The easiest way to research something is to Google it. Call me an armchair academic or a lazy writer, or someone who’s just too busy to go out and do all the research it would take to sustain the project this book set out to be.
But before you label me, try Googling for yourself. Look up ‘white migrant worker’ and near the end of the first page you’ll find this link:
The site is a take on the more popular ‘Stuff White People Like.’ It’s more poignant and, in the case of this entry, it’s far less funny. What strikes me, though, is that this is what I find when I try to learn more about white migrant workers. I find very little useful information. And what I do find that applies to my interests echoes what I already know. Few migrant farm workers are white.
And so I come back to the fact that I need to do some pretty intensive research if this project is going to do the job it was intended to do. In my loftiest dreams, I’ve envisioned Unplanted having a similar impact as Grapes of Wrath. Even in those dreams, I am not able to imagine myself writing as well as Steinbeck, and I don’t think I would ever want to. (I should write about that another time). What I wanted to do, what I thought I could do, is show how unjust the situation continues to be for migrant workers.
But I’m learning that I am not the person to take on that project. Not right now, at least. To write about that life I feel I would have to live very close to it, if only temporarily. And I am not in a position where I could do any primary research. I lack much of the knowledge it would take for me to write an honest novel. I also don’t think that the protagonists of that novel should be white. That is not the way to tell that story.
In grad school my friends, John Paul and Rowan, and I talked about honesty in writing. I was always uncomfortable in those conversations. I always felt I was approaching Unplanted from a position far removed from the lifestyle I tried to paint. I wondered if I could pull it off. I could write about the way a hand pulls an apple from a tree; that is something I have done. I could write about the way the air feels when you hang your arm outside the window of a car as you ride down the freeway not knowing where you are going. I could write about the fragile pages of a Bible. I could capture those details well, I felt, and I could string those details together.
But now I see that what holds those details together is purple prose, and I see that the characters aren’t complete. I thought I knew them. I thought I knew their lifestyle.
To fully engage in this book I have to completely dismantle it. I have to begin by approaching it with honesty. I have to write about what I know. I think that is why the June stories come much more easily to me. I know June well. I am June. In Unplanted, though, each character is a piece of a whole. I feel them much more than I see them. So to write about them, to be fully honest in my work and to my audience, I must write what I know. I do not mean to say that I will not write about things I have not experienced. I need to approach this through the lens of compassion rather than through the lens of my research.
It makes sense, then, that I have begun to think of Mattie and Joe more in the sense of transients. It makes sense, too, that they are not always migrant farm workers. Joe is searching for something, and he pulls Mattie along. I have done enough research to sustain a couple chapters of their lives and work in the Yakima Valley.
As I journal and as I sketch out some details and talk with friends about Unplanted, I am learning that the book is about something different. It has taken me ten years to figure it out, but now I know how Mattie and Joe met, what their lives have been like, and what has brought Mattie to this black place.
It feels good to finally know these things. Each night that I journal I learn a bit more. I can see them much more clearly now, and while I don’t know what the true arc of the book will look like, I know what is in it, and why it is there.
The other thing I have learned is that this project is just as much about process as it is about product. At times I have thought of writing it as a blurred genre piece, blending my journal entries with my letters to my characters and scraps of failed fiction. I thought of this especially in the days when I thought I had given up on writing fiction. I thought of this in those days when I had given up and when I asked myself how I could write about something without actually having to write it.
I am glad to have reached a place where writing fiction seems possible again, where my characters are real and sustainable. I see now that Mattie and Joe’s transience is my transience. And that is something I can write about with great honesty.