Sometimes I can't process an event until I can relate it to literature. Literature serves as my religion; I use it to make sense of what I'm experiencing. So today, as I listened to discussions about Arizona's draconian immigration law, and talked to a friend who was coming to the state in May but who now is cancelling her trip in protest, I kept thinking about the novel Mosquito by Gayl Jones. The main character of that story, Sojourner Nadine Jane Johnson, is a truck driver in the American southwest who discovers a pregnant woman, Maria, in her truck. Nadine then becomes involved in a modern day underground railroad, transporting "illegal immigrants" into the country. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the book:
"I'm a truck driver, like I told you, and the onliest African-American woman trucker on this route. They's plenty women truckers nowadays--though ain't that many in South Texas....
I asks Maria she still hungry. Course I don't know them Spanish words for it. But she know what I'm saying. She shake her head no and wipe her mouth again on them Handi Wipes. She kinda pat her belly, like she saying that baby he seem like he well fed too. Then she kinda lean back against one of them detergent drums. I rolls up my trail mix and puts it behind one of them other detergent drums, but nods towards it, so she knows if she want some of that trail mix she welcome to it. Then I just sits back against one of them detergent drums. That Maria her features kinda reminds me of them Mayans. I can't tell whether she a peasant or what. Her hands kinda got few blisters on them, but they ain't knarled sunburnt like the hands of them womens that works in the fields. They's dirt under her fingernails, but that seem like it from scratching her way across the borders."
Because the novel is written in first person stream of consciousness it was sometimes difficult to get through, but I think I'll revisit it to remember what Jones had to say about identity and nationality in this moment of our nation's history.
As I flipped through Jones's book, I also thought about a panel I attended at AWP a few weeks ago. It was titled "All Around Bitch: The Challenges of Writing Unlikable Female Protagonists." While I wouldn't call Nadine a bitch, she definitely is not a "passive, selfless, sacrificial woman" (to use language from the panel description) and she possesses motivations and behaviors that are typically seen in male characters. Maybe this is why I loved the heroine of Mosquito and continued to read it despite struggling with the improvisational nature of the narrative. I've also realized that the characters in most of my stories are less than "likable." And that's okay. That means there's a whole spectrum of behavior that I get to explore.