Sunday, July 26, 2015

Diversity in Our Writing: Cultural differences and Immigration with Jennifer Skutelsky

Today we have the wonderful
 opportunity to visit with Jennifer Skutelsky. Jennifer was born in South Africa and has settled in the United States, where she lives with her daughter and three immigrant pets in San Francisco. Award winning author of GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS and TIN CAN SHRAPNEL, she is both a softie and a warrior, with a passion for the underdog and alternate realities. She loves rhinos and elephants and has been known to talk to pigeons, while laughter and gratitude have often talked her off a ledge. With roots in ballet, marketing and visual art, everything she does now revolves around books.

Fiona - 
Welcome Jennifer. Would you tell us your "coming to America story?"

Jennifer - 
Mid-2009, I moved to the United States with my daughter, Amber, who was 13 at the time. I'd applied to both San Francisco State University and Columbia to do an MFA in Creative Writing--Columbia waitlisted me and SF State said yes, so San Francisco it was. I was leaning toward the West Coast anyway, as I'd heard that San Francisco was its own country: progressive, alternative, a bit like me, so the decision made sense. (No one had the faintest clue how much the city has changed since the 60s.)


It was a daunting prospect. I sold everything to make three years of study in a different country possible, and my family did all they could to help. The exchange rate was terrifying: R10 to the $ at the time. I look back and wonder how I found the courage and temerity to even dream I could pull it off. At 13, Amber still thought I was a magician and could do anything, so she was mostly excited that she'd get to watch a dozen movies on the plane. Our dog, Fifi, came with us. She stayed in her crate under the seat in front of me for the duration of the long flight to Paris, then on to San Francisco.

Fiona - 
Can you talk to me about the decision making process? How did this come onto your radar? And was your daughter part of the decision making team?

Jennifer - 
We both needed a break from South Africa. 2008 had been a traumatic year. I'd worked with refugees of a violent spate of xenophobia that displaced over 20,000 people, and I think a large part of my heart broke during that time. I wanted to move Amber away for a few years, into a global arena, one that would advance and nurture her ballet and expose her to a more culturally expansive experience. One that didn't feel so threatening, or dangerous.

My daughter, young as she was, was very much part of the decision-making process. I raised her on my own, and we're very close. She's my center; everything spins around her. Both of us were excited at the prospect of her auditioning for the San Francisco Ballet School, although we knew how difficult it would be to get in. I had faith in her, and she in me.

Fiona - 
Had you planned to live here forevermore?

Jennifer - 
I didn't think past the three years it would take to do my degree. I was very naive. However tough things had gotten for me in the past, I'd always landed on my feet. But if I'd known how strong and resilient I'd have to be, I just might have chickened out.

Fiona - 
What hoops would a character in a novel have to jump through to move to the US.

Jennifer - 
Since 9/11, immigration has become a minefield, but I think that's true of most countries/continents--Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and South Africa too. 

There are a frightening number of active war zones in the world that desperate people are trying to escape, and any hardship they take on in terms of immigration pales into insignificance against what they face in their home countries. In extreme cases, people fleeing poverty or violence might approach the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (with limited success); others will do whatever it takes by whatever means. So it depends how edgy the character is, his level of jeopardy, where he comes from, why and how he's chosen to move to the United States. In South Africa, some refugees brave being eaten by lions and leopards as they crawl under border fences; here they might get shot, fall off a train, drown, or suffocate in an overloaded container.

Where legal channels come into play, and when a person chooses to move for reasons other than imminent threat, there are a number of hoops to jump through, and they can test someone's athleticism for years. Let's assume your character falls in love and marries an American citizen. That used to be all that was needed to establish residency, but the US authorities became aware of the proliferation of fraudulent marriages, and clamped down. Now a couple has to prove that they entered into a good faith marriage, either through joint bank accounts, joint tax returns, and/or a joint mortgage or lease. The US spouse essentially sponsors her foreign husband to remain in the country, and she has to show that she has the financial means to support him. The couple then launches a joint application, and will usually be called in for an interview with an officer from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
If approved, the immigrant is granted conditional permanent residence, which expires after two years, at which point another joint application must be made to have those conditions removed. If nothing has changed since the original application, the person becomes a permanent resident, and after five years (including the initial two), can apply for citizenship. However, that's the ideal scenario. There are often delays, requests for further evidence, additional face-to-face interviews with USCIS, fingerprinting at various intervals, etc. It can become a very difficult process to navigate, and many people turn to immigration lawyers for help.

Other paths some people might follow are corporate sponsorship in the form of a job offer; investment opportunities; and/or business visas (where they have serious money at their disposal).

I came on a student's visa initially. While I was still in South Africa, I was required to show that I had the funds to support us, and could pay for my degree. I had to produce proof from the university that I was in fact enrolled. I already had a ten year visa in place, as I'd been to New York a few times to train with the New York City Ballet Workout, and once all my student documents were in place, things went smoothly. Fortunately, I had Amber's Unabridged Birth Certificate at hand, which indicated that I was her sole parent and could therefore move freely with her. I think if one is honest and systematic, very focused and in tune with what's required, it makes the process less fraught.

My student visa allowed me to work for 20 hours a week, only at the university. I ended up doing my degree in two years, not three--I wouldn't have finished if I'd taken that long.

Fiona -  
What happens if the character's spouse dies or they are divorced - does this change their status?

Jennifer - 
At some point the US Government had to take into consideration that marriages fail more than they seem to succeed--sadly--and that it would be unfair to punish a bona fide immigrant by deporting them if their marriage didn't work out.

If the divorce happens prior to the conditions of permanent residence being removed, then the joint application is rejected and the applicant must proceed alone, or face deportation. If s/he chooses to proceed alone and can prove a good faith marriage, which is sometimes hard to do, then s/he will have the conditions removed and further down the line, may take up citizenship. The fees mount up, as does the time it takes for the applications to be processed. It can take a person a decade or more to become a citizen.

If your application, either joint or individual as a divorced person, is rejected, then you would appear in Court before an Immigration Judge, who would assess the credibility of the marriage. If the judge rejects the application, then you have leave to appeal in Civil Court, where many lawyers feel more comfortable. While applications are pending, it's unlikely that you would be deported, but it's essential that USCIS knows where you are or whether you have any intention of traveling. During some of these transitions, travel becomes especially thorny, and express permission is needed if you're to be allowed back in the country.


Fiona - 
You had visited the US before, and you already spoke English, was the transition fluid or did you have some shocks?

Jennifer -
I think you've hit on something a lot of people don't take into consideration when undertaking such a move. We speak and write British English, and might think that we're ahead of the game because we've also embraced many aspects of American culture. We love Hollywood and TV and have tried everything on McDonald's menu, so we assume the transition will be smooth. And perhaps, if you're coming to a job or to family, it's easier. But immigration is one of the most traumatic life changes a person can go through; it's right up there, just below losing a loved one. I found myself constantly off balance. My daughter fared better than I did--she jumped in like a little fish and played in the water.

Fiona - 
When I lived in Europe, I tried to explain it by talking about the doors. You pushed the doors to go in and pull to go out. Here in America, for the most part, they are the opposite. So it looked like a door and acted like a door, but I was always seemed to be doing it wrong - in doors and other little subtle ways. Can you share a story of some of the subtle ways that life in America felt like a huge learning curve?

Jennifer - 
That's an interesting analogy.

One day, not long after we'd got here, my daughter and I were waiting to catch a train in West Portal. The BART police were on the platform, checking the tickets of people getting off one of the trains that pulled in. A young man wearing a hoodie didn't seem to have a ticket. The policewoman wouldn't let him go when he tried to leave, and she called for backup. Four of them laid into this boy, and I stepped forward to intervene--I'd come from South Africa and seen some horrific things; I'd stopped a UN plane from leaving Johannesburg, for heaven's sake--I wasn't going to stand by. My daughter held me back and pulled me onto the train, which was a brilliant thing to do (but she's like that, my Amber). People on the train were staring straight ahead, like they were completely unaware of this boy being pushed around outside the window. It was like an episode straight out of The Stepford Wives. I stood in the middle of the aisle and screamed at them, "Can you not see what they're doing to him? How can you just sit there??? What's wrong with you people?" Then I burst into tears. It took me a long time to get over that, even though I wasn't a stranger to brutality. I guess I learned caution, and I learned to temper my expectations, to modify my hopes, and I learned patience.

Fiona -  
I'm wondering about coping mechanisms - what helped you deal with your stress? Can you give some bench markers for adaptation or do you still feel off kilter?

Jennifer - 
Honestly, I'm sometimes still off kilter. There are many things I love about America and more specifically, about San Francisco. But I continue to bridge cultural gaps. I miss my mother, who's 91 this year, and my sister. I miss the beauty and spirit of Africa, and I will always love South Africa. 

We've made a lot of sacrifices, Amber and I, and while she feels a sense of belonging, I've acculturated less easily. I think San Francisco can be tough on people who migrate to the city. Amber has an American accent; I don't. I still say things that elicit a bewildered stare and find myself groping for a different vocabulary than the one I'm used to. My work as an editor pushed me into a whole new arena of English, and I adapted quickly, worked especially hard to get ahead. I did Professional Editing and Teaching as correlatives for my MFA, and I think that accelerated and consolidated things for me. But it was hard to come to terms with finding a new voice and sensibility in writing. Some things have been difficult to let go of. That's good. We shouldn't aim to emulate everyone else, and being different is fine. It took me a while to work that out.

Coping mechanisms? I would recommend becoming part of something--for my daughter, it was the San Francisco Ballet School. Because she was a technically sound and artistically beautiful dancer, she fit right in, and ballet's globally inclusive language facilitated her sense of belonging. Make friends, something that isn't easy to do unless you're part of some kind of group, whatever that is. Join Meetups, learn the rules of baseball and football. Fall in love with the Giants, and watch cricket, rugby and soccer with people who understand why you're sitting near a box of tissues. Read as much as you can, especially if you're a writer, but even if you're not. Do a lot of research because really, knowledge and understanding can change everything.

Fiona - 
Did you gravitate to other immigrants/try to find other people from your cultural background or did you prefer to make American friends/connections as your social base and can you explain why?

Jennifer - 
I made friends with some of the moms at Amber's school (School of the Arts) and at SFB. I was much older than people at University and had vastly different historical imprints, so I often felt lonely. I think that's one of the most difficult things an immigrant has to deal with aside from the culture shock and the fact that people don't laugh at your jokes--that sense of isolation, of being different. Charlize Theron understood what it would take to fit in: she lost her accent in record time and has never looked back:).

Fiona - 
What did you hope that I'd asked/want authors to understand about writing a character who is new to America?

Jennifer -
Avoid trying to capture an accent in dialogue. You need a very finely tuned ear to get it right. If you feel you must, then do it once or twice right at the beginning, but that's all you get. Most times a writer's efforts to capture a vernacular will be jarring and come across as patronizing.


Considering the context in which we live and the need to embrace diversity in all spheres, the immigrant lends himself to vivid character development in a novel. Try to get under the character's skin. Stereotypes of refugees and immigrants allow for only a single, one dimensional story to be told. In reality, many immigrants bring a wealth of vibrant cultural influence and contribution to all facets of American life. Unfortunately there's a cloud of implied hostility/distrust that they often live under. You can imagine how many years and what kind of financial outlay is involved in being accepted here, not to mention the stress and insecurity that would inform every facet of a character in a novel. They might develop symptoms of anxiety and depression, even PTSD; they might be defensive or constantly fearful, especially agitated when looking through mail, or when there's a knock on the door. Speaking broadly, they might develop sleep issues, nervous body language, and I can almost guarantee that money will be a major concern. The whole process of migration is one that leaves a person in a state of fairly constant precarity, unless the ideal scenario mentioned above is at play. Some people come from terrifying places, yet they'll experience homesickness. They may have given up everything to run a gauntlet of emotional and cultural upheaval. Try to get a hold of the issues they grapple with. Take into account the frequent, destabilizing recalibration that has to take place and how very little can ever be taken for granted.


Yet it's not all grueling. When I came here I looked at everything with wide eyes. I was so intensely eager and receptive. Of all the places I've ever been, San Francisco allows you to reinvent yourself--to be whoever and whatever you want to be. The process of discovery might kill you, but you try not to dwell on that.

Fiona - 
Would you please tell us about your Kindle Scout winning book Grave of Hummingbirds which will be published by Little A in January 2016?


Jennifer - 
When a boy stumbles on the body of a woman with a condor's wings stitched into her back, Gregory Moreno does a secret autopsy and confronts the work of a butcher. The killer stirs again when Gregory meets Sophie Lawson, a forensic anthropologist traveling from San Francisco, and before she meets a grotesque fate, Gregory must undertake a frenzied search across mountains haunted by ritual and superstition. Nothing prepares him for the macabre truths he uncovers.

Fiona - 
Traditionally here at ThrillWriting, we ask about your favorite scar.

Jennifer - 
Rather than tell a scar story (of which I have a few), can I tell a story that tested a few of my limits?

As I mentioned previously, in 2008 mobs of South Africans attacked and displaced thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from other African countries. Camps were set up to accommodate traumatized people who had lost everything. In the aftermath of protests at a camp in Johannesburg that led to a standoff between authorities and angry refugees, a group of women stood in front of their men to shield them from the police. A number of people were arrested, including the women. One of them was nursing an infant, while the others had small children. I got a call from an agitated father to tell me that his children had disappeared and no one knew what had happened to them. None of the working groups had a clue where to look for them. But I was something of a wild card and eventually managed to track the little ones down. They were in the process of being made wards of the state, something I couldn't let happen since I had met the mothers and knew how terrified they were of losing their children. I wrested them from the state and returned them to their fathers. One group of children, however, was to be deported to Burundi with their uncle while their mother sat in jail. I knew that was the last thing she would want, so I fought the United Nations. One of the lawyers got me into the prison again, and I wrote an Affidavit on the mother's behalf to refuse permission for her children to be returned to Burundi. As I was leaving the prison, clutching the document, I got a call to say the UN plane was ready to take off. I threatened all manner of mayhem if they didn't stop it, on the runway if necessary, and stop it they did. I drove like a maniac across town--I remember one of the lawyers sitting in the back seat holding on for dear life with terror in his eyes. A couple of weeks later, mother and children were reunited when she was released on bail. The case was dismissed months later.

I wrote about that year in a memoir called Tin Can Shrapnel. It was important that I kept a record of what had happened to people I had grown close to, and I wanted their voices to be heard.



Fiona - 
A beautiful story of strength and conviction. Thank you so much Jennifer for sharing it with us.





An ERIC HOFFER BOOK AWARD Finalist, TIN CAN SHRAPNEL is the story of one woman's journey to salvage hope from the hate and madness of horrific xenophobic attacks that broke out in cities and townships across South Africa in 2008. Reflecting the voices of a small group of men and women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jennifer Skutelsky traces events leading to the accommodation of more than 20,000 dislocated people in refugee camps. A story of chaos and courage and missing children, it is, more than anything, a story of universal truth, and finding a way back from the end of the world.

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