Over the past several months, a quiet battle has been raging among librarians and politicians over the term “illegal alien.” For many years, immigrant rights activists have argued against using the term, which has taken on a decidedly pejorative meaning. Activists and legal experts note that while actions can be “illegal,” human beings cannot – to refer to them as such criminalizes existence itself.
While several news outlets have pledged to cease using the term “illegal alien,” there’s one place where the term still stands: the Library of Congress. But while subject headings don’t usually claim a lot of media attention or political interest, the Library of Congress has become a battleground for those who want to replace the term, and for those who won’t give it up. Here’s a timeline of the issue (for more detail, check out this excellent Library Journal piece):
Dartmouth College student Melissa Padilla notices problematic search terms while researching a paper. Padilla and classmates bring the issue up with Dartmouth’s librarians, and discover that the search terms come from the Library of Congress and cannot be changed within Dartmouth’s libraries. Together, librarians and students work on a proposal asking the Library of Congress to replace the term “illegal alien” with “undocumented immigrant.” The proposal is submitted in summer 2014.
After consulting with staff members, the Library of Congress releases a public memo stating that it will not change the wording because the phrase “Undocumented immigrant” is not directly synonymous with “Illegal alien.” Word spreads to members of the American Library Association, who decide to work through the system to try to push the change through.
Various divisions and affiliates of the ALA, including the subject analysis committee, social responsibilities roundtable, and REFORMA, formulate a resolution asking the Library of Congress to reconsider the original request. The resolution passes at the ALA midwinter meeting in January 2016.
The Library of Congress announces that it will no longer use “illegal aliens” as a bibliographic term, saying that the once common phrase has become offensive. The library plans to use “noncitizens” in place of “aliens” and “unauthorized immigration” in place of “illegal immigration.”
After learning of the change, conservative Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee introduce a provision calling for the term’s reinstatement, which is tied to a bill for Library of Congress funding. They argue that the term is legally accurate and should not be changed for the sake of political correctness.
The House votes 237-170 to order the Library of Congress to continue using the term “illegal alien.” This is the first time in history that the House has interfered in the Library of Congress’ subject headings processes.
As a company that values diversity, this is an issue that we feel deeply invested in. Those of us who love books know well how powerful just one word can be. When that word is tied to our identity, it can not only define us but also define how others see us. It can make us feel safe, or endangered. It can make us feel proud, or ashamed. We believe that the term “illegal alien” is derogative and has no place in the Library of Congress. To see it politicized- and especially to see the power of decision taken away from expert librarians and placed in the hands of politicians- is disheartening and alarming.
Tomorrow, we’ll share a guest post with René Colato Laínez, author of Mamá the Alien/Mamá la extraterrestre about his own experience being called an “illegal alien” when he was young.
In the meantime, the Library of Congress has posted a survey where the public can share their thoughts on the proposed changes. If you would like to see the terminology changed, you can fill out this survey through July 20.
I have been busy and have neglected this blog. I forgot to make a post here about some of the most exciting news of my year: I have a story in the current issue of my favorite literary magazine, Conjunctions. It's titled "Mass" and it is about, among other things, a mass shooting.
Early this morning, at least 50 people were killed and 53 wounded in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The New York Times is currently calling this the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
I'm not going to write about the gun politics of this. For that, please read the work of Patrick Blanchfield, particularly "So There's Just Been a Mass Shooting", "God and Guns", and "The Gun Control We Deserve". (He's excellent on Twitter, as well, if you want his most recent thoughts.) I have sputtered on about the topic in the past, not always coherently. Patrick is better at it, and better informed, than I. Thinking through the complex, contradictory, vexing, and emotionally charged landscape of gun politics, I'm better (or at least more comfortable) in fiction. Thus, "Mass".
(Titles fascinate me. The title of this issue of Conjunctions is Affinity: The Friendship Issue. Affinity is something more than friendship. Friendship is useful, it feels good, it glues us socially, and sometimes it may be, yes, an issue. But affinity is more: its etymology [via Latin and French, a story told by the OED] is rich with ideas of relationship: relationship via marriage; any relationship other than marriage; a neighborhood; relationship between people based on common ground in their characters and tastes; spiritual connection; structural relationship; adjacency.)
A character in "Mass" has been reading theoretical physics:
“Not especially detailed theoretical physics, but introductory sorts of texts, popularizations, books for people who don’t really ever have a hope of truly understanding physics but nonetheless possess a certain curiosity. And its words are sometimes beautiful — a tachyonic field of imaginary mass — who couldn’t love such a phrase? I find it all strangely comforting, the more far-out ideas of quantum theory and such. It’s like religion, but without all the rigmarole and obeisance to a god. Or perhaps more like poetry, though really not, because it’s something somehow outside language, but nonetheless elegant, and of course constricted by language, since how else can we communicate about it? But it gestures, at least, toward whatever lies beyond logos, beyond our ability even to reason, though perhaps not to comprehend. At my age, and having spent a life devoted to language, there is comfort and excitement — even perhaps some inchoate feeling of hope — in glimpses beyond the realm of words. There is, I have come to believe, very much outside the text. What is it though? Call it God, call it Nature, call it the Universe, call it what it seems to me now to be — having read and I’m sure misunderstood my theoretical physics — call it: an asymptote.”
Mass. Affinity. Asymptotes.
The OED: b. Relationship by blood, consanguinity; common ancestry of individuals, races, etc.; an instance of this.
And then there is "Blood"
. And Blood: Stories
"Why did you give it that title?" people ask. There are a lot of answers. (And that, in itself, is an answer.) Here's one: As a child of the early AIDS era, I always knew queer blood is politicized and scary. Scary, thus politicized. Politicized, thus scary.
Until recently, the FDA prohibited any man who had had sex with men since 1977 from donating blood. Now, if you've been celibate for a year, you can donate. The massacre in Orlando brought this policy back into the news
, with various outlets reporting that while queers were attacked, and blood was needed, any man who had had sex with a man in the last year could not, under FDA rules, donate blood.
Blood is a reality and blood is a potent metaphor: beautiful and terrifying, wonderful and evil.Consanguinity.
Blood is life and blood is death; blood is family and blood is genocide.
Is there an opposite to blood? What is water
in our metaphors? It washes blood away, but also sustains us as we live, for much of what we are is water. Tears are made of water, salt, enzymes, hormones. They taste like oceans and look like rain.
Water is what we weep.
I weep for my queer brethren. I weep, too, for the inevitable homonationalism
as queer shoulders are put to the wheel of US imperialism and US exceptionalism; as pride is wielded for Us against Them.
But I am not feeling political today.
Sometime looking backward
into this future, straining
neck and eyes I'll meet your shadow
with its enormous eyes
you who will want to know
what this was all about
"A Long Conversation"
Yesterday, my aunt, after (as they say) a (short? long? relative to what?) illness, died.
We had never lived near each other, but she was a profound influence on my life. She and her daughter, my cousin, gave me Stephen King stories when I was much too young for them. Night Shift, Skeleton Crew
. The titles are still magic to me, the covers of the old paperbacks as powerful as any personal icon I have. So much of what I became as a writer is because of those stories. So much of what I became as a writer, then, is because of her.
She was a brilliant artist, a fun and funny person, so smart, so straightforward, saucy, even, and strong as the mightiest metal. She had a magnificent life with magnificent people in it, as well as hardship, oh yes, hardship, indeed, as we all do, yes, but still: she struggled, persevered, survived, didn't let the bastards get her down.
I will miss her forever and cherish her forever. Her husband, my uncle, provided me with my middle name, and I am always proud to have been named for him, one of the best people I know.
(The cover of my book called Blood
is a picture of a man with his heart removed.)
At the wedding of my youngest uncle some years ago, my oldest uncle, this great man now a widower, gave a toast in which he said ours is a motley family of steps and halfs, of once- and twice-removeds, of marriages and unions and affinities, but in the end those designations don't much matter, because family is family, and that's who we are, and what we are, and what we have, because we love each other.
Affinity. And even more so that most important of political cries: Solidarity.
I remember that Auden kept revising his poem "September 1, 1939"
, because he couldn't decide between "We must love one another or die," "We must love one another and die," or nothing at all.
Here, then, my own tentative, inadequate revision: We must love one another or nothing at all.
I loved my aunt fiercely, and I love fiercely all you queer folk out there aching and screaming and scared and willing to fight, and all who dance against the gunfire, hands held together through the pain, lips together in solidarity, lives together as we live and live and live — even if separated by oceans, even if drowning in tears — always striving, even if never reaching, like asymptotes, like believers and holy fools — as we remember and honor the dead, as we go on, as we must, you, me, all — whether strangers or the oldest of lovers, we are — we must be — a mass of friends, family, water, blood.
And I dream of our coming together
not only by love
but by lust for a working tomorrow
the flights of this journey
and necessary as water.
"On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge"