2016: Year in Review

Feliz 2017, everyone, and farewell to 2016. Between Syria, Brexit, Orlando, and our electoral apocalypse, it’s hard to separate 2016 from its tragedies. So much rage, so much ache. And I doubt that the headlines of its first two weeks have allayed anyone’s anxiety about 2017. It feels like a thousand marbles are crashing down upon our heads at once, each one representing a different program or ideal that has long been a touchstone for many of us, now racing out of reach. As individuals, we cannot chase after all of them at once; indeed, we’d fall if we tried. But if we strategize about who runs where after what, we have a shot at maintaining our nation’s integrity.

I feel many emotions about 2017: fear, anxiety, dread. But hope is among them—a great deal, in fact. And I attribute that to being a writer. Even when my subject matter tends toward the brutal, I meet extraordinary people because of it. People of wisdom, people of grace. They are the fuel I will draw upon in the (4?) year(s) ahead. …

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Indigenous People’s Day

As more and more communities across the United States are (righteously) celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day, I thought it time to share my latest essay: “Chiefing in Cherokee: Commodifying a Culture to Save It,” which has been published in the Fall 2016 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. It examines the immense complexities of “chiefing,” or busking, in the Qualla Boundary, which is the ancestral home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian. What follows is the opening segment. My deepest gratitude to the many citizens of the Eastern Band who shared with me their perspectives on a wide range of difficult issues: identity, cultural appropriation, authenticity, privilege, and tourism. Thanks also to the photographer Stacy Kranitz for her powerful artwork (including the one accompanying this post, which is the lead photo in the VQR story).

CHIEFING IN CHEROKEE

By the time we rolled into Cherokee, North Carolina, Nick and I had been crisscrossing the country for three months straight, scouting for stories for an educational website called the Odyssey. Because it was the year 2000—that is, when cell phones were …

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May Day Update

Happy International Workers’ Day! Hard to believe it’s been a year since my last blog post. I recently joined Twitter and Instagram @SElizondoGriest, and am much better at keeping those updated, so join me there, if you’d like.

One reason for my absence is I’ve been buried in my next book, and am thrilled to share that I handed in the first draft in December and am adding the finishing touches now. It picks up right where Mexican Enough left off, making it the last of the trilogy commenced with Around the Bloc. Called All the Agents & Saints, it examines the existential impact of having an international borderline slice your ancestral land in two, as experienced by Tejanos in South Texas and the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, which is located along the New York/Canada borderline. Like my previous books, it blends memoir, travel writing, and literary journalism in a journey that is both personal and political. UNC Press will publish it in April 2017, and I’ll be spending much of the fall on tour, so check back …

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Music Without Borders

Last December, I organized a binational concert at the San Diego/Tijuana border wall featuring violinist Jennifer Curtis. Here’s the story, from the Oxford American’s blog:

Despite its cheerful name and oceanic view, Friendship Park—the swath of land where San Diego meets Tijuana—has also been deemed the “most heartbreaking place in America.” If you approach on the northern side, you’ll make a forty-minute hike through California’s Border Field State Park, before entering what appears to be a prison yard where Border Patrol agents mill about. There, two eighteen-foot steel walls loom ahead, though if you arrive during “visiting hours”—10 A.M. to 2 P.M. on Saturdays and Sundays—you’ll be granted passage into the smaller park inside, joining dozens of families who have traveled tens or thousands of miles in hopes of catching a distorted glimpse of their loved ones through the steel mesh that divides the United States and Mexico. Mothers and sons, husbands and wives lean against steel, attempting to connect through the international borderline. Quietly, they murmur …

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Art Against The Wall

Happy Spring, everybody!

I am thrilled to share that my story about artists’ response to the U.S./Mexico border wall has been published this month by the Oxford American. Here is the opening:

The first object revealed itself immediately: a man’s black Reebok, size nine. That there was only one, inches from the iron bars, implied struggle. The absence of dust on the shoe—which coats everything in this swath of Texas—meant it hadn’t been here long.

“It wasn’t when I took my walk this morning,” said Mark Clark, a painter who lives half a mile away.

I noticed a second object in the dirt: a water bottle. Like the sneaker, it was also stranded in the no-man’s land on the other side of the wall, between the eighteen-foot-tall barrier and the Rio Grande. My friend, the artist Susan Harbage Page, saw the bottle, too. After making a photo with her Canon 5D, she slipped her fingers through the three-inch gap between the pylons. She unscrewed the bottle’s cap. Carbonated water fizzed out, drenching her sleeves. She drained and tugged the …

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Three Nations Crossing

Happy Autumn, everyone!

Just wanted to share my dispatch from the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, published this month by Witness. Below is a taste; here is the full story.

They emerge from the longhouse, a dozen at least, elegant as only chiefs can be, wearing hawk- and eagle-feathered headdresses crested with deer antlers, buckskin vests, hair braids, and—the fiercest accessory of all—sunglasses. A hundred people follow, waving purple flags emblazoned with four white rectangles connected to a spade-shaped tree. They turn onto Route 37, where others file in: young mothers pushing strollers, employees who’ve taken the day off, elders sporting clan symbols, children scrambling to keep up, men whose heads are freshly shaved in the traditional style adapted by punk rockers around the globe—close-cropped up the sides with a narrow ridge racing from the forehead to the nape. Many wear dress shirts embroidered at the wrist, hem, and necklines with brightly colored ribbons streaming from the shoulders. Few talk. Their quiet is punctuated by the thump of a drum.

Their destination is approximately five …

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India at last!

Before summer falls to autumn, I thought I’d share the story of its passage, starting with my trip to the Sangam House near Bangalore, India in May.

First some background: India is the country I have most wanted to visit for more than two decades now. In 1999, I landed a job at a feminist magazine in Delhi, bought a plane ticket and a visa, and even secured an apartment—only to cancel the trip when my dad was diagnosed with cancer two weeks before my departure. Thankfully, he pulled through like a champ, and when it seemed like I could reschedule the trip several months later, I bought a package of Hindi language tapes to start preparing. Every single one of them, however, was blank. Then I visited the local Indian restaurant (in Corpus Christi, Texas) to try to find a language tutor there. Nope: it had just gone out of business. At that point, an Indian friend sat me down and said, “How many signs do you need? It’s clearly not the time for you to go to …

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Hoppin’ John Fiddle Fest

Things I Seen, Things I Done at the 7th Annual Hoppin’ John Old-Time and Bluegrass Fiddler’s Convention in Shakori Hills, North Carolina:

* Getting asked “Where’s yer fiddle?” by every other person I pass, and “Where’s yer banjo?” by all the rest

* A guy who stands nearly seven feet high, naked beneath his overalls, walking through the forest playing a ukulele

* A woman with the voice of a Dixie angel, strumming a guitar with a strap depicting The Last Supper

* A boozy woman telling her boozy husband, “You’d never keep me home if I had a voice like that,” to which he replies, “Well I wouldn’t want you to. If you had a voice like that, we’d have ourselves a destination.”

* Three fiddlers, two guitarists, a banjoist, and a stand-up bassist huddling beneath a tarp in the forest, playing fiercely through the rain, and then, when their song draws to a triumphant finish, introducing themselves to each other

* An older woman with tattooed breasts wishing to sit, finding a chair occupied by a banjo, picking …

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Code 500

On this day celebrating Mexico’s Independence, I toast the Oxford American for publishing my essay “Code 500,” about witnessing the aftermath of a border-crossing in the desert jungle of Brooks County, Texas. Below is an excerpt; please email me for the full story.

The first thing Brooks County lead investigator Danny Davila wants to know is whether I have a weak stomach. We are sitting in his cramped office at the sheriff’s department in Falfurrias, Texas, on a sweltering July afternoon. Before I can respond, he slides a three-ring binder my way. “The Dead Book,” he calls it. Inside are dozens of laminated photographs of the remains of the 34 undocumented immigrants who have died in the county’s scrub brush in 2012, presumably while sidestepping the nearby U.S. Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint.

“This is the American dream,” Davila says, spreading his arms wide, as if to signal beyond the cedar-paneled room, “and this is where it stops, right here.” He thumps the binder with his forefinger.

I grasp the Dead Book with both hands and open …

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Sweet Caroline

Hola from Carrboro, North Carolina—the first place I have ever visited without a return ticket. What brought me here? Well, tomorrow, I’ll be starting a new job as Assistant Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. That’s right: in twenty-four hours, I’ll be nomadic no more. A radical life change, to be sure, but if there is a place on this planet where I am capable of settling, this is it.

Getting here was quite the journey. Late June, I packed all my books, files, and shoes into 64 boxes and watched three strangers load them into an eighteen-wheeler and haul them away (along with my credit card number). A few days later, a friend and I piled in to Kimchi (the little red Hyundai I reluctantly purchased last summer, after a lifetime of auto-avoidance) and commenced an 800-mile road trip from the North Country to the Deep South.

One stop of note was Ithaca, New York, a place I’ve wanted to visit since my Austin …

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Dizzy in Karachi

I first learned of Maliha Masood’s work while editing Best Women’s Travel Writing back in 2010. Tim Leffel of Perceptive Travel nominated her return-to-motherland essay “Breaking Frontiers” for the anthology, and it deeply resonated within me. Having left her native Pakistan for the United States as a teenager, she too understands the complexities of identity. So I am happy to announce the publication of her new book, Dizzy in Karachi: A Journey to Pakistan, just out with the Seattle house Booktrope. It recounts her return to Pakistan after landing a summer internship in Islamabad.

Tell us the story behind the title of your book.

The title is a play on words. Dizzy has a dual meaning. It refers to Dizzy Gillespie, who performed in Karachi back in 1956. The concert was a huge success and nurtured an entire generation of Pakistanis who were influenced by American pop culture, my father among them. He was a major jazz buff while growing up in Pakistan. Then one day, out of the blue, my …

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Spring Update

Today marks the spring equinox, but it’s still snowing like mad up here in the North Country. Never have I spent so much time indoors as these past three months, though I’ve learned that the best way to deal with a long hard winter is to embrace it by cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, maple-tapping, and swilling hot toddies around the fireplace.

So 2013! It started with an investigative reporting trip to South Texas (subject of my next book about living in the borderlands) and then I returned to upstate New York to teach travel writing and an introductory creative nonfiction class at St. Lawrence University. I’ve also been hosting the Viebranz Salon Series, which entails throwing glitzy catered parties featuring local writers and musicians every couple of months at the Kohlberg House, and partaking in our Writer’s Series. In February, I had the honor of introducing one of my literary heroes, Rebecca Solnit (whose Field Guide to Getting Lost is an endless source of inspiration). In March, I had the great fortune of hearing Pam Houston …

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