Meet Susan Kuklin, Author of We Are Here to Stay

It's always good to "put a face to a name." As an award-winning author and photographer, Susan Kuklin has built her career on putting a face to a story. Her portraits speak to a shared humanity in people from all walks of life, from world-class ballet dancers to teenagers on death row. Her latest book, We Are Here to Stay, is a collection of interviews with undocumented immigrants living in the United States. This timely work offers personal insight into the experiences of immigrants before, during, and after their journey to the U.S. and serves as an important reminder of the real human impacts of political decisions. These impacts are chillingly apparent in the book itself; with the future of the DACA program unclear at the time of publication, Susan and her publisher decided to remove the portraits and redact the names of the interview subjects. Extremely relevant and personal, We Are Here to Stay earned a highly recommended rating from our reviewers, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Susan about it.

You've published numerous books covering a wide range of subjects—from transgender teens to criminal justice reform. As a photojournalist, how do you decide where to train your lens?

My work as a writer and photographer of nonfiction for children and young adults questions the way particular social norms, a current event, or the law affects real people's lives. Once a topic captures my attention, I focus on a specific aspect that in my view has not been sufficiently examined. For example, a good friend who is an immigration and asylum lawyer and scholar suggested I do a book about immigration. I researched the subject and ultimately decided that a book from the point of view of DREAMers and asylum seekers could contribute to a greater understanding of this vast and complex subject. My previous book, Beyond Magenta, Transgender Teenagers Speak Out, was written and photographed because, at the time, the T in LGBTQ was under-reported.

Your latest book, We Are Here to Stay, is about undocumented immigrants living in the United States. How do you typically build trust with your photography subjects? Was the trust-building process any different for this book?

Trust building was basically no different for We Are Here to Stay than it was for any of my other books where real people come forward to reveal themselves under circumstances that might be considered by some to be sensitive or controversial. For the most part, people want to control their own identity, their own narrative, and not be defined by the press, politics, or society. When given an opportunity to come forward, they do so honestly, courageously, and with pronounced intimacy. Watching this develop is a beautiful process, one that I'm grateful to be part of.

Before we begin the actual interview, we talk about the book and what our mutual expectations are. The participants need to know that I will bring their voice to the page. I need to know that they will be candid and thoughtful. Once we are wholly comfortable with the plan, and with each other, we begin. The process is not very difficult: I simply ask a question and then shut up and listen—wholly—to the answer. I'm never judgmental—their replies are their stories, their truths. Not mine. After I transcribe the recordings—hours of talk—and turn them into narratives, the participant reads everything for accuracy, clarity, authenticity, and voice. By this point we have developed a close and trusting relationship.

In the U.S., undocumented immigration is almost always associated with immigration from Central and South America. However, We Are Here to Stay also features immigrants from Ghana, Independent Samoa, and Korea. What do these less "typical" countries add to the story?

Throughout history, when life somewhere has become unsustainable, people have moved elsewhere. Recently, there has been much in the news about the undocumented from Central and South America because of the drug cartels, gang wars, extreme poverty, and, overall, horrendous living conditions. But most undocumented immigrants do not walk across the desert or climb border walls. They come by plane or by boat or by car. They come legally, with visas that they then let expire. I thought it important that countries other than those in Central and South America be part of the book.

Let us not forget that at various points in our history the Irish came fleeing famine, the Chinese laborers came seeking work, the Jews came fleeing the Pogroms and the Holocaust, and so on and so forth. And they all faced discrimination here of one kind or another. Though many things are now different, our laws have not kept up with current events and the changing demographics. It's been quite a while since Congress took a realistic interest in immigration reform.

It's a little surreal to see the redacted names and empty picture frames in this book. Can you tell us about the decision to make redactions, and how that decision changed the book?

Yes, it sure is surreal, for me too. But I hope it doesn't take away from the stories. It's the stories that the participants tell that are most compelling and are most important. When DACA was repealed, the publisher and I worried that publishing the book in the normal manner with pictures, names, etc., could be risky for the contributors. We stopped the press and locked the book in a drawer. For a year-and-a-half, the participants, the publisher, expert lawyers, and I discussed the situation. The participants understood that we did not want to do anything that would compromise their position or cause them more stress, and they also understood that we would not do anything without their permission. But the participants wanted their stories told—and the public needed to hear their stories. What these young people have to say was too important to be hidden in a drawer. We talked about options: we could publish the book as planned, or publish without using names, or publish without including photographs. (The participants also had the option of dropping out entirely.) In time, and with the contributors' involvement and veto power, we decided to be cautious. The book was redesigned, and it included the following statement: Due to the uncertainty of the status of the DACA program at the time of publication, the photographs, names and other identifiers of the participants in this book are being withheld.

What is one major misconception about undocumented immigrants that you hope this book will change?

It's hard to write about only one misconception because there is so much misinformation put out by some news organizations and social networks. Undocumented immigrants come from all over the world. They are our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues. They come to escape violence and poverty. They come seeking an education and opportunity for their children. They are hard workers who pay taxes and contribute to society. We need to reform our immigration laws and social attitudes to meet the moral requirements of a just society.

Is there anything else we haven't covered you'd like to mention?

I think your questions cover the book well. Your readers might want to know that one chapter [3] has photographs of the Sonoma desert and includes an introduction that briefly discusses the history and background of the "walkers" who come here illegally. The back of the book has additional information about the subject—laws, websites, and further reading.

Oh, and one more thing: the participants in the book are interesting, intelligent, delightful people. I hope that your readers get to know them and care about them as much as I do.

Mark Strong

MLA Citation "Meet Susan Kuklin, Author of We Are Here to Stay." School Library Connection, November 2019, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2205394.

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Entry ID: 2205394

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