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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We called him Tran. Apart from being tall he had Vietnamese characteristics: thin, dark haired, dark eyed, quiet. He held himself aloof from the other young people in his Year 9 class. He caused no trouble until one day I was summoned as his Head of Year to an incident in which he had turned on another boy. ‘All I did, Miss, was this.’ The other boy mimicked holding an automatic weapon, aiming at me. ‘He just flipped.’

Tran was one of the boat people. We knew very little of his story. He spoke so little. But he told me that his response has been a reflex action to the attack by his class mate when he turned the imaginary weapon on him. PTSD was hardly recognised in the early 1980s. Who knew what horrors he had witnessed? Looking back I do not feel I gave Tran enough support. So Tran, this is for you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen may have had some idea of what Tran had been through. The stories in the collection all concern refugees of Vietnamese origins.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is collection of eight short stories, which have in common the effects on families and individuals of the Vietnamese refugee exodus of the 1980s. Published in 2017, they describe the enduring effects of the experiences of migration, and the specific experiences of the characters. Children might be thought to be more capable of adapting to change and new countries and sometimes are ignorant of their parents’ past. But children thread their way through this collection and some have had experiences that will damage them forever. For some refugees the healing will be slow and we come to see their truth – that the new life in America may not be so great.

The stories are written with great care, sympathy and tenderness, yet they are never sentimental or melodramatic. It’s a little like watching wildlife: look, Nguyen seems to say, look quietly and you will see beauty and endeavour and brutality and you will learn.

The sparseness of the title is indicative of the tone of the stories. They are also intense in their depiction of what the experiences of migration can mean for identity, relationship within families, between generations, within the American-Vietnamese community, and with the people who remained in Vietnam.

The narrator of The Black-eyed Woman is a ghost writer, haunted by the brother who exchanged his life for hers when their boat was threatened by pirates:

These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns. (14-15)

Her dead brother has swum across the Pacific to re-join their family, to keep company with the survivors. His sister was destined to retell stories, her own, her mothers, those of famous people.

Others stories also explore the effects upon a family of their migration, not least in the final story, Fatherland, in which the father of a new family are called by the names of the children who were left behind. The American Phuong takes a new name, Vivien, and when she comes to visit her older sister it is clear that despite the presents, the ease of the Americanised identity, Vivien is as adrift as her sister.

Identity is robbed or altered. In a startling story, I’d Love you to Want Me, an old Vietnamese professor with Alzheimer’s begins to call his wife by the name of a another woman. She is distraught at first, but comes to see that she can provide comfort by adopting the identity of this woman.

We read of the former B-52 pilot, whose views are challenged by the new Vietnam and his own half-Vietnamese daughter.

The flat fields behind the homes were mostly devoid of trees and shade, some of the plots growing rice and the others devoted to crops Carver did not recognize, their color the dull muted green of algae bloom, the countryside nowhere near as lush and verdant as the Thai landscape visible from Carver’s cockpit window as his B-52 ascended over the waters of Thale Sap Spngkhla, destined for the enemy cities of the north of the Plain of Jars. There was a reason he loved flying. Almost everything looed more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming ever more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God’s eyes, man’s hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere. But seen up close, from this height,, the countryside was so poor that the poverty was neither picturesque nor pastoral: tin-roofed shacks with dirt floor, a man pulling up the leg on his shorts to urinate on a wall, labourers wearing slippers as they pushed wheelbarrows full of bricks. (136-7)

I like the way that the romantic but destructive view of the landscape is compared to the reality of the poverty. We in the west had Carver’s view from his cockpit in our evening news on tv. This is from the story called The Americans.

A Life in Books considers The Refugees in February, alongside another collection of short stories I have also reviewed, Breach.

There is an excellent review of The Refugees by Joyce Carol Oates in New Yorker in February 2017.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Born in Vietnam, living in California his previous novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This novel also featured transition from Vietnam to the US, but in very different circumstances. 25 Great books by Refugees in America in the New York Times in January includes The Sympathizer.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published in hardback in 2017, by Corsair 209pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have achieved 75% of my target thanks to readers’ and supporters donations. Please help me reach my full target, which is £1800, by making a donation.

March walk

My good friend Marianne arranged March’s walk near her home north of St Albans. Three of us met on a beautiful day at the end of March, and walked Three Burys Walk in the Ver River Valley, from Harpenden, along the Ver River to Roman St Albans and home. This walk raised about £100. It was about 14.5 km (9 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in April

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Filed under Books, Freedom from Torture Challenge, Reviews, short stories

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to. You wont understand. You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching. Seagulls fighting over a lucky catch. Birds. Just birds.

We were in open sea, after all. It couldn’t be anything else.

I had never seen so many people in the water. Their limbs were thrashing, hands grasping, fists punching, black faces flashing over then under the waves. (1)

He is an ordinary man. The purpose of Carmine Menna’s work as an optician is to help people to see better. He lives and works on the little Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. One day in October 2013 he is on a sailing trip with his friends and he wakes up to the most appalling experience; hundreds of people are drowning in the sea around them, refugees whose boat has sunk as it crossed the Mediterranean.

The book

The book was written by journalist Emma Jane Kirby, not written in the first person as the Prologue quoted above is. Rather, she gives us some distance and tells the story from his point of view. But it is a harrowing account none the less.

The friends on the small boat managed to rescue 47 drowning migrants from the sea. Only one of the saved people was a woman. The reactions of the friends on that day, and the following days when they take stock of what they have witnessed, what they have been forced to confront, as the world takes passing notice, these are the subject of this book. On that dreadful day they were forced to stop picking up drowning people as their boat was overloading. They found that 360 people died. They are shocked, feel that there has to be a better way to deal with the migration issues. But they also have new friends with whom they are reunited at an anniversary event.

It’s journalism. It is meant to move you. It is meant to get you to understand better the risks and danger of the boats that cross the Mediterranean. It faces you with the desperation of the people who are trying to complete the dangerous voyage. The story is well told, compelling and vivid. And it raises immense and complex questions about the movement of desperate people.

Humane responses

The optician believes that what he and his friends did is what every one would do. That is despite the knowledge that a passing boat ignored the plight of the drowning people. Nevertheless we hear countless stories of selfless and generous behaviour, especially in relation to the migrants as they land or are rescued from the sea around the islands of the Mediterranean.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. Published in 2016 by Allen Lane (Penguin) 116pp

The Lampedusa Cross

Here’s another story of one person doing what he can. In the British Museum, but not currently on display, there is a cross made from the wrecked timbers of a boat. The carpenter Mr Tuccio, wanted to do something to help the survivors. He made crosses for the Eritrean Christians as a reflection on their salvation from the sea and hope for the future. One was also given to the Pope who visited the island in July 2013 and another was donated to the British Museum by Mr Tuccio, and

stands witness to the kindness of the people of the small island Lampedusa who have done what they can for the refugees and migrants who arrive on their shores. (BM website)

The Lampedusa Cross, with permission from the British Museum.

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the fourth post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

 

Please help me reach halfway to my target by making a donation.

December walk

Walking home, in Devon.

My fourth walk began, unpromisingly, in an Esso forecourt and after picking up the path in the Asda car park became a delightful walk home, along the River Lemon with many many dog walkers, and then up through East Ogwell, and then walking through farmland and rain back to my home.

The walk was about 9km (5+ miles) and took place on Thursday 15th December.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The fifth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in early January

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Do Refugees need Holidays?

Freedom from Torture runs a Holiday Hosting scheme. The organisation supports refugees who have suffered torture. Why would people who have been tortured need a holiday? Isn’t every day a holiday if they are now free? Of course not. The effects, physical, emotional, familial, even economic are long-lasting. The scheme has given help to victims of torture to come to terms with what has happened to them.

This is the third of my posts in support of Freedom from Torture, asking readers to support my walking/blogging challenge. More details can be found by clicking on the Challenge page link above the picture. And the link to my Just Giving page for your donation is here.

Meet Gill and Tim

Gill and Tim provided holidays for refugees for several years. I met Gill and Tim while we were training as befrienders for young unaccompanied refugees with FFT several years ago. They were no longer offering holidays but supporting refugees through befriending. I asked them if I could use their experiences of offering holidays for my FFT challenge, and they kindly agreed.

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I was delighted that it all started with a book. They began offering holidays in their home because they had read An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (1992). Keenan describes his imprisonment in Beirut as a hostage, and how he survived in part because of his friendship with another hostage John McCarthy. Impressed by the book, when they received a request for donations signed by John McCarthy, Gill and Tim began to support the charity and it developed into offering holidays. John McCarthy is a patron of FfT (then called the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture).

What did their guests get out of it?

At that time many refugees rarely got out of London. The holiday scheme offered a week in ordinary homes. Some of their guests had never been inside a British home before, still less stayed in a British home. Gill and Tim were living on Merseyside amidst pinewoods and sand dunes and they therefore also offered a different aspect of Britain to their guests.

In their home the guests were able to relax. Some got practical help, like the Iranian couple who were living in a B&B and so unable to open a bank account. Gill went with the wife to all the banks on her high street to try to persuade them to take on these guests as clients. Although they were turned down by every bank, the wife was later successful. She told Gill she had used the words she had heard Gill use to make her case.

Others found outlets for their feelings. Gill told me about a young man from Afghanistan who was in a tearful state when he arrived. He needed to tell his story, which was horrific as he had seen his family killed by the Taliban. In the garden a tree had been felled and Tim invited their guest to help chop up the tree. An axe was found and the tree was despatched. A therapeutic tree chop.

Another guest became very close to her hosts, to the extent of becoming the nanny to their grandchildren. The nanny’s children have in turn trained as a doctor and a pharmacologist.

Gill and Tim in Kyoto

Gill and Tim in Kyoto

Some difficulties

Sometimes it was not possible to do anything more than just be there for their visitors, Gill told me. There were limits to what they could do to help the refugees with their problems, some were beyond their powers or without solutions.

Some difficulties were hard to negotiate, like the different levels of faith and significance of religion and belief.

Bookish Connections

I asked Gill and Tim for their bookish connections. Their list started with An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (1992), and they had four more recommendations.

  • What is the What by Dave Eggers (2006) A true story of a boy who was separated from his family in Sudan’s civil war and his journey through simply horrendous situations, till he reached America
  • The Road Home by Rose Tremain (2007) The fictional story of Lev who arrives at Victoria Coach station from somewhere in East Europe, where he was unable to support his wife and daughter and we share in the highs and lows of his attempt to make a new life in London.
  • A Long Way Gone: memoirs of a boy soldier by Ismael Beah (2007) The true story of a boy growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1990s during the violent civil war. Taken as a boy soldier he transforms into someone as addicted to killing as he is to the cocaine that the army makes readily available. But a few years later when agents from the United Nations pulled him out of the army and placed him in a rehabilitation centre. Anger and hate slowly faded away, he abandons violence, he takes it upon himself to speak for the voiceless- -other children trying to survive amidst war. A powerful book.
  • Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011) In this novel, Harri, an 11-year old Ghanaian boy arrives in the UK, with his mother and sister, leaving behind other members of his family. They move into a highrise flat in south London where they are among many immigrants, the alcoholics, dealers, petty criminals and teenage members of the Dell Farm Crew gang. Harri and a friend see a boy killed on the estate and they set about to find the identity of the murderer. Harri talks to a pigeon who visits him on his balcony. Harri is an endearing 11 year old and a vivid life is portrayed through his lively, funny, innocent curiosity, though there is an air of menace overlying the story.

What matters?

When I invited Gill and Tim to talk about the holiday scheme I expected to hear good things, but I was struck with how the important thing was the human connections they made. Their guests were people who had suffered, and to whom they offered generous connections. This to me is the best of humanity. And I loved that it emerged that writing had played its part in this process, launching them into it and helping them understand something of the suffering of their guests.

Thank you Gill and Tim for your help in writing this post.

My walk and challenge

254 FFTlogo

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the third post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach my target by making a donation.

November walk

Danbury Down, November 2016

Danbury Down, November 2016

The third walk was about 10km (6+ miles). I planned to walk home from Newton Abbot, but the bus I found on-linefor Sunday travel didn’t exist. In the end I walked in a loop around the equestrian countryside. There were two landmarks: the iron age fort of Denbury Down, seen from a different perspective than my usual view, and HM Prison Channings Wood, where visitors were waiting.

channings-wood

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

The fourth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-December

 

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Lost and Found in Exile

What is the experience of life in exile, as a refugee, as a survivor of torture? Six writers and three musicians took to the stage to tell us at the Roundhouse, in London, for a performance of Lost and Found. Tickets were sold out. When they came to the end of their show applause was prolonged, the audience rose to its feet: we had all been moved by the stories.

285-roundhouse

Lost

The cast, Uganda, Jade, Alex, Prossy, Neda and Faryad, are members of the Write to Life creative writing group at Freedom from Torture. Their stories reflect the deep losses experienced when they were forced to flee to another country. Music is lost: a violin buried stands for the destruction of beauty in Iran; a Ugandan song recovered in and unintentionally sung to the occupants of the British Library Reading Room; the ubiquity of dance music in Cuba; the sadness of Kurdish songs.

I was cut in half in exile, always trying to find my other half.

The search for what is lost may not be successful. Life in a new country may not be good. It takes years to recover from torture and it is more difficult in this disbelieving climate.

285-jade

Music can express the loss of dignity, self-respect, physical integrity through flight, exile and torture. Waiting for my Number was an amusing song. But it is not a good experience for those who must queue to report to the authorities at Lunar House, Croydon. It is mostly about waiting for their number. A stateless person, seeking asylum, reduced to a number by the system. No one is only a number!

Found

Some things are found, sometimes through the kindness of strangers. With nothing to live for, it seemed, Jade was ready to step in front of a car in Greenwich and end it all. She was saved by a passer-by and made a permanent friend.

After three and a half years of imprisonment in an unknown place, another member of the cast escaped hoping to reach London. She found she was already there.

A family, alive and well, was rediscovered in his Ugandan homeland, his mother able to speak on the phone, everyone changed after 20 years.

The Writers Group, Write to Life, at Freedom From Torture, has a therapeutic purpose. Writers rediscover their voices, their sense of self, their dignity and can tell us, who are more fortunate, about what torture and exile means.

The six writers had told their stories to Christine Bacon who brought these stories together in a script. Music and lyrics were added by Ana Silvera and performed by her and Alice Zawadka and Will Roberts.

freedomlogoredone

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom From Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and a blogpost. This is the first post in the monthly series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

285-walkSeptember walk had a literary connection. Agatha Christie lived at Greenway, Devon. She too was lost and found at one point in her life. I walked on Thursday 15th September, a circular route, from Broadsands to Greenway on the River Dart, and then back along The John Musgrave Trail and SW Coast Path. 13kms (8 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Souvenirs and Writing Home April 2013

Dear Jade September 2013

Souvenirs May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-October

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

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Filed under Freedom from Torture Challenge, Writing and Walking