Pearl Morris poses a question to Alex Wagner, author of Futureface (left), and José Olivarez, author of Citizen Illegal at the Western Reads event on Monday, Nov. 18. // Photo by Alex Moreno
By Eva Bryner
Amid a sea of raincoats and coffee cups, authors Alex Wagner and José Olivarez sat facing each other, discussing identity, immigration and roses.
“[Olivarez] and I were concerned no one would come out and then we saw the extensive snack table and were like, ‘we’re good,’” Wagner said.
Wagner and Olivarez came to campus as part of Western Reads, a campus-wide program that supports first-year students at Western through selected texts each year, according to Molly Ware, director of Western Reads.
The two authors read sections from their work and discussed questions from students and event attendees.
Wagner is the author of this year’s text, “Futureface,” in which she seeks to answer questions about belonging as a Burmese-American woman.
Wagner said her book felt like a journey into her family’s history, revealing complex realities of race and racism, which helped her navigate the current political climate.
“I think the trick is to find a balance between being true to heritage and knowing those stories and connecting to that, but also not pretending that you’re any person other than who you are,” Wagner said.
Olivarez’s collection of poems “Citizen Illegal” was considered for this year’s choice, as it parallels this year’s theme of “In between: Belonging, Becoming,” and is timely in terms of the political climate, Ware said.
“I wanted to write a book as someone who was born in the United States about some of the after effects of migration, and what it’s like to live in a place that doesn’t necessarily claim you all the way,” Olivarez said.
“Citizen Illegal” and “Futureface” bring up similar topics of race and belonging, prompting an invitation to both authors to come to Western.
“We wanted to bring both authors to campus so that they could engage in a dialogue with one another around the shared themes of their work,” Ware said.
This is the first year that Western Reads has chosen a theme to connect with first-year students alongside selected texts, Ware said.
Western student Gabriella Chavez sat in the front row, listening intently and accompanying Olivarez’s poems with feverous snaps.
“I decided I really wanted to come and meet these people who were also having these same questions that I’d always had,” Chavez said.
She described growing up with a dad from Peru and a mother from Texas, and a feeling of being in between two spaces.
“People ask me, where are you from, where is home,” Chavez said. “Home is Thanksgiving dinner next week.”
This fall 27.4% of Western’s student body was comprised of people of color, according to the office of institutional effectiveness, a record high for the university.
“We want to keep pushing beyond whiteness a bit in our work this year,” Ware said.
Both Wagner and Olivarez attended predominantly white universities and spoke about their experience in finding communities on campus.
“It was very alienating at times. So it was nice to sometimes not have to have my guard up and be like, ‘is this person going to say something racist?’” Olivarez said. “The question is, how do we make the whole university have that feeling? How do we build those conversations so we don’t have to have our guard up all the time?”
“Citizen Illegal” and “Futureface” were made available for free as is the tradition of Western Reads, as well as “Undocustudents: Our Untold Stories,” a collection of essays, poems and photos put together by Western’s Blue Group for undocumented students.
“The idea behind having a book historically and giving it out is that you create this conversation,” Ware said.
As the evening came to a close and the rain fell a little harder outside, Olivarez let his words of advice hang in the air.
“It’s not enough to be a rose in the concrete. We’ve got to change the whole dirt [and] soil. As long as the concrete is there, we’re still in danger,” Olivarez said. “We have agency and we have power, and so we should act likewise. We should act as empowered people.”