by Arun Chittur
“Your story matters … because everyone’s story matters,” challenged my instructor as I struggled through my last MFA workshop. I’d heard that before, and always agreed. Yet I denied the idea for myself, convinced instead that one must have “expertise” before sharing any part of themselves. I wonder now if such an argument is meant to reinforce the need for more heady discourse, or to discourage those voices deemed unnecessary to a larger, more dominant narrative.
In my last days as a student, two sentences into this post, a notification appeared on my screen. It was a news headline I would have ignored, except for two words: “shithole countries”. The President of the United States had asked a meeting of legislators, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” As a critical reader in the post-2016 media era, I assumed (hoped?) that the headline was overblown. Fabricated. Extrapolated obnoxiously out of context. Something had to be missing. Then I watched Rupert Colville’s response as spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Then several members of Congress. Several citizens of Johannesburg and Nairobi. The President singled out Haiti, El Salvador, and “African nations,” apparently expressing preference for immigrants from Norway. As one cable news anchor put it, “… people from Norway, with Nordic descent. White people, in other words.” I fought through a series of emotional responses, most of which have become second nature in the previous 12 months. Of those, a standard passivity was replaced by a rush of anger. I expect comments like this now, comments dividing the worlds of white and otherwise, European and otherwise, “Normal” and otherwise. I could have dropped back into acceptance and moved. That would have been easy.
What comes to mind when you think of a “shithole”? Large urban areas stricken with poverty? Whole families living in one-room dwellings without access to clean water or reliable food sources? Or perhaps rural areas so cut off from the world that the newest car you can buy was made when Eisenhower was president? Where every scene in the big city looks not like New York in 2018 but 1968?
There are pockets of Mumbai, India—a sprawling metropolis home to millions—where the dream isn’t for the perfect job, the perfect mate, or even a shot at college. It’s to eat one meal a day, and for the hope that your own waste will not return in the form a mortal disease. This same country, currently the world’s largest democracy, is also famous for its network of post-secondary engineering schools. My father emigrated from India to the United States in 1979 to complete work toward a PhD in chemical engineering. He was funded through a government loan that forced a choice upon graduation: (a) return to India and your loan debt would be forgiven, or (b) you could repay the loan and remain in the U.S. My father chose the latter, winning naturalization as an American citizen and placing his life in the hands of the American Dream and the trust it invoked so confidently back then.
Cuba is famous for its scenery and artistic culture, a popular vacation spot for many Canadian and European tourists. It’s also famous as the capital of a country long lost in the 1950s following the demise of one dictatorship in favor of another and a subsequent American embargo. Despite tourism revenue, Cubans have struggled to keep up with the rest of the world—especially since the fall of Cuba’s primary benefactor, the Soviet Union. Most of the island’s people struggled to access the kind of medical care, education, and commoditized technology that swept much of the world in the twentieth century. My mother’s parents brought her to the U.S. from Havana as they fled paradise for the unknowns of a foreign land. Determined to make her own life as an American, she grew up to follow my grandfather into medicine—into helping people. As a naturalized citizen, she graduated as a chemist and became a hospital laboratory analyst, testing patient samples hoping to find what ailed you quickly enough to save you from it.
My parents both came from oft referred-to “Third World” countries. When our President takes offense at the immigration of citizens from “shithole” countries, he takes offense at the journey my parents made just for a taste of the American Dream. He takes offense at the circumstances that drove them here, into the arms of a country that once sought to embody the call on Lady Liberty’s tablet. For millions worldwide this country has been the last, best hope. In my life, it has proven itself the only place a Cuban woman and Indian man could rise to the heights of their own potential and make a life next door to any other American family; and could give birth to a son with relatives tens of thousands of miles apart and raise him as an ‘American’.
What makes us “exceptional”? What qualities underwrite a state endowed with a responsibility to lead the world? Watching our evolution in the past two years, I’ve come to believe that our self-perceived political and moral supremacy isn’t drawn from a superior political system, nor a respected level of experience acting on the international stage. It’s drawn from the diversity of our people. As Americans, we live with a turbulent past, a history rife with suffering and exploitation. Yet we have transcended before, moving through history still attracting the young and old from all corners. The world could follow us because others could see themselves in us. And now? Promises of shelter and opportunity made in the past are becoming promises broken, dreams cast away to be cared for anywhere but here.
It is easy, I think, to dismiss the President’s words as racist. It is easy to dismiss them with a passivity designed to enable life to go on. But that passivity incurs the risk of losing sight of what was most important all along: America as a ‘beacon’ of hope and freedom. As I reconcile the latest headline with the end of my academic journey, my most important lesson crystallizes into view. As writers, we appreciate the chance to engage in our art without fear of political reprisal. Even without publication, we have our words. When I started my MFA, I debated whether the ambition to publish was the right one, whether my voice had enough authority to earn its place. But to follow that logic, to favor academic discourse over all others, silences those voices deemed unnecessary by the dominant narrative.
Beginning anew two years later, I am convinced that such an ambition is right. Not for fortune or fame. Not for an ephemeral notoriety some know and fewer understand. But because a democracy—any participative government—is based on voices. My instructor was right. Every story matters. Every voice. Every vote. The urge to express in writing is an urge to articulate a story that is already part of our fabric, no matter its origin or what the owner looks like. Writers of all stripes stand ready, willing, and able to articulate on behalf of not only themselves but those who cannot speak for themselves. We provide words for the countless made silent by the will of the few. It is our prime responsibility to ensure all sides discourse freely and responsibly, above the noise of those who would prefer a single storyline.
Arun Chittur is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches organizational leadership and pedagogy in Nevada.