Javier Zamora: ‘Now the chances of me crossing the border and surviving would be slim’

The Salvadorian poet on his journey to the US as a nine-year-old, the exciting literature coming from his homeland – and why he is indebted to Dave Eggers

Javier Zamora was born in El Salvador in 1990. Both his parents emigrated to the US before he turned five. At the age of just nine, Zamora undertook a treacherous journey by land and sea to join them in California – events recalled in his debut poetry collection, Unaccompanied, and now in his memoir, Solito, described by Dave Eggers as “a riveting tale of perseverance and the lengths humans will go to help each other in times of struggle”. A graduate of the creative writing programme at New York University and a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, California, Zamora lives with his wife in Tucson, Arizona.

What prompted you to write this book?
A lot of things, but mainly the weight of the trauma that I carried for so many years. My book of poems begins to touch on these themes, but I was lying to myself that writing poetry about something so traumatic was enough. I began to write this book during Donald Trump’s America, when everybody was talking about immigration. In 2017, when we had the Central American child crisis at the border, it seemed it was the first time Americans realised that there had been child migrants. It angered me that they didn’t realise it had been occurring for decades, and I was part of that.

What could prose do that poetry could not?
Literally cover the page. In poetry, there’s a lot of white space. I think that’s a metaphor for how, on the surface, I was facing what had happened to me. With the help of a therapist and meditation, I really went hard into looking at my past to understand myself better. And doing that, I had the time and the space and the mental health that I could fill the page.

You write about your experiences in extraordinary detail. How did you manage to reclaim those memories?
By 28, I finally had a green card and I could travel outside the US. Which meant I could research across the border and travel back to El Salvador for the first time in 19 and a half years. In October 2020, I moved to Tucson, because I needed to explore and feel the desert – I spent more than a month travelling with a friend who had been a border patrol agent.

Despite the incredible hardships you experienced on the trip – a gruelling sea voyage, harassment from Mexican police and then three highly risky attempts to cross into the US through the Sonoran desert – the book isn’t depressing. There is joy and hope in it.
That’s another thing that made me write this book. Often, the media only focuses on the harsh facts. These are immigrants enduring – for most – the worst day of their lives, and they’re getting photographed. The humanity of that individual is flattened and readers only look at them as a product of hardship and violence. As a survivor of trauma, I don’t only remember that. On the contrary, I can still taste the fish we had in Acapulco and remember how happy we were getting food from nuns in a shelter near the border. It’s moments such as these that are absent from news clippings and even other works of fiction and nonfiction about immigration.

Have your parents read the book yet?
My dad finished it and cried. My mom hasn’t got past chapter one. And I think that’s very telling, of how they’re dealing with their own experiences. The person telling you this story doesn’t get into what it must be like for a parent to not know where their child is for more than eight weeks.

You wrote in a piece for Granta that you were “shocked to see how much the immigration machine had changed since I crossed in 1999; now, it’s a more violent monster. If you were crossing the border today, how might you have fared?
The chances of me surviving now would have been slim. In 1999, the coyotes, or human smugglers, genuinely thought they were helping people. Now, in order to smuggle human beings across the border, you have to be part of a cartel. And that has changed everything. There have been multiple cases where people pay the cartels and all the cartel does is throw people over the fence. On top of that, the border has become hugely militarised.

You mentioned a friend who had been a border guard – I presume you were referring to Francisco Cantú? He was criticised for writing a book – The Line Becomes a River – about his experiences on the border as opposed to the immigrant experience. What was your take on that?
We met in Oakland, California, where I was supposed to give a reading with him, but the reading didn’t happen [because of protesters]. Instead, we went to a bar and talked it out. In memoirs such as his there’s a trope like: “Oh, I saw all these bad things happening, but hey, reader, I’m one of the good guys. I did everything good.” And he does get into this, that he also did bad stuff, but I wish that he would have done more [about that]. In his daily life, he does a lot for immigrants. I don’t think I would be his friend – and I consider him one of my best friends – if I didn’t think that he is doing the work of being a better human being.

What was the last great book you read?
Liliana’s Invincible Summer by Cristina Rivera Garza is a memoir set in Mexico City about her younger sister, who was a victim of femicide. It is heartbreaking and a book that everybody, especially those who haven’t been victims of sexual abuse, should read. It’s out next year.

Which poets working today do you most admire?
Solmaz Sharif is a young poet whose trajectory I’ve admired – she has shown me the possibilities of what I could do. I admire the poetry and editorial work of Phillip B Williams. Natalie Diaz is very fierce and, on the page, gutting. And Ocean Vuong has done a lot for poetry in this country and will continue to do so.

Do you read much literature coming out of El Salvador?
This is a very exciting moment in Salvadorian literature. There’s a lot of people writing in the diaspora. This year alone, in the US, there’s a memoir called Unforgetting by Roberto Lovato, a book of nonfiction essays by Raquel Gutiérrez called Brown Neon, a poetry book by Christopher Soto entitled Diaries of a Terrorist, and Alejandro Varela’s novel The Town of Babylon. From El Salvador itself, I really enjoy the writing of Elena Salamanca and Alexandra Lytton Regalado.

Dave Eggers gave you a nice quote for the book. Do you know him?
In the last semester of high school, I did an internship with 826 Valencia [the San Francisco-based non-profit organisation co-founded by Eggers]. I went to one of their events and started talking to this older, dishevelled guy who seemed really cool and down to earth. Then he stopped our conversation to give a speech. It turns out it was Dave Eggers. I didn’t even know who he was. Then he gave me enough books to keep me reading for the next year. Had that not occurred, I perhaps wouldn’t have become a writer.

• Solito is published on 15 September by Oneworld (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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