“Home is a route anchored in memory,” writes Mariana Oliver in Migratory Birds. These short, lyric essays explore notions of migration and the ways that language both complicates and enriches the search for home.
Oliver was born and resides in Mexico City, and Migratory Birds, her debut, received the José Vasconcelos National Young Essay Award when it first appeared in 2016. Oliver, who has degrees in comparative literature and has studied in Germany, is particularly interested in issues of cross-cultural exchange. Translated from the Spanish by Julia Sanches, this English version captures what must be the beauty of Oliver’s original prose. Each essay in the collection functions as a kind of parable, the real-life example revealing its metaphorical potential.
In the titular essay, Oliver considers the story of Bill Lishman. Possessed from a young age by an intense desire for flight but ineligible for flight school as a result of colorblindness, Lishman became a pioneer in ultralight aviation. Eventually, he led a flock of geese from Ontario to Virginia, and did the same with an endangered group of whooping cranes. Oliver writes about Lishman in poetic terms, turning him into a kind of mythical figure, capable of crossing over from human to bird: “All liftoffs are the same, he thinks, a ritual by which we become birds.” The transcendence of boundaries becomes a central metaphor for the rest of the essays in the collection, as Oliver turns her attention to human examples of migration, exile, and translation.
Many of the essays in Migratory Birds are set in Germany, with the former Berlin Wall serving as both the real and inevitably symbolic divide between East and West. Even without that barrier, “people travel to Berlin in search of the crack, the imaginary line that haunts the city.” In one essay, Oliver muses about the legacy of East German writer Christa Wolf, labeling her a kind of modern day Cassandra. In “Trummerfrauen,” she contemplates the role of the workers, overwhelmingly women, most of them widows and orphans, who cleared German cities of debris following World War II. In “Koblenz,” she recounts the not uncommon discovery of an unexploded bomb beneath one German town. Oliver concludes that, “The vestiges left by bombs even when they don’t explode, tend to subsume everything.”
In “Özdamar’s Tongue,” Oliver writes about Emine Sevgi Özdamar, a German writer who immigrated to Germany from Turkey as a teenage Gastarbeiter, guest worker. According to Oliver, Özdamar’s work uses a “strategy of deliberate mistranslation,” as in her award-winning 1991 book Mother Tongue, whose German title is Mutterzunge, a neologism that refers to a mother’s literal tongue, in place of the neutral German Muttersprache. Writing in a non-native language, Ozdamar interests Oliver because she “understood that stepping into another country with no return ticket meant willingly surrendering to an indeterminate foreignness, letting go in another language, and accepting that that there would always be something ungraspable about words, something a little distorted that drew back whenever you were getting close.”
In “The Other Lost Boys and Girls,” notably the only essay set in Latin America, Oliver turns her attention to Cuba. It describes Operation Peter Pan, in which the U.S. government disseminated false information to Cubans in the early 1960s, claiming that under a communist regime custody of their children would be transferred to the state. As a result, thousands of terrified parents willingly sent their children to Florida, planning to soon join them there. But after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the U.S. defeat at the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. severed diplomatic ties and those same parents became ineligible for visas. It’s impossible to read this now and not think about the current crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the thousands of children still separated from their caregivers. Oliver tries to find resonance with Barrie’s original novel Peter Pan, but here the comparisons seem a bit forced, falling flat before the actual historical crime.
Oliver seems most incisive when describing the geography of foreign cities and metaphorical symbols. “Normandy” recalls the practice of public shaming in French towns after WWII, where women who had collaborated or slept with German soldiers had their heads forcibly shaved in the town square. “The bodies of these women,” Oliver writes, “had become another territory to be captured.” This essay briefly turns its attention to Oliver’s own experiences as a girl when her sister, suffering from an unnamed disease, stopped growing and her parents decided to have her long hair cut short. Oliver’s mother later went bald, presumably from treatments for cancer. These details from Oliver’s personal life tantalize the reader, opening a host of questions and possibilities, yet the essay ends abruptly, and these threads are never taken up again.
Despite some occasional lapses, Migratory Birds is a beautiful collection, luminously translated, from a young writer who is likely only at the beginning of discovering her power.
By Mariana Oliver, translator Julia Sanches
Published June 22, 2021