SF State News {University Communications}

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Vivid life stories give voice to the undocumented

August 1, 2008 -- The undocumented immigrants in Peter Orner's new book "Underground America" took a risk when they shared their life stories. But people like Farid, an Iranian business owner, and Diana, a Peruvian who helped rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, did so because they wanted others to know their stories.

Orner, an associate professor of creative writing, was surprised by their willingness to talk given the dangers they face. He and his students worked hard to gain the trust of people without legal status, spending time with individuals and collecting powerful narratives that go beyond sound bites.

"Before I had a political take on this issue but not an intimate knowledge," Orner said. "It's easy to talk about immigration in abstract terms, but we are talking about families and individuals. That's what this book is about."

Photograph of the book jacket of "Underground America" which shows an immigrant opening a door.Orner collected and edited the stories with the help of a team of creative writing students, as well as a group of volunteer lawyers, writers and independent filmmakers. Sometimes finding stories wasn't so difficult. Orner notes that there is not a large degree of separation between the average American and an undocumented immigrant. Congress estimates the number of undocumented persons in the U.S. to be 12 to 15 million.

"We spoke with people who are breaking the law -- breaking the law with a wink and a nod from the government and the entire country," Orner said. "These are people who can't come forward and speak for themselves. Every person had a personal connection to a very serious human rights violation like violence or rape, if not themselves then someone they know."

Marking Orner's departure from fiction, "Underground America" is the third in McSweeney's Voice of Witness series that illustrates human rights crises through oral histories.

"I hope the book will surprise people," Orner said. "It's going to be an uncomfortable read for some. But the people in these stories are not victims. They show resilience and endurance, and they represent an American story just as much as any other."

Following is an excerpt from the book where Liso, a South African woman tells her story:

You don't trust anybody. You don't want to talk to people. You're always quiet. You don't want people to know your status. Every day I cross my fingers. "Oh God, please don't let me do anything illegal so I get deported."

I'm afraid all the time. I can be outside the house with this little boy that I look after and I start to imagine what will happen if he tries to run out into the road. Say the police are called. They will start asking me questions: "Who are you? How have you been working here?"

-- "Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives," compiled and edited by Peter Orner (McSweeney's, 2008). Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher. For further information, visit the Voice of Witness Web site at: www.voiceofwitness.com

-- Listen to Peter Orner discussing "Underground America" on KQED Forum: http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R806041000

-- Read the book's starred review on the Publishers Weekly Web site at: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6567641.html?q=underground+america

-- Elaine Bible


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