Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 16, 2008

Author shares inside look at immigrant experiences

“I’m not a policy maker, and I don’t intend to be. I’m just a writer,” said author Peter Orner, discussing his new book Underground America: Narratives from Undocumented Lives. Orner presented Underground America for the first time on Saturday, April 12 in the Bookfellow Room of Seymour Library.

According to Orner, his experience as a lawyer arguing an asylum case served as the inspiration for Underground America. Rather than talking about undocumented immigrants, Orner said that he wanted to give them a chance to tell their own stories. This resulted in a book of 26 personal narratives, gleaned from interviews with undocumented immigrants.

“I wanted to give people the chance to speak,” Orner said. To reflect the differing voices present in the work, six different members of the Galesburg community read excerpts of the book in this talk.

Orner said that he and about 20 graduate students from San Francisco State University had collected the interviews. They tracked down undocumented immigrants from around the country, asking everyone from lawyers to family friends for help. In the cases where the immigrants did not speak English, translators were used. Names and places were often changed to protect the immigrants. Then, Orner edited the narratives down to a manageable size, checking with the interviewees to make sure he had maintained the original spirit of the interviews. The process of creating the book took about two and a half years, Orner said.

Knox English professor Nick Regiacorte helped Orner with Underground America by interviewing Rose (not her real name), a Galesburg resident and undocumented Chinese immigrant. Regiacorte tracked down Rose with help of the New World Immigration services. “She was terribly nervous,” Regiacorte said of his meeting with Rose. However, when he sent her a list of questions, rather than interviewing her face-to-face, Regiacorte said that Rose opened up, and her story spilled out onto the page. According to Regiacorte, Rose had just undergone a divorce when she came to the U.S. on a visit and decided to stay permanently. Now, she is waiting for her son, who lives in Beijing, to join her.

“What was remarkable to me was there was regret,” Regiacorte said. Indeed, Orner notes that he tried to achieve a balance in Underground America, rather than portraying all undocumented immigrants as victims. Still, Orner said that the focus of his book was on human rights violations.

“I hope we get some people angry,” he said.

In particular, Orner suggested that someone should give John Ashcroft a copy of Underground America on his behalf when Ashcroft visits Knox on April 22.

Underground America is due to be published May 15 of this year. When asked about his writing process, Orner said, “Never again. I’m going back into my hole and writing stories about my grandparents.”

Rachel Bauer

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