About “Migratory Birds” by Mariana Oliver
The first collection of essays by Mexican-born writer Mariana Oliver, Migrator birds, weaves the personal and the history into meditative vignettes on displacement and belonging. First released in Spanish under the name Migratory aves (2016) and now translated into English by Julia Sanches, Migrator birds transports the reader on the wings of precise and lyrical prose.
“Migration is one of the most fascinating behavioral patterns of certain bird species,” writes Oliver. “A persistent need for repetition […] forces them to travel great distances, even at the risk of their lives. And indeed, there is something incomprehensibly stubborn that prompts species to leave their point of origin, becoming “taller and majestic when defying gravity,” as Oliver writes of migrating cranes. The 11 trials of Migrator birds consider the migratory phenomenon as an exit from the confines of a here and now delimited.
Oliver wrote the book between 2013 and 2015, when she returned to Mexico after spending some time in Germany. It is therefore not surprising that the geography of Migrator birds is broad and includes references to Turkey (Istanbul and Cappadocia), Germany (Koblenz, Berlin), France, Cuba and the United States. Cities and places become characters. None of the essays directly confront Oliver’s childhood growing up in Mexico, and we assume she uses memories from abroad to renegotiate the present and reverse her experience of culture shock.
In “Cappadocia,” Oliver reflects on the geological and ethnological significance of the eponymous site in central Anatolia – which visitors can admire from the sky at dawn in hot air balloons. She engages in a dialogue between the top and the bottom. In a figurative but also literal sense, she recalls that “certain rites of passage begin with a person descending into a cave or a tomb: ad uterum regression, referring to the many rock caves in the region as well as a necessary interior journey.
In the American hemisphere, Oliver revisits the Cold War “Operation Peter Pan”, which saw more than 14,000 children leave Cuba for the United States between 1960 and 1962. In his essay “The Other Lost Boys and Girls She recalls how the announcements that proclaimed that the Castro regime planned to end parental rights led thousands of parents to send their children to the United States for security reasons (probably with the support of the CIA ). As a result of this hoax, these “Peter Pan” children were uprooted from their homes and forced to migrate to a foreign land. One can only imagine the isolation they must have felt.
Oliver denounces the power of lies and the gullibility of desperate parents who would lead them to exile their own children. Even today, it is clear that we are not immune to such behavior. In a contemporary climate of growing geopolitical insecurity, migration – whether forced or voluntary – continues to be militarized. Reports of the detention of migrant children, separated families, mass deportations and the militarization of the US-Mexico border do not date from a distant time in history.
In the parabolic essay “Trümmerfrauen” (“Women of the Ruins”), Oliver examines the enduring role women play in efforts to rebuild, recover and heal, especially their work in the rubble of Germany. ‘post-war period (immortalized in ephemeral photographs). Browsing through a photographic archive, Oliver follows the silhouette of a woman in a brick storage site in Berlin during the first winter after the end of World War II. These photos seem to suggest a private resolution, a belief that winter inevitably carries the hope of an impending spring. “The pair of trees that rise in the middle of the picture,” writes Oliver, “are just as tied to the earth as these women; they too could not live anywhere else. Their roots, locked in the ground, are the promise of foliage that will one day provide shade again.
Oliver frequently ruminates on scarred and once divided cities, such as Berlin. Its famous wall – like the Istanbul Bosphorus, which forms “a liquid line” separating Europe and Asia – bears the weight of the past, “a dense fog that refuses to rise”. For Oliver, the Berlin Wall is a metaphor for the many other walls erected around the world to stem migration, such as in the Middle East or on the southern border of the United States. A wall, she argues, represents “a collective banner that protects people from shame, the physical manifestation of a recurring human fantasy: living where no one can see us.” Historically, walls were erected for defense, to protect cities from threats, and to demarcate the spaces between the human and animal kingdoms. Today, they have become a physical manifestation of a belligerent stance against the less fortunate, a hate-fueled barrier to prevent imaginary contamination by “foreign” bodies. A wall is an extension of power, but paradoxically it also inspires a desire for transcendence, to go beyond. Oliver pursues questions of political agency when she considers who destroyed the Berlin Wall – practically it was the mob using hammers and saws in November 1989, but symbolically it was everyone on either side dreaming of the contingency. Oliver kicks off a conversation between Berlin and Istanbul through a discussion of the work of German-speaking Turkish-born writer Emine Sevgi Özdamar. As if we never free ourselves from an invisible thread that tied us to our nests, Oliver wonders if Özdamar had been “looking for another city divided by a border” when she moved to Berlin.
Migration is a living and complex memory found in the malleability of languages - Spanish comes to mind. Oliver reflects on plural expressions of nostalgia in the German language, noting that words can be creatively combined to generate new meanings, such as Heimweh – of heim (house or house) and uh (pain or sorrow). In this grafting process, like the border crossings of migrants, fragments enter into a whole new. Immigrants must acquire a new language, must learn to express their deepest thoughts, values and emotions in a new language, a tall order in foreign soil. Even if they succeed in this difficult task, they often face xenophobic suspicions that they do not belong to them. In his discussion of the bilingual Özdamar, Oliver observes:
Authors who write in languages other than their own are frequently asked about their motives, as if the words were also private property. Perhaps behind that line of questioning hides a hint of betrayal or aggression, an aversion to seemingly illegitimate things that can only be expressed through relentless polling. Maybe people believe deep down that writers who don’t write in their mother’s language take something that isn’t theirs, that they write where they don’t belong, that they are word stealers.
The concluding essay, “Blueprint for a House,” is a thought experiment on movement and the process of self-reclamation through space and materiality. Is the house a color, a structure, an assembly of people and memories? Oliver suggests that homes are “spaces in which we can rummage in the dark” – intimate but fleeting.
A hybrid collection that brings together personal, historical and travel essays, Migrator birds is, from start to finish, sensitive and enlightening. Upon its original release, the book won the national José Vasconcelos Young Essay Award. It is resolutely feminist work, highlighting the vulnerabilities of women – overworked, underestimated – but also their paths and choices of empowerment. Without denying the violence of history, Migrator birds firmly establishes the emancipatory power of dream and imagination. Julia Sanches, who also translates works from Portuguese and Catalan, elevates Oliver’s style while keeping her voice and musicality distinct. Sanches admitted in a recent interview that the first paragraphs of Oliver’s essays were the most difficult to translate since they set the scene. Judging by the poetic description of Cuba that opens “The Other Lost Boys and Girls,” in which the kiss of sea salt and sweat takes on a vibrant life, Sanches seems to have overcome this difficulty with flying colors.
In a moving essay published last year in The Parisian review, Anna Badkhen recalls how the omens divined meanings hidden in the patterns that the birds made in the sky. She postulates that three professions can give us clues about our collective future: prophets, scientists and writers. Merging the three roles, Mariana Oliver responds to the timeless call to look skyward for answers. In birds – real and metaphorical – she finds life-affirming clues, consolation, and ambiguous signals. Emphasizing our interdependence, she shares the advice of the Mexican poet Dolores Castro: “Words [are] like the doves: you have to feed them every day or they won’t keep coming.
Farah Abdessamad is a New York-based writer and critic. Visit her on her website.