Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Q&A with Roxana Arama




Roxana Arama is the author of the new novel Extreme Vetting. She lives in Seattle, Washington.


Q: What inspired you to write Extreme Vetting, and how did you create your characters Laura and Emilio?


A: The idea for Extreme Vetting came up in a conversation I had in October 2018 with my husband. A few months before, I had watched a video of the president of the United States at a rally, where he compared immigrants to venomous snakes that should be crushed underfoot. The crowd loved it, and I was horrified. Dehumanizing the other is the first step toward violence.


When I later talked to my husband, he suggested I write a book about what it feels like to be an immigrant. I immediately started envisioning that story. It wouldn’t just be my next project. It would be a way for me to push back against that hateful rhetoric and to reassert the humanity Trump had denied people like me.


Laura Holban is an immigration lawyer and a single mom. She’s dedicated to her clients, her teenage daughter, and her mother back in Romania. I used some of my own experience as an immigrant for her backstory and for her day-to-day interactions, but she’s a fictional character. I’m a former software developer; she’s a lawyer.


I knew right away who she must be, because an attorney working for a client whose life is in danger has the potential for a page-turner. Plus, courtroom drama is always compelling.


For Emilio Ramirez, I studied news articles to understand the tragedy of forced migration. In an early draft, Emilio fled Guatemala because of a drug lord, but an editor I worked with challenged me to find something other than drugs and weapons to use in my story.


So I came up with a black-market data broker and the subplot of stolen Mayan artifacts. Which helped me further explore the theme of ancestral purity, which negatively influences our current political discourse.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I didn’t know what would happen with each character beforehand. Once I approached the climax in my outline, I realized some of my characters couldn’t survive it. I hated making those decisions, but I knew that, without them, the book wouldn’t authentically depict the current state of immigration. If things weren’t that bad for people forced to migrate, why would they put their lives in danger and flee?


I also needed some closure in the end—because this is a novel, not a reportage—so I tied up some plot threads that most likely wouldn’t be resolved so neatly in real life.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I did a lot of research for Extreme Vetting, followed by rounds of sensitivity reading. I started by interviewing an immigration lawyer, who then answered follow-up questions as I edited the manuscript. I also studied court documents about two criminal cases prosecuted in Washington state against ICE officials, who were later sentenced to prison for defrauding undocumented immigrants.

I read news stories, some recommended by friends and family. I read books about the native cultures of my characters. I continued studying Spanish (which is a Romance language, like Romanian). And I was alert to any developments in US immigration. I even interviewed a real estate agent for the conflict over Emilio’s house.


It surprised me that, even though I’d gone through the permanent residency process twice, I still needed help understanding when something in my novel fell under the jurisdiction of one federal agency or another. Immigration law is complicated, and it’s quite different from criminal and civil law.


For instance, someone is considered innocent until proven guilty, right? Not in immigration law. A person is considered guilty if they crossed the border illegally or they overstayed their visa, and the lawyer must convince the judge not to deport them, while accepting removability.


This aspect changes court dynamics, where the burden is not on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond any reasonable doubt, but on the defense to convince the judge their client deserves legal status.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I hope readers get a sense of what it feels like to be part of the US immigration process. It’s a slog, with many moving parts, in which people’s lives get crushed every day. It’s not at all the easy process politicians describe in their polarizing speeches.


People don’t just leave their homes and families behind for fun. There’s always trauma involved in abandoning your native country and trying to build a home in a new land. Many immigrants never feel at home in their adoptive countries, no matter how long they live there. Children of immigrants are trapped between two worlds, unable to find role models and to feel like they belong in their native country.


Immigration is a complex, heartbreaking subject, and I hope my novel helps readers grasp some of the nuances that are left out in our current public discourse.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I completed a historical fantasy about a princess who lives in a kingdom on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, a realm based on the ancient maps of Romania and Ukraine. When she is sent away by her father, she ends up changing the religious order of her new kingdom. She’s the archetype of the immigrant who alters the culture of their adoptive country.


And I’m now revising a sci-fi about the creation of androids in an alternate history where the Roman Empire lasted another thousand years. When the androids can’t get basic human rights on Earth, they must find a new home somewhere else.


It’s another immigration story, but this time with androids and spaceships. It was inspired by recent developments in AI and neuroscience and informed by my degree in computer science with a major in artificial intelligence.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The publication date of Extreme Vetting is Feb. 7, 2023, exactly 22 years since the day I arrived in Seattle as an immigrant from Romania with a job in software development. The story in the thriller also happens mostly in the month of February, another coincidence.


There were moments when I thought I couldn’t get this book published. But with the help of my family and friends, and also people in the publishing industry who believed this was a story worth telling, we managed to make Extreme Vetting a reality. But it couldn’t have happened without them.


As an immigrant, this sense of belonging to a supportive community and of working on something timely and meaningful kept me going. I’m grateful to everyone who helped me along the way.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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