Interview of Daniel Connolly, author of The Book of Isaias (a Fall 2016 Okra Pick), by Kat Leache, high school friend of Daniel’s and bookseller at the Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.

Daniel ConnollyDaniel: I guess I’ll just start by saying thanks for doing this again.

Kat: My pleasure. It was so much fun to read. I mean, hard to read at times, but fun. What was the origin story of the book?

Daniel: I’ve been really interested in immigration for a long time. I almost always spoke with adults, Mexican immigrants. And I was interested in doing a big project, possibly a book and didn’t really know exactly what I was going to do. Then I went to lunch with this guy, Mauricio Calvo, who’s head of the group Latino Memphis. In that interview he brought up that he was very concerned about immigrants’ children. And he talked about all the challenges that they’re dealing with, like domestic violence in some cases, and kids dropping out of school. And he asked this question in Spanish: “¿Qué nos espera?” Which means “What awaits us?” That was really the genesis of focusing on kids. I got the idea of embedding in a school from a journalism conference. I heard of somebody who did that in Philadelphia. That came later. I actually called that person and asked how to do it. I called some other people who’d done similar things and got some practical tips.

Book of IsaiasKat: I just loved the way you take the reader through the lives of these kids in just such a conversational, direct way, and you never hit anyone over the head with some of the heavier issues, yet it’s in your face the entire time you’re reading - what potential is there, what limits them, what inequality actually looks like. 

Daniel: I spent a lot of time with this group of children of Mexican immigrants through their senior year of high school and for a couple of years afterward. And what I’m trying to do is show how they can contribute to the society, the obstacles that are standing in their way now, and offer some ideas of how we as a society could help. And I’m telling that in a story about these individuals, just a really interesting group of people that I met while doing embedded reporting at a high school.

I was very lucky to meet Isaias and the Ramos family. They did a lot for the book. They basically let me into their home, time after time, let me hang out with them over and over. And we’re talking about a period of years. . . . Looking back at it, I have a sense of just gratitude that everything worked out the way it did.

Kat:  What else can you tell me about writing the book? 

Daniel: I had to learn what we call immersion journalism, which is basically following people around. And so it’s like you see this in a documentary movie, where it’s just a camera following somebody as they do something. It’s a technique that I had to learn as I did the book. A lot of what appears in the book is overheard dialogue and scenes that I observed. I’m not asking people about it afterward, I was actually in the room as these things happened.

And so the experience of doing this was so much different than the experience of writing an article for the daily newspaper. An article I would do for the newspaper is more like a snapshot, and this is more like a movie.

Kat: You write that, “at its heart, the illegal immigration system is inherently exploitative and aims to give the worker as little as possible.”

This book is engaging in a million ways, but what I liked best about it for me as a thinker and a member of society is it made the problems of the current immigration system very clear, in very specific ways.

Daniel: What I argue in the book - and this is based on interviewing immigrants going back to 2004 - that what we call ‘illegal immigration’ isn’t really illegal. It’s a phenomenon that our federal government in both Republican and Democratic administrations has tolerated. Illegal immigration is a method for bringing workers into the country. If the government tries to enforce immigration law in a city, that means they’re taking workers from businesses, and businesses don’t like that. They complain to members of Congress and they get it stopped. So what ends up happening is, the class of people who are here illegally, basically no one’s trying to get them out, but they live here with limited rights.

I don’t really take a strong stance on what our immigration policy should look like. I do say we should support immigrants’ kids for a variety of practical reasons. And I guess the last thing I’d say about the immigration question is it’s just so important to understand that illegal immigration isn’t really illegal, because once you understand that, everything else that happens out there starts making a lot of sense.

Kat: Somewhere early in the book you say ‘Memphis looked like real life,’ kind of speaking for the Ramos family once they got here.

Daniel: Isaias said that. He’d seen this British TV show ‘Bernard’s Watch’ and he was expecting Memphis to be like that, but it wasn’t. The story, it could be anywhere in America, but it’s very, very specific to this one Southern city. There is a peculiar racial history of desegregation, busing and how this all white school became a Hispanic and African-American and Asian school. And it’s a view of the South that we’re not talking about magnolias and mint juleps. We’re talking about a modern, multicultural South that I don’t think has been written about that much.

Kat: I loved the photos you included in the book.

Daniel: I worked with two photographers during the course of this project. It was Karen Focht here in Memphis and Dominic Bracco in Mexico. So we have a visual record of everything from a really crucial meeting that took place in Isaias’ house to Isaias playing rock music. I actually took that photo myself. 

I appreciate you getting all the way through it and reading it. It’s a commitment. It’s a short book, but still . . . 

Kat: It was easy to read. It will be an easy book for people to pick up. You really do a good job of just reporting facts, mostly, but then putting your own personality and thoughts into it just enough to give it personality but to still seem like the straightforward account that it is. It came together really well, I really enjoyed reading it. I think that other people will in Memphis and elsewhere. It really couldn’t be any more timely. 

-----

DANIEL CONNOLLY has for more than a decade reported on Mexican immigration to the U.S. South for news organizations including The Associated Press in Little Rock and The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. An award-winning journalist, he has received support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the International Center for Journalists and the Fulbright program. He lives in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.