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If You Want to Figure Out What America Is Go To a Library – An Interview with Jose Antonio Vargas

by on May 22, 2019

By BRENDAN DOWLING, Assistant Editor of Public
Libraries Online. Contact Brendan at brendowl@gmail.com.
Brendan is currently reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas made headlines when he came out as an undocumented U.S. citizen in 2011. In his recent memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (HarperCollins, 2018), he details his story of moving from the Phillipines, growing up in California, discovering he was undocumented, and grappling with what it means to be a U.S. citizen. Critics have widely praised the book, with The New
York Times calling it “a potent rejoinder to those who tell Vargas he’s supposed to ‘get in line’ for citizenship, as if there were a line instead of a confounding jumble of vague statutes and executive
orders,”[1] and the A.V. Club hailed it as a “stirring, soulful, and ultimately damning autobiography.”[2] Brendan Dowling spoke to Vargas via telephone on January 12, 2019.

PL: The book is divided into three sections: lying, passing, and hiding. For you, why are those such perfect descriptors for the experience of being undocumented?

JV: For many people being undocumented is such a politicized, partisan issue. I wanted to take something that’s so political and make it as accessible as possible. When I was structuring the book—which is really the most important part of writing the book—my editor and I started realizing that most of my experiences in this country could be divided into those three ways, that my life in America has been defined by those three stages. I thought what was key about that was that you don’t have to be undocumented to relate to a life of lying, passing, and hiding. Everybody goes through that. Every human being that has to survive understands what that means, and that’s why we came up with it. I thought it was an appropriate way of structuring this book and making it as human and accessible as possible.

PL: At one point you describe passing “as purgatory.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?

JV: I would argue that if you look at every group in America that’s tried to fight for full equality or full opportunity, passing is what we have in common. Women joining the work force and trying to be equal to men or LGBTQ people coming out of the closet. For African Americans it’s colorism within the African American community and the struggle of being American, which for many people is equated with being white. This idea of passing has been consistent throughout American history, and I would argue that for many of us who are still fighting for that full equality—to be seen fully, to be treated equally, to have equal opportunity—that all of us are in some kind of purgatory. For me broadly speaking, that was the historical analogy I was striving for, but specific to my own narrative, that’s what my life in America has been about. I’m in this in-between stage. My life hasn’t been as simple as “here’s the law just go follow it.” It’s been a life that’s been about living in the gray area.

PL: That description of purgatory helped me realize how poisonous the idea of assimilating to American culture is.

JV: It’s such a loaded term, right? Assimilating to what? As a gay man, now that we as LGBTQ people are seeing more equality than at any other point in American history, I’ve been struggling with what are LGBTQ people really striving for? Are we striving to be seen as the same as straight people? Is that enough? Is that the goal? Or are we actually striving for something that transcends just being the quote unquote mainstream? What if the mainstream is the problem? That’s why the word citizen on the cover is underlined. Are we now saying that when people become quote unquote legal and they get to be U.S. citizens, is that it? Again, as you can tell, these are a series of questions for me. I don’t have answers for this. I’m still trying to figure all out. But I think it’s a worthy exercise to try to address these questions.

PL: You describe how life-changing it was for you when you heard Toni Morrison discuss the concept of a master narrative, the “ideological script that is being imposed by the people in authority on anyone else.”[3] After coming out as undocumented, you embarked on creating your own master narrative. Why was that important for you to do?

JV: First of all, for me, it was important to acknowledge where I got that from. The role of that moment of really wrestling with who gets to create narratives around what’s acceptable when it comes to race and how people look. This is why The Bluest Eye was such a landmark in my life, trying to understand what Toni Morrison was trying to do with writing that book.

In many ways reading Morrison and [James] Baldwin unlocked so much for me. As a really young kid, it made me question what I was being fed. That ability to question and the process of questioning was a catalyst for me. It gave me permission to say yes to myself when the laws around me were saying, “You can’t do that.” There are so many things from a daily existence to which the government and the law says, “No.” So what forces people like me to say yes? For me it was unlocking this master narrative that Toni Morrison spoke about and wrote about so compellingly.

PL: What role did the library play in your life when you came to America?

JV: It was Google before there was Google. I would actually argue that it was even better than Google, because the thing about libraries is that the exploration of it defines what the experience is. Because we live in this social-media-oriented, internet-dictative life in which everything is thrown at us, it’s so easy to Google anything you want and all of this information comes at you. The process of discovery almost gets lost. Everything is synced, so if I was looking for Nike shoes, that’s going to appear and follow me on Facebook. I’ll get the ads on the websites I visit, so all of it becomes so curated. It’s easy in that America is a consumer state and it’s almost as if that’s the best thing we do. We consume! In the library, consumption is not as important as discovery and exploration.

I don’t know if I would have discovered Stephen Sondheim or Shakespeare or the African American section—which I was like, why is there an African American section? Why are those writers in their own category? Shouldn’t Morrison’s books be displayed alongside William Faulkner and Mark Twain? Why did she have to be in the African American section? Growing up in a household that was so Filipino, there was nothing “American” inside the house I grew up in. So America was, to me, the library. And it was curated by librarians. You can argue that it’s the most handmade of all institutions, because librarians use what they know to figure out how to present it and how to curate it.

You want to figure out what America is, go to a library. The library will tell you what’s important, which of course puts a tremendous amount of responsibility and pressure on librarians. What do they deem important? Who do they deem important? We’re living at a time in which I would argue that we’re questioning the master narrative of America. That’s what the #MeToo movement is about. That’s what the Black Lives Matter is about. That’s what the LGBTQ movement is about.

When I first got to America and started going to the Mountain View (CA) Public Library and the Los Altos (CA) Public Library, it was John Updike. It was Phillip Roth. It was all these men! It was all these men who happened to be white. That was what was presented as “the narrative.” In 2019, is that still the narrative? To me, it’s so fascinating whom we decide to venerate. I tried reading those Rabbit books by John Updike. I tried really hard, I couldn’t get into them. And then of course I would blame myself. “See, you’re not American enough. You’re supposed to understand this. This is what The New York Times and The New Yorker love!”

At the library they had this big thing called The New York Review of Books. I would read it cover to cover. Talk about going to a museum, I felt like I was reading a museum! And yet it was all of these ideas that weren’t speaking to me, and then I figured out that it wasn’t supposed to speak to me, because I’m not the audience. So then I wondered, “Now wait a second, If I’m here, aren’t I the audience? Aren’t we all the audience? If the country is more Latino, more Asian, more mixed-race, aren’t we the audience? So why are we just ‘the minority’? Why are we the ‘Asian’ section? Or the Latin section? Or the African American section?” That conversation, I can only imagine how fraught but how necessary that conversation is. In this country, I think we’re rewriting the master narrative of America, and librarians and libraries play a central role in the rewriting of that narrative.

PL: In terms of writing stories and observing America, for you, why was journalism such a necessary career to pursue?

JV: I kind of fell into it because it was a profession I could do that could tangibly show me that I’m here, because of the byline. The byline was the main thing for me. What I realized as I kept doing it was that it was the perfect job for someone like me. I could go get lost in other people’s stories. I don’t have to deal with mine. It was kind of the perfect job to “assimilate,” to get lost in America. In many ways it was the perfect job.

When I was writing the book, I remember writing this passage about “I’m here but I’m not really here.” That’s really when it hit me. I’m sure there are other journalists out there who never even think that. (laughs) As a journalist who was hiding this very big secret that was a defining secret of my life in America, I thought of journalism as a way to be visibly invisible.

PL: You write about how coming out was less about coming out and more about letting people in. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

JV: To me, it’s again about the prism of who is defining what for whom. I’m out to myself. So when people say, “We’re coming out,” it makes it about straight people or people who are not gay, as if all we have to do is keep explaining ourselves and all of a sudden we’ll gain our humanity. What if we don’t need to do that? What if my reality is not the minority? What if it’s not the one that has to be explained? What if you have to explain yourself? I’m actually confused by straight people. What if I said that? I find the conventions of heteronormative life utterly confusing. You’re an alien to me as much as I’m an alien to you.

So for me it was this idea of flipping it around. I’m fascinated by how U.S. citizens whose only right to citizenship is being born here can’t seem to understand why people have to fight for it. In many ways I’m questioning that. I’m questioning the very notion of citizenship, of who gets to get it and what it requires. What does it ask of people?

PL: The book ends with a conversation that you have with your mother. Why was it important for you to give her the final words in your memoir?

JV: In many ways she’s the ghost that haunts the book. I introduce you to her and you don’t really hear from her, but you know that she’s there. The loss becomes more apparent as you read through the book. It was important for me to have her have the last say because I don’t make sense without her. My life doesn’t make sense without her. So that’s why I thought it was important that she have the last say.

PL: You founded the organization Define American in 2011. Can you talk about the work that Define American does?

JV: Our work is really about how do we tell America’s full story. You can’t tell America’s full story without talking about immigrants. In this country right now there are 43 million immigrants, documented and undocumented, and according to research studies, those 43 million people will constitute 88 percent of the total U.S. population growth in the next fifty years. So telling America’s full story means telling the story of immigrant America, but telling it how it relates to White America, to Black America, to Native Americans. Let me give you an example. We like to say that we are a nation of immigrants. But when we say that, what do we do? We leave two people out—we leave out African Americans, who were not brought here as immigrants, they were brought here as slaves, and we leave out Native Americans. So for me telling America’s full story means having that be a part of it.

Right now in this country it’s so easy to tell people what you’re against, it’s harder to tell people what you’re for. I’m for telling a more inclusive and a fuller story of America and how we got to be who we are. So at Define American, our job is to not only humanize the stories of immigrants, documented and undocumented, but our job is also to connect them to the greater story of America. People these days talk a lot about intersectionality, but I think the problem is how do you put that into practice? So Define American puts that into practice.

PL: How can libraries best get involved in the work of Define American?

JV: I would really like to figure out how Define American could start working with local libraries. Everything is local, so every library and community across the country must ask themselves how they’re defining “American” in their own communities. To me the question now is how do we promote welcoming communities? How do we welcome people? In many ways the library’s the first stop for that. One of the best ways of telling how welcoming a country is is by going to the library. Which stories do they want to tell? What are the kind of pictures that you see? What videos do they have available? That’s actually a work I want to figure out, how to establish more of a relationship with libraries and what we do.


  1. Laura Adamczyk, Caitlin PenzeyMoog, and Alex McLevy, “My Struggle Comes To An End, And 4 Other Books to Read in September,” A.V. Club, Sept. 4, 2018, accessed Feb. 28, 2019.
  2. Jennifer Szalai, “Living The American Dream—In Hiding,” The New York Times, Sept. 18, 2018, accessed Feb. 28, 2019.
  3. Jose Antonio Vargas, Dear America, Notes
    of an Undocumented Citizen (New York:
    Dey St., 2018): 77. If You Want to Figure Out What America Is, Go to a Library.