Javier Zamora would suddenly go blind in one of his eyes for five minutes; sometimes, he’d wake at night to shooting pains on the left side of his body. After seeing specialist after specialist, he was told that he suffered from a rare condition: eye migraines. But the Salvadoran immigrant knew it was something else—something that couldn’t be helped with a pill, better sleep or a healthier diet.
He had no choice but to finally let his 9-year-old self tell the story the internationally acclaimed poet had been holding in for 20 years. It manifested itself in Solito, a memoir of his arduous nine-week journey from El Salvador to get to his parents in “La USA”—the strangers, the desert, the guns, the helicopters, day after day of not knowing what’s next and the perpetual loneliness. Solito means alone.
“I just want a hug,” the 9-year-old Zamora expresses in his memoir.
He thought he had left all the agonizing memories in that unforgiving Sonoran Desert, but Zamora had no choice but to return. He spoke to GT about how he did it.
How did you know where the book would begin and end?
JAVIER ZAMORA: That was the hardest part. I think my book of poems helped. I’ve struggled to get this story out of my mind, out of my chest, my body since coming to this country. I stored all the trauma in a lock box in my brain, then pretended like it never happened.
At 17, when I started writing poetry, I pretended I was born in the United States. That tells you how much assimilation and being undocumented did to my psyche. Poetry was the beginning, the key that began to unlock the events that I depicted.
Poetry only got me so far. And I think as a 17-year-old, 22-year-old, or even a 28-year-old, I wasn’t ready to face the people that helped me get to this country or the trauma, the sadness, the isolation, the anguish, the fear, all of the big emotions that I experienced during those nine weeks, essentially by myself with strangers.
When I turned 29, I was at this fancy fellowship at Harvard. I was touring the country with my book of poetry, and the audience kept asking about what happened because my poetry is snapshots. That was traumatizing because they asked for something I wasn’t ready to deliver.
A lot of things happened in my personal life. But I think the best thing that happened was I realized that writing poetry wasn’t enough. I needed to go back to therapy, which I had been in since seventh grade, because I was an angry teenager, trying to hold everything I described inside. Therapy, meeting my now-wife, practicing Reiki, hiking and actively wanting to heal and face my trauma was the beginning of the book. I retraced my steps and looked at a calendar to see where the images in my mind matched the climate, the places and the dates. I knew the book would end on June 11, 1999. And I knew it needed to begin in El Salvador a few days before I left in April of 1999.
How did you retrieve memories in such detail from more than 20 years ago?
I think going to therapy, and going internal, was the research I needed to do before writing. Trauma made me a good observer. As I got older, I was not trusting my memory. I was questioning my memory, pretending that this trauma didn’t happen.
Once I tapped into that sphere with therapy, through Reiki, I was re-traumatized in a way that I would get flashbacks in treatment, and I would have dreams about what later is seen in the book. Part of my therapist’s job was telling me I could trust those images; if I felt them, they happened.
Before [writing Solito], I had this condition when my right eye would go blind. The doctors figured out that I fall into less than 2% of the population that gets eye migraines, and it might be because of X, Y and Z. Since that diagnosis in 2016, I’ve kept notes on my phone. For a while, we thought it was a reaction to coffee, a cardiovascular thing or something that happened when I worked out. I began to realize that it happened when something triggered a trauma; something regarding immigration or, for example, President Trump getting elected caused an eye migraine. Events like that. When writing the desert scenes, I would wake up with shooting pains down my left side.
In a scene later in the book, I answer my question as a kid, complaining that my left arm is hurting. It hurt because the adults around me were pulling my left arm through the desert while we were running from helicopters or the Border Patrol. So little details like that are moments when you should trust your mind and memory. I needed to move to Tucson when I got to that point; once I realized the structure; the book became very linear. I hadn’t returned to the desert. I needed to live in the atmosphere. My wife and I moved across the country—we lived in New York City then. Being in the same atmosphere that caused me so much trauma gave me a lot, almost like the keys I needed to unlock the memories that are now on the page.
As you were writing about yourself as a 9-year-old, did you ever feel like you were writing about another person?
Yes, and no. I felt like it was somebody different at the beginning. But after spending so much time with this kid, which is what I needed to heal, I truly faced him and realized that this kid is me. This kid is one version of many voices that I had in my head, and that’s what trauma does. Accepting him and seeing this kid as a superhero, and for the longest time, from the age of nine until I started writing this book at the age of 29, I was ashamed of this 9-year-old boy. I treated him like somebody who had no agency and was weak. In the writing of this, I realized that the kid is a superhero. He has superpowers, and he survived. I never saw myself as a survivor. After humanizing him and spending so much time with him, meaning me, I realized as an adult that I had been shaped by this nine-year-old boy. I needed to love this kid, treat him with care and realize how these strangers provided a certain amount of care. We all helped each other. My therapist reminded me that adults helped me, but I also helped them. Multiple studies show that when you’re thrown into difficult situations, children can keep adults from going deep into a depression, for the most part, not every time. So, I also realized that I helped them.
What do you hope readers get out of Solito?
I didn’t begin writing this book in the present tense. I did what traditional memoirs do; tell you about what happened to me as a 9-year-old. I quickly realized that immigrants write other memoirs. There are countless movies; there are photos, very shocking photos of what’s happening at the border. There are politicians, but nothing’s working. It’s adults telling you how to feel and what to do. But it’s harder to ignore a child telling you what’s happening to them. I started writing this book while researching this American obsession with helping children. In the United States we are obsessed with that notion. It sometimes doesn’t even matter what color that child is; they could be a brown, black kid or white. But the moment that the adult views this kid as an adult—we see this multiple times with black people in this country, and regarding immigration—once a child turns 18, Americans don’t care. Telling the story from the child’s perspective, not in a manipulative way, puts the reader there; when that kid was alone. And the way this kid viewed the world, which wasn’t mired in politics. It was mired in the love that this kid had to be reunited with his parents. All the kid wants is love. And all the kid wants is his parents. How can you say no to him?
Javier Zamora will speak about ‘Solito’ on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 7pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free. bookshopsantacruz.com.