SEPTEMBER 30, 2021
MEXICAN-BORN WRITER Mariana Oliver’s debut collection of essays, Migratory Birds, weaves the personal and historical together in meditative vignettes on displacement and belonging. First released in Spanish as Aves migratorias (2016) and now translated into English by Julia Sanches, Migratory Birds transports the reader on the wings of a precise and lyrical prose.
“Migration is one of the most fascinating behavioral patterns of certain bird species,” Oliver writes. “An enduring need for repetition […] compels them to travel great distances, even at risk to their lives.” And indeed, there is something incomprehensibly stubborn that animates species to leave their point of origin, growing “larger and majestic when defying gravity,” as Oliver writes of migrating cranes. The 11 essays in Migratory Birds consider the phenomenon of migration as an exit from the confines of a delineated here-and-now.
Oliver wrote the book between 2013 and 2015, when she had moved back to Mexico after spending some time in Germany. Unsurprisingly, then, the geography of Migratory Birds is expansive and includes references to Turkey (Istanbul and Cappadocia), Germany (Koblenz, Berlin), France, Cuba, and the United States. Cities and places become characters. None of the essays directly confronts Oliver’s childhood growing up in Mexico, and we guess that she uses memories from abroad to renegotiate the present and reverse her experience of culture shock.
In “Cappadocia,” Oliver reflects on the geological and ethnological significance of the eponymous site in Central Anatolia — which visitors can admire from the sky at dawn in hot-air balloons. She engages in a dialogue between the above and the below. Figuratively but also literally, she recalls that “some rites of passage begin with a person descending into a cavern or grave: regressus ad uterum,” referring to the area’s many rock grottos as well as to a necessary inner journey.
In the American hemisphere, Oliver revisits the Cold War–era “Operation Peter Pan,” which saw over 14,000 children leave Cuba for the United States between 1960 and 1962. In her essay “The Other Lost Boys and Girls,” she recalls how unfounded announcements that proclaimed the Castro regime was planning to terminate parental rights pushed thousands of parents to send their children to the United States for safety (with likely support from the CIA). As a result of this hoax, these “Peter Pan” children were uprooted from their homes and forced to migrate to an alien land. One can only imagine the isolation they must have felt.
Oliver denounces the power of lies and the gullibility of desperate parents that would lead them to exile their own children. Even today, one is forced to admit that we are not immune to such behavior. In a contemporary climate of growing geopolitical insecurity, migration — whether forcible or voluntary — continues to be weaponized. Reports of the detention of migrant children, separated families, mass deportation, and the militarization the United States–Mexico border are not from a distant era of history.
In the parabolic essay “Trümmerfrauen” (“women of the ruins”), Oliver considers the enduring role women perform in efforts toward rebuilding, recovery, and healing, specifically their work in the rubble of postwar Germany (immortalized in fleeting photographs). Scouring photo archives, Oliver follows a woman’s silhouette in a brick storage site in Berlin during the first winter after the end of World War II. These photos seem to suggest a private resolve, a conviction that winter inevitably carries the hope of an imminent spring. “The pair of trees that rise through the middle of the image,” Oliver writes, “are just as bound to the earth as these women; they too could live nowhere else. Their roots, locked in the ground, hold the promise of foliage that will one day again cast shade.”
Oliver frequently ruminates on scarred, formerly divided cities, such as Berlin. Its famous Wall — like Istanbul’s Bosporus, which forms “a liquid line” separating Europe and Asia — holds the weight of the past, “a dense fog that refuses to lift.” For Oliver, the Berlin Wall is a metaphor for the many other walls erected around the world to stem migration, such as in the Middle East or on the United States Southern border. A wall, she argues, represents “a collective blindfold that shields people from shame, the physical manifestation of a recurring human fantasy: to live where no one can see us.” Historically, walls were erected for defense, to protect cities from threats and delineate spaces between human and animal realms. Today, they have become a physical manifestation of a bellicose stance against those less fortunate, a hate-fueled barrier to prevent imaginary contamination by “foreign” bodies. A wall is an extension of power, yet paradoxically it also inspires a desire to transcend, to move over and beyond. Oliver pursues questions of political agency when she considers who tore down the Berlin Wall — practically, it was the crowd using hammers and saws in November 1989, but symbolically, it was all those on either side who dreamt about the eventuality. Oliver mounts a conversation between Berlin and Istanbul through a discussion of the work of Turkish-born, German-language writer Emine Sevgi Özdamar. As if we never break free from an invisible thread tying us to our nests, Oliver wonders if Özdamar had been “in search of another city divided by a border” when she moved to Berlin.
Migration is a complex, living memory that can be found in the malleability of languages — Spanglish comes to mind. Oliver reflects on the plural expressions of nostalgia in the German language, noting that words can be creatively combined to generate new meanings, such as Heimweh — from heim (house or home) and weh (pain or sorrow). In this grafting process, similar to the border crossings migrants undertake, fragments enter into a new whole. Immigrants must acquire a new language, must learn to express their deepest thoughts, values, and emotions in a new tongue, a daunting challenge on foreign soil. Even if they manage this difficult task, they often still confront xenophobic suspicions that they do not belong. In her discussion of the bilingual Özdamar, Oliver observes:
Authors who write in languages that are not their own are frequently interrogated about their motivations, as though words were also private property. Perhaps hidden behind this line of questioning lies a suspicion of betrayal or assault, an aversion to things illegitimate in appearance that can only be expressed through relentless probing. Perhaps people believe deep down that authors who do not write in the language of their mothers are taking something that is not theirs, that they are writing where they don’t belong, that they are word thieves.
The concluding essay, “Blueprint for a House,” is a thought experiment on movement and the process of reclaiming the self through space and materiality. Is home a color, a structure, an assemblage of people and memories? Oliver suggests that homes are “spaces we can fumble through in the dark” — intimate but transient.
A hybrid collection that gathers personal, historical, and travel essays, Migratory Birds is, throughout, sensitive and illuminating. Upon its original release, the book won the José Vasconcelos National Young Essay Award. It is a decidedly feminist work, highlighting the vulnerabilities of women — overworked, underappreciated — but also their empowering journeys and choices. Without denying the violence of history, Migratory Birds firmly establishes the emancipating power of dreams and the imagination. Julia Sanches, who also translates works from Portuguese and Catalan, elevates Oliver’s style while keeping her distinct voice and musicality. Sanches has acknowledged in a recent interview that the opening paragraphs of Oliver’s essays were the most challenging to translate since they set the entire scene. Judging by the poetic description of Cuba that opens “The Other Lost Boys and Girls,” in which the kiss of sea salt and sweat comes vividly alive, Sanches seems to have overcome this difficulty masterfully.
In a moving essay published last year in The Paris Review, Anna Badkhen recalls how augurs used to divine hidden meanings in the patterns birds made in the sky. She posits that three professions can give us clues about our collective future: prophets, scientists, and writers. Fusing all three roles, Mariana Oliver responds to the timeless call of looking upward to the sky for answers. In birds — real and metaphorical — she finds life-affirming clues, consolation, and ambiguous signals. Underscoring our interconnectedness, she shares the advice of Mexican poet Dolores Castro: “Words [are] like doves: You have to feed them every day or they won’t keep coming.”