“Everything Is Far from Here”
by Cristina Henríquez
from the July 24, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

Cristina Henríquez’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker twice before, but that was back in 2005 and 2006. That’s a few years before I started this website. At that time I was reading the magazine regularly, and I suspect I read these two stories, but I have no recollection of them. I have not read her 2014 novel The Book of Unknown Americans, so essentially her work is completely new to me.

Have any of you read her work? And how has “Everything Is Far from Here” struck you? I’m looking forward to the conversation below!

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By | 2017-07-17T12:13:45+00:00 July 17th, 2017|Categories: Cristina Henríquez, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. pauldepstein July 17, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    Superb vivid political fiction about the plight of desperately poor immigrants. Everyone should read this one.

  2. David July 17, 2017 at 10:46 pm

    This is a tough one. On the one hand, it is well written and I was moved by the plight of the woman and the search for her son. But on the other hand….
    .
    Throughout this story there are a lot of details about what the journey is like for this woman and what it is like for her after she arrives. Early on I began to wonder how realistic these details were. There are two different kinds of positive answer one could give to that question: (1) They are realistic in the sense that I can easily imagine that it would be very much like this for people who actually make the border crossing, or (2) They are realistic in the sense that they really are details very much like, if not actually drawn from, the actual experiences of people who cross the border. The crucial difference between these two answers is that (1) allows for the possibility that it all sounds realistic to the reader, but that the actual experiences of women crossing the border are really not like this at all.
    .
    The reason that it matters which answer we get to the question is precisely because of responses to the story like Paul’s. People will read this story, believe it accurately describes real experiences, and then form beliefs about real and serious political (and humanitarian) issues based on it. So there is a lot more riding on the accuracy of this story than there might be about, say, the story of an immigrant woman crossing the ocean to start a new life in the US a hundred years ago. There having details that seem realistic to the reader is probably enough.
    .
    For me, answer (1) absolutely applies. Nothing about the description of the ordeal she goes through rings hollow or seems at odds with anything I already knew (as little as that is). I am also willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she did her homework and has got it right (although the author interview says nothing about that and the description of her writing process suggests she might not have done a lot of research). So where does that leave us? Well, the problem then is that this story is really more essay than fiction. At times I actually thought how great it would be if she had just interviewed a bunch of women who had made this kind of crossing and wrote a non-fiction piece about them. I think that would be an incredible read. But as a piece of fiction, there is very little left of the story once you get past all these detailed descriptions. There is not much story to the story.
    .
    Insofar as there is a story there at all, one of the main elements of it does seem to me to be utterly unbelievable. The woman worries that she might no longer recognize her son and might have seen him and not known it because she didn’t realize it was him. Well, ok, as a crazy worry someone might have in a situation like that it is not entirely unbelievable, but as a real worry it is. She is his mother. He is her son. Unless they have spent little time together during the boy’s life it is quite unbelievable that she would forget his face that quickly and easily. So then when we get the scene where she believes she has found him, but it turns out to be a different boy, we see that the author really does want us to believe that the woman no longer recognizes her son. I don’t buy it.
    .
    At the end of the story I mostly just wished there had been more story to it. There are a few very good story paragraphs (like the one that starts, “At night, lying in her bunk….”), but not nearly enough. So I end up both wanting to read the non-fiction essay version of this story and a more developed fiction version as well. I get the feeling that Henriquez is a good writer, so I do look forward to reading more of her work. I think she probably has better stuff in her than this one. I did enjoy reading it, however, and that’s not nothing.

  3. Roger July 18, 2017 at 11:07 pm

    Although I can’t say for sure that this story is unrealistic, I have my doubts. I think we reach the overdone and overwrought point when we learn that the boys in the main character’s home neighborhood not only raped her but made her suck the gun with which they threatened her. Exactly how many times is she raped by them and by the chipped-tooth smuggler?

    Even the lawyer who meets with the woman seems in sympathy with the (first set of) rapists. After hearing about what they did, he seems to justify it, noting that “you’re pretty” and “[b]oys will be boys.” Gee, thanks counselor.

    But then, this story just teems with nuance to a point where it may have dulled my senses. Maybe someone can help me out. For example, the protesters wearing American flags and waving signs saying “illegal is a crime” and “send them back with birth control” – they were supposed to be bad guys, right?

    I hope the New Yorker can find another unpublished William Trevor story, because that is the only good piece of fiction I’ve seen in their pages for a long time. (Some may say wait, what about the Calvino skier-story? But I can’t get past the utterances of “c’mon” in that piece, among other baffling aspects.)

  4. Dennis Lang July 20, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    This story is such a powerful evocation I don’t know how anyone can read it and not be staggered by it. Even if the author had somewhere in her mind the idea of a social documentary what she has achieved for me is lyrically well beyond it and all the more disturbing for it; those lives that to most of us are merely a nameless abstraction: “immigrants”, detached, estranged and in transit, living on hope. A relentless, unbearable, dehumanizing struggle. Touches deeply.

  5. Eric July 23, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    I’ve never heard of a coyote separating parents and children when taking groups across the border. Hard to imagine a mother going along with that, no matter how desperate she is.

  6. Sean H July 27, 2017 at 3:36 am

    I just got around to this one. The comments are all over the map. I thought it was a competent effort but that’s about all. Minimalism is a good mode to work in and had the potential to bring a new approach to the subject matter, but the execution is inconsistent. Henriquez’s best writing choice (the section that starts with the “victim” empathizing with the “oppressive anti-illegal immigrant ‘bad’ people” – “She imagines them at home in their living rooms, a bowl of dog food by the door, a cup of cold tea…”) was quickly followed by her worst writing choice (“They don’t take care of nobody in here, see…It’s easier to fuck somebody than to give a fuck.”). The first is such a good choice because it’s an inversion, it moves away from the didactic and the good immigrant vs. evil uncaring world tropes that are so tired, uninspired, cliche, and unartistic, and which threaten to derail these types of artistic expressions. The second is such a terrible choice because it is so dunderheadedly (that’s a good adverb use, for my adverb lovers in the crowd) obvious, on-the-nose, and lacking nuance.
    And yes, it’s hard not to politicize the subject matter (Roger’s sardonic critiques are mostly on-point), but I didn’t think it was a complete cock-up as a story, and I also did want to disagree with David who said “there is a lot more riding on the accuracy of this story than there might be about, say, the story of an immigrant woman crossing the ocean to start a new life in the US a hundred years ago.” That’s not how it works at all. Fiction doesn’t have to be “accurate.” It’s not journalism. Whether it’s about the present, past, or future, It has to work as fiction, as art. This piece works when it’s more interested in painting a scene and in crafting a tale than when it stoops to editorializing and trying to make some sort of “point.” I’d say it succeeds about half the time. A C+ from me. The last two paragraphs of prose bump it up from a C.

  7. David July 27, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    Sean, of course fiction does not have to be accurate. That much should be obvious. But what also should be obvious is that fiction can have social and political consequences. They can shape the beliefs that people have about the way the world is. I even referenced Paul’s comment, which indicates that might be happening with this story. It should have been obvious as well that my comments about what could be riding on the story were about that, not the aesthetics of the story. As a comment about the social and political implications that stories can and do have, it surely is not controversial at all.
    .
    Authors (and readers) can take the view that they don’t care about the social or political effects of a story on readers and say they are only interested in it as a work of art. They can even go further and criticize people for being foolish if they rely on fiction to teach them about the way the world really is. They can point out that this is not fiction’s job. But in a case like this story, it does seem that one of the author’s motivations in writing it is to draw attention to the plight of people crossing the border. Take this passage from the author interview, for example:
    .
    “To have so many people now believe that the word “immigrant” is equivalent to “criminal”? To have so many people accept the spurious idea that immigrants are out to get them? That’s depressing as hell. But it should also convince us of the power of storytelling. If the people in power are willing to spin that narrative then those of us who believe differently should tell another.
    .
    Her goal is explicitly political. In fact, it is not uncommon for many authors to explain their choice of subject matter as being at least in part, if not substantially, motivated by a desire to expose an audience to a particular issue, aspect of life, or type of person who really does exist in the world. So discussing whether it is accurate or not seems fair game. Paul, Roger, and Eric all mention issues of realism or believability in their comments. I bet it would not be difficult to find a lot of comments on previous stories right here on this website, even ones by you, that criticize stories or the actions of the characters in them for being unrealistic.
    .
    Finally, it is worth noting that issues of the moral implications of stories need not be considered separate from aesthetic considerations of a work of fiction. Tolstoy, quite famously, argued that they are inextricably linked. We also should know well that art can be used as propaganda. Discussions of works of art that look specifically at the social and political effects of them or that assesses them on moral grounds is nothing new. Some readers might not be interested in those discussions, but that does mean there is anything wrong with them or that readers who do have those discussions have any misunderstandings about the difference between fiction and journalism.

  8. Sean H July 27, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    Sorry David. I don’t agree at all. The author’s intentions are absolutely and entirely irrelevant. This is called the intentional fallacy. Art is not about the ephemeral present. Art is not about an artist’s intentions. It is about the result. It is about the work. You state: “Fiction can have social and political consequences. They can shape the beliefs that people have about the way the world is.” Again, I totally disagree. Society and politics are separate realms.
    Can songs and plays and books influence individual beliefs or opinions? Sure. But that’s irrelevant to how effective something is or isn’t as art. I’m with Oscar Wilde, who said that everything matters in art except the subject, and that all bad literature is sincere. “Moral implications” MUST be separated from aesthetic considerations. From de Sade to Rabelais to American Psycho, from Tolstoy to Melville to Dostoevsky and everything in between.
    If people want to have conversations about morality, so be it, but it’s beneath me anyways.
    “Moralists have no place in an art gallery.” – Han Suyin

  9. Roger Pincus July 27, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    Also serving Sean H.’s point are the following words supposedly uttered by Hemingway: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

    I mostly agree with Sean H. on this, and with Hemingway. But I wouldn’t be absolute about it. It’s fine as a general rule, but there will always be exceptions. Dickens’s work, humanizing the poor, for instance.

    The reason this Henriquez story isn’t an exception is that it is preachy, didactic, and devoid of nuance as it labors to deliver its message. What reader of a short story wants to be preached at? Even if the reader agrees with the author’s opinion, he generally doesn’t want to be sermonized while he’s trying to appreciate a work of fiction. The op-ed pages of newspapers and countless online journals and cable news networks give us lots of places to turn to for harangues, or thoughtful essays, about immigration and other issues of the day.

    Henriquez ought to have written an op-ed piece. Or called Western Union.

  10. David July 27, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Sean, I’ll try to keep this short. (Knowing me as I do, I might fail, but here goes.)
    .
    [1] “The author’s intentions are absolutely and entirely irrelevant.” – As a statement about aesthetic assessment, I agree 100%. It’s a contested view and there are others who think the author’s intention’s matter, but I’m not one of them. I mentioned the author’s intentions in the context of talking about the social and political implications of the story. The passage I quoted mentions those objectives. You seem to keep missing that distinction. Speaking of which….
    .
    [2] “You state: ‘Fiction can have social and political consequences. They can shape the beliefs that people have about the way the world is.’ Again, I totally disagree.” – I hardly know what to say to that other than it seems impossible that anyone really could believe that fiction cannot affect people’s beliefs about the way the world is. It seems mind-boggling to me that you do. In fact, it seems maybe you really don’t disagree at all because one sentence later you say: “Can songs and plays and books influence individual beliefs or opinions? Sure.” Oh. So you do agree with me after all. Looks like a contradiction on your part, but ok.
    .
    [3] “But that’s irrelevant to how effective something is or isn’t as art.” – Again, we agree. You are disagreeing with Tolstoy (and others), but not me. I never claimed that social, political, or moral considerations are aesthetic ones. Just that they can be and have been considered so by some serious thinkers on the subject. So it looks like we agree, we agree, and we agree. Three for three. That leaves….
    .
    [4] “If people want to have conversations about morality, so be it, but it’s beneath me anyways.” – Beneath you? Ok. I am not sure what you think is so low about talking about morality, but if you do that’s fine by me.

  11. Greg July 28, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you David, Roger and Sean for having this discussion on the relationship between art and politics. This will help the rest of us process the deluge of similar pieces of fiction which will undoubtedly be produced during Trump’s presidency.

    And Sean, your use of the adverb ‘dunderheadedly’ was priceless!

  12. Diana July 28, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    The linchpin of this whole story is the separation of the protagonist from her child. Without this event, we would have an entirely different story. The magnitude and repercussions of the mother’s decision to allow this, are enormous and her acquiesence just doesn’t ring true, (or said another way her decision is unsupported by anything that we’ve learned about her character before or after the event.

    The victim’s plight (and that of her child, which is left to our imagination) is heartbreaking. The author does make the seemingly endless suffering of one of the millions of faceless victims of the mass migrations ocurring now all over the world more real to us readers sitting in our easy chairs tsk-tsking snd talking about art. But this is also a short story and for me there is a significant flaw at the heart of her narrative that undermines it somewhat.

  13. David July 28, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Diana, the issue of separating the mother and child is one Eric mentioned previously as well. I must admit that when I read the story it did not occur to me that this was not believable, but I think you and he are both right. It also occurs to me that not only is it difficult to believe that the woman would agree to the separation, but it is not clear why the people-smugglers would want to do this. Surely the task of taking care of young kids is a burden they would not want and the best way to make sure the kids do what they are supposed to do and don’t make things difficult would be to leave them in the care of their mothers and make the women responsible for them. There is no suggestion that they are doing something nefarious with the kids like selling them for adoption, so separating them really doesn’t make sense.

  14. Dennis Lang July 28, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    Yes, this is blood chilling and takes us into an experience–personalizing it– I presume none of us will ever remotely confront. Mother and child are separated. I think the author makes this nightmarish, feverish and palpable.; characters adrift without mooring, bond of love broken. Isn’t this event in itself sufficient without revealing what might have preceded or followed it? To require a logic beyond the dislocation of the nightmare? Isn’t it best left to imagine?
    (Maybe i misunderstood your point. Sorry if i did.)

  15. Roger July 28, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    I agree with Eric et al. that the separation of mother and child is hard to believe. But in context with the rest of the story, it’s not surprising that Henriquez would do this. Her goal, as evidenced by other examples, is to serve up a story in which her protagonist suffers and suffers, all in the name of making us readers get out there and march for comprehensive immigration reform. In her zeal, judgment vanishes, absurdity triumphs (and not in an artistic way), and believeability is a casualty.

  16. Sean H July 29, 2017 at 12:13 am

    Diana and David make excellent points about the plausibility, or lack thereof, of the actual mother-child separation, given how Henriquez draws the protagonist/victim throughout. To take it a little further even, I think a male writer would be pilloried for creating a mother character who allowed herself to be so easily separated from her child, and even more harshly criticized for then portraying said mother as so distraught and hysterical than she later mistook another child for her own.

  17. Ken July 31, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    This is definitely an example of a story where this site’s comments illuminated the story. I really liked it and was mostly held by the author’s style/voice and what I thought was the effective structure of little bits of information–separated into small sections with a dot–slowly building together. Plus I am sympathetic politically, as are most everyone else on this site, and I was moved. I don’t feel any differently after reading the above comments, but I do now see the lack of plausibility of several narrative episodes–her son being separated, the over-emphasis on male sexual predation, her mistaking another boy for her son–which the author’s strong style, rhythm, voice kept me from noticing at first (or at least made me less likely to notice).

  18. William August 1, 2017 at 11:26 pm

    I found this story very moving. But it was not due to the quality of the writing or the plot. It was the intrinsic sorrow of the plight of refugees, whether from Mexico or Syria. Does the fact that a piece of writing is moving make it a good story? I say No. Good journalism can be moving, too, and, in my opinion, that’s what this is. Actually, it’s not even journalism. A good piece of journalism on this topic, and I’m sure there are many, would be even more emotionally devastating.

    Someone raised the notion of a hypothetical story about refugees a hundred years ago. As it happens, I read a novel like that a few months ago. It’s by Carolina DeRobertis and it’s called “The Gods of Tango”. It’s about a woman who emigrates from Italy to Argentina in 1913 to meet her husband, who had previously emigrated from their village to set up a home in the New World. She arrives to find he’s dead. The situation is a sad one, but the woman fights her way out of her desperate plight and achieves a triumph of a sort. About one-third of the book should be edited out, but, still, it’s real fiction, with a plot and conflict and all the rest of it.

  19. Dennis Lang August 2, 2017 at 9:23 am

    Hey William–Welcome back!
    But isn’t the ultimate measure of a story the degree to which it engages us emotionally and intellectually? And I presume achieving this engagement is no automatic for any writer. If this writer has succeeded in “moving” you hasn’t she accomplished it by successfully abstracting the plight of refuges, here with focus on a mother and son–through the way she’s written and composed her story?

  20. William August 2, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    Dennis —

    In a word, No. The measure of a story as art, and I assume that’s the question that we are what dealing with here every week, is how well constructed it is. A story may be well made and not move us, or move us and not be well made. Or be well made and move us intellectually, if there is such a phenomenon. I think there is.

    Consider O. Henry, who wrote emotional stories like “The Gift of the Magi” that relied purely on irony and sentimentality. In contrast, Patricia Highsmith wrote a Christmas story, whose title I can’t remember, that is full of complication and nuance and comments on human personality indirectly.

    I like the aphorism that Sean H. used — “Moralists have no place in an art gallery.” Think of the difference between “Guernica” and “Christina’s World”. Even though the later may provide a more immediate emotional tug, only the former is true art. It has a deeper emotional resonance, achieved through more sophisticated means.

    Good writing is all about substance married with craft.

    BTW, you wrote that the author succeeded by “abstracting” the plight of refugees. I think you meant “specifying” the plight of refugees. All good writing gets its force from the use of specifics. Orwell has a quote that I can’t find now to the effect that the general kills, the specific vivifies.

  21. Dennis Lang August 2, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Thanks William. Good thoughts.
    But the author has nonetheless written a story that “moved” you. If her composition and language were merely without effect, we could stare at a blank sheet of paper and imagine the “plight” of refuges with the same result. I don’t think we can.
    Although, in my reading this is not a sentimentalized heart-string tug void of craft. The author has dropped us into a surrealist canvas–an abstraction that captures the intensity of a personal experience so that it’s deeply felt, and is in a way all the more “real” for it. Heck, there’s “Guernica” and Robert Capa’s photos of war: one is invention, the other fearless observation, each achieving a profound power. Is one more “artful” than the other and isn’t the question a waste of time? (Sort of like saying “moralists have no place in art galleries.” Surely there is a guiding moral viewpoint in both Guernica and the work of Capa. and anyone who confronts the human predicament through their art.)
    There, having rambled into incoherence I’m done.
    Thanks again. Enjoy your comments.

  22. William August 5, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    Dennis —

    You are never incoherent. Always provocative and thoughtful.

    Which is not to say that I always agree with you. You say:

    “If her composition and language were merely without effect, we could stare at a blank sheet of paper and imagine the “plight” of refuges with the same result. I don’t think we can.”

    I disagree. I have read so much journalism about the plight of refugees, that I think I can induce in myself a state of sympathy close to what I feel from reading the story. To me, the question is how much are we moved by the quality of the writing and how much by the inherent pathos of refugees? My answer – in this story, mostly by the latter.

    “Heck, there’s “Guernica” and Robert Capa’s photos of war: one is invention, the other fearless observation, each achieving a profound power. Is one more “artful” than the other and isn’t the question a waste of time?”

    I think the question of whether one if more artful than the other is a waste of time. However, the question of whether each is art is not only not a waste of time, but is the central question. I think the issue of whether photography is art has been settled long ago. Robert Capa’s photos qualify. To pose the question in literary terms – do Hemingway’s short stories about war and his reportage of war belong in the same category? I think not.

    Now I’m going to focus on “Christina the Astonishing”, a much more powerful and astonishing piece of fiction.

  23. Rosalind Kurzer August 9, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    This story filled me with anxiety.. It brought me back to the years I worked with refugees and heard first hand stories from Cambodians and Liberians. The women told me they would never voluntarily separate from their children.
    They would barter for food and wood for their kids and do anything to keep them alive.
    The story used every incident to dramatize the horror of displacement but missed the mark of a good story, too many false notes.

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