For most of his life, Jeff Biggers has been on his way home. The author and activist has navigated multiple worlds to chronicle the forgotten Americas—the obscure, the misunderstood, or the proudly resistant communities in Appalachia and the southwestern border lands. As a politically inspired journalist in the tradition of folk historians like Studs Terkel, Biggers has unearthed nuggets of rebellion, even radicalism, in places that the media tend to write off as backwaters or mythologized clichés. In his new book, State Out of the Union, Biggers examines a region he’s been entangled in a “love-hate affair” with since boyhood.
In elucidating Arizona, Biggers sculpts a narrative of cultural and social conflict centered on a tumultuous struggle over immigration and racial politics. Looking beyond the headlines about the state’s various anti-immigrant policies, including the notorious “papers, please” SB 1070 law, Biggers finds strange continuity in Arizona’s evolution as an embodiment of the country’s contradictions. Though the face of Arizona is changing, alongside the nation’s diversifying demographics, the rifts of race, gender and age resonate with the state’s fraught history as the ultimate borderland—and as a muse for storytellers seeking crooked plot lines.
In this Q&A, Biggers, a longtime CultureStrike contributor, talks with editor Michelle Chen about the origins of the book and his meandering journeys in journalism and politics. (Note: Asian American Writers Workshop is hosting an event on Biggers’s new book on September 24 in New York City.)
Michelle Chen: What was the genesis of this book? What led you to Arizona?
Jeff Biggers: I’ve had a love-hate affair with Arizona since my family arrived in Tucson in 1970 in my Dad’s old ’60 Chevy, fleeing the demise of the Midwestern coal towns, intent on finding a new life in the “Sun Belt.” Within a short time, I found myself on a local TV program, discussing Arizona history as a school kid. I’ve never stopped investigating the state’s unique history. In 1991, after living out of the region for a decade, I did a “walkabout” and oral history project in the Sonoran Desert (borderlands), trying to understand our indigenous, Mexican, immigrant and pioneer cultures. I’ve also lived on the other side of the US-Mexico border, which I chronicled in my book, In the Sierra Madre. Nearly forty years after my family’s arrival—and all of my immediate family still lives in Arizona—I was outraged by the rise of political interlopers and an extremist state legislature that passed Arizona’s punitive immigration law (the infamous SB 1070 “papers, please” law) in 2010, and then crafted a bill to outlaw Mexican American Studies in Tucson. As a cultural historian, that was the last straw for me; this wasn’t “my Arizona,” and I felt I needed to go home, recover some of the lost voices in the state’s history, and chronicle a new chapter over the civil rights showdown taking place today.
I think a lot of writers like myself, raised in Arizona, felt the same in 2010: What’s the matter with Arizona? Read the rest of this entry →