JAvier Zamora was born in El Salvador in 1990. Both of his parents emigrated to the United States before he was five years old. At the age of just nine, Zamora embarked on a perilous journey by land and sea to join them in California – events recalled in his first collection of poetry, not accompaniedand now in his memoirs, Lonely, described by Dave Eggers as “a gripping story about the perseverance and effort that humans will go to to help each other in times of struggle”. A graduate of New York University’s Creative Writing Program and a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in California, Zamora lives with his wife in Tucson, Arizona.
What prompted you to write this book?
A lot of things, but mostly the weight of the trauma I carried for so many years. My book of poems begins to address these themes, but I was lying to myself that it was enough to write poetry about something so traumatic. I started writing this book during Donald Trump’s America, when everyone was talking about immigration. In 2017, when we had the Central American child crisis at the border, it seemed like the first time Americans realized there had been migrant children. It angered me that they hadn’t realized this had been happening for decades, and I was one of them.
What could prose do that poetry could not?
Literally cover the page. In poetry, there is a lot of white space. I think it’s a metaphor for how, on the surface, I was coping with what had happened to me. With the help of a therapist and meditation, I really put in a lot of effort to look at my past to understand myself better. And in doing so, I had the time and the space and the sanity that I could fill out the page.
You write about your experiences in extraordinary detail. How did you manage to recover these memories?
At 28, I finally had a green card and could travel outside the United States. Which meant I could research across the border and return to El Salvador for the first time in 19½ years. In October 2020 I moved to Tucson because I needed to explore and feel the wilderness – I spent over a month traveling with a friend who had been a Border Patrol agent.
Despite the incredible hardships you experienced during the journey – a grueling sea voyage, harassment by Mexican police then three very risky attempts to enter the United States through the Sonoran Desert – the book is not depressing. There are joy and hope in her.
That’s another thing that made me write this book. Often, the media only focus on the hard facts. They’re immigrants having — for the most part — the worst day of their lives, and they’re getting their picture taken. This individual’s humanity is flattened and readers see them only as the product of hardship and violence. As a trauma survivor, I don’t just remember that. On the contrary, I can still taste the fish we had in Acapulco and remember how happy we were to receive food from nuns at a shelter near the border. It’s moments like these that are missing from news clippings and even other works of immigration fiction and non-fiction.
Have your parents ever read the book?
My father finished it and cried. My mother didn’t make it past the first chapter. And I think that’s very telling of how they deal with their own experiences. The person telling you this story does not explain what it must be like for a parent not to know where their child is for more than eight weeks.
You wrote in a piece for Granta that you were “shocked to see how much the immigration machine had changed since my crossing in 1999; now it’s a more violent monster”. If you had crossed the border today, how could you have escaped?
The chances of me surviving now would have been slim. In 1999, the coyotes, or human smugglers, genuinely thought they were helping people. Now, to smuggle humans across the border, you have to be part of a cartel. And that changed everything. There have been several instances where people are paying the cartels and all the cartel does is throw people over the fence. On top of that, the border has become extremely militarized.
You mentioned a friend who had been a border guard – I assume you were referring to Francisco Cantu? He was criticized for writing a book – The line becomes a river – of his experiences at the border as opposed to the immigrant experience. What was your opinion on that?
We met in Oakland, CA where I was supposed to give a reading with him, but the reading didn’t happen. [because of protesters]. Instead, we went to a bar and discussed it. In memoirs like hers, there’s a trope like, “Oh, I’ve seen all those bad things happen, but hey, reader, I’m one of the good ones.” I did everything well. And he gets in there, that he’s done bad things too, but I wish he’d done more [about that]. In his daily life, he does a lot for immigrants. I don’t think I would be his friend – and I consider him one of my best friends – if I didn’t think he’s doing the job of being a better human being.
What’s the last great book you read?
Liliana’s Invincible Summer by Cristina Rivera Garza is a memoir set in Mexico City about her younger sister, victim of femicide. It’s heartbreaking and a book that everyone, especially those who haven’t been sexually abused, should read. It comes out next year.
Which poets working today do you most admire?
Solmaz Sharif is a young poet whose trajectory I admired – she showed me the possibilities of what I could do. I admire the poetry and editorial work of Philip B Williams. Nathalie Diaz is very fierce and, on the page, gutted. And Ocean Vuong has done a lot for poetry in this country and will continue to do so.
Do you read a lot of literature from El Salvador?
This is a very exciting time in Salvadoran literature. There are many people who write in the diaspora. This year alone, in the United States, there is a memoir called Unforgettable by Roberto Lovato, a collection of documentary essays by Raquel Gutiérrez entitled brown neona book of poetry Christophe Soto entitled Diary of a Terroristand the novel by Alejandro Varela The city of Babylon. From El Salvador itself, I really appreciate the writing of Elena Salamanca and Alexandra Lytton Regalado.
Dave Eggers gave you a great quote for the book. Do you know him?
In the last semester of high school, I did an internship at 826 Valencia [the San Francisco-based non-profit organisation co-founded by Eggers]. I went to one of their events and started talking to this older, disheveled guy who seemed really cool and down to earth. Then he interrupted our conversation to make a speech. Turns out it was Dave Eggers. I didn’t even know who he was. Then he gave me enough books to continue reading the following year. If that hadn’t happened, I might not have become a writer.