April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Jose Antonio Vargas lands deal for second book on immigrants

“How do you define American? Where do Latinx, Asian and mixed race people fit in the white and Black racial binary?”

These are among the questions Jose Antonio Vargas has grappled with since 1993, when he moved from the Philippines to Mountain View, Calif., at age 12, sent by his mother to live with his grandparents. But it was in the 8th grade, while reading Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel “The Bluest Eye,” that something shifted inside of him.

“Imagine a Filipino kid trying to understand why this young Black girl wanted blue eyes,” he said. “That book exploded like a bomb in my head.”

Almost a decade ago, the journalist became the headline when Vargas revealed in an essay that he had never had legal status. In 2018 came his memoir, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.” Now 39, Vargas has made a deal for his second book, “White Is Not a Country,” on an equally urgent theme.

In the new work, which Pantheon Books will publish in 2023, Vargas will explore race and identities like his — neither Black nor white — through historical research, interviews, reportage and analysis. He’ll examine what it means to be American through the lens of immigrants from around the world, interviewing historians, politicians, activists, artists, producers and others.

“All of us are trying to understand where we fit in this urgent, unprecedented time in American history,” said Vargas in a phone interview Wednesday. “I think all Americans, documented or not, are struggling to figure out where we fit in conversations around race and identity. My hope is that by writing this book, I will be having this conversation with the reader. What’s our role? Because everyone has a role. There’s no opting out.”

“White Is Not a Country” is the first book approved by Lisa Lucas, the new publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books, imprints of Penguin Random House. Lucas was previously the executive director of the National Book Foundation, which hands out the prestigious National Book Awards. She announced in June that she was stepping down to join the book publisher after serving the foundation for nearly five years; she is the first Black woman in both roles.

“For this book to be the first thing that I’m asked to OK and to say ‘Yes! This makes sense for the list that we’re building, for the future,’ was so lucky,” said Lucas. “This book is authoritative. It’s bold. And it’s unique. So many of the ideas that we get are regurgitated.”

Simple as the title is, “White Is Not a Country” reflects a profound idea, said Lucas. “It’s also really radical to say that you can’t just be white and I have to be Puerto Rican or Chinese or from someplace else — and you get to just own it just because you’re white. That’s a radical reimagining of the way we think of things.”

Vargas and his agent sent the book proposal to dozens of publishers just hours before the deadly insurrection on Jan. 6, when a white mob of Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol. They met with 13 publishers, but it was Vargas’ meeting with Lucas and Erroll McDonald, the executive editor of PRH’s Knopf Doubleday division, that sealed the deal. McDonald will edit the book.

“My first impression [reading the proposal] was: ‘Every publisher worth its salt is going to be interested in this, but I’m doing this book,’” McDonald said in an email. The esteemed editor has published some of America’s most influential writers and thinkers, including Morrison, James Baldwin, Salman Rushdie and Kary Mullis.

“The book speaks to me personally because it is about, among other things, who is an American,” said McDonald. “I identify as a Caribbean Black from Costa Rica, who after decades as a green card holder decided to seek the protections of American citizenship because of the ascendance of white supremacy.”

Jose Antonio Vargas speaks to students at a dedication ceremony for Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School in Mountain View, Calif., on Aug. 15, 2019.

(Define American)

Vargas’ American existence was particularly precarious. Born in 1981, he spent his first four years in the U.S. believing he was a legal resident. It wasn’t until he was 16, when he tried to get his learner’s permit at a DMV in the Bay Area, that he found out the truth: The green card he had was fake. His grandfather later confirmed he’d purchased forged documents.

As a reporter, Vargas was part of a team at the Washington Post that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting. Three years later, as the U.S. Congress debated the DREAM Act, he shared his status in the New York Times Magazine. A year later, President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, granting a reprieve for immigrants who had come to the U.S. as minors. Vargas was three months too old to qualify.

But the journalist’s career flourished. He produced and directed the documentaries “Documented” and “White People” and co-produced Heidi Schreck’s play “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which was nominated for a Tony Award. Several years ago, an elementary school named after Vargas opened in Mountain View.

He founded the nonprofit Define American, which works to diversify media and entertainment programming. And he has traveled across the country speaking to conservatives and progressives, high schoolers and college students in an effort to humanize conversations about immigrants.

The title for “White Is Not a Country” was inspired by Vargas’ conversation with a student at the University of Georgia in 2012.

Vargas had asked the young man where he was from — a question people of color are often asked. The student responded: “I’m white.”

“But white is not a country,” replied Vargas. “Where are you from?” He repeated.

“And then there was this pause that was so pregnant that it gave birth to itself,” recalled Vargas. “To me, that silence is the need for actual introspection. And that is where the book is going to live. In that introspection. In that silence.”