Thorpe follows a group of teenagers in a beginner-level English-language-acquisition class in Denver in The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom.
The students whom you chose really illuminate global political issues. How did you decide which families to focus on?
When Jakleen and Mariam walked into the classroom I knew right away that it was interesting to see Arabic-speaking people from Iraq. It was the middle of the Syrian refugee crisis and they were the first students to show up representing the Middle East. As time went on in the school year, the idea of following more than just one family came to mind. I was drawn to Methusella and Solomon from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who were showing up every single day and really starting to excel in the classroom. At that point, I was covering two-thirds of the regions that are producing refugees. I was missing the Southeast Asian part of the story. If you imagine the global refugee crisis as a three-legged stool, I could have all three legs represented if I got to know a family from Burma. That’s how I chose to focus on those particular families.
In the book you mention having a son who is a similar age to some of the students. Did that make it difficult to maintain your journalistic distance?
Throughout my career, I’ve maintained the right journalistic distance and objectivity. But for this book, I wanted to step forward into a more subjective form of writing. In the end, more than a journalist, I am a human being and I feel a moral compulsion to help refugees. And I want the reader to feel that too.
Were you concerned about being able to write about the experiences and cultures of your subjects, which are vastly different from your own?
When I was writing [my previous book] Just Like Us, I was laboring under the illusion that my own background did not matter and that I could write a book about four Latinas, two without legal status, and that I could tell their story as a white person. Over the six years I spent with those young women and then over the decade in which we’ve remained friends, I now comprehend that is total bullshit. I was much more aware of that essential predicament going into this book. It is as much a book about being a white person of privilege in the U.S. as it is a book about refugees.
The backdrop of this book is the 2016 presidential election. Did Trump’s victory speed up your writing process?
Absolutely. I turned the book in Jan. 1, 2017. My original deadline was June 30, 2017. I felt an urgency. Nationally, the conversation we are having about the refugee crisis is too shallow. It is risky for us as a nation and it is risky for the whole entire world because we are a superpower. We need to do a better job. I needed to write a book so that people can understand everything at a deeper level.