Family Separation and Reconciliation in Cecile Pineda’s Anti-Memoir
Jeff Biggers Interviews Pineda on Entry Without Inspection
In 2009, after reading a New York Times investigation about a death at an immigration center in New Jersey, acclaimed novelist Cecile Pineda took a flight across the country to interview the whistleblower Jean Blum. She spent the next ten days with the septuagenarian Blum, a Holocaust survivor, filling up journals, all the while trying to understand what prompted her to become an advocate for forgotten immigrants in detention.
“Quite unaware, I had begun to write the words that would overlay the story of my true beginnings, one I had not yet unraveled,” Pineda would write a decade later in her new memoir, Entry Without Inspection (University of Georgia Press). “They are words written by someone whose family ties were severed long ago and whose culture was cast aside at the US-Mexican border when my father fled his country at the age of sixteen in 1910 and entered the United States under an assumed name, an extralegal immigration referred to by ICE as ‘entry without inspection.’”
The interview with Blum was a turning point for Pineda, who not only shifted from her role as a theatre innovator and bestselling novelist to a prolific writer of investigative nonfiction, but also forced herself to face a reckoning with her own conflictual heritage, family and identity, and her unique roles as an artist.
One of the most elusive and original American writers over the past half century, whose life’s work tends to draw more comparisons to international literary innovators like Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges than her American counterparts, Pineda has followed this contrary road in writing since she uprooted from her native Harlem in New York City and established herself as a director and playwright in the experimental theatre world of San Francisco in the 1960s.
A short article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1977, however—”Man Reconstructs Own Face”—redirected Pineda’s literary pursuits, leading her into months of research and the eventual publication of her first “existential” novel, Face, which was hailed by the New York Times as an “original, complex portrait of survival,” and placed Pineda into the national spotlight as a finalist for the National Book Award, and winner of numerous other prizes.
At the age of 53, publishing with Viking in New York City in 1985, Pineda also found herself in the “foundational role” as one of the godmothers of Latina/o literature, according to author Luis Urrea. While Josephina Niggli’s Mexican Village novel in the mid-1940s, published by the University of North Carolina and made into a feature film in Hollywood, garnered early recognition for Latina authors, Pineda’s breakthrough novel is recognized for its pioneering role in mainstream publishing. To note: Sandra Cisneros’ landmark collection of stories, The House on Mango Street was published in 1984 (Arte Publico Press), and Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits was translated into English and published in the US in 1985.
Nobel laureate JM Coetzee praised Face as “an extraordinary achievement” and wrote in a foreword to a new edition that “in the second half of the book, he (the main character) builds a new face for himself, and thus, in the deepest as well as the most superficial of senses, becomes the author of his own life.”Pineda’s experimental fiction work was decidedly daring, innovative and increasingly at odds with the demands of mainstream publishing.
As the author of her own life, Pineda’s next novel, Frieze, was inspired by a visit to a Hindu shrine in Indonesia and the life of a 9th-century Indian stone carver, and was hailed by the New Yorker as “a singular, absorbing” novel. In a hilarious feminist spoof on the popular magic realism of the times, she followed up with The Love Queen of the Amazon, which was selected as a New York Time Notable Book of the Year. The Chicago Tribute hailed Pineda for creating “one of the few great Latin heroines not created by the male imagination.”
But Pineda’s experimental fiction work over the next decade was decidedly daring, innovative and increasingly at odds with the demands of mainstream publishing. She turned to small publishers for a series of “mononovels” until her shift to nonfiction and three collections of essays, notably Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World (Independent Publishers Group).
At the age of 88, Pineda has released a timely new memoir that brings her extraordinary career full circle, “the story of a life in search of itself, stamped by an absence, an absence for many years without name, the name of family separation.”
The most insightful memoir, French author André Malraux declared, “answers a question which memoirs do not pose, and does not answer those which they do.” He referred to his own “anti-memoirs.”
In many ways, Entry Without Inspection is the anti-memoir for our own times.
Jeff Biggers: Your title, “Entry Without Inspection,” which refers to someone who enters the country without appearing before customs, has multiple references, including your father’s undocumented status, and your own story as writer, a “story of a life in search of itself.” Describe how your journeys back to Mexico brought your own story full circle.
Cecile Pineda: Not all of those journeys brought my own life full circle, but they certainly provided some of the stepping stones. For example to match my grandfather’s identity and that of Rosendo Pineda, long-time cabinet minister and “the Diamond Boss” star of the Diaz era, I had secure knowledge of his father’s name, and that name was not Pineda, because my grandfather was born out of wedlock, an all too familiar colonialist story. My great grandfather Teofile Delarbre was a French engineer stationed in Juchitán, perhaps tasked with designing and building the railroad that serves the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This I was to discover on my second trip to Mexico in 1980 when I stopped in Mexico City to visit my favorite cousin (also named Rosendo, the repeat pattern so common to Hispanic culture) who showed me the first pictures I ever saw of my grandparents, and revealed to me the dark secret that my grandfather was illegitimate, one of many truths my father saw fit to withhold from me!
JB: Why did you feel compelled to meet with Jean Blum, the Holocaust survivor who became an immigrant rights advocate in New Jersey in her 70s, when her inquiries about a death at a nearby detention center for immigrants launched a New York Times investigation, and how did your interviews over 10 days affect your own story?
CP: I have always been intrigued and completely mystified by that moment in people’s lives when they leave a perfectly ordinary, “respectable” life to cross the threshold into a deeply committed activism. What prompts them? Is there a trigger? What thing in their past makes such a dramatic emergence possible?
It was certainly the kind of change I knew from my own experience when I crossed from the “respectability” of my own marriage into a wider world. I wanted to know Jean Blum’s trigger. What was there about this woman’s past that was able to catapult her from a quiet life into such a troubled public arena with her deeply felt feelings of commitment and outrage?
Much later, when I began the project which eventually took on the title of Entry Without Inspection, my earliest impulse came just to include some of the Jean Blum work because it represents my first venture into non-fiction, but as I worked to discover the deeper meaning of what I was writing, and how it linked to my own story, I discovered the amazing connection. Surprise came late because I had deferred this inquiry in favor of living a full life and of cobbling together my own innocent forms of expression. I say innocent because none were informed by my true origins.
JB: Your memoir moves seamlessly through your journey as a theatre innovator and director, a novelist, and then a nonfiction writer. Why did you turn to nonfiction for this story, as opposed to your earlier fictionalized memoirs like Fishlight?
CP: Because when I wrote Fishlight in 1981-2, I was having fun, the fun any fictionalized “memoir” might produce. So much of Fishlight’s story is based on whimsy and fabrication! Of course, at the time I wrote it, although it certainly reflected the oppressive personal situation of the moment, I was still completely ignorant of the wave of racist ethnic cleansing which swept through the US in the 30s. The matter of immigration and of the concentration camps we euphemize as “detention centers” had not yet come to my attention. Would we call Auschwitz a detention center? Yes, indeed we would if we were trying to turn a blind eye, and white wash something so dark and deadly.
JB: Your creation of the Theatre of Man, you write, was a turning point for you, where you could leave “housewifery behind and assume your own distinct identity.” Do you think you had a similar turning point as a novelist and nonfiction writer?
CP: Remember I was born on the cusp of a new era where American women were beginning to leave housewifery behind to enter more public spaces either already provided by the culture, or. in some cases, carved out by them for the very first time. We were the pioneers so to speak. But by the time I turned to writing fiction, and 29 years later when I turned to non-fiction after 9/11, I consider the changes to have been less wrenching, less dramatic because I had already left such constraints far behind, and regardless of my inclinations, I had become a single woman, unhindered by any conflicts which marriage might have occasioned. In that respect certainly, the change was much more organic.There must be as many approaches from fiction to journalism as there are writers who find themselves engaged by such a subject.
But before leaving the question, I want to focus some attention on the transition to non-fiction. I recognized the event people refer to as 9/11 for what it was: the gateway to what has now come about, namely America’s pivot to fascism, the hard fascism and the passive genocide by COVID introduced by our recent ex-“president,” and the growing fascism of increasing and ubiquitous surveillance, and militarization of “law” enforcement. Because I feel a deep concern for my country, I came to feel that fiction such as I practiced it had now become an unaffordable luxury, and that in the time left me, I must concern myself directly with the greatest dangers troubling our country: nuclear power in its energy and war-making manifestations (Devil’s Tango: How I Learned the Fukushima Step by Step); climate collapse and displacement of whole peoples (Three Tides), and the origins of the criminal alliance by my government with the war-making industry and the culture of death (Apology to a Whale). And now, with Entry Without Inspection, my fourth work of non-fiction, with US racism as reflected in its immigration policy which from its inception has favored white Protestant immigrants to the detriment of all others.
JB: The Biden administration has ordered a 100-day pause on deportations, among other orders, though a federal judge in Texas recently issued a temporary restraining order. As we enter a new era of immigration policy, how can writers address a history of Mexican deportation, as you write, that dates back to the 1920s, when millions were “deported under the euphemism of ‘repatriation’ in an operation that today could only be described as “racial cleansing.”
CP: There must be as many approaches from fiction to journalism as there are writers who find themselves engaged by such a subject. One of my important sources is Francisco Balderama and Raymond Rodriguez: Decade of Betrayal, a purely textbook account, which deals with the so-called “repatriation” of the 30s. But I believe people need to hear the actual stories. They need to hear about the tiny seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, a Maya child overjoyed to receive her first pair of shoes in preparation for walking the 2000 mile journey to the border where she met her death after having been refused water for eight hours.
They need to hear the story of Felipe Gómez Alonso, and all the other children who have died in US custody; they need to hear of the enormous hardship of these families, the poorest people of Central America, responding to the ravages of climate-collapse-induced drought, walking thousands of miles through the harshest desert terrain to be met at the border with the unfathomable cruelty of a border patrol which searches the desert for water bottles left by compassionate activists to puncture them.
JB: “Was there ever a time when it became right for an artist not to continue speaking?’ You asked that question during the 1969-70 student strikes in San Francisco. How could writers answer that question in a post-Trump era?
CP: That question lies deep in the bed of resistance, and needs to be asked in any era. My earliest recollections took note of this very gesture: Marlena Dietrich’s refusal to appear in Nazi Germany, although Germany was her country. During WW II in the context in which I grew up, all around me my elders expressed horror and disgust at collaboration by such French entertainment figures as Maurice Chevalier, Sacha Guitry and Arletty.
Much later, in my life as a writer, I discovered to my horror that John Coetzee had accepted the Jerusalem prize. I have consistently held Coetzee in the highest regard among living writers for the luminescence of his style, for that elusive quality that makes his prose incandescent and for participating in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations while he worked on a temporary visa in the US, a participation which earned him a refusal when he applied for permanent residence. On further inquiry, I discovered there was method to his madness. By journeying to Jerusalem in person, he was able to deliver a stinging rebuke to a Zionist country which has embraced apartheid and the irony of ethnic cleansing, and practiced it for over 70 years.