine work ethic but no green card. So I was happy to read Poe Ballantine’s authentic, unpretentious essay on his problematic life with his Mexican wife [“Cristinaland,” November 2008]. I took issue with just a single word in the essay — the last one. He ended his piece by saying that after passing her citizenship test, Cristina became an “American.”
It’s worth pointing out that she was already an American — in fact, already a citizen of a North American nation comprising “united states”: the United Mexican States. We all know what Ballantine meant — we are the United States, the America — but it doesn’t keep me from squirming whenever the word American is used exclusively for citizens of our big, arrogant nation, and not for any of the numerous other nations that are every bit as American as we are.
I read Poe Ballantine’s “Cristinaland” with a strange sense of amusement. After becoming a father at forty-six, he imagines himself an old man at his son’s high-school graduation, slobbering in a wheelchair — at sixty-five. Is this just literary exaggeration? I’m seventy-seven and still substitute teaching and swimming competitively. I have no intention of quitting either activity for many years to come.
Maybe Ballantine and I should get together to crack a few beers and talk about how old is old.
I was elated to see the happy countenance of a Cuban comrade on the cover of your November 2008 issue, courtesy of photographer Halle Merrill.
Why did you select Halle Merrill’s photograph of a half-dressed old man for the cover of your November issue? He has a friendly face, but it is hard to ignore his flabby body. Every old person looks better with a shirt on. The cover is in poor taste. This magazine will not sit on my coffee table but will be quickly recycled.
Halle Merrill’s comment on her cover photo of the shirtless Cuban man — “how comfortable he seemed in his own skin” — is skinny-person-speak for “Geez, who would sit there shirtless with his belly roll hanging over his belt?” It’s no wonder that people in other countries call us “ugly Americans” when we take photos intended to highlight the difference between us and them.
Thanks to her comment, I see that the photographer is a tofu-eating, hybrid-driving, smug elitist who needs to check herself before taking more pictures of “them.”
Halle Merrill responds:
When making portraits in the street, I try to do so with respect and to portray individuals with dignity. It is not my intent to demean or make fun of anyone. The image of the Cuban man sitting in his doorway is, to me, beautiful. I spent a month and a half photographing Cubans, and one of many things that impressed me was their comfort with and lack of self-consciousness about their bodies, an ease about them I’d never witnessed anywhere else. It seemed true for young and old, skinny and heavy. I suppose some people might find this a shameful exhibition, but I found it wonderful. Cubans were among the friendliest, most welcoming people I have ever met. I hope that my images pay tribute to them.
In her essay “Gender Vertigo” [November 2008] Anna Mills reminds us that it is often hard to know how to react to transgendered people in social settings, particularly when we have not been socialized to understand different gender roles. In some cultures gender is not a binary split. India recognizes a “third sex,” the hijras, who are neither male nor female. But there are limitations there, as well. It would be great to see more writing about gender in The Sun.
My high-school English teacher Larry Emerick taught me that an apology is worthless if you have no intention of changing your behavior in the future. This is exactly what Sy Safransky does in his November 2008 Notebook, when he makes a cavalier apology for contributing to the sorry state of the earth. Safransky has the right to choose his priorities, but it’s an insult to say he’s sorry for “not making the planet more of a priority, the way getting The Sun to the printer on time is a priority, or, let’s face it, surfing the Internet and polishing the chrome on my to-do list is a priority.”
If we don’t pull together and stop this planetary train wreck, then Safransky’s magazine, his shiny to-do list, and very possibly all his fellow humans will one day be no more than a fond memory. To him I say: If you’re not going to do anything to help save our planet, that’s your decision to live with, but spare me your lame attempt at contrition.
There is more gravitas to Donald Rumsfeld’s much-ridiculed observation about “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns” than Sy Safransky might guess. In his November Notebook, Safransky invites us to “imagine how much more gravitas [Rumsfeld’s] words would have had if uttered in broken English by a Zen roshi with a shaved head.” The fact is that the source of Rumsfeld’s ruminations was likely a Jesuit philosopher-theologian named Bernard Lonergan. (His head wasn’t shaved, but he was bald.)
The seeming koan is important to Lonergan’s analysis of the human activities of questioning and knowing. I suspect that Michael Novak, a “theo-con” and former graduate student of Lonergan’s, passed the phrase along to Rumsfeld after the Bush administration had dispatched Novak to Rome on a failed mission to solicit Pope John Paul II’s support for the invasion of Iraq.
In your November 2008 Correspondence you printed two letters criticizing the essay “Baton Rouge,” by Louis E. Bourgeois [July 2008]. My first reaction upon reading Bourgeois’s essay had been one of complete engagement, tempered by the usual jealousy that comes when I read something I wish I had written myself.
The following month [August 2008] you published another essay by Bourgeois, “Ponchatoula.” The editors have got their hands on a good one, I thought. I was so impressed that I used “Ponchatoula” in my high-school English class. The majority of my students hate school and hate to read. Though I can’t say they all loved “Ponchatoula,” I can say that they were engaged by the essay, and we had a rousing Socratic discussion afterward about how many of us have been in a situation where we longed for home — and about whether it is possible to take a bong rip when you have only one arm.
I would like to thank Bourgeois for his skills with the pen and for his perfectly worded response to his critics, who obviously wouldn’t know a hot piece of writing if it bit them on the ass.
It makes me happy to learn that The Sun reaches prison inmates. I taught creative writing to women in prison for several years, and I was stunned when I first walked into the prison library and saw nearly empty shelves. The few choices ranged from romance to Dell comics. The joke at the prison was: “The library is expecting a book soon, but you’ll probably be paroled before it arrives.”
Many inmates I met had never been introduced to a good book, couldn’t write a paragraph, and in some cases could not read at all. Perhaps the recidivism rate in my state is so high — a staggering 89 percent — because prisoners are offered few resources with which to better themselves.