Ghosts in the Borderlands: A Conversation with Stephanie Elizondo Griest




STEPHANIE ELIZONDO GRIEST was on tour for the hardcover publication of her 2017 book, All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was 43 years old. “I was actually incredibly lucky that I happened to grow this Texas-sized tumor,” she says. “My tumor was actually the size of an oblong basketball. It was just colossal and I’m very lucky that that was the case because it presented itself.”

Elizondo Griest’s career has been marked by intentionality and tenacity as much as by momentous accidents. Nearing graduation from the University of Iowa’s MFA program in nonfiction writing in 2012, she only applied to tenure-track positions. A visiting professorship at Sarah Lawrence College appealed to her, though, because it could bring her nearer friends in New York City. A plane ticket sent for her interview revealed a mix-up: she was flying to Ogdensburg, New York; she had applied to St. Lawrence University. “I had this body reaction,” Elizondo Griest says of realizing the proximity to the Canadian border and the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne. “Suddenly I wanted the job more than anything.” She accepted the one-year position at St. Lawrence University and a tenure-track job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, negotiated to start at UNC a year later, in 2013. The paperback of All the Agents and Saints was released by UNC Press in 2020.

Elizondo Griest will read her work at the 44th annual UCR Writers Week, on a panel with Reyna Grande and Elizabeth Powell, at 3:00 p.m. Tuesday, February 16, 2021. See the full schedule of free events at https://writersweek.ucr.edu/schedule.

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ABBIE REESE: I don’t know if you would have applied to St. Lawrence without thinking that it was Sarah Lawrence.

STEPHANIE ELIZONDO GRIEST: Exactly. I know I actually would not have. I don’t even know if I would have looked at the map to see where it was. It wasn’t until I was literally going there, that I was like, Oh wait, this is where it is? It’s the best place to be.

Had you already written the first 10 chapters of the book? How did the book come together?

I had been researching South Texas since 2006, 2007 — so for quite a long time by that point — and I thought that I was writing a book about the border where I was from. But as soon as I visited the Mohawk Nation and looked around, it was just déjà vu everywhere I turned. I visited Akwesasne at least once a week for a full year, and then that summer before I left, I was there every day. I really made some very close ties there, and it was just bizarre, like every chapter that I wrote in the South Texas section of the book had an exact Mohawk equivalent. All of them. For all that is terrible and also all that is beautiful about where I’m from was also represented in the Mohawk Nation, and I knew that there was something to that, and I really wanted to document that as a testimonio of what it means to be a member of the borderlands in the United States.

The idea of that liminal state that you personally had been in, and also what the borderlands, the borders represent — it’s phenomenal how all of that comes together here. I wonder if the process of moving north and seeing that mirror view, if that reconfigured things, or if the process of writing reconfigured how you thought of borders in general, or maybe just US borders. And I think land rights definitely tie into that.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, even at a very basic level, I think there’s something psychic happening when you have this arbitrarily drawn line — and a completely different set of rules apply if you’re on the other side of that line; and if that line happens to be in your back yard; and you’re treated radically differently depending on which side of that line you’re on; and again, it’s an arbitrary line that wasn’t there and you have a living ancestral memory of that line not even being there; and you have a living ancestral memory of what life was like for generations prior to that arbitrary line appearing there — that psychically does something to you. And I think it also liberates you into crossing other lines, both arbitrary and not. I feel like I just have conversations in the borderlands that I don’t encounter elsewhere. I feel like people living there are in greater tune with other worlds that took place in the past yet are such a part of living memory that they are also currently informing the way you move in the world, so you’re just deeply attuned to all playing fields of history all at once.

I imagine you don’t only mean the spiritual realm, right?

Absolutely. Yeah, I do mean the spiritual. I mean I think that the most spiritually rich communities I’ve visited in my life are in the borderlands.

Why do you think that is?

Well, I think that you’re more in tune with the idea of miracle. You’re more in tune with the idea of past and present and future all taking place, because that’s what’s all around you physically and mentally, metaphysically.

Is it also the fact that so much of what is being imposed is by humans, and the knowledge that there’s something so much more powerful?

Yeah. And also, there’s been just so much tragedy. I mean both of these areas are also graveyards, right? A lot of Tejanos were killed by Texas Rangers, by white vigilantes in the early days of Texas statehood. So many Mohawk were killed during early skirmishes there. And today, undocumented migrants die in the borderlands in just breathtaking numbers. You know, I write very intensely about my own experience going to recover a woman who had been found. Her body had been out for three days. I think that there are a lot of ghosts in the borderlands also, and I feel like they’re respected and listened to.

That’s so powerful. As you’re saying, the genocides that have taken place in those areas —

And still are, in the case of undocumented workers, still really are.

There were moments I was frightened for you.

Nothing happened to me!

You’d be going with an activist and suddenly would be surrounded by men with guns. Did you feel at all threatened?

No. I mean, I did not spend much time thinking about my own place because it was so clear that the people that were really truly at threat were beyond myself. And the land itself was in such an endangered state that I did not spend much time thinking about my own role in it.

Your line — “The only proper response to privilege is to grip it like a baseball bat and shatter injustice with all of your might” — is such a rallying call to those of us who aren’t threatened in that way. Your book is really prescient.

And something that I have to continuously remind myself is that it was so bad. So many things were so hard. But that was also during the Obama administration. You know, I handed this book in just a few weeks before Donald Trump was elected president. And I didn’t know what to do. And my editor said, Well, do you want to write a new foreword or anything? But then I thought, but what would I even say? Because at the time I was engaging in this sort of magical thinking — like, well, maybe he won’t even actually show up at the White House. Maybe something will happen. Surely he won’t actually complete a four-year term. Surely, somehow, we will come to our senses and this can’t possibly occur. It just didn’t seem fathomable to me that he would be our president. And it didn’t seem fathomable that things could get worse in the borderlands when they just did in such devastating ways.

I mean, as horrible as it was then — and Obama actually deported more Mexicans, more people than Trump did; that is definitely a fact — the trauma intensified tenfold with the separation of families at the border. And there are still thousands of children that have yet to be reunited with their parents, and their parents’ whereabouts are just unknown. You used the word genocide earlier. It’s hard not to see it through that lens. It is just beyond inhumane what we’ve done, what’s happened in the last four years in the borderlands. So, I was very aware of the fact that, when I handed in this book, it was suddenly a very outdated work of history.

Your writing is fantastic in its self-reflexive nature. The scene where you’re getting your heart cleaned and you’re saying to yourself, This is a great story. This is going to be a great story to write later. That kind of reflection in the moment is so fantastic. 

Thank you.

I’m curious how you write. Do you make a draft and then go back and say, Okay, this part needs some reflection?

First, I will say I always do things in the absolute most labor-intensive, impossible way. I mean, I should never be a model of how to do things. I’m a better model of how not to do things. I cannot recommend anyone follow my system. My system completely sucks, and I really should have developed another one at some point, but I didn’t. And this is what I’m stuck with.

My system is that I have several different kinds of notebooks. I have the teeny tiny little Chiquita one which is like always on my person, and that’s the one that, if I’m walking down the street and I see something, I’ll stop and I’ll pull it out of my pocket and just take notes. And then I’ve got the longer notebooks that I use for my interviews. And then I have journals. So, it’s three different notebooks for very different things. The little ones are for observations in the moment. The other ones are for anthropological research interviews, oral history interviews. And then the journals are the memoiristic self-reflective kinds of things, so like about my own personal journey. And at some point, I have to transcribe all three.

The one that’s really important to transcribe right away are the interviews, the oral histories. So those I’m pretty disciplined about transcribing, like the day that they’re spoken, but the memoirs I generally don’t transcribe until I’m about to sit down and start writing the book. Transcribing all of this takes months and months and months. I mean, it’s insane! And then I print it all out and organize it into subjects and put it into binders that have little, you know, inserts that show what’s in what. And then what I do is I go and, for every little section of all these notes, I need to find what other people think of these different subjects. So, with All the Agents and Saints, there’s a section on all the environmental damage that I’ve witnessed in South Texas, right? Well, then it’s like, okay, what do all of the newspapers — what has the Corpus Christi Caller-Times said about all of that? What has The Texas Observer said about all of that? Has NPR ever talked about it? And what about all the corporate PR stuff? What does Valero say? What do the Koch brothers say? What does Michael Moore say? Whoever! All of these different things.

How did Rachel Carson write about this? It’s like reading all of this stuff and taking all of these notes and then printing that all out. Okay, and so then you have these binders, binders everywhere, and then you have to condense it, and then do a thousand drafts on that. So that’s what I’m saying, it’s like 10 years … It’s an insane amount of work.

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Abbie Reese is an oral historian who lived for a year on a hospital ship in Sierra Leone. She is a creative nonfiction candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program at the University of California, Riverside.

 

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