Novelist Natalia Sylvester can remember one of the first times she noticed language could be used to manipulate people's perceptions of themselves and the external world. Sylvester emigrated with her parents from Lima, Peru, to the United States when she was 4, and she was still a young girl when a single word on their immigration paperwork caught her eye. She asked her mother its meaning.
"My mom said, 'Well, that's us, because we're not from here,'" Sylvester recalls. She says she remembers the impact of learning that language could be used to dehumanize entire groups of people. Lately, she's been thinking deeply about the power of language and, thus, her own power and responsibility as an author. Her latest novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, comes at a crisis point in the national conversation about immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border, detentions, and family separations.
The novel begins with the crossing of the family patriarch, Omar, from the spiritual world into the physical world on the wedding day of his son Martin and daughter-in-law Isabel, a date that coincides with the Day of the Dead. The story traces the family's lineage from the 1980s to the present, including the border crossing of Martin's teenage nephew, Eduardo. Readers might be inclined to call the book "timely" or to ask about its relevance to current events. But Sylvester began writing the novel five years ago, and she pushes back on the idea that these issues are new.
"I think that when we say something is relevant right now, we're implying that it wasn't relevant at one point or that it stopped being relevant at another," Sylvester says. "I think many people who are finding themselves in shock or finding that this is a new thing, it's because they haven't had to live their lives as immigrants, knowing that the seeds for this crisis point and the anti-immigrant sentiment that's fueled it, they've really long been here and they're coming to fruition now in the most horrible ways imaginable. But if this were something that people [who] weren't directly affected by it had cared about for a much longer time... I think that we wouldn't be [where we are] today."
Once they immigrated to the States, Sylvester and her family lived at times in Miami, Gainesville, and right along the southern border in Texas' Rio Grande Valley. She later earned a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Miami. Sylvester's experiences as an immigrant in Florida and especially in the Rio Grande Valley are often reflected in the book, notably in a scene in which Eduardo takes a school field trip to a wildlife refuge near the border. The scene is based on a trip a preteen Sylvester took with her own class.
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"The thing that, to me, has always been really shocking about being in the Valley is that... the amount of bird species that there are is probably some of the most varied in the entire country, to the point that birdwatchers will come from all over just to watch these birds migrate. So there's this whole big to-do about the great migration, and I've always thought, What an incredible juxtaposition," she explains. "The last time I went to visit, there were border patrol vehicles all over. They were parked right outside the entrance to the preserve, and I just thought, How amazing and sad that on the one hand you have people coming from all over the country to see this migration, and then you have border patrol here to prevent and regulate this other, different type of migration. And yet, what other example do you need that migration is natural? That it can be celebrated when it's birds and yet vilified when it's human beings is just incredibly sad to me."
Though Sylvester's novel delves into strained familial bonds and the traumas of separation (and sometimes of reunification), the book is also incredibly funny. When Isabel first sees the apparition of Omar on her wedding day, she nervously asks if he was present when the newlyweds consummated their marriage. “God, no. Nothing like that,” says Omar, and the two go on to negotiate the strangeness of getting to know each other across spiritual dimensions.
"Omar's character, he made me laugh for so much of when I was writing him," Sylvester says. "And I think that's the biggest struggle that we have right now — how much of our joy is being taken, and to realize that holding on to that joy is also an act of resistance. And that's important too."
Meet the Artist: Natalia Sylvester. 5 p.m. Thursday, August 16, at the Betsy Hotel, 1440 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; thebetsyhotel.com. Admission is free with RSVP.