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May 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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It’s no surprise that Hazel and the borders she has always despised have been on my mind recently, at a time when the president of the U.S. has proposed a ban on certain immigrants entering this country. The title of Hazel’s book comes from a Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem called “Against Borders.” It begins, “All these borders—they bug me!” They bugged Hazel, too, in 1993, and they bug us more than ever now. In promoting multicultural literature and the idea that it was not just possible but necessary to find connections between cultures and between different kinds of people, Hazel vigorously argued against not only geographical borders but also those between genres and between audiences. She ranges widely across fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, adult books and YA books, always tearing down the artificial distinctions that would separate great books from one another and from readers of all kinds.
We now live in a time when many argue that borders are no longer enough to divide us; we need walls to do the job properly. Stories, however, can penetrate both borders and walls, especially with readers like Hazel and the many fine critics who have followed in her wake, all helping us to see our way past the barriers that confront us, both in choosing books and living life. As Hazel says, “The best books break down borders. They surprise us—whether they are set close to home or abroad. They change our view of ourselves; they extend that phrase ‘like me’ to include what we thought was foreign and strange.”
The only serious disagreement I had with Hazel about Against Borders involved her initial reluctance to write about her own immigrant’s journey. Hazel and her husband, Hymie, were both active fighters against apartheid in South Africa in the 1950s and ’60s, so active that they were forced to leave the country on a one-way passport or face being arrested. (They were not allowed to return to South Africa until the 1990s.) Hazel wanted Against Borders to be all about the books, not her own life; I believed that the story of Hazel living as a privileged white person in the despicable apartheid era and rebelling against that privilege, as well as the journey she took, physically and intellectually, to put the legacy of apartheid behind her, could serve as a real-life bridge to all the fictional immigrant journeys she would celebrate in the body of the book. I’m very glad I won that argument.
Hazel is especially eloquent in discussing the near-total censorship she faced during the apartheid years. “There were borders and barriers everywhere,” she writes; “barbed wire around our homes and in ourselves. . . . Book and press censorship was fierce. Most contemporary black writers were banned, banished, imprisoned. Radio was state controlled. We had no television at all.” Hazel owned lots of banned books, however, and read them voraciously, but as she and her husband’s protest activities became more widely known, it seemed likely that their house would be raided. Knowing that the police always searched for banned books, they took action: “One night . . . in the backyard of our house in Johannesburg, my husband and I buried some of our books. I held the flashlight, and he dug a hole; then we packed the books in an old tin trunk, covered them with soil, and left them there. We didn’t think of it as a metaphor.” The books remained in the ground when they later left the country. Hazel likes to think that perhaps someone has come upon the tin trunk by now and discovered the treasure within it.
Hazel’s book-burying story may not have felt like metaphor at the moment Hymie’s shovel was ripping into the earth, but it can’t help but feel a little that way now, as a new era of racism and barbed-wire mentality threatens immigrants and citizens alike. If there are fewer immigrant journeys, there will be fewer great books about those journeys and fewer opportunities for all of us to see the connections between ourselves and immigrants from different cultures. Somehow, though, stories always find a way of getting told, and as Hazel said so memorably in Against Borders, “Reading makes immigrants of us all—it takes us home but, most important, it finds homes for us everywhere.“ Mr. Trump, we will tear down your wall with our books.
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