Today, we are in conversation with Kelsey Freeman, a writer, and educator from Colorado and author of the book No Option but North: The Migrant World and the Perilous Path Across the Border.
Tell us about yourself
I am a writer and educator originally from Colorado, and I am passionate about Indigenous rights, immigration policy, social justice, and public policy. After graduating from Bowdoin College in 2016, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English and study migration in central Mexico, which became the basis for my book, No Option but North: The Migrant World and the Perilous Path Across the Border. When I’m not writing, I focus on equity in education, particularly for Native American students. I currently run a college-readiness program for Native American high school students through Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Oregon. I also live for the mountains, so I spend my free time skiing, climbing, kayaking, and biking.
What was the inspiration behind your book? Specifically, why migration? Is this a personal topic for you?
As a 22-year-old doing research for my undergraduate thesis, I was traveling across southern Mexico to speak with Indigenous leaders. My thesis focused on the evolution of Indigenous social movements across Latin America, but I found myself pulled in another direction. During my research, I couldn’t ignore that Indigenous rights in Mexico were personally bound up in migration. During one particular bus ride across the Chiapas highlands, I met a Mayan man who had been deported from the U.S. Like so many other Indigenous farmers, he had headed north after NAFTA’s implementation, when cheap American goods infiltrated the market and his local farm could no longer compete. After he was deported, his family remained in California, separated from him for decades. “How is it that you can come to my country and study my people when I’ve been consistently turned down for a visa to even visit my family in your country?” He asked me. His question cut to the heart of the issue. Growing up in a small Colorado town with a sizable migrant community, immigration had long felt like a predominant issue. Yet I had never probed into its root causes. At that moment during the bus ride, however, I knew I wanted to return to Mexico and dig deeper into migration. I wanted to be able to answer his question and to show readers in the U.S. the difficult situations our current immigration policies put migrants in.
Was this your first attempt at writing a book?
No Option but North is my debut and first attempt at a book or really any kind of writing for public audiences (unless you count the 200-page Victorian novel I handwrote in fourth grade!). I have, however, always been passionate about writing and the power of stories. As an undergraduate studying political science, I did a lot of analytical writing. I loved the process of writing No Option but North because it allowed me to combine a more creative, narrative approach to telling migrant stories with tidbits of analytical writing to give context into what the policies and practices putting migrants in truly impossible situations.
“This respectful, carefully documented account succeeds in humanizing an issue that often gets obscured by political rhetoric.”PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
It looks like there was a lot of legwork involved in researching this book. How does one go about doing this research? How hard/easy is to take care of the logistics?
For my research, I was so fortunate to make strong connections in Mexico through the support of my Fulbright grant. However, when I arrived in my host city (Celaya, Guanajuato in central Mexico), it was not my plan to write a book. Rather, I went with the idea of interviewing migrants and creating a story exhibit that I might display in my hometown back in the US. Yet I got connected with the local migrant shelter, and for the first couple of months, I just had informal chats with those passing through because I was still getting to know the dynamics of migration. I firmly believed that it should not be migrants’ job to educate me on their realities without my own background knowledge. Once I felt ready, I began formal interviews—recording them, transcribing them, and writing short vignettes. The more I researched and questioned, the more pieces there were to this migration puzzle. I had so many stories that I began to envision it as a book and approach it as such. When I returned from Mexico, I spent another year doing more research into U.S. immigration law, as well as policy issues in Mexico, to weave these stories together into what is now No Option but North.
Do you see your work having any impact on migration policies?
Yes, I hope that No Option but North causes readers to see that by limiting avenues for legal migration and pursuing strategies aimed at deterring them from coming to the US (a border wall, family separation, increased security, etc.), our immigration policy is not only unjust, but its also not sensible. The book highlights that migration is a game of options, or lack thereof. Those that lack certain privileges are more likely to leave their countries but are less likely to have legal avenues for migrating. They then undertake a brutal, violent journey through Mexico and across the border because their alternative choices for survival and decency have run out. While I aim to point out these policy flaws, the purpose of No Option but North is also to cultivate respect and highlight the dignity of migrants as human beings.
What do you enjoy about your writing style?
One of my strengths as a writer is my ability to connect the personal with the political. When I sat with migrants and listened to them describe the brutal violence they endured in their journey north, I felt the weight of that anguish deeply. That empathy comes through in my writing. Yet in describing their stories, my goal is not to “give voice to the voiceless, ”as if migrants don’t have their own voices, or sensationalize trauma and suffering. Rather, my role is to give voice to the structural injustices and inadequacies that render their pain possible in the first place. My style of narrative nonfiction aims to help readers empathize while providing the context necessary to understand the bigger picture.
Now that your book is complete, are there some things you wish you could go back and change?
Especially under the Trump Administration, the world of migration is constantly evolving, so when No Option but North went to press, I knew there would be updates by the time it came out. So I wouldn’t go back and change so much as add. I would like to add more about how migrants have been affected by COVID-19, particularly asylum seekers kept in refugee camps along the border under Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy and those in detention centers, who have no say over their own safety during this crisis. But I am grateful to have these crucial conversations as part of the book launch and (virtual) tour.
Any parting words to our readers?
I encourage readers to order the book through their local bookstore, as many are still doing online orders and need readers’ support now more than ever. If local bookstores are not open, you can order through bookshop.org, which gives most of the profits to local, independent bookstores. You can find out more about the book at kelseyfreemanauthor.com