Dr. Roxana Cazan is an assistant professor of English at Saint Francis University, specializing in comparative ethnic, world, and post-colonial literature and creative writing (poetry). Here, she discusses her latest book, The Accident of Birth.
Can you tell us a little about your book?
The book explores the idea of migration, of movement in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis and the aftermath of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and elsewhere. The poems aim to dispel indifference toward catastrophes and to define migration, whether it be in the context of immigration or of asylum seeking, as a series of abandonments. Nobody chooses migration for fun. Rather, all migrants give up stability, family, careers, belonging, and other things for an ideal that they may or may not achieve.
Why did you choose to write about refugees?
I came to this project via introspection, and began it because I had to do something about the Syrian refugees stopped and beaten at borders in Europe and elsewhere. I am a very privileged individual, who did not really earn much of this privilege. First, I am privileged to be a white person in a society that continues to marginalize people of color, and in which systemic racism continues to define people’s positions and potentials. Second, I am privileged as a Christian in a society where non-Christians are typically misunderstood. Third, I am an educated individual without any student debt, and I think part of that is my merit and part is a privilege. Fourth, I am a citizen of a nation where my vote and my political participation still matter to my leaders. The list continues. Considering all these, I wanted to write a book about a community of people without any of these privileges, in order to inculcate a sense of empathy in the readers. To me, empathy is one of the most outstanding human qualities, but it is not something we are born with. Empathy comes with consistent and very hard work, with moments that unsettle us and make us question and reconsider our value systems. When a person is able to empathize not with someone like themselves, someone in their neighborhood or in their family, but with someone whose identity and history are very different, that’s when this hard work begins! The work should never end. A fantastic way to start this work is by reading.
Why was poetry the medium you chose to tackle this particular subject matter?
I think poetry has an extraordinary capacity to move us emotionally. I will never forget one of the first poems in English that I had to think about—Yusef Komunyakaa’s
“Facing It”, published in his 2001 collection, Pleasure Dome. This is a poem written about the Vietnam War Memorial, and I read the poem years before I was actually able to visit the monument. Having been born in Romania in the 1980s, I am so removed in space and time from the Vietnam War and the ways it impacted the American nation. And yet, this poem brought all the hurt home to me. The fine reflection Komunyakaa describes in the smooth black marble of the memorial is so immediate and so personal, that it is impossible to read this poem and not see your own name mirrored in its dark hue. I will also never forget Aracelis Girmay’s poem
“Arroz Poetica” which describes the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in such personal terms. Mihaela Moscaluic’s poetry pulls at the strings of my heart with so much force, I could just be torn apart. Her 2015 book, Immigrant Model, explores her Romanian upbringing and the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, and came out about the same time I was sending my poem,
“Chernobyl”, to the Allegro Poetry editors. All these poets and more taught me that the only authentic public form I can give my suffering is through poetry. I know we are all taught to be strong and tough, but little room is given for us to acknowledge the things that provoke us emotional pain. Poetry offers a venue for this kind of pain to come out.
Considering today's politically polarized landscape, how do you hope your book will influence those who want to reform immigration?
The immigration ban was created as a method to ensure security, to ensure that no individual with possible ties to terrorism can cross our borders. I think, perhaps, we are willing to give up too much in the name of security, this abstract concept that no one can guarantee. In 2011, I became a citizen of the United States. I applied for citizenship all by myself. I did not consult with lawyers, and I did not need any kind of proof beyond the minimum required. In the courtroom in Indianapolis, IN, that fated September 2011, I became a citizen, no questions asked. Nobody ever suspected me to be unfit. Because of this easy process, I cannot stop but wonder, why me? After all, I used to be a communist, albeit by force. Why am I worthy of American residence and citizenship, but not a Syrian family, who woke up one morning to the terrifying noise of an airstrike, only to collect pieces of themselves minutes later after their home was destroyed by a bomb? Why not this family who lost all hope in their own government, having no one to turn to for help, who is willing to work and build a new life from scratch, and whose lives we turn into sensational Facebook news posts? Why am I worthy of this easy access to becoming documented in the US, but not an Iranian Kurdish farming family, who sat down to dinner one evening this past November, when a powerful earthquake shook the foundations of their home and took away what they had slowly rebuilt since the previous war they survived in the 1980s? I hope this book makes us reconsider people’s worth and the fact that safety should not be a privilege but a human right.
As a professor, what do you hope your students will learn from your book?
I hope my students learn to open up to the rest of the world in service and respect and to understand that what they have now is not a guarantee. Their education has the potential to prepare them to build a world based on fairness and equality for all. The poems depicting people struggling to survive after catastrophes should teach us all that our lives are precious gifts and that our power to speak up should be used to empower those who cannot speak up. In the spirit of
Saint Francis of Assisi, the message of this book is that we should always be our neighbor’s keeper, even when we do not know or like or have ever met this neighbor. Only in this way, in compassion and empathy for all humanity, we can become that someone we are meant to be.
What does this book mean to you, personally?
To be able to publish this book means very much to me, and I hope to inspire more students. I am grateful that I wrote this book here, at Saint Francis University, surrounded by people who believed in me and who continue to value me. I am also grateful to Scott Douglas, my editor and publisher, who read my work and thought it would make for a good book. I am grateful to Alyssa Locke, who took the photo on the book cover. While I continue to be deeply moved by this project, I am excited to start a new one, which is already in the making!
Dr. Cazan's book The Accident of Birth is available for purchase here. Her previous book, Dust & Jewels, can be purchased on Amazon.
Dr. Cazan reads an excerpt from The Accident of Birth on WTAJ's Central PA Live: