Micheline Aharonian Marcom

Review: Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The New American

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By Dr. Arpi Sarafian

In June 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled to uphold the DACA Program which provides protection from deportation to eligible undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. Repealing the Program would deny the 800,000 DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, access to our universities and to better job opportunities. The Supreme Court ruling was hailed by many as a victory for justice and for America.

Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s recently published novel, The New American (Simon & Schuster, 2020), reaffirms America as a country of immigrants.

“The mixing of the blood on this land continues. We are here, we remain, the new Americans,” says Emilio, a Dreamer himself, at the conclusion of the book. The novel is an account of the journey North of Emilio Ramos Matias, a second-year UC Berkeley student who is taken into custody, and eventually deported to his native Guatemala, handcuffed and in chains, because he could not provide a valid ID when involved in a car accident outside the protection of his city.

In Guatemala, Emilio feels “lonely and out of place.”

“I don’t belong here,” he thinks, and decides to return “home” to California to resume his studies and fulfill his dream of a “better” life.

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Emilio survives the harrowing journey, and although “still uncertain of our future,” it is not difficult to see his odyssey as a story of “human determination and even some kind of hopefulness that we might carry.” Indeed, the promise of a new reality for him, as for many others, starts with the very title of the book. Emilio is “not afraid all the time anymore, because I am home” (italics mine). He and Matilde are in love. They are expecting a baby boy, “The New American.”

Nonetheless, the novel remains the story of the hell Emilio and his four Central American traveling companions go through to cross the border into the United States, to start their “better” lives. Pedro, Matilde, Jonatan and William are fleeing violence and poverty in their homeland: “In Honduras there is no future for us. No hope.“ The two-thousand-mile long trail, controlled for the most part by armed gunmen, is dangerous. There are kidnappings, rapes, killings. At the railroad stations, helpless migrants push one another to make it aboard the cargo train they have nicknamed “La Bestia.” At one point, when Emilio thinks he has lost his companions in the chaos, he frantically “grabs onto one of the last ladders on the last car,” risking getting pulled beneath the wheels, “as the great Beast moves forward.” Emilio jumps from wagon to wagon, running across the roofs of the boxcars the entire length of the train, looking for Matilde, the “pretty young Honduran in a grey hooded sweatshirt” he was falling in love with. “Have you seen her?”

The horrifying journey builds to the climax of the group’s final days in the Sonora desert at the US-Mexico border. With swollen ankles and open sores inside their shoes, those who have survived — Jonatan has been kidnapped, Pedro is dying —walk through the barren desert in the scorching heat, “on the broiling desert floor,” for days with no food or drink. With her vivid details Marcom makes their “invisible hunger and fear” visible. “The sun overhead is . . . pulling along with the air every bit of moisture from their bodies . . . They are all thirsty; they are all unbearably hot.” “Only God and not even the lizards can live here,” she writes. “The sun is our enemy, Emilio thinks. The sun could be God.”

There are of course Las Patronas, the kind ladies who throw bags of food and plastic bottles of water to “the unknown weary who pass by them each day on the moving Beast.” There are the volunteers at the Houses of the Migrants who provide food, care and shelter; and the priest who “tries to discourage their crossing over” but “cannot dissuade any from continuing his journey.” “We put our faith in God. God accompanies me, father, He will care for us.” These humane souls may mitigate the pain of the tired and fearful travelers, but they have no recourse to changing the policies which appear to have little to do with compassion or humanity. The ongoing violence in the world — we wake up to a new conflict every day — evidences that the displacement is here to stay. There are eighty million refugees around the world today, with more violence, more instability, more poverty, the only promise.

Aharonian Marcom’s commitment to tell history’s untold stories is nothing new. In her first three novels she had tapped into her roots, her Armenian heritage, to bring to life the 1915-1918 massacres and deportations of Armenians at the hand of the Ottoman Turks. The New American tells the story of the journey North of Central Americans fleeing unlivable conditions in their hometowns. Marcom feels comfortable with both histories. With her empathy for her characters and deep insight into their situations she gets inside their worlds and exposes horrors many may not be familiar with.

In her earlier work Marcom had invoked the imagination to help her depict an inner reality. She had deviated from conventional narrative structures and ordinary discourse to tell a story where there are “no straight lines.” With The New American, in contrast, the focus is on the external — except for brief italicized interludes of flashbacks and dreams. And while Aharonian’s facts, her meticulously chosen details, partly based on the first-hand testimonies of her Central American refugee students, give us a truthful account of the cruelties, they also reach into something deeper, into something more far-reaching and urgent. With the power and the beauty of her words Marcom makes us question the basic human logic of creating the conditions that force people to flee their homes, even when the fleeing means leaving one hell for another.

Once in the Bay Area of Northern California, Matilde urges Emilio to write a story, “to tell what happened to us.” “Dates and statistics don’t affect people as much as a story,” she says. “Stories tell the real history, they tell how it feels.” Her words echo celebrated novelist Virginia Woolf’s, “To give a truthful account is beyond the powers of the historian. Only the poets and the novelists can be trusted to do it. Aharonian has done it. The New American has that special quality of truth only fiction can have.

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