Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration (Hardcover)
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Best Nonfiction of 2023 - Kirkus
“One of the most thoughtful meditations on our nation’s immigration policy in recent memory."
—The Boston Globe
A chronicle of translation, storytelling, and borders as understood through the United States' “immigration crisis”
In this powerful and deeply felt memoir of translation, storytelling, and borders, Alejandra Oliva, a Mexican-American translator and immigrant justice activist, offers a powerful chronical of her experience interpreting at the US-Mexico border.
Having worked with asylum seekers since 2016, she knows all too well the gravity of taking someone's trauma and delivering it to the warped demands of the U.S. immigration system. As Oliva's stunning prose recounts the stories of the people she's met through her work, she also traces her family's long and fluid relationship to the border—each generation born on opposite sides of the Rio Grande.
In Rivermouth, Oliva focuses on the physical spaces that make up different phases of immigration, looking at how language and opportunity move through each of them: from the river as the waterway that separates the U.S. and Mexico, to the table as the place over which Oliva prepares asylum seekers for their Credible Fear Interviews, and finally, to the wall as the behemoth imposition that runs along America’s southernmost border.
With lush prose and perceptive insight, Oliva encourages readers to approach the painful questions that this crisis poses with equal parts critique and compassion. By which metrics are we measuring who “deserves” American citizenship? What is the point of humanitarian systems that distribute aid conditionally? What do we owe to our most disenfranchised?
As investigative and analytical as she is meditative and introspective, sharp as she is lyrical, and incisive as she is compassionate, seasoned interpreter Alejandra Oliva argues for a better world while guiding us through the suffering that makes the fight necessary and the joy that makes it worth fighting for.
About the Author
Alejandra Oliva is an essayist, translator, immigrant justice advocate, and embroiderer. She is a recipient of the 2022 Creative Nonfiction Whiting Grant. Her writing has been included in Best American Travel Writing 2020, was nominated for a Pushcart prize, and was honored with an Aspen Summer Words Emerging Writers Fellowship. She was the Frankie Fellow at the Yale Whitney Hummanities Center in 2022. Read more at olivalejandra.com
"Amazing... a beautiful conversation about what immigration and migration looks like but also how we come to understand it, whose stories we get to hear and how."
—Traci Thomas, NPR's Here & Now
"I am fascinated by translation both in theory and practice and it is translation that serves as the foundation of this excellent book that is about borders, and migration and how migration experiences can be so different. It’s part memoir of growing up as the child of immigrants while working with migrants seeking asylum and harbor in the US. Oliva has prescient and deeply intelligent ideas throughout. It’s always a pleasure to see an excellent mind at work."
“Oliva’s excellent debut recounts her experiences volunteering as a Spanish-English translator in an immigration detention center at the U.S.-Mexico border beginning in 2016….With uncut rage and breathtaking prose, Oliva edifies, infuriates, and moves readers all at once. This is required reading. “
—Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
“A timely book by a translator at America’s southern border, Rivermouth is one of the most thoughtful meditations on our nation’s immigration policy in recent memory. Oliva’s Kafkaesque portrayal of her work retelling the traumatic stories of migrants in English for asylum applications will linger long after you’re done reading."
—The Boston Globe
"Mexican-American translator and immigrant justice activist Alejandra Oliva is particularly situated to tell the stories of immigration at the US southern border. She has seen the suffering, the space and the struggles of the people firsthand as she interprets their words for them and now, their experiences for us."
—Karla J. Strand, Ms. Magazine
"Undeterred by complexity, Oliva presents an accessible narrative electrified by transcripts of official exchanges, raw with emotion, that lay bare the tragic inadequacy of a sterile bureaucratic setting to ever do justice to petitioners in any "credible threat interview."
—Sara Martinez, Booklist
"A graceful meditation on the unresolved traumas of life in a land where one is often not welcome . . . Evenhandedly and without sentimentality, Oliva urges that we can stand to be both more understanding and more generous."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Alejandra Oliva is a brilliant new voice of her generation, a writer of resistance with echoes of Simone Weil; her attention to immigration justice reaches us as a prayer. Translation in her hands becomes a deeper type of storytelling where bearing witness to injustices of immigration becomes not only a path of political reform but spiritual transformation. Rivermouth is a rich delta of braided essays where we are invited into spaces that break our hearts and carry us to a place of healing grace."
—Terry Tempest Williams, author of Erosion: Essays of Undoing
"Rivermouth is a supremely intelligent account of a translator's journey into the Kafkaesque machinery of U.S. immigration and asylum policy. Alejandra Oliva writes with great lucidity and empathy about the fractures at the U.S.-Mexico border and the human drama that plays out there."
—Héctor Tobar, author of Translation Nation
"Alejandra Oliva's Rivermouth is a document of witness and grace told with devastating clarity and beauty. A beautiful and important book."
—Kate Zambreno, author of The Light Room
"Rivermouth is a great gift in a time when migrants are demonized on the shores and borders of wealthy western countries, none uglier than the scar that is the US-Mexico border that was forged through US invasion and annexation, powered by societal white supremacy. Alejandra Oliva has not only written a poetic, gripping, and magnificent book, she is there, on the border, assisting the migrants in their attempts to escape hunger, deadly gangs, and dysfunctional governments, often due to U.S. coups, invasions, occupations, and economic sanctions."
—Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, author of Not "A Nation of Immigrants"
"Subtle, personal, and deeply informative, this is one of those books that catapult you to a place you have never been. Translation is the author's vocation as well as a metaphor for the in-between spaces that her personal and professional identities compel her to traverse. Alejandra Oliva stands at a literal border and contemplates the metaphorical borderlines language creates, in terms of both the immigrant crisis and her own identity as a bilingual Mexican-American. Driven by a fierce sense of social justice, she is also an exquisitely controlled journalist. Her candid, intimate voice is irresistible."
—2022 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant judges's comments