These Truths: DREAMing Out Loud with Álvaro Enrigue
These Truths is a new, limited-run podcast from the PEN World Voices Festival, exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. In a moment that risks tearing our world apart, and when the factual basis of our daily lives is constantly undermined, this podcast explores how literature can help us arrive at the truth and a deeper understanding of what connects us.
Each week, authors wrestle with urgent questions about contested histories, foundational myths, and dangerous manipulations of language rampant in our daily lives. This podcast brings writers and artists of America’s premier international literary festival into homes everywhere while introducing listeners to new books, ideas, and authors on the vanguard of contemporary literature.
In this conversation, Álvaro Enrigue, the founder of PEN’s DREAMing Out Loud Program, introduces us to the writing workshop he created to amplify the voices of DREAMers, DACA recipients, and other immigrants living in the United States.
CHIP ROLLEY: Welcome back to These Truths. I’m Chip Rolley, Director of PEN World Voices Festival.
Can storytelling change American attitudes toward immigrants? Especially against the backdrop of their demonization by politicians and ever more restrictive policies?
That’s the question we’ll be exploring as we meet some of the young DREAMers who make up the DREAMing Out Loud Program at PEN America. This is a writing workshop program in New York City primarily for undocumented immigrants.
Today, we will hear from the DREAMers themselves,
ERIKA APUPALO: My name is Erika Apupalo.
DONAUTA WATSON: My name is Donauta Watson.
SEBASTIAN GAMEZ: My name is Sebastian Gamez.
MARIA PYATERNEVA: Hello, my name is Maria Pyaterneva.
ROLLEY: . . . and from DREAMing Out Loud’s founder,
ÁLVARO ENRIGUE: I’m Álvaro Enrigue.
ROLLEY: Álvaro is also the award winning author of Sudden Death, his most recent novel translated into English and a professor of romance languages and literatures at Hofstra University in New York.
Álvaro and his students will be speaking with Nicole Gervasio, PEN America’s Festival Programs Manager.
NICOLE GERVASIO: Álvaro Enrigue, thank you for joining me on the podcast. So can you tell us where you are in the world today?
ENRIGUE: I’m in my studio, just in front of Inwood Park. It’s a beautiful piece of the world that is just encrusted in the very tip of Manhattan. I’m sitting down with the cats. I took the dog out because she’s very noisy.
GERVASIO: [Laughter] Right.
GERVASIO: Well, we would love for you to tell us a little bit about the DREAMing Out Loud program in your own words.
ENRIGUE: I’m a novelist, you see, so what I can do is make a story really long. I don’t have the ability to compress things. Sorry.
GERVASIO: Yeah, right. [Laughter]
ENRIGUE: But anyway, the DREAMers program, I could say that this is one of those amazing surprises that life was keeping for you. Like, one in the future that was going to give a lot of sense to your silly life, and you simply didn’t know that it was going to happen.
The idea came out in a lunch. Someone proposed, why don’t we make a workshop in the city for undocumented migrants? Originally we were thinking workers. Then someone, said this—said why don’t we do students?
So, the support of PEN that has been always with this project went to CUNY, and CUNY was like, yeah, we can help you to get students—that is, DREAMers—to write about their experience for a few weeks and then read about it in PEN World Voices Festival.
And since then, we have four workshops. We have three instructors. We’re able to produce an anthology every year with the work of the students. It’s just amazing. And, what is more impressive, now when we do the spring readings, we have like—I’m not exaggerating—lines that go one or two blocks away from the entrance of the cafe. So it’s, it’s a great experience.
GERVASIO: Yeah, that’s extraordinary to hear.
“The DREAMing Out Loud program has been this vessel for me and, I think, for others. And I think it’s, it’s shown me that it’s important that we share our stories so that we preserve our history, that we’re able to be seen and heard.”
GERVASIO: And we’re also really grateful to the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment for having supported the program’s growth in these last two years. So I was wondering if we could go back to that lunch you mentioned for a moment. What inspired you? What conversation were you having?
ENRIGUE: The original idea came from the festival. It came with maybe 20 different ideas, and it was this one—the one that drove me, Álvaro, completely crazy. It was something that I could do and that sounded, like, really fun and. . . more than anything, that could be meaningful.
I have been a professional writer since I remember, Nicole. I think that I have read in all the venues in which you will read in your life. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s how I feel. And I don’t think that any of those readings has changed anything. The festival industry, I don’t know. . . It produces ideas—produces great conversations—but doesn’t really change anyone’s life.
And I’m not saying that if you attend the workshop, then your life will change. But it will, at least, make you feel that your voice matters—that your experience matters, and that it should be published.
GERVASIO: That reminds me of something that your student, Erika, said,
APUPALO: The DREAMing Out Loud program has been this vessel for me and, I think, for others. And I think it’s shown me that it’s important that we share our stories so that we preserve our history, that we’re able to be seen and heard.
ENRIGUE: Erika Apupalo is the only survivor of the first generation [of DREAMing Out Loud]. She can feel two languages in a way in which I can’t. I think that her work is amazing.
When we began doing this, the president was still Obama, and there was not much conscience of how problematic the situation of a young migrant was in the United States. So it was not only a way of helping someone to find their voice and to convince someone that their voice mattered. It was a way to produce social conscience about a very actual problem that is a problem of these American kids who are not accepted as Americans by their own government—by the way, a government they feed with their taxes. No. So, it’s a very unfair situation. Now everybody knows about it.
GERVASIO: And I really love that idea of getting access to other people’s voices, helping us to develop a social conscience. Another student, Sebastian Gamez, mentioned something that feels pertinent here:
GAMEZ: Our voices are powerful, and our experiences truly add to the fabric that has made America what it is today and what separates America from the rest of the world. It’s essential to feel the encouragement and the celebration of all of our diverse voices, and especially in today’s climate.
GERVASIO: And I was wondering whether you could say a little bit more about that in terms of the power of storytelling. How do you think storytelling can shift cultural misperceptions about immigrants?
ENRIGUE: I really don’t know if you can modify reality through that very humble and somehow very privileged thing that it is to produce literary material. In the public readings of the DREAMers, we will not have anti-migrant people in the readings. No, I don’t think they even know that it exists. We are always having a conversation in our bubbles. In that sense. I don’t think that we are, like, breaking the walls that contain us. We are learning to pass the message that, “No, the traditional way of doing things—that is, to celebrate migration—it’s a good way of doing things.”
GERVASIO: Given that, as you said, it is rare if literature changes the world—and so many of the students in our workshops are young people who are interested in writing imaginative literature, creative literature, not necessarily nonfiction, although we do have some memoirists—why focus on young voices then? Especially if those narratives that have changed the world tend to come from people very firmly established in their careers?
ENRIGUE: I think that one of the things that has made the workshop successful is that we really, really, really are open to any possible experience, as long as you described yourself as a recent migrant.
Most of the people who attend the workshop are young people. But we have more and more older people, and of course, I welcome their experience and their point of view. We focus on the youth, because it’s, like, an illusion, Nicole. Like, if we work with the younger people, the world will be a better place.
Let me put it this way. The original idea of myself doing the workshop was due to the fact that I spoke Spanish. As with all of us people who live in New York, we thought that an undocumented person was a person that came from Mexico or from the Caribbean. Everybody expected that most of the students could write in Spanish. And that, of course, is a stereotype. But we don’t know those things until we experiment with something different than that. The truth, Nicole, is that when the first generation arrived, there were very few Spanish speakers between them.
“When we began doing this, the president was still Obama, and there was not much conscience of how problematic the situation of a young migrant was in the United States. So it was not only a way of helping someone to find their voice and to convince someone that their voice mattered. It was a way to produce social conscience about a very actual problem.”
GERVASIO: Yes, and here’s a clip from Donauta Watson, who comes from Jamaica, sharing a piece of her poem written in a Jamaican dialect:
WATSON: I am there for everybody but nobody is there for me
I am nobody
I am nobody caw me nuh have the numba the numba whey deh pon the paypa the lickle paypa
You know the card?
The social security number?
Mi nuh have no social, security
So social, security, security, social, social security
Mi nuh social
Mi nuh have the social number
Caw when you have the number and them type in the number inna the computer that mek you somebody caw you pop up pon the screen with like a lickle picture maybe me nuh know but me assume seh you popup pon the screen so that mean the computer seh you a somebody so then you ah somebody
And if you nuh have nuh paper you not, in a this land you not nobody
So I am not no body
ENRIGUE: Donauta is an excellent poet. She arrived to the workshop, like, three years ago, and she was working on a novel. She really performs her poems. She’s a spoken word artist. And there were people whose first language was French, whose first language was English. Another was a student from Jordan. We have people from Russia, from Pakistan.
First, there was the idea of a bilingual workshop, and it resulted in a much more rich workshop than that. In the same tone, I would say, the idea was to work with young people maybe because they were just accessible.
But in general, I don’t think that youth is a requirement for great writing. I may be wrong but, but I think that Walt Whitman was 40 when he began Leaves of Grass, and Jorge Luis Borges certainly didn’t write anything that was important before 38 or 39. So no—I could not say that youth is an essential characteristic of the workshop. I could just say that we have more young people because young people have more time.
GERVASIO: One of the most interesting insights that I think I’m pulling out from what you’re saying is that doing the workshop from the very beginning challenged a lot of your own expectations, and you know, actually doing the work of bringing together immigrant voices to combat the misinformation that is going on about them in the public sphere all the time.
ENRIGUE: I think that the media informs about important things that are going on, but that information does not always represent reality. The reality of immigration in New York City is completely different from what the newspapers are interested in.
So what we got at the end was an incredibly diverse community of young people that had arrived as children to the United States, [who were] developing a career and really wanted to be a writer, you know? So, everything that happens with these workshops, like, expands itself. You see, the experience is always mind-blowing, because you are always expecting one thing, and the reality contradicts you and offers you a better reality—a richer reality.
And I have to adapt all the time. And the flow of students keeps growing, which is—I’m just so proud.
GERVASIO: We are, too. And so I was wondering if you could comment then on what you hope the immigrants in your workshop get out of participating in DREAMing Out Loud.
ENRIGUE: The variety of the human experience, it’s complete in that workshop. Well, in the first place. We just have crazy amounts of fun every Friday, Nicole. If I had to use an adjective to define the experience of the DREAMers workshop, I would use exponentiality, fearing that that word doesn’t exist in English. Everything becomes exponential when you just drop it on the table of the workshop. It’s a weekly reunion of creative people reading their material to other creative people.
And at the same time, you have these small windows that you can use to expand the horizons of your career as a writer. There is a career development program that PEN organizes that is amazing for them. Because they meet with real editors and they meet with people who see the business of publishing.
And there is a fourth thing—that is, that it has become, with time, a true community in which everybody helps each other.
GERVASIO: Maria, another student, mentioned that when she was speaking to us. Let’s hear what she had to say:
PYATERNEVA: For me, being a DREAMing Out Loud participant helped me to find new friends. And now we can support each other. And especially during these times, it’s really hard to write something. And as we’re doing our meetings now, through the Zoom experience, we can share our writings, and we can express our feelings through poems or through essays or any other kind of, you know, writings.
GERVASIO: So, do you have any further thoughts on what the role of community—a writing community—is in the writer’s life more broadly?
ENRIGUE: Not everybody who has gone to the workshop, of course, keeps returning. But many will, somehow, get in contact with the people who are arriving. So, the first generations of writers are beginning to get good opportunities—that is, good fellowships, acceptance to important creative writing programs throughout the United States, we have had many people who are making plays that actual audiences are seeing in the city—[and they] are somehow helping the new arrivals. So, there is a small village in the enormous village of New York, you know, a small village in which everybody helps each other and, more than anything, in which everybody is really fantastic company.
GERVASIO: Yeah, that is really incredible.
ENRIGUE: We just get nice people. It sounds ridiculous, but it is the truth. I think that what we have to offer is, like, a non-competitive environment that generates solidarity. And that is very stimulating for the people to feel free to write whatever they want.
GERVASIO: Let’s hear more about that from Donauta Watson, whose poem we heard earlier.
WATSON: I think the act of writing, at times, can feel daunting, especially when you’re, like, going through, like, real life struggles. And for me, it came from a place of just wanting—wanting to be healed, wanting to just, like, understand, and just deal with whatever it is that I was going through . . . And I think, just being undocumented, it’s easy to feel like you’re—you can’t be heard, or you are in the shadows. And writing is a sacred space.
“Everything becomes exponential when you just drop it in the table of the workshop. It’s a weekly reunion of creative people reading their material to other creative people. And at the same time, you have these small windows that you can use to expand the horizons of your career as a writer.”
GERVASIO: Álvaro, I wanted to pivot a little bit into a question that’s thinking about the DREAMing Out Loud program in a more structural way. Let’s say we’re free to grow this program however we want. What would you like to see happen next?
ENRIGUE: What I would like to happen with the program is that I could keep teaching it as it is forever. I recognize that I am not really good at changing the world at big scales. I know that what I can do is get together with a group of people that can be from 4 to 6[pm] and make the people feel safe to share whatever they think that is important that they share in that space.
GERVASIO: And if there were people who wanted to start a DREAMing Out Loud in other cities, what kind of advice would you give them for being able to do that?
ENRIGUE: I love what you said about reproducing the idea as independent cells, because I don’t see this becoming, like, the university of migrant writers. What I really want is the enormous happiness that attending that workshop produces in my life every Friday. Since I stopped smoking, the only happy thing I do is go to the DREAMers. And now I do it virtually, and it’s equally happy.
We can speak about great ideas. I would love, for example, now that we are learning to use virtual media, to begin to do workshops with migrants who are all over the world. I think that would be, like, the coolest thing ever—to have like a Zoom classroom in which there are 12 talking little heads, and each head is in a different part of the world. That would be unbelievably enriching. But myself—all I really want is to still have it next Friday, because I love it. It could be better, for sure. It could be bigger, for sure. But I truly love it as it is.
GERVASIO: Here’s the question that we’re asking everyone: Werner Herzog says, “The deeper truth is an invented one.” As a storyteller of fiction, an editor, and a teacher, how does storytelling bring us to deeper truths? What are the deeper truths that literature illuminates?
ENRIGUE: A work of fiction is looking for truths that cannot be explained through mathematical models. But we are worrying about the same issues as philosophers and political scientists and hardcore scientists and journalists, too. It’s just that we have more freedom to imagine possible scenarios. I think, for example, of Cervantes. Cervantes in Don Quixote gives an idea of modernity, an idea of what freedom is, an idea of what the state—the, the future, national state—should be. What is the role of women in a more open society? He gives all those ideas in a moment in which the philosophers, doctors, and the logical thinkers of the period could simply not assert those ideas. But we are an enormous body, the society. So there is always someone brilliant enough to see how things really work, and give us the consolation of a world that we can understand.
“[T]he first generations of [DREAMing Out Loud] writers are beginning to get good opportunities—that is, good fellowships, acceptance to important creative writing programs throughout the United States. . .—and are helping new arrivals. So, there is a small village in the enormous village of New York, you know, a small village in which everybody helps each other and, more than anything, in which everybody is really fantastic company.”
GERVASIO: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, Álvaro.
APUPALO: There was once a girl full of dreams. With brown curls and hazel eyes, Miranda grew to discover a world beyond the one in her field of vision.
PYATERNEVA: After almost 25 years, Danny is sitting in the same blue airplane seat and he is looking at the same clouds outside the window and he has exactly the same incurable disease that his sister Amalia had before. The flight 3478 with the same route from Rome to New York is starting to go higher and higher into the sky, toward God.
CHIP: Thanks to Álvaro, Erika, Sebastian, Maria, and Donauta for sharing their stories with us. Their voices and those of many others from the DREAMing Out Loud program have the capacity to change attitudes about immigration.
Special thanks to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and Department of Cultural Affairs for their support of DREAMing Out Loud. The Mayor’s Grant for Cultural Impact made it possible for us to expand the writing program to serve more students at college campuses across New York City, to hold a career day, and to produce an annual anthology of participants’ work.
We also thank the Vilcek Foundation for their support of emerging immigrant writers in our writing programs. We are grateful to our partners at the City University of New York (CUNY), including the CUNY Mexican Studies Institute at Lehman College, the CUNY Service Corps at Queens College, and Medgar Evers College for donating classroom space and staff support, and to the other instructors in DREAMing Out Loud’s 2020 cycle, including Charlie Vázquez, Cherry Lou Sy, and Hannah Kingsley-Ma.
More from DREAMing Out Loud
Click below to hear full interviews with each DREAMer appearing in this episode, and read the pieces they have shared or will be sharing in DREAMing Out Loud: The Voices of Undocumented Students, the only literary anthology dedicated to the experiences of undocumented youth in the U.S.
If you are an undocumented immigrant writer who would like to join Álvaro Enrigue’s tuition-free workshops on Zoom every Friday, please email the program’s manager, Nicole Gervasio, at firstname.lastname@example.org for access to the class. We would also love to hear from you if you are interested in making a donation to the program; we are actively seeking financial support to secure the immediate future of DREAMing Out Loud.
These Truths is a production of the PEN World Voices Festival. Nancy Vitale produced and edited the series. Nicole Gervasio provided editorial production and conducted today’s interviews. Special thanks to Viviane Eng and Emily Folan.
Next time on the podcast, Mexican writers Yuri Herrera and Fernanda Melchor talk about their latest books and the ways in which literature opens the door to a richer, more complicated understanding of culture.
About Álvaro Enrigue
Álvaro Enrigue is the director and founder of PEN America’s DREAMing Out Loud program. He was a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library and a member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores of Mexico. His work has appeared in The New York Times, El País, The Believer, Letras Libres, and The New York and London Review of Books, among others. He is the author of five novels, two books of short stories, and one book of literary criticism, published by Anagrama in Spanish and Dalkey Archive and Riverhead in English. His novel Sudden Death, first published in Spain as Muerte súbita in 2013, was awarded the prestigious Herralde Prize in Spain, the Elena Poniatowska International Novel Award in Mexico, and the Barcelona Prize for Fiction. He currently serves on the faculty of the MFA in Creative Writing for Writers of Spanish Program at Hofstra University. Enrigue was born in Mexico and lives in New York City.