I was gripped by this one-day narrative in the Oct. 8, 2018, New York Times: A single day in U.S. migrant court, built around how that day played out for a girl, Fernanda Jacqueline Davila, age 2. The story might have been lost to notice amid the louder headlines of Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, or to larger-scope stories about migrant children moved en masse to new camps in Texas, or immigration officials unprepared to handle the unaccompanied minors they had to accommodate under the “zero tolerance” policy for migrants crossing into the U.S.
But what caught me most was the end phrase in the sentence:
…brief life, long journey.
It says so little, and yet so very much, about Fernanda Jacqueline Davila, age 2. Rather than diminish her individual story with its brevity, it expands it. It turns the story of one into the story of the many who have shared the experience of that statement:
…brief life, long journey.
In this specific case, it speaks to the migrant children from Latin America caught in the confusion of U.S. immigration policy. But beyond that, it speaks through history, to any children displaced from their known homes and families. Even beyond that, it may speak to all of us: Aren’t all our lives short, and our journeys long?
That’s my minor in philosophy speaking. Let’s get back to journalism:It is tempting for journalists to tell the whole backstory of an individual journey. It is what compels the narrative we are trying to write in the moment. As someone who wrote the stories of many refugees – people who arrived somewhere after a journey, whether intellectual, legal, physical, geographic, political, emotional, spiritual – my instinct was to do just that: write the full backstory, in all its gripping detail, of how they got from there to now.
Then I had an editor who would take my stories, circle eight to 15 grafs of backstory, and send them back to me: Tighten.
I would rail, of course. The backstory, I argued, was the story. But over time, I realized that too much backstory could be a bog. And, alas, a cliche, especially in situations where we tell the micro-story of the individual who represents the macro-story of the many – the minority suspect shot by a cop, the addict trying to get clean, the successful woman who navigated assault, the farmer or factory worker who finds himself with no work, the foster child lost in the system.
So consider again how much is contained in that phrase: brief life, long journey. Does not knowing the mile-by-mile details of Fernanda Jacqueline Davila’s long journey make it less powerful – or more? Can readers fill in their own imagination of that long journey, and thus relate to hers more?
Another example of the power of the brief backstory can be found in a 300-word piece by Leonora Anton LaPeter at the (then) St. Petersburg Times. In 2009 – the heart of the Great Recession – she spent an afternoon at a drop-in social services center in St. Pete, where she met people with empty cupboards and overdue utility bills. But she zeroed in on Emmet Larry, a 50-year-old African refugee who wanted soap and maybe some soup, but mostly needed a BikeLock for his battered Huffy. As LaPeter told his story, this is how she summarized his complicated but sadly common history:
Refugee from Liberia. Victim of torture. No income.
LaPeter didn’t take us from childhood to conscripted soldier to tortured prisoner to a series of refugee camps and finally to the streets of St. Petersburg. She summarized all that horror in three sentence fragments that say it all, and so much more.
One last note: As much as I was taken with that early sentence from the story about Fernanda Jacqueline Davila, I was also taken by this echo in the last sentence:
The caseworker lifted her off her seat and led her, big hand over little, back for more waiting.
The echo is even stronger in the middle clause of this sentence, which carries the rhythm of that earlier phrase, and becomes the heart of the story:
…short life, long journey.
…big hand over little…