'The Wind Knows My Name' is a reference and a refrain in the search for home
When I learned Isabel Allende's new book, The Wind Knows My Name, is set in my hometown of Nogales, Arizona, among other places real and mystical, I put it on the top of my reading list. I wanted to find what she discovers in our borderlands, to see if it's as dearly held as my memory of a childhood bedroom window opening southward to a daily breeze of blended language, barking dogs and Grandmother's whistled greetings to her neighbors.
In a literary career spanning five decades Allende's storytelling walks a lyrical romanticism on roads imposed by social and political turmoil. This story is a fable joined by today's hard news. In her latest novel, Allende disrupts the mainstream narrative about our southern border. She discovers something in Nogales, via El Salvador and Vienna: the human capacity for hope and decency in the midst of despair.
The Wind Knows My Name is a tale of two child immigrants--- a boy who escapes Nazi occupied Vienna in 1938 and a girl who escapes military gangs in El Salvador in 2019. Allende's narrative commingles past and present, and follows their migrations to the United States and the day when the immigrant from Vienna — Samuel Adler — and the refugee from El Salvador — Anita Diaz — finally meet.
We encounter Samuel Adler in 1938. He's five years old and living in Vienna when his father disappears during the Nazi purge of Kristallnacht. With the help of family allies, Samuel's mother manages to evacuate him to England. He travels alone, carrying nothing but a change of clothes, his violin and hopes for reunion with his parents.
Eighty years later, Anita Diaz rides a different train with her mother when they leave El Salvador to escape being slaughtered by military gangs who invade their town and massacre everyone in it. They arrive in Arizona just as the U.S. government institutes a family separation policy to deter refugees. Seven-year-old Anita is now by herself at a camp in Nogales. She escapes her brutal reality and separation from her mother by creating an imaginary world — Azabahar — where traveling without the safety of parents or adults is processed through hopeful conversations between Anita and her imagined friend, Claudia. Meanwhile Selena Durán, a social worker in Nogales, enlists legal aide in hopes of tracking down Anita's mother.
Selena's character appears to be inspired by the real life mission and work of the Florence Refugee and Immigrant Rights Project, an organization listed in Allende's acknowledgements. This group works in "Ambos Nogales" (Arizona and Sonora) through a partnership with the Kino Border Initiative to provide legal assistance, food, shelter, clothes, and comfort to thousands of refugees and migrants turned away at the border by U.S. Border Patrol. Selena's fictional journey comes from a real life community resource. There are many true life Selenas in Nogales and along the borderlands. Their humanitarian good neighbor service finds an essential voice in Allende's story.
The children trapped by geopolitical violence and left to navigate immigration by themselves are the core inspiration for The Wind Knows My Name. The story is a love letter to them, and their plight is powerfully evoked through Anita's conversations with her imaginary friend and frequent visits to the make-believe world of Azabahar. Here again Allende's storytelling illuminates real life — that is, the coping mechanism children often use to navigate adversity. The Wind Knows My Name answers the debate over refugees with a gut punch portrayal of cruelty. The search for safe haven is something Allende and her family have also endured. That lived experience is deeply felt in Anita's imagined conversations with Claudia:
"I think Mama is close, that's how it sounded when we got to talk with her on the phone. What do you think Claudia? I didn't cry when we talked to her, even though I wanted to. Well, I cried a little but she didn't notice. If Mama could come get us she would, but she can't right now. Mama was crying to so that's why I told her we're good in this place. It's not like it was in the hierlera (ice box)."
The shared experience of separation from home, parents and siblings — a trauma one never leaves behind — eventually unites Anita and Sam. And while the cadence of Allende's storytelling is occasionally marked by social justice advocacy as dialogue, it's dialogue that's current, relevant and real. Our civic discourse is centered by a multitude of voices talking about two things — immigration and identity — who belongs and who doesn't, and how to care for the dispossessed. In Allende's version healing is possible, because empathy is a hopeful, albeit inconsistent, follower of migration.
A reader comes to understand the title of Allende's novel is both a reference and a refrain, revealed at the precise moment when yearning is at risk and nothing about Anita and Sam's search for home is certain. Their whistling in the dark is a forever song of hope. You can hear it, as I once did, in the true life neighborhoods of Ambos Nogales.
Marcela Davison Avilés is a writer and independent producer living in Northern California.
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