In the weeks leading up to the February 28 announcement of the 2012 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today in our series, NBCC board member Rigoberto González offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist The Distance Between Us (Atria).
In her two critically-acclaimed novels, Across A Hundred Mountains (Atria, 2007) and Dancing with Butterflies (Atria, 2009), Reyna Grande explored the two sides of the story that shape the Mexican immigrant experience–one unfolds south of the border, the other north of the border. Those two narratives however are not written by one person alone but by various members of the same family. The story becomes complete when the tales of those who leave and of those who stay behind connect and collide. In fiction, Grande worked with multiple narrators, each point of view adding one more harrowing detail to the feelings of emptiness and anxiety when a family splinters apart and then attempts to heal its fragmentation by seeking out who or what has been lost or forgotten. Readers are invited to witness that journey once again, this time through Grande’s own searing testimony in her moving memoir The Distance Between Us.
In a time when the issue of undocumented immigration has become a hot political topic, the voice that’s rarely heard is that of the undocumented immigrant. Grande’s unique perspective doesn’t attempt to resolve an already muddled conversation. Instead, she simply allows experience, not politics, to guide her writing. This compelling memoir charts a young girl’s path from the town of Iguala to the bustling metropolis of L.A. to reunite with the parents who essentially abandoned her. Living in secrecy only fuels her despair as she’s unable to seek solace from her abusive father, who has his own demons to contend with. But unlike the generation before her, Grande, wise beyond her years, finds a way out of the shadows with the help of a beloved mentor, who sees in Grande the imagination and potential that society did not see in Grande’s parents. Though it’s specific opportunities that set her free (an affinity for books, a formal education, Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program), Grande’s reach is not so much advocacy for immigration reform as it is taking a sensitive lens to the plight of the undocumented immigrant. Her ability to achieve forgiveness and understanding after suffering such neglect by her parents is admirable, but the feat worthy of mention is Grande’s insistence on expanding a narrative that is usually reduced to a single transgression: a border-crossing. Indeed that is but a single stroke in a portrait of a family who like countless other immigrant families endure cultural dislocation, isolation and the emotional distancing that comes from separation.
With honesty and grace, Grande drowns out the unflattering sound bytes that have plagued the undocumented community’s stories and writes a poignant memoir about finding safety and salvation in the artistic path. Hers is an insider’s tale of the hard-won American dream, sympathetic to the uninformed and sometimes detrimental choices that people make as they pursue that dream. The Distance Between Us is a proud and timely achievement, a distinguished leader in the effort to give full dimensionality to a population relegated to the margins of American society.
Reviews and profiles:
LA Times (Review by Hector Tobar)
The Daily Beast (Profile by Lorenza Muñoz)
The California Report (Review by Oscar Villalon)
The Christian Science Monitor (Review by Kelly Nuxoll)
Los Angeles Review of Books (Interview by Daniel A. Olivas)