The Journey toward Elsewhere: Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home

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Natalia Sylvester’s second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, asks the reader to consider the trauma endured by Mexican migrants as an exercise in empathy. Centered on a woman named Isabel and her relationship with her husband’s Mexican-American family, the book braids varying narrative arcs across interspersing chapters, with each chapter unveiling deeper truths about the trauma of border crossing. Written in lean, uncomplicated prose, Everyone Knows You Go Home paints an elaborate portrait of the before and after of the immigrant story as told by those who journey it.

The book begins with Omar, the deceased patriarch of the Bravo family, appearing at his son Martin’s wedding in the form of a ghost. Strangely, the only person shocked by this sudden apparition is Isabel, Martin’s new bride and the novel’s most complex character. Because she is the only one willing and able to “see” him, Omar visits Isabel every year on the anniversary of her wedding, which also happens to coincide with the Day of the Dead. Every year, Omar’s plea to Isabel is the same: will she help him reconnect with his family, a wife and two grown children who refuse to forgive his sudden abandonment? Will she help them see the person he was before his death? “Do you know what keeps the dead from really dying, Isabel? It’s just memory. Longing. Being held in the hearts of our loved ones.” Driven by curiosity, Isabel pushes the subject of his disappearance to anyone willing to listen. Her efforts are thoroughly rebuffed—by her mother-in-law, Elda, her sister-in-law, Claudia, and especially by Martin. Each mention of Omar is quieted by a swift subject-change or a brusque wave of the hand. After a particularly encroaching conversation, Isabel finds herself estranged from the family, including her husband, and she learns in the process that the ability to forgive is made complicated by each family member’s perception of the truth.

In a second narrative thread, Omar and his then-pregnant wife, Elda, traverse the span of desert between the US and Mexico alongside two other families. Described as a “place so dangerous even maps had no names for it,” Omar and Elda come away from the experience more physically and mentally marred than how they entered it. With painstaking realism, Sylvester illustrates the heat, exhaustion, and hourly terror suffered by each migrant. Swollen feet are described as “sponges left to soak too long.” Blacked out from fatigue, a woman’s body is “carried over the grass as if she were a hammock draped between two trees.” Though these images paint a lurid picture of border crossing, Sylvester refrains from lending a voyeuristic gaze on human suffering and instead writes of trauma as the threshold through which one must pass on the journey toward elsewhere.

It’s this ongoing journey between two spaces that speaks most vividly of the immigrant experience. Omar is dead, yet his love for his family tethers him to the material world. Without closure, Omar looms in between one realm and the next, neither human nor spirit, with peace gained only after winning his family’s attention. With Omar, Sylvester asserts that duality is inherent in the immigrant identity. To survive, the immigrant must adapt, adhere, assimilate. The immigrant must assuage one culture to make room for a new one. In chapters detailing the past, Omar and Elda fall into the rhythm of American life after crossing into Texas. They coordinate responsibilities, balance a multitude of jobs, tote around two children. Despite their haste to move forward, everything in their lives seems tied to those weeks spent in the desert, their trauma marking a distinct line between them and the rest of the world:

It was in her coffee, steaming and then suddenly cool enough to sip. In between the second-to-last stop along their bus route and the moment it dropped them off blocks from work. In the number of seconds Martin spent suckling at her left breast, then her right. Most of all it was in the bathrooms she cleaned night after night. It didn’t matter if it took her ten minutes or fifteen. The moment expanded, filled time. It lived and breathed and pulled her with it.

Unable to shake the darkest memories of her journey, Elda finds herself straddling two spaces at once, her life stuck in the interim. Much of the book is divided this way. Past and present. Here and there. Dichotomy is the immigrant reality.

The novel also weaves a third-person narration from a single mother who crosses the border alongside Omar and Elda in 1981. It reads a bit like Cristina Henríquez’s community-narrated novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, in that the reader learns of a shared experience from an outside perspective. Though the inclusion of this woman’s voice is an attempt to hone in on the body and trauma, at times these chapters read out of place, especially when wedged between the already-interwoven story of Omar and Elda, Isabel and Martin.

Despite its supernatural beginning, Everyone Knows You Go Home is grounded in the kind of gritty realism lived by every immigrant in this country. Politics are absent. Instead, Sylvester relies on character to illustrate the inherent fragmentation of the immigrant experience, with particular attention placed on undocumented voices. These are people regularly attacked in news and online media, and yet they are rarely given a platform to speak of the circumstances that have forced them to leave home. With so much disdain hurled at Central and Latin American migrants, Everyone Knows You Go Home is a timely, necessary book that challenges its readers by asking: How much empathy can we offer to those whose stories the world has silenced?

Born in Guatemala and raised in Arizona, María Isabel Álvarez received her MFA from Arizona State University. Her stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Sonora Review, Gulf Coast, Puerto del Sol, and Columbia Journal, among other venues, and her poetry can be found in DIALOGIST, Breakwater Review, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Along with Dante Di Stefano, she is the co-editor of the poetry anthology, Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America (NYQ Books 2018). She lives in Arizona and is currently at work on a novel. More from this author →