On Documents, Documentation, Writing and Experience

How does that "relationship" work, I wonder—between documentation and experience? Why do these terms feel adversarial to me in 2018? A document is an innocent text, is it not—a neutral source waiting to be used by an imaginative writer? A document is precisely the "prod" or "primer" which has often sent me into story! But documentation has become a kind of dirty, authoritarian word.

I. The Document

(Etymology: "document" as noun; the Latin root word includes such meanings as "to show, teach, or cause to know")

  1. A document can serve to recover experience a writer cannot otherwise know; the historical document points to human experience. Such a document anchors the imagination of its user. Such a document opens a door, gives access, offers a key.

  2. I had no vision of a past in my father's family, never knew my father's parents, dead in their forties before I was born. My father rarely spoke of them. And then in my own midlife, we found an amazing document: the 1885 U.S. census, which had transposed the family name of H-I-N-Z, into cursive K-I-N-G (an easily imagined mistake!) thanks to a diligent archivist in Topeka, Kansas, who liked puzzles. When that key had been unlocked, they existed for me—these grandparents and the great grandparents whose names I had not known.

For me, they were "dirt-poor Okies" (a sole picture served as my document here) who had lost the farm in the 1930s Depression—grandparents as victims of loss and early death. The 1885 census was a decade after their parents (born in Russia) and grandparents (born near Danzig) had arrived in the U.S. aboard the Teutonia, which left from Hamburg, Germany. Lutherans before they came to the U.S., they joined the Hoffnungsau Mennonite Church in central Kansas and homesteaded 160 acres not far from where I lived 100 years later in central Kansas. The 1885 Agriculture Schedule records their holdings:

160 acres worth $4,000. 840 rods of Hedge fence; planted 120 ac of winter wheat; 15a corn; 1 ac of Irish potatoes, 300 bus corn on hand; 10 ac Prairie under fence; 8 tons tame Hay; 12 tons Prairie Hay cut in 1884; Sold $10.00 in chickens, eggs; made 100 lbs butter; 9 horses; 3 milk cows; 2 other cattle; 11 swine; 2 horses died; 1 other cattle died; 1 swine died; $60 slaughtered animals; 200 peach trees; 2 apple trees; 114 vineyards and 1 dog.

I read and reread that amazing document and then drove to the section of land about 20 miles from my home where these great great grandparents had briefly homesteaded, where they had walked on the land. I imagined 200 peach trees and a vineyard, the hay, the hedge fence that existed there 100 years earlier. This census document gave these ancestors life, allowed me to link them into the family I knew. 200 peach trees! A vineyard!

  1. What documents do you have? What documents have been lost? What documents can you access?

  2. And then there are documents for the silence:

My father never shared his experiences during World War II as a noncombatant interpreter for the U.S. Army riding with officers to liberate Jewish death camps and interrogate German soldiers. His job, to help ferret out those who had been involved with the SS by translating the interrogations. In the green tin bread box that seemed to hold the inheritance from my father's family, I found—among the documents he chose to save from that life he never spoke about—discharge papers, old black and white photos, a leather folder for carrying the papers he had to have on his person as a soldier, foreign coins, military insignia, and, most interesting to me, the picture frame he said a young German soldier made for him—carved of wood, stained and painted with red roses—to hold the picture of my mother, then his fiancée.

That is a story I would like to know or at least imagine. What relationships did he make with those young prisoners? I am prompted to think of his story by the short book I just read, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), by Valeria Luiselli, a translator for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the U.S. She reveals her internal struggle in her knowledge that how she translates the children's answers to the forty questions asked of them to decide whether they should be granted asylum may be the difference between life and death for them.

Another farm document I value is the 1952 soil conservation plan I saw for the first time when I began to dig through my parents' papers. The plan was offered when my parents moved to the acreage at the epicenter of the Dust Bowl in southwest Kansas, which had been left in a decimated state until they found it in 1950. Plant 60 each Austrian pine, green ash, hackberry, cottonwood or Russian olive trees and 175 multi flora roses. We had an Osage Orange hedge where the guineas roosted, and no roses.

Whose purposes do documents serve? The writer's, of course. But also the State's.

Without documentation a person is powerless.

II. Documentation

(Etymology: Documentation, as in "the act of needing proper documents," carries the meaning of "admonition" or "proof")

  1. What if one's experience has no reality or legitimacy without documentation? When is documentation mere certification? Proof you're not lying? Or proof you exist? What if a person's experience must be authenticated by documentation to be perceived as true?

  2. In the Cheyenne tradition of oral history, storytelling is testimony and may evolve; with each telling, a mystery is revealed for a particular audience, especially to the teller. The central story and the climax of Searching for Sacred Ground (2007), based on my interviews with Cheyenne Peace Chief Lawrence Hart, was the reenactment of General Custer's attack on Chief Black Kettle, known as the Washita Massacre. The turning point in Chief Hart's life came when, as a young and naive chief one hundred years after the massacre, Custer's Seventh Cavalry ambushed the Cheyenne people during the reenactment. The Cheyenne forgiveness ceremony which followed—a story Chief Hart had told, even written, in many versions over the years—had become a kind of revelation to him of the myth/code/redemption of forgiveness to be practiced by a peace chief.

    Yet, when I recorded his telling of the story, historians and editors argued that I would need to research and document the authentic version of his story.

    Please find out what is accurate. Did the other old chiefs ask the young Chief Hart to place the blanket over the Cavalry representative or did the old chiefs do it? How did it really happen? Did it really happen? Are there witnesses?

    Here, the demand for documentation misses the point of the story. Indeed, Chief Hart said when I pressed him, that he could no longer recall. The oral telling in Cheyenne life cannot be authenticated or documented. It is, in each telling, a kind of revelation. What did you hear?

  3. Documentation needed for the right to a life. I have just returned from participating in a Mennonite Central Committee-sponsored learning tour (June 2018) to the U.S./Mexican border in Arizona, where a group of writers and artists tried to better understand the immigrant and refugee life stories that result from inhumane U.S. immigration policies. I understand documentation anew as the tool of the powerful.

Refugees from Central America—especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—arrive at the U.S. border (a line drawn according to a document obtained in a transaction of land many years ago, and drawn through the middle of the Tohono O'Odom reservation, a parcel of land granted to the tribe by another document). These refugees come to ask for asylum in the U.S. They have a documented right to cross into the U.S. and ask for a hearing before a judge to plead for asylum by U.S. law. However, they must present documentation deemed adequate in a federal court to prove that their lives are in danger. A judge grants asylum only according to federal government regulations, an ever-changing set of documents. Very recently, for example, the U.S. government has determined that gang violence or domestic abuse, both once legitimate reasons/documentation for requesting asylum, no longer serve the bearer of such documents as reasonable cause for their request.

  1. What documentation is necessary to prove mortal endangerment? "If you don't want to be separated from your children, don't come to our border and cross our line," federal authorities argue. A father answers:

    I knew that there was a chance I could be separated from my son. I had heard it was possible. But I had just removed my son from school as the local gang was threatening to kill him if he did not join. I got the appropriate documentation from the school and headed for the U.S. to save my son's life. I had the documents. Maybe he would be taken from me. Maybe I would be deported. Maybe he would stay and live. It is worth the risk.

  2. You will need a birth certificate, a document proving the child is yours, the mother from Guatemala is told—in order to receive the child separated from you at the U.S. border, a child we no longer believe to be your child now that she is in our custody, the child we took from you in order to punish and thus deter you from attempting to enter this country. How do we know the child we separated you from is yours?

    The Guatemalan child was born at home in a mountain village. What is a birth certificate? How can I prove the child is mine? They are demanding documentation.

  3. My young undocumented friend born in Mexico was not supposed to have been born there. For generations her family moved back and forth over what was once a fairly invisible line between Mexico where her grandmother lived and California where her father's family lived. Her mother was visiting her grandmother in Mexico when her daughter's birth came earlier than expected. But they wanted her to go to school in the U.S. and brought her to California when she was four years old. Today, she is 25, studying social policy in graduate school with her DACA-granted permission (that DACAment!), an American endangered with deportation because she lacks documentation. Whose purposes do documents serve?

  4. In the American classrooms where I have taught, students are instructed to document their sources. These sources represent authority, legitimate thinking, and expert ideas. Too often, complete fidelity to these sources erases the student's voice and critical thinking in favor of rigid adherence to powerful "expert" and prevailing ideas: Did you consult the key authority in the area? The essay assignment, intended to allow the student to demonstrate understanding of a complex issue with the help of experts, results in a compilation of authority and power, correct citation without voice. Whose purposes do such documents serve? Or, rather, why does documentation serve as the point of the writing?

  1. After we had spent three hours with ICE officials at the Florence Detention (and Deportation) Center, we in the MCC study group visited the Florence Project where immigrants receive free legal services. There we learned that no one is guaranteed representation in court and 90% of those requesting asylum go into court alone. There is no public defender system and thus, no real due process. Structural barriers have become nearly insurmountable for the asylum process, which once was easy and fast, and now takes years. The young woman who speaks for the Florence Project says, "Most of the immigrants we encounter just want a chance to tell their story." The documents required of them in a foreign language make that impossible without an attorney. Or at least an interpreter. Whose purposes do these documents serve?

    After we visited the Florence Project, our MCC learning group was given an informal concert by Pablo Peregrina, the wailing troubadour and advocate for migrants who cross the Sonoran desert seeking a life in the U.S. He leaves water in the desert, sings of those who have lost their lives, and remembers his own immigrant pilgrimage in song. The backdrop is somber: the front of a dark Catholic church where Pablo sings under a life-size crucified Jesus hanging in the shadows. Pablo's hoarse voice strains toward a snarling chant as he fiercely strums his guitar to the harsh lyrics he repeats again and again until I want to beg him to stop: "Your papers! Let me see your papers! Your papers! Your papers! Your papers!"

    When documents—as precious information that serves life-giving stories—become part of a certification system without respect for human life in a documentation process designed to thwart the human impulse to live, when the documents which might have saved a life last year are useless this year—according to the dictates of a whimsical government—then we who are certified, though we once shared the same migration journey, must do more than grieve the loss of respect for the refugee's life.

About the Author

Raylene Hinz-Penner

After retiring from a career of teaching Contemporary American Literature and Creative Writing at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas and Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas, Hinz-Penner has been writing about place--the land and its peoples, its history and geography. Her first book, Searching for Sacred Ground: The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite was published in 2007. East of Liberal: Notes on the Land, a “land acknowledgement” about the southwest Kansas Dust Bowl land where she grew up, was published in December 2022. Field Notes on the Levee, a manuscript of poems and field sketches about the Topeka site where she lived for 20 years includes the forced Potawatomi march to Kansas and their early life on the land where Hinz-Penner lived in southwest Topeka. Now living in North Newton, she is an active member of Bethel College Mennonite Church, maintaining wider fellowship status with Southern Hills Mennonite in Topeka.