Making the invisible visible: Husband, wife tell stories of Tucson’s marginalized people

Tucson author Brian Jabas Smith chats after a reading at the Copper Queen Library in Bisbee on Tuesday night.

BISBEE — People pushing carts along roadsides or those pacing and muttering to themselves in public parks are typically hurried past with downcast eyes.

Tucson-based author and journalist Brian Jabas Smith sought out the people overlooked by others, and wrote a collection of essays and columns that brought them into the light.

Those stories were published this fall in “Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections from La Frontera,” by a UK press. Brian and his wife, filmmaker Maggie Smith, visited the Copper Queen Library on Tuesday night to in order to read from the new book, as well as screen an accompanying documentary directed by Maggie.

Releasing “Tucson Salvage” in two different formats was a way to draw a broader audience to the stories of Tucson’s marginalized, said Maggie.

“There’s a lot of literary merit to Brian’s words. He’s a very good wordsmith, and readers are going to fall in love with it,” she said. “But for people who aren’t readers, they can experience being able to meet these people, people who are worthy and deserve some kind of attention.”

Based on the column he writes for alternative newspaper The Tucson Weekly, Brian’s book profiles people found on street corners, at truck stops, on public buses, and other glanced-over parts of the city: some who told of lives marked by seemingly endless struggles and tragedies, and some who barely spoke in the hours he spent with them.

While Brian’s literary voice is strong in the written stories, the documentary is driven only by the words of several people who are also featured in the book, ranging from a Tohono O'odham man with chronic kidney disease to a formerly homeless couple. Maggie chose the stark filmmaking style, almost entirely absent of narration or music, in order to ensure that focus was placed squarely on the people featured, she said.

“There are two sides to people who are intended audience members for this,” said Maggie. “The first side would be the people who directly relate to the actual stories being told. So for those people, if they relate as former prisoners, former junkies, people that feel like their life hasn’t mattered very much, I hope they feel some sort of hope.

“And the second audience is people who, in Cochise County or Pima County, walk by these types of people every day. Maybe it will in some small way change things in the future so they stop to say hello, or see them.”

Even though the stories take place in Tucson, the Smiths feel they will resonate with readers and viewers in other parts of southern Arizona and beyond.

“The stories ended up being sort of universal in a way; they sort of transcend location,” said Brian, who had overcome homelessness and drug addiction himself. “I write mostly about people I feel some kind of kinship with. It sounds corny to say out loud, but they’re all universal struggles. … I’m just writing about people, and I love people.”

The Smiths are currently taking the Tucson Salvage Project on tour, reading stories from Brian’s book and screening the film. Bringing awareness and empathy to the stories of the people featured, and others like them, is the project’s chief priority, they said.

“I didn’t want to write about famous people; I didn’t want to contribute to the noise,” said Brian. “I wanted to write about little people and little lives, and maybe people who are suffering or who have gone to battle one way or another, and wound up on the other side.”

You can find “Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections from La Frontera” on Amazon.com. The documentary, which screened this week at the Culver City Film Festival, isn’t currently online, but is available for screenings (contact Maggie at maggie23@gmail.com if interested.)

More information about the project can be found at www.tucson-salvage.com.

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