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Words that Heal: Solito by Javier Zamora

Registration is open to our Author Talk Series, an event free and open to the public! Our guest, Javier Zamora will discuss his New York Times best-selling book Solito with moderator, Rutgers English department faculty member, Ben Purkert. Zamora will share his immigration journey with us and explore how identity influences our idea of home and brings humanity and warmth to the figure of the “immigrant.”

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Language is power. The nine-year-old self of author Javier Zamora’s masterpiece entitled Solito: A memoir must face how vulnerable and helpless he has become during his solo journey from El Salvador to La USA. A “migrant child,” the protagonist-narrator doesn’t fully comprehend what’s going on around him. Nevertheless, he experiences all the horror of the events, too much to process during the journey – and later too. His desire to reach the land of promise and reunite with his parents is greater than anything, keeping him strong along the way.

Little remains for the young boy on his own, as he gradually loses his familiar points of reference, among them, language. “Mother tongue” is a beautiful phrase, expressing the fact that, ideally, we learn our first language from mom. It’s the language to equip a child with confidence against the world; it’s the language that will help the adult talk about the horror he survived as a child, once he is strong enough to return to his nine-year-old self.

During the trip his mother tongue, Salvadoran Spanish, becomes more than just a risk factor. His usual words don’t work in the new environment, other than with a few trusted fellow travelers. Language puts him and his group in grave danger in every new Spanish-speaking community. He learns new words, spelling out the longer ones syllable by syllable, words that no nine-year-old should know. He is on the road that every immigrant has to go through from losing one language to some extent while gaining another one later, but never comfortable with either for a long time. Just like an immigrant never feels comfortable and at home in either culture, even if they are at home.

During the trip, the young boy picks up some English too. One of the first new words – the f-word – is probably not the one an ESL teacher will consider a top priority, but it fits their situation that often calls for multi-functional expletives. Little does he know that once he reaches his new home, his limited English language proficiency will cause him to be bullied, considered dumb for not understanding something and laughed at for pronouncing words funny, because he learned them from a book. However, he will excel in math, his brain will absorb new concepts and words like a sponge and his multilingual mind will find connections where others can’t see one. Eventually, this little boy will grow up to beat many native speakers in grammar and style.

Cover art

Selected as a book for “Read with Jenna” (Today Show)

It must have been an incredibly long journey for Zamora, as he refused to speak at all in either Spanish or English while finding his own language to talk about his innermost feelings in everyday conversation, therapy, and poetry, such as in Nocturne and Second Attempt Crossing. The end result is Solito, a book that still radiates joy through the language, in the mindset of a nine-year-old. Positioning himself in his own shoes as a child probably made the author relive the trauma, but helped Zamora share his story in the most authentic language. A language that, hopefully, helped him as an adult to process, rather than suppress, his past and unearth and conquer his mixed feelings by creatively harnessing the language of code-switching immigrants. A language that reminds the reader of other young characters from autobiographical novels: the Jewish boy Georg Köves in Fatelessness written by Nobel laureate Imre Kertész and the little boy in Szilárd Borbély’s The Dispossessed. The world they are trying to describe is perfectly reflected by the narratability of the book, whether through a post-Holocaust, atonal language, in a regional dialect or Zamora’s bilingual approach.

With its rich language, Solito would be the perfect choice for book clubs and bibliotherapy. The engaging story of superheroes among us provides insight and motivation to read more on current issues on immigration and advocacy. It may also resonate with diverse readers in search of discussing more perennial topics such as trauma, loss, and betrayal, or compassion, solidarity, and finding joy amidst the worst crisis. Most importantly, the text not only evokes emotions from anger to empathy, but it also provides perspectives. The authentic voice brings about the feeling that one is “not alone,” that others are sharing a similar experience. The main benefits of Solito for the reader are probably the same as for the author: discovery and transformation, where the journey, i.e., reading or writing, through the power of language is more important than the destination.

Solito proves the old adage that the style is the man himself. ¿Verdad, bicho?

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Related Resources

Interviews with Javier Zamora

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