The PEN Pod: Unpacking American Myths with Francisco X. Stork
Writer Francisco X. Stork is the acclaimed author of several books for young adults, including Disappeared, which was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year. He’s also the author of Marcelo in the Real World and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. His latest book, the powerful follow-up to Disappeared, is called Illegal, which went on sale earlier this week on August 4. We spoke with Francisco about how the pandemic is affecting issues of immigration and the importance of literature that engages with social issues. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Francisco begins at the 12:40 mark).
You practiced law before publishing your first novel, and since then, you’ve gone on to publish eight novels. How did you keep yourself motivated through those years before your first publication? Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction?
Yes, I think I always, since I was a young boy, wanted to write fiction, and I sort of geared my studies in college and then graduate school to learn how to write. But after four years of graduate school at Harvard, I just couldn’t see myself doing the kind of scholarly research type of writing that being a college professor required, while writing the kind of fiction that I wanted to write. So I had this bright idea that I could make a living as a lawyer and then write on the side. Well, things didn’t quite work out that way, primarily because I went into very high-demand law firms—private sector law firms. This creative drive that I’ve had since I was a child kind of got replaced by the ambition drive of status, money, and success.
So 20 years went by, and I had this midlife crisis. I had looked back and said, “Well, what have I done with this gift that I had received?” I decided then to wake up early in the morning and write for a couple of hours and at least give it a try. Five years later, the novel was published, and then eventually I did find jobs that were more compatible with writing. I moved to public sector jobs—I worked for a public aid agency that did affordable housing. Not only did I have a sense of good in doing that, but also I didn’t work weekends, and I could come home at six and be with my kids, and then write in the evenings.
“There are these laws, which are applied and can be twisted to fit particular temperaments and particular situations. I tried to convey that in the book as well, by embodying some of these laws in the characters—in the different attitudes that they have toward the main character and how they use him—some for good and some for evil.”
I’m always interested to hear different writers’ stories, especially when it involves having to juggle work-life balance and contend with the pressures to succeed, especially since there is so much more pressure on immigrants and the children of immigrants. How did your own immigration experience and your years practicing law impact the way that you decided to tell the story?
Yeah, I think my immigration experience has been one of encountering the different people who enforce immigration law—some of them good, some of them not so good, and some of them downright mean—and seeing how arbitrary the application of these laws could be, sometimes for the good and sometimes, it can be done in such a way that it just has really terrible consequences. My first experience with immigration law was when I came from Mexico to the United States with my adopted father. He had married my mother, and I never knew my biological father, but when I was nine years old, he brought us over and we were crossing into El Paso on the Stanton Bridge, the international bridge. My mother wasn’t allowed to come in because there was a typo in her middle name in her marriage certificate, and so we were sent back. I had to live in Juarez for a few months until that was cleared up. Even for a nine-year-old, that seemed really, really stupid to be denied that. I began to see how powerless you are.
When I was in law school, I practiced in the immigration law clinic, and one of my clients was a boat person who had come from Haiti, gone to Florida, and then shipped to Brooklyn and they were put in this Navy brig. I would go to visit him, and it really depended on the guard, whether I was allowed to see him or not, and there was nobody that I could appeal to. First seeing the conditions in which they were kept—there was no outside yard. Jean-Claude [my client] told me that he hadn’t seen the sun in a couple of months. So you begin to see that there are these laws, which are applied and can be twisted to fit particular temperaments and particular situations. I tried to convey that in the book as well, by embodying some of these laws in the characters—in the different attitudes that they have toward the main character and how they use him—some for good and some for evil.
Right now, we’re obviously still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the consequences have been especially devastating for immigrants being held in detention facilities. What do you hope that Illegal illuminates about the ways that social ills overlap, and how do you think moments of national crisis can exacerbate them?
The first book, Disappeared, which is the prequel to Illegal, I started writing that at the time of the last presidential election, when there were so many negative portrayals of the Mexican immigrant. All of a sudden, I saw how this political desire to be elected could use a scapegoat situation to rally people together. That’s a situation where immigration came to the forefront for political reasons and also to rally along a certain kind of hatred. I’ve seen it evolve. Now we’re sort of forgetting about the people in the detention centers, because there are so many other things that are affecting us, like the pandemic.
“What the novel does, is that it works on the personal level as opposed to the social level. It’s kind of a one-to-one relationship between the book and the reader. There’s no message or kind of agenda that the book pushes. Rather, it presents characters in different situations—in situations that are affected by immigration.”
What the novel does, is that it works on the personal level as opposed to the social level. It’s kind of a one-to-one relationship between the book and the reader. There’s no message or kind of agenda that the book pushes. Rather, it presents characters in different situations—in situations that are affected by immigration. What you hope for, as a writer, is that there will be a greater clarity as to the circumstances under which these laws are used, and to see behind the law, and to see what animates a particular enforcement of a law. Sometimes, it’s just fear—a fear of people that are different, uneducated, poor—fear of losing what I have there, like, “There will be so many of them coming that there won’t be enough for me.” All kinds of primitive, instinctual things come to light. What the novel does is that it doesn’t discuss these things on an abstract level, but it embodies them in characters. The idea, hopefully, is that the reader will get a greater understanding.
I know the writing of the book helped me personally to transform this anger that I had, at the way that the people were being treated—it transformed it into something more creative. The anger doesn’t totally go away, but it becomes less powerless. You feel like at least you’re contributing a little something toward alleviation of a situation that you think is just not who we are as a nation and as human beings.
We’re living at a time of increased political urgency, especially around matters of social justice. We also saw earlier this month that a federal court order was compelling the restoration of DACA, which was some bright news, only to then hear that unsurprisingly, this administration has announced that it will continue to defy that order. So how do you see Illegal being read now at this moment of overlapping crises? What do you hope readers can take away from the book?
You mentioned the American dream, and I think that—with all these different crises that we’re going through, and especially the one of immigration—there comes a period of cynicism where you just don’t believe in it anymore. One of the things that happens to Sarah, one of the main characters in the book who gets put into a detention center—she’s coming from Mexico as a reporter, and she’s looked at the United States as a place of freedom, where she can really practice her calling without getting threats like she did in Mexico, for reporting on cartels and so forth. Once she gets into the detention center, that faith begins to diminish. It gets tarnished, and it becomes more realistic. It’s like, not when you fall in love, but maybe five years after you live with somebody, you see the flaws. We’re seeing the flaws, and the idea is that the dream could become a real love that elicits commitment toward some kind of fairness and justice for a lot of us.
“Books become just more powerful, when they are born out of that kind of inner necessity. For me, it’s important to write with young characters, just because it’s a time of questioning and there’s still an openness there.”
Why do you think it’s important to write books for young adults that tackle social issues? I’d also love to hear what books you found especially important or inspiring for you as a young adult reader.
I think it’s important for writers to be honest with their feelings and with their interests. For me, I write about some of these serious things because I want to learn more about them and because they affect me personally—I mentioned the anger I had that I felt like I needed to work through. Books become just more powerful, when they are born out of that kind of inner necessity. For me, it’s important to write with young characters, just because it’s a time of questioning and there’s still an openness there. The young characters seemed to come out of me more easily than others. People grow out of having to reach out beyond their capabilities a little bit, and I think that it’s important to share with young people some of the serious things about life in our society, because they’re making those types of decisions that are going to affect them for the rest of their lives. It’s an incredibly beautiful and vulnerable age in many ways. I’d like to be able to at least give them the right questions to think about.
I grew up when the Latin American writers really became kind of universally known like Jorge Luis Borges, Cortázar, and Gabriel García Márquez. I really had a lot of pride in these Spanish-speaking writers. But when I got to be 18, I began to see that I wasn’t quite like them anymore. I was really something else, because I had lived in the United States for, now, 10 years. People like Rudolfo Anaya, the Chicano writer who began to write about things that affected kind of this Mexican Americans, and James Baldwin—all of a sudden, I discovered these people who were able to be great literary writers, and at the same time, had this burning concern for the society that they live with. They were just very inspirational to me.
The PEN Pod will be going on a brief hiatus this August. We’ll be airing encores of our old episodes, but we’ll be back in September with all-new conversations featuring writers, journalists, activists, and more.