“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!

Products from Amazon.com

By | 2017-07-17T12:13:45+00:00 July 17th, 2017|Categories: Cristina Henríquez, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |10 Comments

10 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.

Leave a Reply