Elisa Stone Leahy had recently become a parishioner at Columbus Mennonite when Edith Espinal entered into sanctuary at the Clintonville church in October 2017. But in those earliest months, Leahy was unable to assist Espinal in the ways she wanted, since she was in the midst of her own family health scare.
“At the time, my son had just started cancer treatment, and I was completely focused on my boy,” said Leahy, whose son is now five years into remission. “But that was such a difficult time, because he was so little and there was nothing I could do. Sitting next to your kid when he’s battling this big, unknown thing, it’s very hard to feel like you’re in control of anything.”
And so, Leahy turned to creative writing, which offered her both a space where she could be in complete command of the action, and a form in which she could perhaps advance the cause for Espinal and other immigrants experiencing similar hardship. Purchasing a laptop, Leahy began to write wherever and whenever she could snatch time: in the hospital room next to her son’s bed, in the break room at work, sitting in her car in the parking lot outside of gymnastic and soccer practices. Chipping away over a stretch of years beginning in late 2017, Leahy gradually emerged with her debut novel, Tethered to Other Stars, a work of fiction aimed at young readers and out earlier this week via Quill Tree/HarperCollins.
While the book takes inspiration from Espinal and features a character, Luz, who similarly claims sanctuary in a church, the bulk of the action centers on Latina seventh grader Wendy Celestino Toledo. Wendy is a smart, big-hearted girl who harbors a deep fascination with outer space and a wealth of earthly concerns – many of which are related to immigration, racism, and they very real fears some members of her community carry related to their citizenship status.
“I don’t know that writing this book changed my understanding of the [immigration] issue so much as walking alongside my friends going through this changed my understanding of the issue,” said Leahy, who eventually became a key member of Espinal’s support team, filming and releasing alongside her husband, Matthew. “For example, I have not just my experiences with Edith, but I have a friend who I accompanied to an ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) check-in, and while I was there with him, they took him into custody for deportation. I had to leave and go see his wife and little girl and let them know what was happening and then watch them respond to that, and it was an incredibly painful experience. Seeing this family ripped apart definitely impacted my understanding of how these policies affect real people in a very tangible way. And that is something I wrote into the book with Wendy’s family and the experiences they go through.”
Action in the book never feels forced, with Leahy resisting the urge to play events up like a made-for-TV drama and instead centering the tension around the everyday, lived experiences of her characters. Leahy said this was a responsibility she held close to her heart as she wrote, determined to honor these lived experiences and heartbreaks without sensationalizing them.
“I wanted it to feel real, and I wanted these to be characters who experienced joy and healing and community and love,” said Leahy, who also felt a responsibility to share the stories of a community whose vulnerability can leave its members at times unable to speak for themselves. “So often, the public discourse on [immigration] becomes either very logical, like, ‘Here are the facts and here is how it looks,’ or it becomes sensationalized, and you’re focused on the most extreme cases. … The immigrant community is not a monolith, and human beings are such a complex mixture of things. And I think fiction finds a way to pull in those stories, but hopefully in a way that shows some of that complexity and messiness of what it means to be human.”
This was a lesson Leahy learned in part from filming A Shelter for Edith, which reinforced the idea that while the documentary form has great capacity for storytelling, it also has its limits – particularly when it comes to relaying the experiences of those in vulnerable populations, who might not be in a safe enough place to appear on the screen sharing their full truth.
“I’ve had countless stories told to me personally that I could never film or put on the documentary screen. I have immigrant friends still in fear for their lives, worried about gangs in El Salvador who are looking for them,” she said. “And I can’t tell those stories through documentaries, but I can tell those stories through fiction. And that’s what I wanted to do with this book. I wanted to take all of the different threads of stories I’d heard, and the experiences I’ve had, and weave them into something that stands true. It’s fiction, but it speaks truth to folks who may not have an awareness of what those experiences are like.”