Interviewed by Valerie Waterhouse
Read Kelly Grogan’s nonfiction piece, Underwater
Valerie: Is Underwater based on an actual newspaper article?
Kelly: Yes, it’s based on an actual event in Santa Barbara, California, where I currently live. I read about the drowning shortly after it happened in the Santa Barbara Independent. I remember at the same time seeing a variety of news articles and headlines reflecting the heightening derision and contempt toward immigrants on a political and cultural level, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. With everything I read, this particular story about this particular person really stuck with me, and I knew I wanted to explore it more.
Quite rightly you concentrate on the migrant’s story, but what happened to the 9-year-old girl? Did she survive?
The girl did survive: two local City College students managed to paddle out on their surfboards and tow her and Ramirez back to the beach. It was those students who performed CPR until the EMTs arrived and took over. There’s very little about her in the news articles I was able to find, due to her age, but she did survive.
Your piece shows the possible truths behind the bland reporting, which mirrors the truths behind the assumptions and prejudices we all form about migrants—or indeed anyone we hear about or meet. How did the idea to structure the story in this way come about?
When I first started writing I found myself studying the facts closely, trying to see what kind of story I could discover in the details. While I was doing that, I kept think about how, in a climate where facts are given less significance than feelings, a person studying just the facts can interpret any number of stories. I tried to make each section a small illumination of one angle or another, a leap that my own imagination took while I read, or a leap that someone else’s imagination might take. I wanted to catch the reactions that a reader has to each section as it’s revealed to them; and to illuminate the story within the story, or behind it: there’s always so much more to what is happening or to who a person is than we are able to discern from the surface.
Are migrants and migration something you have personal experience of?
This piece is a part of an essay collection that I’ve been developing, and the collection takes for its primary theme the notion of home—what it means to have home, to lose home, to search for home, to find home. Migration is one lens into the idea of home that emerges in this and a few other pieces, as it has emerged at different stages in my life, both directly and indirectly.
Your story makes reference to the policies of President Trump in the USA, yet the dehumanization of migrants, and the fear that many are murderers and rapists and job-stealers is formented by leaders in many countries (not least, Britain and Italy, the two countries to which I belong). What are the reasons for these common fears and prejudices, do you think?
I think it’s much easier for people to react from a place of fear when the “threat” is generalized. News stories and governments and politicians refer to migrant groups in broad brush strokes, clumping together millions of individual people under one blanket term. But when a person is forced to grapple with a larger issue on a personal and individual level, it makes room for empathy and compassion to enter the conversation. My main goal with this story was to express the particularities of this singular instance—this one person, this one experience, this one story—in such a way that it might inspire a reader to think of the hundreds of millions of particular stories that each and every migrant, and indeed every person, carries.
Underwater ends with the observation that ‘these words, trying to stand up against it, slip underwater’. If words are destined to be forgotten, how can writers combat indifference, forgetfulness, misconceptions, and fear?
It isn’t so much that words are destined to be forgotten (although I do grapple with this too). It’s more that these words, this attempt at making meaning, cannot fill the absence that remains in the lives of those who loved and relied on this person. At times I question what the point of my writing is, whether it truly matters, what purpose it serves. But in my better moments I remember that words are important, they give shape to ideas and beliefs and opinions and laws, they tell stories. Words have the capacity to inspire change in the future, but they cannot change the realities of the past.
Migrants are not all heroes, of course, any more than they are rapists or murderers. How can we get the message across that most are just ordinary people seeking an honest way of improving difficult lives? Your story is also skeptical about ‘little’ donations. Is direct action more important than donating and forgetting, or communicating and changing the message, ultimately?
I’ll start with the second part of the question: it wasn’t my intention to minimize the donations that were given. I was more thinking that even when I do what I can do and try to capture this apparently minor episode, it doesn’t feel like enough. That any contribution I can make falls short of the weight of the reality, whether my contribution is concrete/direct or abstract/indirect.
In terms of getting the message across: what I hope to achieve in this piece is to remind people to take a moment to pause, explore, and reflect on the complexity of things on a personal level. Not only here, but in their everyday experience. To, as I mentioned before, make room for empathy, for understanding, for compassion. To remember that most people you meet lead big and complicated and messy and beautiful lives rife with moral quandaries and sometimes questionable decisions.