Arizona's controversial SB 1070 is the latest example in a long history of exclusionary immigration policy in the United States. The Arizona law attempted to permit police the right to detain anybody suspected of being in the country without authorization as well as making it a crime for immigrants not to carry proof of citizenship at all times. Those two parts of the law were blocked by a federal judge on July 28.
The law's opponents claim that it is a gross violation of civil liberties, which will lead to racial profiling against the state's Latino population, while its supporters claim that it is a necessary tool in stopping the rise of illegal immigration within the border state. The law is predicated upon the assumption that certain immigrant populations pose a threat to both the capitalist economy and the national identity within the United States.
These kinds of nativist sentiments have their direct historical antecedent in the Chinese Exclusion Laws of the 1800s, which effectively banned the immigration of all people of Chinese descent, and the Immigration Act of 1924, which established a quota system that privileged Northern and Western European immigrants over Southern and Eastern Europeans and Asians.
The recently re-published novel, "Water Ghosts," by author Shawna Yang Ryan, is set in the Chinese immigrant farming community of Locke, Calif., in 1928, in the aftermath of these repressive acts of legislation. One of the effects of these laws was to prevent Chinese women from joining their husbands who had previously emigrated to the United States. Denying married couples the ability to be together turned towns like Locke into communities of bachelors, populated almost entirely by men, with the exception of the white prostitutes who operated the town brothel. Ryan's novel begins when three mysterious Chinese women arrive in Locke one day on a boat, floating through the mists of the Sacramento River. When one of these women turns out to be the wife of Richard Fong, the proprietor of the town's gambling parlor, the mystery deepens and the people of the town begin to suspect that these women may possess powers beyond the realm of understanding.
Ryan's novel combines elements of myth and fantasy with historical realism in a style that is dreamlike and yet firmly grounded in the substance of history. Her characters are vividly drawn and their stories provide the reader with insight into a period of our nation's history that often goes untold. Originally published as "Locke, 1928" by the small press El Leon Literary Arts, the book was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and was recently re-released as "Water Ghosts" by Penguin Books. Ryan spoke with Real Change by phone after finishing up a West Coast book tour, discussing the balance of historical and aesthetic elements within her novel, and the power of fiction in enriching our understanding of history.