For Refugee Week in the UK, organizers are asking people to do 20 Simple Acts to celebrate 20 years of Refugee Week. Number 9 is “Read a Book About Exile”:
1) Reflections on Exile, Edward Said. From this modern classic on exile:
Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever.
In Refugee Tales, which was published by Comma Press last month, readers are asked to follow the paths of anonymous refugees: we escape slavery, twice; we pay a smuggler to take us on a rickety boat; we hide more than a month in the back of a lorry; and we spend half a lifetime in the UK, working and paying taxes, and then are thrown in detention.
Yet in her chapter, The Detainee’s Tale, Scottish writer Ali Smith reminds us that we are also not them. Smith is one of 14 poets and prose artists who relay the stories in Refugee Tales, crafted in an echo of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; stories told by a group of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury Cathedral, written in the late 14th century.
Syrians appear in the most unlikely places in the new collection Refugees Worldwide: Literary Reportage, compiled by Luisa Donnerberg and Ulrich Schreiber. The recurring presence of Syrians is not apparent from the book′s table of contents – only one of its fourteen literary essays was written by a Syrian. The essays, by authors around the world, explore the stories of Salvadoran refugees in Belize; Haitian refugees in Brazil; Hazaran refugees fleeing Pakistan; Ukrainians seeking refuge inside the Ukraine; and a lone Congolese man who fled to Tokyo.
Yet, in the unlikeliest of paragraphs, we find Syrians. They often don′t appear as individuals, but as a group against which other refugee stories are measured. Syrians become a counterpoint or complaint, or, in one essay, they appear just to emphasise that the refugees depicted are not Syrian.
You want to visit your mother on a feast day?
For several long months you have not visited your mother and father and brothers in a village that is no more than an hour’s distance away. This time you make a real effort to choose your words in the letter you send to the police. You write, “Please take into consideration the sincerity of the human feelings that lie behind this request and my hope that you will not see in them anything that goes against the careful efforts you exert in guarding the security of the State and in fulfilling the requirements for defending the safety of the public. In seeking your assent for a permit to visit my family during the holidays I am hoping that you will see the point that the security of the State does not in the slightest degree contradict human feelings.”
Your friends leave the city, and you remain behind to drink your coffee and feel sad all alone. There will be family reunions everywhere tomorrow, and you have no right to go to anyone’s home. You remain by yourself.
5) African Titanics, by Abu Bakr Khaal. Khaal is a refugee who left Eritrea for Denmark. His novel follows his characters “through the Sahara Desert, to cramped refugee hideaways, to prisons and ghettos, out onto the frightening leaky ships of the Mediterranean—these are great, fast-moving Odyssean adventures.” These are the songs of refugees from all across the region, most of whom sink in one way or another. Translated by Charis Bredon.
6)Madman of Freedom Square, by Hassan Blasim, and particularly the story “The Truck to Berlin.”Blasim is an Iraqi refugee who found his way to Finland. From the collection This terrifying story tells of a truck full of refugees rushing through a Serbian forest, pursued by the border police. Translated by Jonathan Wright.
7) Men in the Sun, by Ghassan Kanafani. Another classic: Kanafani was a Palestinian writer who lived, and was assassinated in, Lebanon. The novella Men in the Sun follows three Palestinians fleeing Lebanon’s refugee camps for Iraq with the goal of reaching Kuwait. They are smuggled across the desert in the empty barrel of a water tanker truck. Translated by Hilary Kilpatrick.
Hisham Matar’s new memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between is several books at once, depending on which way you hold it to the light. Any text depends on the light a reader’s gaze lends it. Yet The Return is particularly, dazzlingly multiple: memoir, geography, biography, journalism, literary criticism, and dark historical thriller.
The effect is startling in The Return’s brief 240 pages, but Matar achieves it, in part, by folding in so many other books. We can unfold many of them and pull them out, like the hidden rooms of a child’s pop-up book. Most of these rooms themselves contain further hidden spaces, which extend not just the story of fatherhood and Matar’s family, but of modern Libya.
9) I Saw Ramallah, by Mourid Barghouti. Another classic of exile literature, this is the only memoir to have won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for literature. Translated by Ahdaf Soueif. From an excerpt on the Penguin Canada website:
It is very hot on the bridge. A drop of sweat slides from my I forehead down to the frame of my spectacles, then the lens. A mist envelops what I see, what I expect, what I remember. The view here shimmers with scenes that span a lifetime; a lifetime spent trying to get here. Here I am, crossing the Jordan River. I hear the creak of the wood under my feet. On my left shoulder a small bag. I walk westward in a normal manner–or rather, a manner that appears normal. Behind me the world, ahead of me my world.
Books about exile for adults, list by Refugee Week
Fiction books for children and young people, list by Refugee Week
Books about refugees and asylum seekers for children and young people, BookTrust