Q & A with award-winning author and travel writer, Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Stephanie Elizondo Griest is an assistant professor of creative non-fiction at UNC, as well as the award-winning author of the books "Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana," "Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines," "100 Places Every Woman Should Go," and her latest release, "All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands." Griest said "All the Agents and Saints" came from the conclusion of "Mexican Enough," when she realized through her heritage and homeland, she was a member of the borderland in South Texas. The book tells the stories and struggles of others who live in the borderlands. Griest will be doing a reading of "All the Agents and Saints" at Flyleaf Books next Tuesday.
The Daily Tar Heel: Tell me about your new book, "All the Agents and Saints"
Stephanie Elizondo Griest: It took a decade to write, and it’s third in a series that follows my first two books, "Around the Bloc" and "Mexican Enough." "Around the Bloc" I started working on when I was 18, so these books take me throughout my entire adult life. By the end of ("Mexican Enough") I had concluded that if I moved to Mexico for the rest of my life I would never be Mexican, because I was a member of the borderland — I had grown up in the space between spheres.
So this book begins in 2007, and at that point in my life I was totally nomadic, and without a home for about three years. All my stuff was in storage and I was just floating — I was living in art colonies, I was in a constant stage of book promotion, I was living on the road. I began returning a lot to South Texas. When I left in the mid-90s it had seemed like such a boring place, but when I returned in the 2000's it had become a major news story because of the drug war, and because many undocumented workers had shifted their migration pattern to Texas. And so very close to where I’m from, bodies began to pop up in the borderlands and on ranches – we’re talking hundreds of bodies. So many awful things were happening in my homeland, and a lot of my foundation is in social justice, so I wanted to investigate more. Then just by chance, I happened to get a visiting professorship near the Canadian-New York border, and when I got there I realized there was a community of Mohawk Indians that were living a totally parallel existence to us in South Texas. Basically all of the social problems I found in South Texas had an exact equivalent there. So this book is basically a comparison of the two; it’s looking at the answer to the question of what happens when an international borderline cuts your land in two.
DTH: Since this book was about your home, was it more rewarding than your other books?
SEG: The stakes feel a lot higher, because half of it is my hometown and half of it is a Mohawk nation, to which I’m not indigenous myself. I’ve always had a deep interest in indigenous issues, and I have, until recently, refrained from writing about it because I feel it’s problematic when an outsider goes in and writes about them. So this was hands-down the hardest book I’ve written because A) I’m writing about my own community, and B) I’m writing about a community that I don’t believe I have a right to write about. So both of those pose very different ethical issues, but both of those are stifling to the point of heart, soul, brain-freezing. So I really struggled with my conscience on every page. It was a difficult, difficult book.
DTH: Are you excited about its release?
SEG: Yes, I mean 10 years is a long time to dedicate to something. So I both deeply love it and somewhat resent it for taking so much. And you also have deeply complicated feelings for it. So I deeply love it, but there’s a lot of heartache wrapped up in it as well.
DTH: Do you think since you started working on this book 10 years ago, it is kind of ironic that it is being released in the time of the border crisis in our country?
SEG: Yes. I was doing the final revisions at the time of the election, so the book was completely out of my hands when Donald Trump was elected. I definitely had a panic attack like, “Woah, this entire book I wrote suddenly is more needed than ever in a way, but also a lot of the information now has so much additional new information, and the border policy is constantly changing.” And its really tragic to me that all of the information we hear about the borderlands is from people in Washington, D.C., who couldn’t be farther, physically, from the borders. We never actually hear from people from the borders.
DTH: So what do you have planned for the future?
SEG: I am on sabbatical now, and I leave next Saturday for the book tour. I’ll be doing that for the next three months, and at the end of November I’ll be leaving to go to an art colony to work on my next book.
DTH: What is your next book about?
SEG: My next book is about women artists around the world who refuse to let anything stand in the way of their artistic endeavor. So the sacrifices women make to be artists, which are considerable. Which is something I think about a lot because it’s something I couldn’t make for myself work. So I’m interested to see how women succeed in this, and the challenges different countries pose. The book starts in India, and then I go to Rwanda, Qatar, Iceland, Peru and Romania. I’m continuing to find amazing women around the world who do this.
Thanks for reading.
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