John Washington Photo
Travel

Interview: Exposing the Draconian Secrets in the Borderlands

MEET JOHN WASHINGTON

John Washington exemplifies the main theme of BraverGuide, being bold and living courageously. He’s the kind of guy that leaves a good impression, perhaps because he’s book smart and street smart. This interview will touch on John’s writings, how to be a writer while traveling and some of his experiences as a writer/ traveler.

John writes passionately about immigration and border politics, as well as criminal justice, photography, and literature. He is also an award-winning translator, having translated books from Óscar Martinez, Anabel Hernández, and Sandra Rodriguez Nieto, among others. 

His first book, The Dispossessed, traces one Salvadoran man’s search for refuge and explores the global history of asylum, the ancient cultural practices of hospitality and sanctuary, and how contemporary asylum policies leave millions uprooted and unroofed — consigning them to detention, danger, or death. Read excerpts from The Nation, The Intercept, and Bookforum.

The Dispossessed is one of the most beautiful and wrenching books I’ve read in a long time. We are becoming a stateless world, as the combined effects of climate change, war, and struggles of resources push people from their land and their homes. John Washington’s book offers no easy answers, but in its empathy, it is a guide for how we confront the crisis with decency.”

—Greg Grandin, author of The End of the Myth

Hi John, It’s nice to reconnect with you. This site aims to inspire people to live courageously and you have an inspiring story! I appreciate your time! Here we go…

Tell us about your work – how did you land in this profession?

I’ve been writing since early elementary school—mostly fiction, short screenplays, strange essays— but I only got into journalism about a decade ago, after witnessing a Mexican Marine, with an automatic rifle strapped on his back, beat the crap out of a woman in broad daylight on a street in Nogales, Sonora. I was there doing volunteer work with an immigrant-aid organization. One of the men I was with—there were about ten of us—yelled something, and the Marine turned to us and cocked his rifle, and then went back to the woman. About six or so Marines were in a Humvee watching the scene. The open abuse of power was shocking, and I didn’t know how else to at least try to expose that abuse, to try to hold the powerful to account, but by writing about it. A reported essay on the incident became one of my first published pieces of journalism, and for the last five years I’ve been working as a full-time freelancer (with the occasional side-gig thrown in) and have just published my first book.

Your writing is personal, historical and political. What inspired you to research and write about immigration, border politics and criminal justice?
I’ve lived in both southern Arizona and southern California, and not being horrified by the human crisis—the thousands of people dying in search of freedom, family, security as they attempt to cross the border, or the archipelago of detention centers where tens of thousands of migrants are held in miserable conditions—is willful blindness. There is so much misunderstanding about the reality along the border, as well as of the home countries people are fleeing from or leaving, that I found it something like a moral duty to help, to ask, to inform, to be human and welcoming and honest with people—and one of the best ways I know how to do that—one of the best ways I know how to be in the world— is to write.

As countries are getting more nationalistic, immigration policies and border politics will become more convoluted and challenging for people to navigate. Your noble and important work will have an impact. If you could time travel to 2045 what would you like to have accomplished with your writing? 
Ha! Good question. One small thing, I’d like to contribute my share of work in exposing the anti-human travesty of immigration detention centers and shut them down completely. I hear stories of psychological torture, prolonged solitary confinement, gross medical neglect and abuse that takes place in the immigration detention center on a weekly basis. Shutting that down would be one of the impacts I’d like to partake in. 

The Dispossessed by John Washington
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The Dispossessed tells the story of a twenty-four-year-old Salvadoran man, Arnovis, whose family’s search for safety shows how the United States—in concert with other Western “John Washington delivers an absorbing, harrowing, and deeply moving reportage that renders the most thorough and critical assessment of the US asylum system that I have ever read.”
—Todd Miller, author of Empire of Borders

Can you share what your next book will address? 
I’m shopping to publishers a novel about the psychology of kidnapping, adventure tourism, and the drug war. I’m also working on my next non-fiction book, which is about open borders. People on both sides of the political divide have what I see as a shallow and ahistorical understanding of how borders function, where they came from, and what a world without militarized borders might look like. 

You’ve lived in many places;  you were born in New York, raised in Ohio, then went on to live in L.A. Mexico City, the Arizona borderlands and elsewhere. Currently you live in Brooklyn. Why have you moved so much? Is it restlessness, work related or is there a deep-rooted reason for moving like the love of new cultures?
I’d say practically it’s been mostly work and studies-related. But there’s also restlessness, wanderlust, and yes, a curiosity that drives me. What luck I was born in a place that gifts me a passport permitting me to travel practically anywhere on earth with such ease. I can cross the US-Mexico border in a breeze, and have done so hundreds and hundreds of times. Many of the people I report on would be imprisoned and deported for trying to do the same. 

Jiquilisco Bay of the Chaparrastique Volcan
View across the Jiquilisco Bay of the Chaparrastique Volcano.

Photo: John Washington

What advice would you share with writers who are interested in writing full-time or part-time and who want or need to travel for
their writing.
It’s really, really hard. Even harder with a family. (I have a 9 month-old son.) I barely break even. If it weren’t for an obsessive need to read and write that sometimes pulls me out of bed in the middle of the night, or that drives me home from parties, or that gets me antsy for movies to end so I can write, I don’t think I’d be able to survive on it. My advice, first, is to decide to either do it or don’t do it. If you are going to do it, dig in, and get some practical advice from people a few steps ahead of you. I wish I’d done more of the latter in my first couple years.

Writing and traveling seems like a wonderfully romantic life, what are some of the illusions or realities about this lifestyle? Please share the good and bad.
Researching a book on the road, or traveling on assignment, are thrilling to me. (But note the above response on the economic reality.) One thing I love about reporting is getting deep into the mix. I like talking to policy wonks and politicians quite a lot—people who deeply know or are passionate about what they do—but talking to people those policies and politics actually affects is even more rewarding. For example, San Pedro Sula is often listed as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Getting to know that city, making friends there, spending time on the streets, really opened my eyes as to how a politically-infused moniker (“most murderous city,” etc.) distorts the everyday lived reality of a place, of a people. And I feel so moved coming to those truths and realizations. But that truth then runs up against people who simply don’t read your work, or don’t believe you, or who read you through their own politically-tinted glasses.

The web allows some writers to research from the comfort of their homes but I suspect you travel to be in the center of the story? What are the biggest rewards or benefits of traveling to write?
I am deeply committed to centering human stories in my work. I don’t think you can do that without really being in their space, their homes, their environments. That’s been a struggle with covid. I’m reporting a story right now through video calls, and it’s just not the same. I’m missing three senses, maybe four (if you count six). The biggest rewards are the non-essential elements of the story. You can’t get deep in, or can’t do it quickly, if you only talk about the central subject or issue of a story. You have to eat with somebody first, talk about the weather, go for a swim, play soccer, get distracted, goof around (if appropriate) and then you can get to it. All those distractions are really the rewards. I did a long interview a couple years ago in a rural Honduran town with a mother whose son had recently been murdered. It was really hot in her house, and she kept on filling up my glass with kinda-cold, extremely sweet, apple-flavored soda. She kept thanking me, I remember, and sort of didn’t want to let me go. Kept telling me how much her son and I would have gotten along. I realized, after a long while, that she really needed to talk to someone who hadn’t gone through that tragedy with her. I don’t ever presume to play a healing role in my reporting, and obviously sometimes the opposite happens—with retraumatization—but sometimes you really connect with someone, and that long afternoon with that woman was deeply moving to me, and I still think about it fairly often. We kept in touch for quite a while, too. That apple soda, her son’s clothes that were still hanging up, his keys in the key dish. To have witnessed the intensity of her love and her mourning hit me very hard. I don’t know if I would call that rewarding, but it was a connection we both recognized.

John Washington Photo
John Washington is a writer, translator, and activist. A regular contributor to The Nation magazine and The Intercept, he writes about immigration and border politics, as well as criminal justice, photography, and literature.

You’ve traveled to some dangerous areas for your work. What has been your scariest moment while traveling? What has been the greatest or most rewarding moment?
Contracting dengue in El Salvador. I spent a night alone and shivering with fever in a nearly empty hostel curled up on the shared and not very clean bathroom floor—pretty easily my worst moment while researching my book. Maybe not the scariest, but it was just, just so awful. Some of my most rewarding moments were spending time with the family of Arnovis, the main subject of my book. I spent weeks living with them. Playing soccer with his daughter on the beach, finding a sea turtle laying eggs on a completely undeveloped beach at night with a storm crashing along the horizon, and then gathering up under their metal roof as that outrageous tropical storm actually hit. 

Please share any travel hacks or pro-tips. Are there any products or gadgets you can’t travel without?
When I’m traveling for work, I travel very light, which means taking just enough clothes that I need to sink-wash socks and underwear pretty often, especially on longer trips. Fast drying undergarments! A good reporting tip is to play pickup sports. Show up at a field, make a few friends, get to see a different part of the city, a different segment of society. Good for reporting and traveling. 

John Washington Meal buy Arnovis's
A meal offered by Arnovis’s. Photo: John Washington

BraverGuide is also about food, what has been the most interesting thing you’ve eaten while traveling? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten while traveling?
Some of the tropical fruit was fantastic. Have you ever tried a cashew fruit? I never even knew it existed. Imagine a cross between a peach and a pear, with a little sunrise mixed in, and you might be close. 

I ate fried sand-fleas as well. They look like a cross between cockroach and shrimp, and are very crunchy. We ate them fried up in eggs. 

I love photography! Please share what aspect of photography you write about and share any links to your articles. Who are your favorite photographers and why?
Sebastiao Salgado is an inspiration to me. I’m also moved by non-professional photography, and love some of the projects Nicole Fleetwood has been involved with around amateur photography coming out of prisons. 

When the pandemic is over or when we have a vaccine where do you want to travel first and why?
I was supposed to be in Northern Ireland right about now for a conference. I’ve never been, and was going to take the opportunity to visit and research the Irish Border. It used to be a very contentious border, wasn’t for a while, but could become again a site of serious tension or even violence. I’d like to visit Northern Ireland. Next on my list is Colombia. I read about and follow Colombian politics and literature, but have never been.

What else would you like to share, perhaps your website and/or other ways people can contact you?
My website is www.jblackburnwashington.com
I’m easily available via Twitter (@jbwashing) or email (johnbwashington@gmail.com). Please say hi!

More about John >>

“An Exercise in Triage” May 11 2020 • The violence of American asylum policy
Author discussion on Immigration and COVID-19 Journalist John Washington and U.S. history and Chicano Studies Professor Justin Akers Chacon argued for the abolishment of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and changes to the judicial process for immigrants. 

Author Discussion on Immigration and COVID-19
Journalist John Washington and U.S. history and Chicano Studies Professor Justin Akers Chacon argue for the abolishment of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and changes to the judicial process for immigrants. This virtual event was sponsored by Haymarket and Verso books.

2 Comments

  1. Wow, what an amazing read and interesting guy.

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