To Map the Human

by Gaiutra Bahadur

These past few months, as more than two thousand children have been separated from their parents at our southern border, I’ve been thinking a lot about my late grandmother. My memories place her in our Jersey City living room in the mid-1980s, singing along to the opening theme of the sitcom Three’s Company. With glee, and her Creole tongue, she refashioned “come and knock on our door” as “kanack, anna-do,” making that screwball piece of Americana somehow her own.

Born on a sugar plantation in Guyana, she was a weeder in cane fields and a minder of children, her own and then their own and some who were not even kin. In 1983, at the age of seventy, she came to America to join her sons and daughters who had immigrated before her. Her crossing was more precarious than theirs had been, as green-card holders sponsored in a “chain” after the first came as a nurse. In the stories that my grandmother later told, there was water and there was bush; there was the company of others taking the risk, and there was the compass of a human smuggler. To come to America, she had waded across a river and crawled on her stomach through undergrowth at the Canadian border. A van waiting on the other side, in upstate New York, shuttled everyone to the drop-off point hours south, in an embryonic enclave of Indo-Caribbeans near the end of the A train in Queens.

This journey does not figure when my mind maps Grandma. I did not know that she was an “illegal immigrant” until I became an adult. Now that I know, I still don’t place her at a border or in a nation-state, either the one she fled or the one where she lived her final years, before succumbing to cancer when I was thirteen. The maps that memory makes of childhood and the dear ones who people it are story maps or image maps, not geopolitical ones.

I see her in remembered photographs, grinning broadly. Here she is on a couch with a son in America, stocky in a green-and-white checked dress, her silver hair pulled back in a bun, a basket on her lap. (Were there apples in the basket? The image is unstable; the map shifts.) And here she is in her living room in our village in Guyana, still grinning, not quite as gray yet, teaching me and my cousin how to dance with our hands and our hips. Arms akimbo, I am grinning, too. Grandma was a jovial woman: a singer, a dancer, a gossiper, a storyteller, an adventurer. Once, she and her best friend took me with them on a trip all the way to a mining town three rivers and multiple ferries away, at the rainforest’s mouth, where gold-diggers gathered. It was a whim. They had never been before and had no idea how far it was or how long it would take to get there. Nor did they tell anyone they were going. We did not make it home that night, and my parents were frantic.

Shame almost keeps me from completing the story map, but I want to explain how she came to break the immigration laws of this country. In a way, I am to blame. I have no memory of doing this, but my father tells me that I tore all the stamps out of her Guyanese passport, invalidating it. I must have been five years old, perhaps four. I had a stamp collection going. In any functional, fair society, there would have been no issues getting a new passport. In 1980s Guyana, where bribes were demanded, and the civil service was slow and petty and not warmly disposed to people of our ethnicity, no new passport was forthcoming. Without it, she couldn’t enter the United States. She was stranded alone in our village, an old woman without the family she had raised. Time caved in. The minutes moved even more slowly than usual. Inside meanwhile, though her cancer had not yet been diagnosed, the pace had accelerated; at a cellular level, a clock was ticking. While visiting her brother in Canada, where the rules about documents were less stringent, she determined that she was going to America. She alone decided that she was coming back-track. She wanted to be with her children, she stubbornly insisted.

In New Jersey, she wasn’t on any official grid. She had no papers: no country’s passport, no green card, no visa, no health insurance card, no social security card. No document bore the name Phulmati Bahadur. (Her first name, in Hindi, welded together the whimsy of flower with the steely resolve of mind or thought.) For five years, she could not be mapped in any conventional way. Only shortly before her death, in 1988, did she become a legal resident. She had been moving from the home of one son or daughter to the next and was at my uncle’s when she left us. My father, her youngest, her baby, her rumored favorite, wasn’t at home when they called to tell us it was time. A fit of phone calls found him, and he rushed to her, arriving as she took her last breath. She died in his arms. In the America of zero tolerance unfolding in our headlines, in our courts, at our borders, would she have been prosecuted as a criminal and sent back to die alone in our village? I cannot help but wonder.

It seems to me that there could be no better map for our current predicament than the one on this site representing as black sites the 113 shelters with government contracts to house migrant children. Hover over any site, and it will change position. Now you see it. Now you don’t. The locations of the shelters glide away whenever your cursor attempts to zero in. This instability rests on uncertainties in the data, provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in response to a FOIA request but riddled with redactions of the actual addresses, presumably for privacy and safety. Whatever the reason, the opaque dots that refuse to pinpoint, that shift and elude us, capture the horror of our moment. Who, after all, can fathom it when the refugee resettlement office, checking in on 7,635 unaccompanied migrant children in its charge, cannot find 1,475 of them? Have they slipped into an annihilatory black hole?

To resist mapping is unnerving: to be a watchdog for these children, the right people need to know where they are being held. Certainly, their parents need to know where they are. Media accounts have revealed that many detained immigrants have no idea where their children are or how to be reunited with them. In the light of stolen and disappeared children, the black circles on the ORR map reveal much in their elusiveness, their opacity. They capture perfectly the fundamental unnerving condition of migrants (be they undocumented, be they Muslim, be they brown or black) in their encounters with the apparatus of our state. In Mohsin Hamid’s futuristic, dystopian novel Exit West, a network of otherworldly portals lead refugees from one end-times country to the next. The doors blip in and out of existence. Where they lead is unknown, until you arrive. Choose the wrong one, and you’re screwed in your alternate universe. But you were probably screwed in your first country to begin with. Is the way out an escape hatchway, or does it lead to lock-up? Is it shelter or is it nightmare? The babies and the children who crossed with their parents, and were taken from them, didn’t choose the pathways out. It’s our job to show them where precisely they have landed. Which is it? Is it shelter or is it nightmare?

To resist official mapping, as undocumented immigrants know, can also be an act of defiance and self-preservation. To the authorities, my grandmother was unmapped. My family hoped that she was also unmappable. It was, of course, better that way—even in the 1980s, before Muslim bans and the disembodied voices of warehoused children crying out for their parents in Spanish. I have tried to map my grandmother for you in a personal way, through flashes of memory and story, those inherently unfixed doorways. To complement the geodata, I wanted to give a measured glimpse of the human—of relationships and eccentricities and the banality that can underlie the existence of “illegal aliens.” I’ve never written or spoken publicly before about my grandmother’s immigration status. This is the first time anyone in our family puts it on the record—but my father feels this is right, and I feel it is right. We want to do our part to help create moral maps that are more human and more humane.

Gaiutra Bahadur is an American writer. She is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, a personal history of indenture shortlisted in 2014 for the Orwell Prize, the British literary prize for artful political writing. Her debut fiction, the short story “The Stained Veil,” appears in the anthology Go Home! (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2018). Gaiutra was born in Guyana and emigrated with her family to Jersey City, New Jersey when she was six years old.