- Writing Identities, Erasing Borders:The Night Diary, Front Desk, and Our Shared Story of Migration
In the August 2019 issue of National Geographic, writer Mohsin Hamid reminds us of our united state of transience, underscoring that a defining part of the human condition is to be in motion, to be a migrant: "To be human is to migrate forward through time, the seconds like islands, where we arrive, castaways, and from which we are swept off by the tide, arriving again and again, in a new instant, on a new island, one we have, as always, never experienced before." In this cultural moment, an argument like Hamid's stands in contrast to the headlines reporting the dehumanization of migrants and refugees, many of whom are children. In June, Politico reported that the US "Office of Refugee Resettlement is so swamped with new arrivals [at the southern border] that it is burning through cash to house children in military bases around the country …" (Renuka and Diamond). Moreover, "the agency even had to send 100 children back to a much-criticized Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, saying it lacks the room to take them" (Renuka and Diamond). An August 2019 UNICEF Advocacy Alert tells of the "more than 900,000 stateless Rohingya refugees living in the camps of southeast Bangladesh," who are primarily "focused on staying alive," though the Rohingya "children and young people are clamouring for more than survival; they want quality education that can provide a path to a more hopeful future" ("Beyond" 6). What would that more hopeful future look like? In such a future, do national borders continue to limit and police our possibilities?
Two recent works of children's literature explore these concepts of migration and identity and force us to consider our itinerant states of being. Despite their disparate geography and chronology, Veera Hiranandani's The Night Diary [End Page 312] and Kelly Yang's Front Desk both speak to ideas that destabilize the conceit of home: the security of nation. Through their young female protagonists, these two novels suggest that pre-existing national borders cannot, or should not, limit or define us, with each text alluding to the porous, elastic nature of borders. Taken together, the literal writing of Front Desk's Mia and The Night Diary's Nisha communicate the ways in which our stories—our art—can metaphorically erase the borders that divide us. We are all migrants, as Hamid writes in National Geographic, but we can find permanence together through writing: through our capacity to create and shape our identities. This is the human story.
Front Desk opens in 1993, not long after ten-year-old Mia Tang and her parents move from China to southern California. The family left their home country in order to have a better chance at economic and social prosperity, telling Mia that "America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog …" (Yang 1). But the Tangs struggle. Mia mentions that they lived in their car before her parents both got jobs at a Chinese restaurant, which enabled them to rent a small apartment. After the restaurant fires Mia's mother, Mia wonders why they abandoned their comfortable lives in China for the challenging conditions they now faced. "Because it's freer here," Mia's mother tells the young girl, which only confuses Mia more since "[n]othing was free in America. Everything was so expensive" (4). Here, the book nods to the "cost" of living in communist China and nods to the freedom and agency Mia eventually finds in America through her writing.
The Tangs secure work managing at the Calivista Motel just outside Disneyland, allowing them to live rent-free in the small living quarters behind the front office. Mr. Yao, the motel's owner, however, undermines this seemingly ideal situation by underpaying and overworking the Tangs. After school, Mia tends to the titular front desk, checking in new guests and answering customer questions while her parents...