Joe Meno has been a professor of creative writing and humanities at Columbia College Chicago for twenty years, and there may not have been a year with the plot twists of 2020. He’s reinventing the fiction-writing course he teaches to fifteen students in a session, packs a class of fifty humanities students into a Zoom classroom in the next, then navigates his graduate students toward completion of final thesis manuscripts. His new book, “Between Everything and Nothing,” offers a journalistic rendering of the story of two Ghanaian refugees, Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, through their improbable paths to asylum and discovering one another, for the first time, at a bus station in Minneapolis.
“The United States is a poem,” Meno writes, “a song, an apparition. Its power resides in the fact that it’s largely imaginary.” Through the journey of assembling the first book-length nonfiction of his career, Meno interrogates the country he loves, and in doing so, attempts to discern a recognizable shape of the America that, on one hand cultivated his family’s existence, and on the other, denies access to its fertile land to black and brown refugees.
How has teaching fiction changed for you since COVID-19?
Maybe less than I initially would’ve expected. It has required more innovation in terms of organization. How long can fifty people operate as a group on Zoom? I’m teaching a craft and process class of fifteen students where we’re exploring the work of magical realists, so we looked at a bunch of short stories, then we looked at Italo Calvino’s “The Baron in the Trees,” then Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” We can see everybody on the Zoom screen. It seems to function at least, but it’s definitely not desirable. Within a couple of days of doing this you realize you miss the improvisation and ecstasy of someone saying something that you hadn’t expected. It just flattens everything. I grew up Catholic and there’s something ritualistic––something sacred––about being in a space and people generating work together. I’m trying to make that happen on Zoom and you realize there’s a certain electricity that’s lost.
How do you teach the writing process online? Do you anticipate a writer’s choices?
In the case of Calvino, he has lots of interviews. He has a couple of great essays about writing and he’s just talking about how he composes text. His method was totally disorganized. He preferred to work in small segments. He said it was too foreboding to sit down and say you’re going to write a 300-page novel, so he would just write little fragments. When you read “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler” or “Invisible Cities,” you realize it’s constructed paragraph by paragraph. The other is focusing on craft elements like character and place and looking at specific language choices, not just as readers, but as writers: how a text is constructed, then they do writing experiments based on some of these ideas. And they’re eighteen, nineteen, so they’re totally fearless. I’ll say “Here’s a three-page writing assignment,” and they just jump into it. We’re focusing more on product and less on workshopping. It’s my twentieth year teaching at Columbia and I got to this point where it’s hard for me to see the longterm benefits of constantly workshopping. I spent the last five or six years trying to develop more process-oriented assignments and activities. We’re spending way more time on experimentation and trying things, even in the way we respond to each other. It’s just starting to call into question if sharing a story with twelve strangers is the best way to create interesting work. When I write a text, I don’t send it to twelve random people. You would never do that.
Some writers have talked about their difficulty with creative productivity during this time. How has the pandemic affected your creativity?
It’s just context. Once I complete a book and have a couple of months before it will come out to the world, I always have this fear that some huge historical event will change the context of the conversation so much that my book is just no longer relevant. For many of us, that’s precisely what’s happened. If you go on the New York Times, the headlines talk about coronavirus. That’s totally appropriate, but I think culturally as writers, filmmakers, dancers it’s difficult unless you’re writing a text that’s about documenting coronavirus. It’s difficult to create something in a totally different space when you realize everyone’s minds, thoughts and emotions are revolving around one question.
I think that’s totally natural. The only other time I can reference is after September 11, where that felt like [there were] such political, cultural, social shifts that for months afterwards artists recontextualized their work. So, books are being published. Films are streaming. People still have an appetite for stories and narrative. I think people trying to create right now have this uncanny awareness of Where do I fit into this much larger conversation? Which maybe isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially for writers who have established themselves. There might be value in being forced to reinvent yourself, being forced to recontextualize your work in some way.
I reread “Tender as Hellfire,” “How the Hula Girl Sings,” and then “Marvel and a Wonder.” If you were to study Joe Meno’s fiction, you’d see your trajectory as a writer. I’m wondering how “Between Everything and Nothing” stripped you down to maybe starting over again. I got the sense that you were careful in this book. You’re known as a fiction writer, so how did you feel emotionally and psychologically as you wrote this book?
I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t written “Marvel and a Wonder.” That book has six characters that you follow over the course of this physical journey, and to me it’s very much about America at a certain point. It calls up the things that I love about this country and things that I have grave questions about. And in some ways this nonfiction book echoes some of those same questions. That novel was practice in how you manage, structurally, this long odyssey with two protagonists and these different shifts in time. I didn’t feel like I was careful. Once I had that structure in place, all I had to do was document what Seidu and Razak described and try to make it as engaging as possible. I don’t know if I could have done this book or had interest or motivation or confidence if I hadn’t done a bigger physical journey novel. My hope is that people get engaged with these two men, their incredible stories, and the architecture of the book just falls away.
Do you turn to the work of any nonfiction writers when you’re looking for guidance during a project like this?
While I was interviewing, researching and compiling the text, I was looking at how other contemporary writers have investigated immigration and the notion of identity. I went back and explored other nonfiction memoirs or collections like “Brother, I’m Dying” by Edwidge Danticat, “Asylum Denied” by David Ngaruri Kenney, Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Devil’s Highway,” Denis Johnson’s “Seek,” Sonia Nazario’s “Enrique’s Journey” and Valeria Luiselli’s “Tell Me How It Ends.” What I found was although there were many incredible nonfiction works concerning refugees and their stories, there were very few that dealt specifically with the question of asylum seekers and the process by which many travel from South America through Central America to the United States, and what happens after they ask for asylum.
Could you talk about the first time you met Seidu and Razak?
I have a friend Sami Tesfazghi, a film producer up in Canada, and he’s a refugee himself. He and his family left Eritrea during the Ethiopian-Eritrean War, first went to Berlin and ended up in Canada. We had been working on some film projects and he said, “Hey, this strange thing happened. You should come interview these guys. They have this incredible story.” I flew up to Winnipeg with the intention of doing a long-form essay or a feature. We met at a hotel in this little sterile meeting room, and these two men come in, very friendly and gregarious. At first, you try to establish some kind of rapport when you’re talking, before you even turn on the tape recorder, and it usually takes about twenty minutes to get a feel for each other before you hit “record.” This strange thing happened when we sat down. Razak just started telling the story about crossing through the snow, and the temperature, and what they were wearing, and having to crawl beneath this searchlight, then Seidu would pick up the story. I realized kind of quickly that they’d already started telling the story so I turned on the tape recorder. For the next five hours, these two men spoke back and forth. It was like watching this incredible book or film just unfold in front of you. The way they communicated and the way their stories overlapped and then differed from each other––I don’t know if I ever had an experience like this before. As the story went on and the more challenging and gruesome the events they faced [became], the more they seemed to open up. Five hours went by without us taking a break. At that point, I thought, “This is not an article. There is so much material and so much about moving from Ghana and their [separate] journey from Brazil, up through South America and Central America. I had no idea.
When we talk about immigration and asylum in the United States, we imagine that people just appear at the southern border, and you might hear about young people or families on trains throughout Mexico. But the idea of the black market and human smuggling for immigrants and asylum seekers starting as far south as Brazil––I just had no idea––I kept asking more and more questions. And when we got into talking about detention, it ended up being eight hours. Initially this was going to be about them crossing into Canada, but I realized this was a more profound human odyssey.
As a journalist, how were you able to put their feelings into words that were factually accurate? Did that come during the interviews or was that just a mood or a tone you felt from them?
Much of the experiences that they described were things I didn’t know firsthand. I wanted to know as much as what could be captured during the interview process. A lot of the thoughts and feelings came in second, third, fourth drafts where I had to go back, either by phone or email. I had the opportunity to sketch out the shape of the book through our first couple meetings. I was able to go back and re-interview them for the major parts of the book so I could go back, get more context, clarify some things they were describing, then try to get some understanding of what they were thinking––I was trying to push for that. What does that feel like when you’re walking through the jungle? What sensations did you have? Part of it is just listening to their voices as they’re describing what they’re feeling. There’s a moment Seidu describes when he and his fellow traveling companions are walking through this jungle in northern Colombia and they come upon these dead bodies. The first time he told it, I think I was shocked because it was so far from any books or films or anything that I was aware of in that journey from South America to Central America. I found out that there’s a highway of human smugglers moving men through Colombia, through Panama, and they’re often accompanied by drug smugglers.
As I was writing the book, I tried to follow the ethical guidelines for reporting so all the interviews were done face-to-face. I made multiple trips up to Winnipeg. Very few of the follow-up questions were handled over phone or over email. One of the men Seidu traveled with recorded and posted short videos all the way up from Colombia through the jungle and through Honduras so I watched these thirty-second or one-minute videos online of people crossing into Mexico on these rafts into Tapachula [on the far southeast of Chiapas]. There are thirty or forty videos of people documenting their experiences. Unless you’re searching that out or even knew that was a possibility, you might not know it’s there.
The prevailing idea is that immigration happens only on the U.S.-Mexico border.
There are always economic concerns as well. As these two men can attest, there are always local governments that are part of that ecosystem, that economic system dependent on people traveling through so these human smuggling operations started in the 2000s as small, family-run operations, now they’ve become parts of much larger enterprises interwoven with drug trafficking and arms trafficking, and they’ve become parts of consortiums of other illegal activity that includes human trafficking. So, it’s not just helping people cross borders, it’s kidnapping them for sex trafficking as well.
You point out in the book that it becomes part of a government’s economy.
That’s even more complicated because the way that the systems are set up. When undocumented workers come here, they send money back to Honduras and El Salvador, so it’s really to a country’s advantage. I kept asking during the research and spending time with these two men How is this the system we ended up with? The answer that I kept arriving at is that it serves different interests. The more undocumented immigrants that come to the country, the more money gets funneled to things like social security and Medicare. People who are undocumented never draw from social security and Medicare. So our whole economic system is propped up by immigration. There’s no reason for the system to rectify itself. In terms of economics, there’s not an advantage to reconceptualize how these things work.
What are your feelings about the United States after the experience of writing “Between Everything and Nothing”?
I have strong, complicated feelings about the United States. My family came over as immigrants from Bosnia, Poland and Italy and they were able to establish themselves and work and start families. I think of my great grandfather, who was killed in a quarry in southern Indiana. His family was given $200 and his ten-year-old son was given a job to take his father’s place. The book came from a deep curiosity about how this country works. I felt like I did not know what an adult in the United States should know about asylum in this country. I had all these assumptions about how the process worked, and the more time I spent with these two men, the more I realized the asylum system in the United States is unlike that of any first world nation. There are three things that people need to recognize: One, the fact that it’s a criminal act to come to the border without documents, even if they are applying for asylum, and both Seidu and Razak were horrified to realize that because their documents were stolen, they were committing a crime. The second thing is that asylum seekers do not have the right to have legal counsel unless they’re able to afford it. For many asylum seekers, it’s not a realistic possibility. In Canada, the United Kingdom and France, asylum seekers are automatically given a legal representative to help them through the process. They’re placed in housing centers with other refugees or asylum seekers. They’re not pleasant, wonderful institutions, but they’re not prisons built for the containment of criminals. In the United States, we have this huge system of for-profit prisons specifically built to house immigrants and asylum seekers that started after September 11. Other first world nations try to give asylum seekers the chance to integrate into their countries by giving them work permits. This idea that [the United States] treats asylum seekers, who are willing to risk their lives to get here, the same way we treat criminals, is just unfathomable. Those are the things that are just hard to reconcile. It’s not a political issue in the sense that these policies have always existed under both Republican and Democratic presidents. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that those policies are going to change in the near future.
Has the experience of writing this book given you any new techniques to pass along as a teacher of fiction?
I am fortunate to primarily teach fiction, but I also teach humanities classes that draw upon a variety of texts including nonfiction, poetry, film, dance, music, photography, anything that has a relationship to narrative. Writing this book reminds me of the power of memory, personal experience, stories of identity, journey stories and narratives that have political or social implications. Sometimes many fiction writers are engaged in a narrow conversation that does not include other media, as if the novel or short story has not changed since the mid-twentieth century. It is incredibly important to let other narrative and non-narrative forms continue to shape and inform fiction to keep it relevant and alive.