Monthly Archives: January 2021

The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

Those of us who have never had to leave our country because of fear of torture or death might assume that that refugees should express gratitude to those who provide them with a place of safety. Is that right? This book by former refugee Dina Nayeri questions this assumption, turns it round even. Not what should our attitude to refugees be, but how should refugees view their new home? There is, she says, no debt to repay. And if we want to build better communities that include refugees, then we should pay attention to those things that help build communities and good relationships. 

The Ungrateful Refugee

In her previous books Dina Nayeri drew on her own life to write her fiction: Refuge and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea. This book is not fiction. She tells the story of her escape with her mother and her brother from Iran when she was eight years old in 1988. They went first to Abu Dhabi as tourists and, when the visas ran out, to Italy where they were accommodated in a hotel, converted to a refugee camp, near Rome. Finally they were allowed to settle in Oklahoma. 

Her mother was a doctor, persecuted in Iran for her Christianity. Her father was a dentist, but arrested more than once for opium abuse. He did not accompany them, although he provided passports, money and contacts that enabled their flight. 

The difficulties of fitting into Oklahoma society were huge. Her mother’s medical credentials were never accepted. Her brother gained credibility because he played sports. Dina endured years of being an outsider in school, but became determined, fixated even, on going to Harvard, seeing it as the pathway to acceptance in the US. She has lived in other countries, recently moving from London to Paris. And has spent time in Amsterdam.

Her story is interwoven with more recent ones, often from men who found it harder than her family to escape to safety as more and more barriers are erected to keep refugees out. These men came from Syria or Afghanistan. She writes a great deal about immigration systems that make people wait, that try to catch out asylum seekers in minor inconsistencies. Often these people end up in detention with the threat of deportation unresolved. The effects of these policies, condemning good people to years of uncertainty and living on the margins, cannot be justified. Some do not survive. Others, by luck, manage to thrive.

The story of being saved

People in their new country want to hear refugees’ stories of escape, the stories of their gratitude. They act as if they are owed it. But they never ask about the life the family lived before they left Iran, the food, the family members, the family history and so on. The story is all about coming to the US, or Britain or the Netherlands.

Likewise, the assumption is that certain actions and behaviours by the immigrants will mean that refugees can fit right in. But coming to a new life is a relational thing: it requires a response. Those lucky enough to have been born in this place should shuffle up and welcome those who want to share their bounty; especially where they have been damaged, physically and/or mentally by their home country. Communities, new families, new relationships, social, economic, political connections, these will create a sense of having a place in the new country. 

We need each other to make a community – the immigrant can’t transform by sheer will.  … A lasting, progressive kind of assimilation requires reciprocation. It is mutual and humble and intertwined with multiculturalism, never at odds with it. It’s about allowing newcomers to affect you on your native soil, to change you.  (341-2)

Instead  of reciprocity, the onus has all been on the incomer, and made more difficult by an increase in hostility to refugees, in government policies and attitudes among some groups in some countries. I attended a lecture and discussion recently on refugee literature, for which this book was recommended reading. It was suggested that people who are hostile feel they are too close to becoming refugees themselves. 

I think that something darker is at work. Refugees are reminders to hostile people of the fragility of their lives; but more significantly refugees remind us of the shame and destruction inflicted by our countries’ foreign policies, that our countries have contributed to situations that the refugees are fleeing. Think of the refugees from Viet Nam, those who went to the US (see for example The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which we also discussed in that session. You can find my reaction to these brilliant short stories here.) 

Look at the chaos in those middle eastern countries in which the US and UK have been militarily involved: Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq … We can be ashamed too of our lack of generosity towards people in difficulties. And there is a strong thread of racism in all this. For these reasons, shame and racism in particular, the government in the UK perpetuates the hostile environment to keep refugees out. And sections of our society support that.

I was pleased to hear Dina Nayeri say in an interview that in her experience Londoners were responding positively to the changing population in the city, to the presence of refugees in their community. She said that she thought the people of London might be at odds with their government on this. (Interview on Perspectiveon breaking down misconceptions about immigrants, September 2019).

Thanks to Trudi Tate at Literature Cambridge for the on-line session on Refugee Literature. 

The Ungrateful Refugee: what immigrants never tell you by Dina Nayeri, published in 2019 by Canongate. 370pp

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Best Books for … the Long Haul

The virus mutates. And despite our fervent wishes and good news about vaccines, it is clear we are in for the long haul for yet awhile, for restrictions and lockdowns beyond the new year. No escape. Except perhaps into books.

To survive and even enjoy some aspects of the long haul I think we need a good combination of hope, persistence, resilience, patience and a long view. I have selected seven books that celebrate these qualities.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Middlemarch by George Eliot

These books are not all long, but they all feature some of those qualities we need at the moment. Personally, I am trying to hold on to a long view, and to remember that this too will pass.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn 

Let’s start with a book that was a great success with my reading group and the post I wrote about it has been read many times in the last year. The author and her sick husband lose everything and decide to walk the South West coast path, requiring resilience in the face of bad fortune and hope that things will turn around for them. It is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife. It is a true story. My book group liked it enough to decide to read the sequel later this year: The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn 

You can find my review here

Women Talking by Miriam Toews 

This novel was inspired by a real-life event, the repeated rape of drugged women and children in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The women discover that the rapists were men of their own community. We follow the conversations of the women who meet to decide what to do while the men are away: will they leave or will they stay. Their manner of arriving at a solution is heart-warming and hopeful.

You can find my review here

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie 

This novel follows the lives of Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze from Nigeria, growing up in the time of military dictatorship. They both aspire to escape. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze does not get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. The couple meet again after many years when life has moved on for both.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  by Betty Smith

This book was recommended by a friend whose reading choices I respect, and she said that I will enjoy this book about tenacity in Brooklyn in a family of extreme poverty in the early years of the 20th century. It is also about books. I should read it soon.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

This book is from the Older Women in Fiction series here on Bookword. Moon Tiger features Claudia Hampton who is 76 years old and is dying. As  the doctor recognises, she was once someone. In fact she had a life full of action, research, important writing and love. The novel refutes the conventional narrative of what a woman should be and that the endpoint, the purpose of her life is marriage, and motherhood. The Booker Prize winning novel told the story of a long life fully lived. 

You can find my review here

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

This is a cheerful book that takes a long view. I recommend this story of a Russian Count Alexander Rostov, under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel from 1920 until 1954. He sees his own situation change and Russian history rolling forwards outside the windows. He meets interesting people, makes good friends, helps many fellow Russians in that time and manages to make a decent life despite his confinement. It is charming, witty, funny and a good well-told story. There is a happy ending.

You can find my review here

Middlemarch by George Eliot

And finally, I recommend a book that has breadth, depth, integrity and a great heroine. I don’t recommend Mr Casubon’s method of passing the time: endless research for his book on the key to all mythologies. Rather we could emulate the many devoted and trusty citizens of Middlemarch, not least Dr Lydgate and his sponsor, Dorothea. Published in 1871, the town is thought to have been modelled on an earlier version of Coventry, close to Nuneaton where Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) was born.

I hope that these final stages of the pandemic are not too hard on readers. And I hope fervently that we are in the final stages, dark times though they are.

Best Books for …

This was my fourth post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first three were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020

The Best Books for … a lockdown in May 2020

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the long haul?

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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