by Melanie Odelle
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Melanie Curran, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Francisco Cantú about his book The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Riverhead Books), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
The Line Becomes a River is the memoir about 3 ½ years Francisco Cantú spent as a Border Patrol Agent on the US Mexico Border. His book has been praised for humanizing a space that is often described as hostile, and shedding light on the circumstances of immigrants portrayed as an un-differentiated mass. Cantú has investigated the violence that reductive language gives way to, but has been critiqued for his involvement in the very institution that perpetuates the violence. Months after The Line Becomes a River was published, the world learned about family separation and zero tolerance policies enforced by the Border Control Agency. Some ask whether the author should be the one given a platform to tell the story of the border. Through personal narrative, historical, and critical analysis Cantú investigates the time he spent as the perpetrator, the fear inducer, the white-passing but Spanish speaking incarnation of a border crosser’s fears- la migra. I speak with Cantú by telephone on the event of his NBCC award nomination for Non-Fiction.
Melanie Curran (MC): I wanted to hate your book. I thought, this is a book written by a person who did bad things. But I have to give you credit. The Line Becomes a River was humanizing and pertinent. I didn’t hate you at all in the end. Can you speak to the controversy surrounding your work?
Francisco Cantú (FC):The controversy is important. Just because I left the border patrol, and just because I worked to denounce and call to attention the things the agency is doing, doesn’t mean I get a pass.
You don’t get to just step into this agency and step out and think “Oh, it’s okay, I was one of the good ones”. That’s part of what it means to wear a uniform. You give some of yourself over to an institution when you step into it.
MC: If you were just writing this book now, following family separation and America shifting its focus toward the border and the border wall, would you write anything differently?
FC:If we had arrived at this political moment, and I had not yet been working on the book, I would have looked back at my own experiences and felt they paled in comparison to what was happening now. I might not have even thought that what I had seen on the border was that terrible or worth sharing.
I spent three or four years writing this book. I came into the border patrol right after Obama had been elected. He was still president as I left. I always imagined that the book would come to exist as a document of a much uglier time in history.
MC: What authors can you recommend who are writing about the border now?
FC:I think a lot of the best writing about the border has been coming from poets. The poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico and her book The Verging Cities. The Mexican poet Sara Uribe, whose work is referenced in The Line Becomes a River. The essayist Cristina Rivera Garza’s forthcoming book, Dolerse, is one of the most important collections of essays and thinking about the violence happening in Mexico.
Reyna Grande’s memoirs and Javier Zamora’s book of poetry, Unaccompanied.
One of the most important books I read last year was Gore Capitalism by Sayak Valencia. She is a thinker and intellectual living in Tijuana. She writes a lot about the intersections of drug war violence in Mexico and US capitalism, and how the spectacle of violence feeds the process of de-humanization.
MC: Do you think about the mythology of America as positive or negative?
FC:The mythology of America is such a powerful, potent thing. I just finished reading this book, aptly titled, The End of the Myth, by historian Greg Gradin. The book is sort of a history of the frontier. Part of his thesis is that the Border Wall represents the end of the myth of the frontier, the final closing off.
Trumpism announces the arrival of this moment where we’ve turned our attentions inward. There’s no longer a new frontier. No new frontier of free trade, or environmental development, or going to space.
Myth has always provided an escape valve. These myths are a misdirection, that can help distract from the often brutal or unjust situations that people are going to be exposed to in this country.
MC: How do you think about your stylization as the author? For example, if I google search you, there are images of you portrayed kind of like a cowboy.
FC:What I’ve learned as a first-time author is how much this [stylization] is out of your control. I can think of some of the pictures that probably come up on Google. You’re with a photographer and they’re like “Is there a desert place we can go? Cool. Look off into the distance and cross your arms.”
I’m not a model. I’d like to be reading a book right now. Then the piece is in the newspaper and you’re looking off into the distance squinty-eyed. That’s how powerful these myths are about the west, about law enforcement, about the border.
I’ve done interviews with people from a place like Germany. They come from the streets of Berlin and now they’re in the desert. They’re like “Oh, take us to the border fence. It’s so rugged and expansive.”
The myth perpetuates itself.
There is this tradition in the West, in nature writing, that grows out of this place of very muscular prose. There’s a lot of masculinity that is understood as being part of the experience of the west, of the landscape. I think it’s important to reject that.
Sure, you’ve got your genre fiction. Noir, Wild West stuff, but I’m not interested in contributing to that. I’m interested in opening this place up. Not working within the rules that have long existed about writing this place.
I operate under the assumption that what I have to add is through the written word. I’m less concerned with a picture, as unfortunate as it may be, or as much as it may clash with the spirit of the writing, than doing the writing itself. The best contribution I have is to spend time with words. Other people’s words and the words I want to put on paper and out into the world.
I hope that’s what endures longer.
MC: Last question, what happened to José and his family?
FC:His situation, like so many people who are in situations like him, is still very precarious. He’s okay, he’s safe, he’s alive. I’m still in touch with him and his kids. They’re okay.
Francisco Cantú served as an agent for the United States Border Patrol in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas from 2008 to 2012. A former Fulbright fellow, he is the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award. His essays and translations have been featured on This American Life and in Best American Essays, Harper’s, Guernica, Orion, n+1 and Ploughshares. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Melanie Odelle is a musician and writer from a small island in the Pacific Northwest. She is an MFA candidate at The New School and currently lives in Queens, New York. Her website is http://www.melanie-odelle.com.