Rivermouth. A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration

Publication Date:

June 2023



Original language and publisher

English (USA) | Astra House

Territories Handled

World excl. North America



Rivermouth. A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration


“Amazing… a beautiful conversation about what immigration and migration looks like but also how we come to understand it, whose stories we get to hear and how.” —Traci Thomas, NPR’s Here & Now

“I am fascinated by translation both in theory and practice and it is translation that serves as the foundation of this excellent book that is about borders, and migration and how migration experiences can be so different. It’s part memoir of growing up as the child of immigrants while working with migrants seeking asylum and harbor in the US. Oliva has prescient and deeply intelligent ideas throughout. It’s always a pleasure to see an excellent mind at work.” —Roxane Gay

“Oliva’s excellent debut recounts her experiences volunteering as a Spanish-English translator in an immigration detention center at the U.S.-Mexico border beginning in 2016….With uncut rage and breathtaking prose, Oliva edifies, infuriates, and moves readers all at once. This is required reading. “ —Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

“A timely book by a translator at America’s southern border, Rivermouth is one of the most thoughtful meditations on our nation’s immigration policy in recent memory. Oliva’s Kafkaesque portrayal of her work retelling the traumatic stories of migrants in English for asylum applications will linger long after you’re done reading.”  The Boston Globe

“Mexican-American translator and immigrant justice activist Alejandra Oliva is particularly situated to tell the stories of immigration at the US southern border. She has seen the suffering, the space and the struggles of the people firsthand as she interprets their words for them and now, their experiences for us.”  —Karla J. Strand, Ms. Magazine

“Undeterred by complexity, Oliva presents an accessible narrative electrified by transcripts of official exchanges, raw with emotion, that lay bare the tragic inadequacy of a sterile bureaucratic setting to ever do justice to petitioners in any “credible threat interview.”  —Sara Martinez, Booklist

“A graceful meditation on the unresolved traumas of life in a land where one is often not welcome . . . Evenhandedly and without sentimentality, Oliva urges that we can stand to be both more understanding and more generous.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Alejandra Oliva is a brilliant new voice of her generation, a writer of resistance with echoes of Simone Weil; her attention to immigration justice reaches us as a prayer. Translation in her hands becomes a deeper type of storytelling where bearing witness to injustices of immigration becomes not only a path of political reform but spiritual transformation. Rivermouth is a rich delta of braided essays where we are invited into spaces that break our hearts  and carry us to a place of healing grace.” —Terry Tempest Williams, author of Erosion: Essays of Undoing

Rivermouth is a supremely intelligent account of a translator’s  journey into the Kafkaesque machinery of U.S. immigration and asylum policy. Alejandra Oliva writes with great lucidity and empathy about the fractures at the U.S.-Mexico border and the human drama that plays out there.” —Héctor Tobar, author of Translation Nation

“Alejandra Oliva’s Rivermouth is a document of witness and grace told with devastating clarity and beauty. A beautiful and important book.” —Kate Zambreno, author of The Light Room

Rivermouth is a great gift in a time when migrants are demonized on the shores and borders of wealthy western countries, none uglier than the scar that is the US-Mexico border that was forged through US invasion and annexation, powered by societal white supremacy. Alejandra Oliva has not only written a poetic, gripping, and magnificent book, she is there, on the border, assisting the migrants in their attempts to escape hunger, deadly gangs, and dysfunctional governments, often due to U.S. coups, invasions, occupations, and economic sanctions.” —Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, author of Not “A Nation of Immigrants”

“Subtle, personal, and deeply informative, this is one of those books that catapult you to a place you have never been. Translation is the author’s vocation as well as a metaphor for the in-between spaces that her personal and professional identities compel her to traverse. Alejandra Oliva stands at a literal border and contemplates the metaphorical borderlines language creates, in terms of both the immigrant crisis and her own identity as a bilingual Mexican-American. Driven by a fierce sense of social justice, she is also an exquisitely controlled journalist. Her candid, intimate voice is irresistible.”  —2022 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant judges’s comments

For readers of The Undocumented Americans and The Distance Between Us and fans of Anne Boyer and Maggie Nelson.

The Line Becomes a River meets Tell Me How It Ends in this book about translation, storytelling, and borders as understood through the United States’ “immigration crisis.”

Alejandra Oliva is Mexican American, her family lineage defined by a long and fluid relationship with the border between Texas and Mexico, each generation born on opposite sides of the Rio Grande. A translator advocating for Latin American migrants seeking asylum and American citizenship, Oliva knows all too well the gravity of taking someone’s trauma and delivering it in the warped form the immigration system demands.

In Rivermouth, Oliva focuses on the physical spaces that make up different phases of immigration and looks at how language and opportunity move through each of them. From the river as the waterway that separates the United States and Mexico, to the table as the place over which Oliva prepares asylum seekers for their Credible Fear Interviews, and finally, to the wall as the behemoth imposition that runs along America’s southernmost border.

With lush prose and perceptive insight, Oliva encourages readers to approach the painful questions that this crisis poses with equal parts critique and compassion. By which metrics are we measuring who “deserves” American citizenship? What is the point of humanitarian systems that dole out aid distributed conditionally? What do we owe to our most disenfranchised?

Rivermouth is an argument for porosity. Not just for porous borders and a decriminalization of immigration, but for a more open sense of what we owe one another and a willingness to extend radical empathy. As concrete as she is meditative, sharp as she is lyrical, and incisive as she is literary, Oliva argues for a better world while telling us why it’s worth fighting to get there.

Marketing Information

  • A 2023 Indie Next List Pick
  • Best Nonfiction of 2023 – Kirkus
  • A Summer/Fall 2023 Adult Indies Introduce Pick
  • A 2023 Roxanne Gay Audacious Book Club Pick
  • Winner of the 2022 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant