by Hannah Rose
“All kinds of people are captured by nations and borders, and every one of them has a story to tell.”
The topic of immigration has been a defining feature of European politics in recent times. Between January 2015 and October 2016 around 7000 people were camped in ‘The Jungle’, Calais – in woodland, ditches and fields, waiting for an opportunity to leave mainland Europe and enter the UK. Of this 7000, 62% were young men under 40 of non-European origin, and, according to the Help Refugees census, 761 were children. The images of these young people living in appalling conditions, seeking any means possible to cross the Channel were broadcast on news streams around the world. The British tabloid press called them the “swarm”; an “influx”. When thousands of refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East broke through the Horgos border between Hungary and Croatia in September 2015, the Hungarian police used teargas and water cannons to keep them back. These examples tell us that when humans move en masse, they cease to be human in the eyes of the authorities and the sensationalist press. Our values — the border between kindness and cruelty — has been interrogated like never before in our generation.
John Dennehy’s book, Illegal, is a prescient arrival in the history of our borders. Dennehy left the US in 2005 at the age of twenty-two, after the Iraq war broke out following 9/11; the Bush administration epitomised everything he hated about what America had become. Ecuadorians showed him a side of the human spirit that he felt was now lacking in his country, a kindness and generosity which meant he felt that he could make a home in Ecuador. He found work teaching, and fell in love with a local woman. But, in 2006, the authorities banned him from re-entering the country. Consequently, Dennehy snuck back in to return to the life he had made there, and his story tells us what it’s like to travel ‘under the radar’. He stopped being a ‘gringo’ (tourist) and instead became a ‘crime’.
Illegal treats the theme of “illegal” immigration with sensitivity; Dennehy makes no claim of being like the world’s thousands of other migrants who risk their lives crossing borders. He knows that he moved under the relative security that being white and having an American passport afforded, allowing him to sneak in and out of the country. Neither does he hold back from exploring the reality of how ‘nationhood’ follows us.
“Wherever I go, whatever I do, I can never change where I am from, nor deny the great influence that has on my personality. It sounds simple enough, but it took Ecuador rejecting me for me to realize this.”
Dennehy’s writing is pared back and lucid, bringing the city of Latacunga into sharp focus. He treats his interior life with equal measure, frequently breaking away from the outside world to interrogate and ruminate on the idea of borders themselves with honesty and clear-sightedness. It is here that his story carries authenticity and integrity; Dennehy is an activist first, a writer second. As he says: “We build walls of security for peace of mind, not necessarily because they are effective at stopping what we judge to be bad and allowing what we judge to be good.”
Illegal is both the story of an individual navigating his way through love, and the story of the human condition when faced with barriers—both the physical and emotional. The physical barriers that are used to segregate people, are also the ones that tear them apart on the inside. Dennehy realises that Ecuador’s culture, which holds family at its centre, has many sad examples of loss caused by country borders where spouses and children have been separated, and Dennehy handles the interior-exterior life of his, and others’, stories with dignity and respect.
Illegal is a sound example of creative nonfiction (CNF) and where it’s at in trying to define itself. CNF uses the creative freedom that fiction offers, yet it is grounded by the weight of fact. Other writers and philosophers –Thoreau (Civil Disobedience) — weave in and out of Illegal’s narrative at moments when readers need just a little more to bring out the finer points around the main themes of protest, nationalism and borders. In short, Illegal is a history of these ideas.
Sitting somewhere between imagination and fact, CNF has its own borders. What is so exciting about CNF as a genre, is that these borders are fluid and permeable, recognising that memory is fallible, but ideas, human emotion and stories have, when handled well in writing, an integrity about them which gives the page a life of its own. Dennehy studied on the UEA’s Creative Nonfiction MA programme in 2014, where Illegal was partly written and workshopped by myself and other students on the programme. It is a pleasure to see a UEA alumnus’ work complete, on the virtual bookshelves and ready to meet the world.
All images provided by John Dennehy
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