Reviewed by Carol Haggas
Counterpoint Press 366 pp.
If one were to create the definitive trilogy of the immigrant experience, one would start with Luis Alberto Urrea’s 2004 Pulitzer-nominated classic, The Devil’s Highway, a scorching account of a deadly Mexican border crossing. One would move on from there to Dave Eggers’ 2006 genre-defying, What Is the What, a plaintive “memoir” of a Lost Boy refugee from the Sudanese twenty-year-long civil war.
And now in 2020, one could conclude this unconventional but eye-opening and soul-blistering trilogy with Joe Meno’s Between Everything and Nothing, a stunning portrayal of the improbably separate, but ultimately merged, journeys of two Ghanaian immigrants: from their homes in Accra to Brazil; through the jungles of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico; to their unforeseen and humiliating incarceration under the US immigration system; and eventually, through their petrifying passage across the northern US border into Canada and ultimate safety.
Meno’s intrepid immigrants are Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, young men who, implausibly, resided in the same area of Ghana’s capital city, but who did not meet until near the end of their individual treks through a migration process that was constantly treacherous and consistently demoralizing.
Seidu identified as bisexual in a culture where homosexuality is considered a crime. A rising soccer star representing his country in international competition, Seidu was discovered in flagrante at a hotel room in Brazil and immediately realized he could never return to Ghana for fear of imprisonment at the very least and death at the very worst.
Razak, his father’s eldest son from his first marriage, ran afoul of his younger half-siblings during an increasingly violent dispute over rights of inheritance to valuable land after his father’s death. Harassed and physically beaten by his family and their unscrupulous government henchmen, Razak has no choice but to flee Ghana under fear of death.
From their mutual starting point in Brazil, Seidu and Razak, still unknown to each other, independently formulate plans to travel to America to seek asylum. The year is 2013 and Seidu and Razak have already been away from Ghana for several months, in limbo in a strange country and culture, gathering resources and vital information. The experience is both stupefying and familiar. Dilapidated buildings, abject poverty, tattered billboards advertising typical products. Seidu found himself wondering “how strange it was to travel thousands of miles only to keep seeing the same tired faces, the same fallen places, time and time again. What did it say about the state of all these countries, the fate of all the people he passed, the direction the world turned, continued turning?”
The world he and Razak traveled through was universally horrifying. With deft timing, Meno integrates Seidu’s and Razak’s individual experiences into one overarching narrative. Substantively focusing on Razak’s harrowing migration through the countries of South and Central America—homes to an international shadow economy of human traffickers and smugglers, con men and criminals oozing from the ranks of ordinary citizens and official representatives alike—Meno persistently reveals the tragedy of widespread venality in the face of personal desperation. Repeatedly swindled of what little money he has, every person Razak encounters has a hand out—one that frequently wields a machete—before the next step of his journey can continue.
And there are absolutely no easy steps along the way. Jungles conceal predators, more human than not. Towns and villages teem with police who could incarcerate him at a moment’s notice, but more often want only their piece of the shake-down scam that is the shared experience of the dispossessed.
Mere miles from the US border, after a journey filled with deprivation, degradation, and danger, Razak is robbed of his most essential possessions: the paperwork (passport, voter ID and birth certificate) required by US immigration as proof of identity. Without them, despite all he has endured, his cruelest treatment still lies ahead.
If Razak is prey to countless human trafficking predators, Seidu is victim of the byzantine, draconian and demeaning US immigration system. Like Razak, Seidu has made his traumatic trek up through South and Central America and by May of 2017, stands at the threshold of the Promised Land: the San Ysidro (California) Port of Entry. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents immediately take him into custody, herding him into a corral packed with fellow migrants, withholding water and food, forbidding him to shower or brush his teeth, and denying him sleep for ten days. His physical hardships are nothing compared to the legal labyrinth he is about to enter.
Asylum seekers are considered criminals upon entry into the US. Forget the concept of innocent until proven guilty. It’s just the opposite for those who appear at America’s border. Neither man was a criminal in Ghana, nor did they commit any crimes along the way. All Seidu wanted was a chance “to become a productive part of a society that claimed to value freedom and individuality.” But immigration officials could not care less about Seidu’s hopes and dreams. He and others like him were a pestilence to be dealt with as inhumanely as possible.
Eventually, following years of incarceration in one federal detention prison after another, stymied by one legal catch-22 after another, having come tantalizingly close to achieving asylum status only to be denied time and time again, Seidu and Razak each come to the conclusion that freedom will never be granted by the United States. But rumors float on social media that, if one can just get across the US-Canadian border undetected, one could apply for asylum in Canada.
And so, in a grimy, deserted Minneapolis bus station in the depths of a frigid winter storm, Seidu and Razak sit, each unaware that the other is trying to figure out a way to get to Grand Forks, North Dakota, the closest town to the Canadian border. Tentatively exchanging greetings, each recognizes in the other the voice of home, and the voice of someone who is also looking for a new home, an escape from the violence and injustice and terror that has been their plight for most of their adult lives.
And so they join forces and make a plan to get across the border together.
This would be the perfect point in Seidu’s and Razak’s saga to insert the, by now, much desired happy ending. But for Seidu and Razak, the worst still awaits.
Conned yet again, this time by a taxi driver who promises to take them within walking distance of a crossing point where they are guaranteed to be able to slip across unnoticed, Razak and Seidu are dumped in the middle of nowhere. Meno’s unsparing depiction of the relentless physical challenges they must overcome defies credulity. Frozen fields all around, no buildings or signage in sight, a blizzard raging and temperatures and wind chills plummeting to inhuman levels, the men have no choice but to trudge blindly through deepening snow toward a vague point in the distance where, they have been told, the border post is located. They are woefully unprepared. No boots, no parkas; gloves and hats blown away by punishing tundra winds. Frostbite quickly assaults any exposed skin. As hypothermia sets in, they become resigned to the fact that their journey of thousands of miles, from equatorial Ghana through the fetid jungles of South America, will end here, alone in a frozen wasteland.
A wasteland that does, in fact, straddle the Canadian border. They may not know it, but they have arrived.
And then the much-wished for miracle does occur. A passing trucker see two figures, undoubtedly near dead if not already so, and summons help. An ambulance transports them to a local hospital. Both men will lose their fingers to frostbite. Their story of fortitude and endurance gets media attention and legal representation. Their story does, finally, have a happy ending: they are granted asylum in Canada.
The United States is, Meno writes, “a poem, a song, an apparition. Its power resides in the fact that it is largely imaginary. The thing that has always distinguished the United States from its very beginning is that it has always been more compelling as an ideal, a concept, a dream.” The reality of America in the 21st-century is something else altogether.
Meaning, of course, that had Seidu and Razak known back in Ghana that America’s welcoming shores were not as receptive as they were rumored to be, they might have worked out another course of action, though what that might have been is hard to imagine. But the America they dreamt of was the place where citizens enjoyed rights bestowed by the Constitution—free speech, freedom of religion, an impartial judicial system—and so they, as millions of immigrants have done since the country’s inception, risked everything they owned, everything they loved—risked, literally, life and limb—to find out if that dream could become reality and, if so, if they could take just the tiniest of shots at achieving it.
Meno’s account of their astonishing journey is not for the faint of heart. There is violence committed—by human predators, corrupt officials and diabolical outlaws—that will undermine one’s sense of justice and decency. There is the unforgiving relentlessness of the elements themselves, from hothouse jungle quagmires to the desert’s soul-depleting heat to the inconceivable brutality of a Canadian blizzard. One marvels at the wellspring of strength and determination Seidu and Razak consistently draw upon as they confront one assault, one setback, after another.
And there is the outrageous cruelty, mind-boggling inconsistency, and outright immorality of the US immigration system. Immigration policy has always been a hotbed of controversy for many administrations, but became more xenophobic after 9/11. During the Obama administration, deportations increased as the number of asylum applications rose annually. But it was not until the Trump administration that treatment of asylum seekers took a particularly vengeful turn.
Braiding the stories of two audacious and courageous men with the political realities and inconsistencies of America’s immigration system, Meno has written a definitive and unnerving account of the myriad risks and meager rewards of seeking asylum in a country where once upon a time “being an American had to do with one’s ability to risk life and limb for something improbable, to take refuge in the uncertain.” It is an account that is both confident in its assessment of the deficiencies of immigration policy and compassionate in its treatment of those who are mired in its web.
What is certain at this point in time is that migrants can no longer count on America’s better angels to shepherd them in their quest for a more secure life. With a fierce drive to reveal the individual saga behind the administration’s generalized message of migrant-as-criminal, one fueled by carefully curated images of surging caravans and caged incarceration, Meno mercifully humanizes the headlines that reduce such stories of hope and determination to jingoistic sound bites. Anti-immigrant activists see such migrants as animals, mimicking the words of the president himself. This is the book to put in the hands of everyone who argues such a myopic and intractable line and say, “Here, meet these people, meet Seidu and Razak, and tell me you can still harden your heart against people who will put their lives on the line for the merest of chances.”
Carol Haggas is a book industry professional with more than 20 years’ experience writing for Booklist Magazine and ForeWord Magazine. Most recently serving as a judge for the 2020 Carnegie Medals of Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction awarded by the American Library Association, Carol recently retired her position as Readers Services adviser at the St. Charles Public Library. She lives in suburban Chicago. Carol’s review of Black Sunday appeared earlier in ACM.