Mem Fox on be­ing de­tained by US im­mi­gra­tion: ‘In that mo­ment I loathed Amer­ica’

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL -

Iwas pulled out of line in the im­mi­gra­tion queue at Los An­ge­les air­port as I came in to the USA. Not be­cause I was Mem Fox the writer – no­body knew that – I was just a nor­mal per­son like any­body else. They thought I was work­ing in the States and that I had come in on the wrong visa.

I was re­ceiv­ing an hon­o­rar­ium for de­liv­er­ing an open­ing key­note at a lit­er­acy con­fer­ence, and be­cause my ex­penses were be­ing paid, they said: “You need to an­swer fur­ther ques­tions.” So I was taken into this hold­ing room with about 20 other peo­ple and kept there for an hour and 40 min­utes, and for 15 min­utes I was in­ter­ro­gated.

The bel­liger­ence and vi­o­lence of it was re­ally ter­ri­fy­ing. The room was like a wait­ing room in a hospi­tal but a bit more grim than that. There was a no­tice on the wall that was far too small, say­ing no cell­phones al­lowed, and any­body who did use a cell­phone had some­one stand in front of them and yell: “Don’t use that phone!” Ev­ery­thing was yelled, and ev­ery­thing was pub­lic, and this was the most aw­ful thing, I heard things hap­pen­ing in that room, hap­pen­ing to other peo­ple, that made me ashamed to be hu­man.

There was an Ira­nian woman in a wheel­chair, she was about 80, wear­ing a lit­tle mauve cardi­gan, and they were yelling at her – “Ara­bic? Ara­bic?” They screamed at her “ARA­BIC?” at the top of their voices, and fi­nally she in­tu­ited what they wanted and I heard her say “Farsi”. And I thought heaven help her, she’s Ira­nian, what’s go­ing to hap­pen?

There was a woman from Tai­wan, be­ing yelled at about how she made her money, but she didn’t un­der­stand the ques­tion. The of­fi­cer was yelling at her: “Where does your money come from, does it grow on trees? Does it fall from the sky?” It was aw­ful.

There was no toi­let, no water, and there was this woman with a baby. If I had been holed up in that room with a pouch on my chest, and a baby cry­ing, or need­ing to be fed, oh God . . . the agony I was sur­rounded by in that room was like a ra­zor blade across my heart.

When I was called to be in­ter­viewed I was reread­ing a novel from 40 years ago – thank God I had a novel. It was The Red and the Black by Stend­hal – a 19th cen­tury novel keeps you quiet on a long flight, and is great in a cri­sis – and I was buried in it and didn’t hear my name called. And a woman in front of me said: “They are call­ing for Fox.” I didn’t know which booth to go to, then sud­denly there was a man in front of me, heav­ing with weaponry, stand­ing with his legs apart yelling: “No, not there, here!” I apol­o­gised po­litely and said I’d been buried in my book and he said: “What do you ex­pect me to do, stand here while you fin­ish it?” – very loudly and with shock­ing in­so­lence.

The way I was in­ter­viewed was mon­strous. If only they had been able to look into my suit­case and see my books. The irony! I had a copy of my new book I’m Australian, Too – it’s about im­mi­gra­tion and wel­com­ing peo­ple to live in a happy coun­try. I am all about in­clu­siv­ity, hu­man­ity and the one­ness of the hu­mans of the world; it’s the theme of my life. I also had a copy of my book Ten Lit­tle Fin­gers and Ten Lit­tle

Toes. I told him I had all these in­clu­sive books of mine in my bag, and he yelled at me: “I can read!”

He was less than half my age – I don’t look 70 but I don’t look 60 ei­ther, I’m an older woman – and I was stand­ing the whole time. The bel­liger­ence and vi­o­lence of it was re­ally ter­ri­fy­ing. I had to hold the heel of my right hand to my heart to stop it beat­ing so hard.

They were not apolo­getic at any point. When they dis­cov­ered that one of Aus­tralia’s of­fi­cial gifts to Prince Ge­orge was Ten Lit­tle Fin­gers and Ten Lit­tle Toes, he held out his hand and said: “It’s been a plea­sure to meet you, Ms Fox.” I was close to col­lapse, very close to faint­ing, and this nearly broke me – it was the creepi­est thing of all.

I had been up­right, dig­ni­fied, cool and po­lite, and this was so cru­elly un­ex­pected, so ap­palling, that he should say it was a plea­sure. It couldn’t have been a plea­sure for him to treat me like that, un­less he was a psy­chopath.

In that mo­ment I loathed Amer­ica. I loathed the en­tire coun­try. And it was my 117th visit to the coun­try so I know that most peo­ple are very gen­er­ous and warm-hearted. They have been won­der­ful to me over the years. I got over that ha­tred within a day or two. But this is not the way to win friends, to do this to some­one who is Australian when we have sup­ported them in ev­ery damn war. It’s ab­so­lutely ou­tra­geous.

Later in the ho­tel room I was shak­ing like a leaf. I rang my friend, my Amer­i­can ed­i­tor and bawled and bawled, and she told me to write it all down, and I wrote for two hours. I fell asleep think­ing I would sleep for eight hours but I woke up an hour and a half later just sob­bing. I had been sob­bing in my sleep. It was very trau­matic.

After I got back to Aus­tralia I had an apol­ogy from the Amer­i­can em­bassy. I was very im­pressed, they were very com­fort­ing, and I’ve had so many mes­sages of sup­port from Amer­i­cans and Amer­i­can au­thors.

I am a hu­man be­ing, so I do un­der­stand that these peo­ple might not be well-trained, but they now have carte blanche to be as hor­ri­ble and bel­liger­ent as they want. They’ve gone mad – they’ve got all the power that they want but they don’t have the train­ing.

They made me feel like such a crushed, mashed, hope­less old lady and I am a feisty, strong, ar­tic­u­lated English speaker. I kept think­ing that if this were hap­pen­ing to me, a per­son who is white, ar­tic­u­late, ed­u­cated and flu­ent in English, what on earth is hap­pen­ing to peo­ple who don’t have my power?

That’s the heart­break of it. Re­mem­ber, I wasn’t pulled out be­cause I’m some kind of rev­o­lu­tion­ary ac­tivist, but my God, I am now. I am on the frontline. If we don’t stand up and shout, good sense and good will not pre­vail, and my voice will be one of the loud­est.

That’s what it has taught me. I thought I was an ac­tivist be­fore, but this has turned me into a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. I’m not let­ting it hap­pen here. In­stead of cry­ing and be­ing sad and sit­ting on a couch, I am go­ing to write to politi­cians. I am go­ing to call. I am go­ing to write to news­pa­pers. I am go­ing to get on the ra­dio. I will not be quiet. No more pas­sive be­hav­iour. Hear me roar.

Mem Fox is an Australian writer of chil­dren’s books.

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