When Failure is Not an Option
Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.
Aida Salazar: Activist, Artist, Author
“Toni Morrison said, ‘This is not the time to despair. This is the time when artists get to work. This is the time that we put out our best in defiance of that which is unjust.’ That's where I come from. That is what kind of is the backbone of everything that I do.” - Aida Salazar
Award-winning author Aida Salazar talks about writing difficult stories for children, raising a new generation of activists, and the intersections of art and activism.
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Aida Salazar: Toni Morrison said, "This is not the time to despair. This is the time when artists get to work. This is the time that we put out our best in defiance of that which is unjust." That's where I come from. That is what kind of is the backbone of everything that I do.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today, Aida Salazar, is an award-winning author, activist and artist. She's written middle grade children's books, founded a collective for debut Latinx children's authors and produced festivals, residencies, conferences and protests. Her most recent novel, Land of the Cranes, is a story about a little girl and her pregnant mother who are caged in an immigration detention facility. It has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly, which called it "lyrical, passionate and all too timely." Aida, thank you so much for joining me on Burn the Boats.
AS: Thank you, Ken, so much for having me.
KH: I definitely want to dive into the intersection of art and activism, and the role that young people especially can play, but I first have to ask, given the deep library of content that you have authored and contributed to this space, where do you get your stories?
AS: Well, my stories come from a very intimate place mostly. They come from the dedication that I have to my community, to uplifting my community. They come from, of course, my own lived experience within that community. And they also come from my imagination. I have different experiences with each one as I write it. Sometimes they come from a sense of fury or frustration over a particular issue or circumstances that's afflicting my community, something that I find is unjust. And sometimes they come from what I like to call, or many people have called, the muse. Most recently, as I wrote Land of the Cranes, I was studying a picture book about the loss of a grandfather. As I was reading this story, my pen wrote the word deportation, and within minutes I was responding to a story that I can only attribute to the muse, but it was as if the spirit of this child was in the room with me and they were telling me what I should write. This spirit of this child kind of lived in my imagination for about a week, and by the time I was done, my face was awash in tears and I had written the entire story, outlined its plot, and then written about 50 pages in this child's voice. And what I learned was that this child was undocumented and her father had been deported and that she and her mother had been incarcerated in a detention facility, and all of what she experienced inside that detention center and how she was ultimately reunited with her family. So, sometimes those are the experiences that one as an artist kind of has to be open to and sort of channel, I think, for the greater good.
KH: I often hear artists talk about the muses that they channel in putting ideas on paper, be they words or colors, but I've never heard that connected to a sense of fury, as you just described it. It does harken back to the Greek conception of the muse and the Greek conception of the Furies, the agents of vengeance. I wonder how that exercise of putting words and paint on paper for you, how it helps you process the anger you must feel. Is it cathartic?
AS: Well, I think for me the process has two outcomes. Of course, absolutely catharsis happens when you process emotion. My sister committed suicide when I was 13 years old and that's when I began to write. I wrote out of a sense of trying to understand and process my feelings, the overwhelm that I was feeling at that moment. And so in some ways that remains absolutely true, and at the center of why I write. Because it is a personal communion with language and with my own emotions. But as I've grown as an artist and become more in touch with who I am in the world, I have come to understand that that's only one part of it, the catharsis, the personal examination of emotion, and that our words and what we produce in the world has resonance. So there's a choice. There's a choice to create something that is going to uplift, that's going to challenge an unjust situation. There's a choice to create something in the world that's going to bring beauty or in some way benefit others. I think that when I write for children in particular, when I became a mother, this became one of the most compelling reasons why I write for children, and that is that I want children to see themselves reflected in literature, in dignified stories and I wanted them to learn transformational stories, stories that would help them grow into better human beings and to be participants in the larger world, in the world outside of themselves and to gain agency and to strive to make the world a better place.
KH: How do you strike that balance? Especially when your audience is children, and often young children? Between crafting an uplifting story, but telling the truth? Because the truths that you address are sometimes horrific.
AS: In this particular case, yes. It was a very, very difficult story to craft, but I rely on my craft. Because my books are written in verse. I use all of the tools that poetry gives me. Metaphor, imagery, the white space around certain words or certain stanzas. All of these tools allow for you to be able to present very difficult subjects in a very calm and beautiful way sometimes, in a way that is not off putting, in a way that allows children to kind of process the immensity of what they're reading. And language, of course, word choice, to make sure that the language is not intellectual, but ... Not that children aren't intellectual, but intellectual in a way that is appropriate for them. And then of course to kind of fold in moments of light and teach children strategies within the story. So the story is about a little girl who uses picture poems to express what she's feeling and what she's seeing inside a detention center. So I believe that using that strategy and showing it within the story allows children to say, "Well, you know what, I can do that, too. If I have a dark moment in my life, this is how I can rise above it." So, that's the hope.
KH: One of the implicit challenges in Land of the Cranes is the call to activism. I'm wondering if that suggests two distinct audiences, the adults or the parents or the caregivers who are moved to action, and the children who are moved to awareness and empathy and hopefully that uplifting message at the end. Do you think about the adults who pick up this book and what their reaction is going to be?
AS: Yes. Absolutely. I'm hoping that the adults are going to support the children's voices, because without a doubt I think more and more, especially with the popularity of TikTok and these other social media platforms, children are accessing and beginning to speak out. For instance, there's this group of people here where I live, in the Bay Area, two children who started something called Migration is Beautiful: The Butterfly Effect Project, and they, at seeing the separation of children at the border from their parents, they decided to do a project where they would build or create a butterfly for every child in detention, and they've created over 30,000 butterflies across the nation. They even took the butterflies, some of them anyway, to the nation's capital, and they were displayed at Congress. So, I feel like children are already there. They're already exercising their voices and I hope that parents, upon reading my book, they allow children to speak and give them whatever tools they need to also be active and speak.
KH: Well, you just answered my next question, which was about children themselves as activists and one of the things that strikes me about the current moment we're in is just how much of a lead the generation behind us has taken in driving the moment forward. One of the things I like most about your books is the way they take what would otherwise be a statistic and they condense it to a story. There's that famous and terrible quote, I think, from Stalin, who said, "The death of one person is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." And I fear that with the scale of the immigration detention crisis, it is fading into statistics. Do you ever find that people's - their eyes just sort of glaze over at the scale of the challenge and they just can't humanize its toll anymore?
AS: Wow, that's fascinating. Yes, yes, absolutely. Sometimes though statistics are what compel people, in defense of statistics. I think about this one that I believe in 2019 there were 79,000 children separated from their parents, and that's enough to fill an entire football stadium. That to me is so shocking. Maybe I respond to statistics in a different way and I don't glaze over. I can't look away. Even though our attention has been diverted elsewhere. I believe and I think of every single child who has been separated or has been incarcerated. If you think about just the absurdity, the absolute inhumanity of having a child behind bars for a misdemeanor for sometimes indefinite periods of time, you think about that and the child doesn't have to have a name. They don't have to have a face even. They're a human being inside - a child inside a detention center, in some of the most brutal conditions. And that to me is inspiring. With Land of the Cranes, I was hopeful. It's a book of hope. That's all I can do. But I'm hopeful that humanizing that story, bringing it and diving deeper into the reasons why people migrate and what they're doing and what they're feeling, what they're seeing when they are dehumanized in a way that this child and her mother have been, that they will find empathy and they will find the courage to not look away.
KH: I think most people will agree that the last few years have wrought enormous damage to certainly specific communities in this country, but to the fabric of society as a whole. Can you talk about healing and what might be needed in the coming years to begin the process of repairing some of this damage?
AS: Well, I always look at South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation efforts and I believe that this political moment that we're living with the uprisings against racial injustice, the outcry for minimizing police violence, abolishing and defunding police and ICE, the carceral state having to be revisited, all of that I think is going to require a concerted and organized effort, and I think that if we develop something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was created in South Africa, I think that that would be a very bold and beautiful way to begin to heal. I'm really interested in the way that we can repair harm, and that's not going to come from anything but conversation and real action towards repairing that harm and helping right some of these wrongs. So I think every community could have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission working with community members, examining different systems of government and organizations that have contributed to the inequity. And it's true also in publishing. If I look at publishing and how certain organizations like Dignidad Literaria or Las Musas, the group that we founded, how we're trying to kind of expand our notions of what literature is and make room for dignified literature from communities who have been historically marginalized. So it has to be multifaceted, but it has to come from a place of uncovering truth and resolving and finding that kind of peace within our society. But I also have to say that part of our healing has to include a consciousness for how we are treating the planet. Without that, it would be lacking in a holistic perspective of healing. So as we heal the earth, as we heal people, I think those two have to kind of happen at the same time.
KH: I'm so glad you went there, because I wanted to ask if your young readers have a way of communicating with you and registering what is important to them, and if climate change is high on their list.
AS: I would hope so. I haven't had a lot of conversations with readers about climate change. Most recently, I had this conversation with a sixth grader about how she didn't understand before what was happening inside detention centers for children and that now it was a really eye opening experience for her to have read my book. So, I'm having those kinds of conversations. I know that in my own children and in my own community I do see children active. My daughter is part of a dance company called Destiny Art at Destiny Arts Center in Oakland, and they recently did a dance in front of a huge protest of youth climate activists in front of city hall in San Francisco. So I think that artists and activists, young people, are making incredible strides in that way, but I haven't had direct conversations with my readers about it yet.
KH: How do those conversations with young readers happen? You mentioned the conversation with a sixth grader. Are some of them brave enough and proactive enough to reach out to you? Or are these author readings that are scheduled? I would just love to know how someone in your position is able to receive and then channel the voice of the youngest readers.
AS: Oh, yes. Some of them reach out via mail or email and sometimes it's through author visits. Ironically, I had not been invited to do many author visits with my first book, which was The Moon Within, because it was about menstruation, and that book has been highly censored because there's a gender fluid character in the book and because the topic of menstruation is not something that the school system is ready to discuss, even though the entire world, each one of us, came from a menstruator and it's something that is a natural process in life. So now that this book is out, I have the opportunity to be with children and having very in-depth discussions with them in the classroom setting, but absolutely they come through when my friends' children read the books. So they come from all sorts of places.
KH: Have you heard stories of children shaping their parents' ideas? Are you able to have that kind of effect in knowing that the ability of children to think more open-mindedly as an entrée? I have to imagine that there are plenty of cases of children reading your works and talking to their parents about it.
AS: Yes, I would hope so. I know that adult readers, librarians and teachers, are having a very profound experience with Land of the Cranes. I know that with my previous book, older people, women, menstruators, have come to me and said, "This book healed me. There is something about speaking this truth that I had not ever heard in my life that healed me. Even though this book was written for a child, there's something in this book that healed me.” So I have had that experience and I've also had librarians ... Recently I had a librarian who said, "What can I do as a librarian to help the situation?" And I don't have all of the answers, other than to support organizations who are doing lots of really important work on the ground like Al Otro Lado or RAICES. Both of those organizations are doing incredible work to help the humanitarian crisis at the border. Other than that, right now I don't have a lot of answers, because I think that it requires a collective for us to really be able to make a change.
KH: You talk a lot about organizations that are at the forefront of these activist efforts, but you're coming from the perspective of an artist. How does art itself come into play in these activist movements?
AS: Toni Morrison said, "This is not the time to despair. This is the time when artists get to work. This is the time that we put out our best in defiance of that which is unjust." That's where I come from. That is what kind of is the backbone of everything that I do. It always strikes me really kind of odd when artists say, "I'm free of politics. My art doesn't support any politics." But politics is a choice. Every choice that we make as an artist, even if it is to look away or to ignore, or to talk about something else. Even our joy, if you choose to do something that is joyful, that is a political choice. And I think that when we begin to understand that union, that they're inseparable, that's where our power comes in. That's where the ultimate force of our art and our craft comes to help the greater good. I come from a community that taught me the word "artivism" and that what we were doing as artists,it really described what we were doing, because our tool, our organizing method, was art, and that was our voice. So it was easy to understand that our role as artists were part of creating a culture of resistance, "As artists, we have to create a culture for democracy, a culture for equality." And I took that to heart, and it defined who I was as an artist and a creator in this world. I had never really kind of strayed from that. So when I say I'm an artivist, it's the absolute union of that. Paul Robeson said...During the McCarthyism period, he said, "The artist must choose between freedom and slavery." He was also advocating for democracy.
KH: Your most recent book, Land of the Cranes, even though it is a beautiful recounting of the story of one family, is deeply political. And I'm wondering if it has received any of the same kind of backlash or if you anticipate that, as The Moon Within received?
AS: I haven't. It's actually been quite the opposite. I've had people really be receptive to it and feel compelled by it. I'm not sure why, to tell you the truth. I would suspect that it has something to do with the reckoning that we've lived in 2020, this reckoning of justice that we're looking at how unjust systems have been against the most vulnerable. I'm not quite sure.
KH: I wonder if you've read the story - it didn't get a whole lot of traction, but I think it speaks almost perfectly to the description of the intersection of art and activism that you just offered, about the Smithsonian quietly preserving some of the posters and the other demonstrations from these Black Lives Matter protests, and especially all of the art that was hung from the barricade surrounding the White House for those few days and weeks a couple months ago, that I would imagine at the time nobody really thought of as art. But if our understanding of art is expansive enough, it includes those protest signs. It includes those makeshift memorials. Do you ever think of art in a way that includes that and is just inseparable from the activism that it is the agent of?
AS: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, that was part of my upbringing as well. I say my upbringing as a political activist, as an arts activist, an artivist. The political protest poster, the political protest art is incredibly profound and moving. The muralists in Mexico, there are these great muralists, Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, these muralists were painting political murals. They were actually doing frescos. But they were teaching. They were very didactic, but they were teaching people about their history. And they were also protesting the injustices of the time. So that translated over to the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s, where many murals went up all across the Southwest that depicted pride and beauty and protest as well. So I grew up in Southeast LA among these murals. And when I came of age in my own consciousness, in my early 20s, that was part of it. I was friends with muralists and I was part of this movement of youth again in support and against 187 and all of these very anti-immigrant policies that were being enacted at that time. And all of our work, all of the artists, my colleagues across the board, whether they were musicians or visual artists or poets or filmmakers, they were all responding in their own way to the injustice. And I was incredibly inspired by all of those posters. In fact, in downtown Oakland, during the Black Lives Matter uprisings, the whole downtown area was boarded up and what people did was they painted murals and they're beautiful.
KH: The way you describe art and beauty makes me think of that kind of expression as the antithesis or the antidote to fear. And in the publisher's description of Land of the Cranes, there is this passage, "Even in cruel and inhumane conditions, Betita finds heart in her own poetry and in the community she and her mother find in the camp. The voices of her fellow asylum seekers fly above the hatred keeping them caged." And if ever there was a better description of the motivations behind the policies we've seen over the last four years, I can't think of it. It's just that fear and hatred are so much a part of the policies driving the way we treat immigrants. Why is fear of the immigrant such a recurring theme?
AS: I think that it is easy to blame somebody else when you can't take accountability. One of the things that I think the Trump presidency did was to use these ideas of fear and hatred to fuel a base that was themselves disenfranchised and poor and without hope. I think that instead of taking a road that would find healing and inspire compassion for others in similar situations who are hopeless and don't have a lot of answers for the cruel reality that they're living, instead of seeing an alliance there, that presidency really used it to blame them for their misfortunes, for the base's misfortunes. And that worked. I don't understand what about humanity makes that work. It's one of the sadnesses that I find as I work across race, class and gender with people to bring about healing. So I think that if we are somehow able to cut through the hate, to cut through the fear and humanize folks in a way that has a lot of integrity, humanizing folks and in my case through story, I'm hopeful that that will mitigate some of this and will calm it, because it feels very igniting always. It feels reactionary and it doesn't allow us to take a breath, think about it and then dig deeper into what's at stake, which is human suffering.
KH: Thanks again to Aida Salazar for joining me. Aida’s latest book, The Land of the Cranes, came out this September. Learn more about her and her work at aidasalazar.com.
Next week on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Doug Wilson, former Pentagon official, campaign veteran, and foreign policy expert. As the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Doug played a key role in the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell - 10 years ago this month.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.