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The Far Away Brothers

The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham
Hardcover
Sep 12, 2017 | 320 Pages
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Praise

A Fall 2017 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection

The Far Away Brothers is impeccably timed, intimately reported and beautifully expressed. Markham brings people and places to rumbling life; she has that rare ability to recreate elusive, subjective experiences—whether they’re scenes she never witnessed or her characters’ interior psychological states—without taking undue liberties. In many ways, her book is reminiscent of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. It’s about teenagers who raise themselves.”—Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

“You should read The Far Away Brothers. We all should.” NPR

“This is the sort of news that is the opposite of fake…Markham is our knowing, compassionate ally, our guide in sorting out, up close, how our new national immigration policy is playing out from a human perspective…An important book.”The Minneapolis Star Tribune

“An indelible picture…of one imperfect family driven apart and astraynot by inequality or lax enforcement, but by the humanitarian crisis of gang warfare.”Vulture

“Painstakingly reported…A compassionate look at the lives of two young men and the family they left behind when they were seventeen years old…[This] book could not have come at a more relevant time.” Mother Jones

“Markham recreates each step of the story in rich detail…Powerful.” Pacific Standard

“Deserves a place alongside the strongest in the genre….By the book’s end, it’s impossible to not be rooting for [the Flores brothers]. The book’s true victory, however, is in its insights into how the gang crisis in El Salvador and neighboring countries is impacting individual lives—and what lengths these individuals will go to, in chillingly descriptive detail, to persevere.” PopMatters


“Lauren Markham understands the complexities of immigration to the United States…Compelling.” Sojourner

“Excellent…a clear-eyed look at what many [immigrants] actually experience.” The Mercury News

“Markham functions as an empathetic intermediary amid ordinary and extraordinary struggles. She is implicated in the boys’ search for a livable life, but her closeness to the situation does not impede her analysis….The Far Away Brothers…tell[s] a story of courage and failure, tenacity and loss, loyalty and fumbling steps into an unknown future.” The Christian Century

“Timely and thought-provoking…Markham provides a sensitive and eye-opening take on what’s at stake for young immigrants with nowhere else to go.”Publishers Weekly

“Powerful…Focusing primarily on one family’s struggle to survive in violence-riddled El Salvador by sending some of its members illegally to the U.S.,…[this] compellingly intimate narrative…keenly examines the plights of juveniles sent to America without adult supervision….One of the most searing books on illegal immigration since Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey.” Kirkus [starred review]

“A stark examination of youth migration and the extreme risks taken to access a better life….Markham questions the accessibility of the American dream while compassionately narrating Raúl and Ernesto’s experiences.” Booklist

“An affecting and personal look into the experiences of minor migrants.” Library Journal

“This brilliantly reported book goes so deeply into the lives of its protagonists and is so beautifully, movingly written it has some of the pleasures of a novel—but all the force of bitter truth, the truth about the lives of unaccompanied minors in the USA, about poverty, the ricocheting wars here and there, and the caprices and brutalities of immigration policy. Anyone who wants to understand more deeply how we got here and why we need to keep going until we get someplace better should dive into this book.” —Rebecca Solnit, author of The Mother of All Questions

“Beautifully written, The Far Away Brothers examines the claustrophobic space between grinding poverty and brutal gang violence that drives so many children from El Salvador to make the dangerous journey North. Lauren Markham applies the eye of an artist to the dogged reporting of an investigative journalist. What a fine and timely book!” —Ted Koppel, author of Lights Out

“In the midst of a contentious debate in which reality is too often bent or ruptured entirely, The Far Away Brothers is a necessary book. But it is so much more than just that. Told with elegant detail, profound compassion, and painful truth, you will come out of this story with so much knowledge and, more importantly, understanding—of immigrants and also of youth. Lauren Markham has written this book in a hard and noble way, depicting the Flores brothers not only as representatives of a vital issue, but as human beings: complicated, special, humorous, and flawed. You need to meet these young men.” —Jeff Hobbs, author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

“A twenty-first century odyssey, The Far Away Brothers will take readers to unimaginable places, mapped and unmapped, in heart and mind as well as on the earth’s surface. This is one of the finest accounts ever written of the plight of unaccompanied migrant children, full of insight and empathy, and as gripping a tale as one might hope to find in a masterful suspense novel. By making the Flores twins come alive, Lauren Markham puts flesh and bone on one of the most shadowy yet most pressing crises of our day and age.” —Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana and Learning to Die in Miami

“Lauren Markham has written a modern day epic with The Far Away Brothers. It is a wonderfully unfolding, intimate portrait of family and the dangers people are still willing to risk for a simple chance at a better life. Markham’s writing reads like the best of fiction out there, and yet… remember, this happened to real people. This is the sort of book you’ll be thinking about at night.” —Domingo Martinez, author of The Boy Kings of Texas

“The most moving revelation of this book comes not from the geo-political lessons we learn, the path of the brothers through the desert, or the obstacles they face in U.S. courts—rather, it’s the insight into how that journey affects them, plaguing them with anxiety and guilt but also inspiring hope, ambition, and responsibility. From a lesser writer this would be a simple migration story, but thanks to Markham’s relentless reporting and care, it becomes a deeply relatable tale of human transformation—messy, stumbling, and bursting with optimism.”—Laura Tillman, author of The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts

“Once you’ve read this remarkable reporting, ‘immigration’ will never be an abstract or airless debate for you again. It’s hard to imagine a more timely or more valuable volume.” —Bill McKibben, author of Radio Free Vermont

Author Q&A

A conversation with Lauren Markham, author of
The Far Away Brothers
Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life


You’ve worked with many immigrant students at Oakland International High School, and have also been reporting on undocumented immigration for nearly a decade. What was it about the Flores twins that made you want to write a book about them?

I began reporting on unaccompanied minors in 2012. Within a year, to my surprise, unaccompanied minors began enrolling at our school by the dozens. As both a journalist and a curious human being, this made me want to follow the yarn backward to understand why they were coming, and in such large numbers. The Flores twins were living with an estranged brother who, though full of good intentions, wasn’t able to provide all the resources they needed. As a result, I spent hours and hours with the twins—supporting them in their efforts to find a lawyer, get to their appointments, and be successful in school in spite of all that was working against them. Though they’d experienced unthinkable trauma, the Flores twins didn’t have the most harrowing story that I’d heard—far from it. But as I got to know them, I realized that, as twins, they embodied a particular, fascinating insight into the migrant experience: they looked identical, shared the same DNA, and grew up in the exact same context—and yet even they had different reasons for migrating and different perspectives on both the United States and El Salvador. We so often lump immigrants together; it felt important to me to tell a story that illustrates a diversity of the immigrant experience in the United States.
 
How did the Flores twins, and their extended family, come to trust you to write their story? Why didn’t you identify them by their real names?
I agonized over the ethics of writing a book about young people I had met in the context of my role as a school administrator. The twins were excited to learn that I was writing about “kids like them” who had traveled from Central America to the United States without papers or parents; people in the U.S., they insisted, needed to understand that they weren’t coming to steal jobs or commit crimes. I spoke with many colleagues in both the education world and in journalism, friends, and the twins themselves, who—by then legally adults—ultimately decided that, so long as they could remain anonymous, they wanted their story told. I took a trip down to El Salvador to meet their parents and siblings; they, too, felt that it was an important story to be told, particularly given the rising anti-immigration rhetoric they were hearing about through gossip and the news. My decision to give them anonymity in the book was critical, both because they could be put at risk if identified by their real names or hometown, and because it was their wish.
 
In 2012, the number of unaccompanied minors coming into America began to spike, doubling from the year before to over 12,000. In 2013, that number doubled again. Where are these minors coming from, and what is driving this rise?
The vast majority of unaccompanied minors, which last year totaled over 60,000, are coming from the Northern Triangle of Central America, a region made up of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The majority are young men around the age of sixteen or seventeen, like the Flores twins. People have been coming to the United States from this region for decades for reasons of opportunity, family reunification, and security, but the numbers of unaccompanied minors we are seeing now are unprecedented. The spike tracks almost exactly with gangs’ rise to power in the region and the ensuing violence. In spite of ongoing government interventions, gangs effectively rule many communities in the Northern Triangle, monitoring comings and goings, charging biweekly renta—essentially a tax—and maintaining power through threats of violence, rape, or murder. Gangs such as MS-13 target young people as both victims and recruits—which has sent many to the United States for survival.
 
In THE FAR AWAY BROTHERS, you spend a lot of time painting a picture of life in rural El Salvador. Why did you feel that was important?
We often think of immigration as something that begins the minute someone steps across the border, but migration begins way before that, fueled by the context of a person’s home that compels them to leave. Right now, Central America is hemorrhaging people—particularly young people who wouldn’t leave their loved ones and the comfort of home if it weren’t for some significant reason. When a patient has a hemorrhage, the surgeon doesn’t just sew up the body to stop the bleeding; they look for the breach. Concerning immigration, the questions we should be asking are: Why is Central America hemorrhaging people? And what can be done to stop it at the source? To understand why the Flores twins left home, I had to spend time in El Salvador, in person and on the page.
 
Throughout the book, you intercut the story of the Flores brothers with short chapters that provide snapshots of the migration trail. Why did you do that, and how did you decide which stories to include?
I visited a prison for young women, a police station where recent arrests had been made, the morgue, migrant shelters, the rivers where people cross on rafts, and more. This reporting provided both vital context and texture, and I wanted to offer that same perspective to readers. The book’s primary narrative follows the Flores twins closely, and though many aspects of their story resonate with that of other migrants, it is also particular to them. I found through the writing process that working on these shorter narratives allowed me to pan out toward the bigger picture, and to meet other characters along the way. The book became a more complex narrative that doesn’t require the twins to represent all unaccompanied minors, or all Salvadoran teens—they are simply themselves, swept up into a massive geopolitical mess on both sides of the border.
 
You spent two years traveling throughout the United States, El Salvador, and Mexico to conduct research for this book. What can you tell us about your experiences? Did you ever feel you were in danger?
Unlike in other parts of the world where I’ve traveled or reported—like Ethiopia or slums in Kenya—where being a journalist or from the United States might make a person a target, the reality in El Salvador is that those most racked by violence and insecurity are Salvadorans. Any time I traveled to report, I took the necessary precautions: wiping the twins’ or other vulnerable people’s contacts from my phone, avoiding traveling at night, going with someone who knew the area, looking into security situations ahead of time, and letting people know where I was at any given moment. I witnessed unfortunate and even horrific things—the aftermath of a murder, a homicide autopsy being performed, a nationwide bus shutdown by the gangs, a group of young people being arrested en masse—but I had very few instances in which I felt in any kind of danger myself. Mexico was somewhat of a different story, since the violence there is fueled by narcos (rather than gangs) and the murder rate of journalists is among the highest in the world. I had a couple of scary moments there along with another journalist from France, where we were being followed. We’ll never know who was following us, or why—but it was certainly worrying. There, too, we took tremendous precautions to stay out of harm’s way.
 
Illegal immigration is one of our most constant debates. What do you think is missing from the mainstream narrative?
My thirteen years of experience working with, interviewing, and reporting alongside thousands of refugees and migrants like the Flores twins have shown me that very few people actually want to leave their homes. They leave because something about their world has become unlivable. Today unauthorized migration across our southern border is driven largely—though of course not entirely—by violence. The immigration crackdown we see now is only shifting migration routes—people go under walls, over walls, through walls, and around them, taking to the sea, to the desert, to tunnels, to whatever option will get them where they need to go. (The more complex the journey, it should be noted, the more expensive—these immigration crackdowns in the U.S. have only enriched gangs and narco-traffickers whom migrants pay to smuggle them across.) Making migration more difficult or deadly has never proven to be an effective deterrent for the desperate. We will never curb unauthorized migration without first attending to the root causes, which, in the case of the Northern Triangle, is both poverty and violence. Attending to humanitarian crises south of our border isn’t just a moral question; it’s also a practical one. If we really want to curb migration and keep criminal enterprises from thriving so close to our borders, we have to attend to the issue at the source.  
 
One theme throughout the book is that immigration is, among other things, big business in the United States. In what sense is this true, and what are the consequences?
The vast majority of immigration detention facilities are privately owned and operated under government contracts. Like a hotel, they get paid per person per night, which means that there are companies, individuals, and lobbyists who have a vested financial interest in stricter immigration policy that places more people in detention for longer periods of time. Regardless of one’s political beliefs or perspectives on immigration enforcement, our national policies should not be driven by the interests of companies or individuals who stand to profit.
 
The infamous Salvadoran gang MS-13 has become a feared presence in some U.S. cities. How is the growth of the gang in America happening, and how do we stop it?
MS-13, like all gangs and criminal elements, preys on the young and desperate, offering belonging, protection, purpose, and a small economy for those who are on the margins of society and to whom the world has been unkind. I know a number of young people who have joined gangs, and it is not because they are bad people but rather are facing a slew of bad choices, a belief that there are few or no other options for them, as well as a sense that society has already criminalized their existence. Our society must take these criminal enterprises seriously, but we must also seriously invest in programs and services that offer young people an alternative to gang life, such as quality education, employment programs, recreation opportunities, and a culture of inclusion. 
 
How are the Flores brothers doing now?
I’m happy to report that, under the circumstances, they are doing well. They are holding down jobs, continuing their education, and still living together, cultivating dreams. They’ve become very different young men—different from each other and different than who they were when they first started out on this journey. They tell me that if they had to do it over again, they’d make many of the same decisions, but that they’ll always miss home and wish that they’d never had to leave.

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