SIGNS AND STORIES
“Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things.”
Makina, in Signs
How do we learn the new things we need to live with each other in a world of increasingly harsh divisions, of rigidifying claims of “us” and “other,” of rising barriers physical and metaphorical?
I find power – if not always answers – in story. And for this series on teaching the US border with Mexico as more than a line, as more than a contested territory or symbolic conflict zone, I can recommend no more compelling story than this new novel by Yuri Herrera: Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Signs is a slim book, almost minimalist. Yet even the most spare sentence is, as one critic said, both “poetic and defamiliarizing.” Makina, a young Mexican woman, journeys north to carry two messages: one from her mother to her brother who has preceded her in crossing the border and one from a character almost mythically representative of violence and shadows and unanswered questions.
I just discovered this book (thank goodness for Brazos, our neighborhood independent bookstore!) and got lost in the poetry of the words, the perils of unknowns, the insights of this courageous and perceptive young woman. I’m planning to re-read it this summer just for the beauty of it. And I want to see how I might use it with my students who are preparing to teach in our urban schools, schools where many of the students will know a Makina or who will see something of their family’s story in hers.
Teach this book in your US history class, your world studies or cultures courses, your literature classes in English or in Spanish (how interesting it would be for students to compare this masterful translation with the original Spanish), or save it for your teacher book group. As Makina notes how even slight shifts in word choice can say “new things,” Herrera gives us fire, gives us light, shows us new things we could not have known without Signs.