Well-founded fear: a themed post about refugees

They are among the most vulnerable, feared and despised people on earth. There are about 26 million at the moment, of whom half are under 18. Last year the UK government granted asylum to 20,339 applicants (out of 35,099). You should know that Turkey supports 3.6 million refugees.

We hear of them crossing the Mediterranean in rubber boats, 16,724 in the first four months of 2020. At least 575 died. The English Channel has recently been in the news for attempts to enter the UK: 9500 in 2020 with at least 6 deaths and 3 missing.

A refugee is someone who, due to a well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence, has been forced to flee their home country.

Every refugee has an individual story, a story of fear of persecution, of war or of violence. Each one has been forced to leave their home country. And yet the policy of our government is to treat them like criminals and to dissuade potential applicants through the creation of the hostile environment.

I am ashamed of our government. I am ashamed of those who treat refugees as undeserving. This post brings together some books that illuminate the reality of fleeing and trying to achieve legal status in a safe country (with links to posts on Bookword Blog).

For younger readers

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

A boy from mixed parentage Ethiopia/Eritrea comes to the UK with his father to escape persecution and war. His father leaves him in London and the Refugee Council steps in to help. At first he is in a children’s home, and later moves to foster care and attends an East London school. When his mother is killed in Africa his father comes to the UK, which sadly means that Alem must move out of foster care. Father and son are threatened with deportation. His schoolmates organise a campaign to oppose this and Alem sees that he must face his future, not alone, but with all the people who have rallied to help.

Written for older children, it touches every child’s fear of being abandoned. 

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah (2001) Bloomsbury. 287pp

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

Set in the chaos of massive movements of peoples at the end of the Second World War, the Balicki children from Poland must travel to find their parents. It is a classic quest, with near escapes, disasters and a great deal of kindliness from individuals: Red Army soldiers, Germans (the farmers), British and US soldiers, and the refugee organisations set up to help the many, many refugees with their journey and with tracing family members. Against all the odds, capture, betrayal, hunger, tiredness, illness, orders to return to Poland, and travelling by foot, lorry, and even canoes, they are reunited with their parents in Switzerland.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960.

First-hand Accounts of Experiences

The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

She left Iran in 1988 with her mother and younger brother. This is an account of how they arrived in Oklahoma, and how they each made a life for themselves. She also tells the stories of some more recent refugees and of their experiences. She raises many important and interesting questions about fitting in, and what the host country owes to the new arrivals, and the terrible toll of hostile environments in Europe. 

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

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via WikiCommons

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer

The German reporter, Wolfgang Bauer, experiences the terrors of the Mediterranean Sea crossings for himself. The reality of the risks, the process and the dangers of the voyage are explored, including the role of the ‘middlemen’ and their business structures. He also tells the stories of other migrants who make the journey, some successfully. 

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, first published in German in 2014. English translation with update published by And Other Stories in 2016. 122pp. Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.

As told to others

Some experiences of seeking asylum, or of meeting refugees, are so hard that they are best told by others. Refugee Tales have now issued three volumes of stories, which make it evident that the attempts to dissuade asylum seekers are contributing to their suffering, especially when it involves detention.

Refugee Tales 1, 2 and 3

Many people’s lives are blighted by the UK’s response to those who seek safety in Britain. There are the professionals and the enforcers, the victims and their friends, the volunteers, the health professionals etc etc. 

Refugee Tales edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

The first volume was published in 2016. The collection was produced by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Groupwith stories and other contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Chris Cleave, Marina Lewycka, Jade Amoli-Jackson, Patience Agbabi.

The principal intention of Refugee Tales was to help communicate the scandalous reality of detention and post-detention existence to a wider audience and in the process to demand that such indefinite detention ends. (Afterword 143)

The first aim was successful, but unfortunately indefinite detention is still with us. 

The second volume was published in 2017. When I wrote about it, I focused on the abuse of Human Rights that is indefinite detention. Here’s the link

And in June 2020 I was moved to action by the third volume. I raised money for the group by walking across 25 bridges. In that post I recommended six things that could be done to support the cause.

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, published by Comma Press. Proceeds go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group .

The Lampedusa Cross, with permission from the British Museum.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

One of the accounts that stays with readers is this tale of ordinary Italians who came across the most awful scene while out sailing. The optician believes that what he and his friends did is what everyone would do. There are countless stories of selfless and generous behaviour towards 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

Fiction

One of the best ways to introduce people to experiences they do not meet in person is through fiction. Here are four novels that explore different aspects of refugees and their experiences in today’s world.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, (2017) translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky  

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2017)

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes (2016)

Other sites

Dina Nayeri wrote a piece about books on the refugee experience in the Guardian in September 2019. You can find it here.

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My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky

The grandmother of the title is racist, outspoken, a liar, a hypochondriac, a schemer and secretive.

At the refugee home, we were, as Grandmother noted unhappily, surrounded by Jews. She’d never made a secret of her antisemitism: “Not because of Jesus or anything. I have genuine, personal reasons.” She’s nearly burst whenever she had to keep herself from using certain curses during toasts with the neighbors. Then she’d revel in the fact that she’d managed to gain access for us to the privileges of the golden West under false premises. ‘Just so you don’t think we’re really Jews,” she hammered home to me while feeling my forehead for a fever. “Opa had an uncle who had a brother-in-law. He had a Jewish wife. That’s how it works. Don’t ask.” (10)

The character of the grandmother is grotesque at the outset of this novella. Her grandson, Max, who tells the story, is only six, and is watched over obsessively by his Russian grandmother. With her husband they have come to live in Berlin in a converted hotel.

The home was a former hotel with a cracking plaster façade and a sign still adorning the entrance that said “Sunshine Inn”. […] Grandmother looked unfavorably on most of the new acquaintances: she was suspicious of people who left their homelands, except when it came to us. (10-11) 

With such characters, in such a situation, the opportunities for humour and wit are plentiful and fully embraced in this German novella.

My Grandmother’s Braid

When I began to read this novella, I was hoping that Max and his grandfather would eventually escape the old woman’s attentions. She supervises Max’s every move, obsessively keeping germs at bay, and providing only liquid food for the boy claiming that he has a very weak constitution. She even attends school with him when he starts. She continues to supervise him until she finds another child to do the surveillance for her.

The grandfather meets and falls in love with another refugee, Nina. When Nina becomes pregnant you might expect that all hell would be unleashed. But the grandmother is nothing if not pragmatic, and the two household gradually integrate and the baby is cared for by three adults in different combinations. The pressure is off Max, and he learns to stand up for himself.

He also learns more about his grandmother’s past – she is a former prima ballerina. And about his own mother and what happened to her. The grandmother shows herself to be very enterprising, and sets up a dancing school for the neighbourhood. As Max and his baby uncle grow up their lives become more settled and Max is able to take risks, to understand his grandmother’s obsessions and eventually to follow his own path.

In the course of the story we have been presented with many scenes of humour based on mutual incomprehension, visual effects (such as the silent workforce attending the grandfather’s funeral), quick repartee: ”Where is his mother? Is it true she sold him?” “No,” said grandmother calmly. “Look at him. Would anybody ask for money for that?”

This book was great fun, and also provided some poignant moments which made me reflect on the situation of some of the most despised people in Europe. This group of refugees need the grandmother’s endurance if not her grandiloquence. Overwhelmingly, it is a book about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways . 

The book was sent to me because I have a subscription with the Asymptote Club

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky is the pseudonym of a Russian-German writer. Born in 1978 she now lives in Berlin and has written a number of novels, including The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. She is highly regarded for her vibrant prose and has won many literary awards in Germany. 

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky, originally published in 2019 as Der Zopf meiner Grossmutter. The English translation from the German by Tim Mohr was published by Europa Editions in 2021. 159pp

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The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

Rosamond Lehmann is one of the best writers I know for describing the feelings and anxieties of people in relationships. Sometimes her protagonists are outsiders, as in Dusty Answer and Invitation to the Waltz. In The Weather in the Street and in the subject of this post, The Echoing Grove, the relationships are more complex and changeable. The authenticity of the drama she narrates is never in question. It is, as I suggested in a previous post, as if ‘it’s our own story exactly’.

The Echoing Grove

My copy of The Echoing Grove has been sitting on my shelf for some time, a second hand orange, Penguin edition bought some time ago. Having read and reviewed three novels by Rosamond Lehmann over the last eight months I decided to read this fourth one. 

The novel is concerned primarily with a trio of characters: Rickie, his wife Madeleine and her sister Dinah.  It is the 1930s. Rickie falls for Dinah soon after he married her sister and they embark on an affair. But the course of their love is hardly smooth as Madeleine is badly hurt, Rickie leaves Dinah, then returns to her, she becomes pregnant, the baby is still born, she attempts suicide, and so on. The lives of these characters are interwoven until Rickie’s death in 1944.

Each of them has other lovers that we meet over the course of the novel, but it is with these three and their shifting and unhappy triangle that we are centrally concerned. When Madeleine and her sister Dinah meet at the start of the novel, after 14 years of separation it is in fact almost the end of the story. The author plays about with chronology throughout the novel, trusting the reader to pick up the hints and follow the shifts in time. She does the same with point of view; sometimes moving into the head of one of the three main characters, shifting from third to first person within a paragraph. 

All this shifting about reflects the changing nature of the triangle. Even when one of the three resolve not to see another they change their behaviour soon enough. It might be a suicide attempt, or a health crisis, or an accidental meeting. Rickie thinks of it as ‘a game that no one ever won’. (120)

The three characters are very different, and are more appealing or more worthy of sympathy at varying points in the story. They all possess human weaknesses: Rickie unable to resist temptation; Dinah always the rebel out to shock; and Madeleine stands upon her position as the wronged wife. I have over simplified, for this is a novel about human frailty and my summations do not do it justice.

It is pretty intense, as love affairs can be, with scenes of heightened drama, such as in the night club or when Rickie decides to follow up the wife of his best friend. In the end too many threads were self-consciously tied up: the burn on the bedside table; the £1 that is owed, the cuff links, the important scenes recollected and picked over by all participants. And the scene in the Blitz, when Rickie is talking to a new lover, made me think about all those men who think it is women’s job to listen to them go on and on. It is seventy pages long.

The title appears to reference the poem Broken Love by William Blake. The title of the poem seems apt, but the echoing aspect is not clear to me.

‘Let us agree to give up love, 
And root up the Infernal Grove;
Then shall we return and see
The worlds of happy Eternity. 

‘And throughout all Eternity 
I forgive you, you forgive me.
As our dear Redeemer said: 
“This the Wine, and this the Bread.”’ (From Broken Love by William Blake)

Don’t pick The Echoing Grove up for an exciting story. For a novel full of emotion and that pulls your sympathies around a bit, The Echoing Grove is excellent.

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1953. I used the Penguin edition from 1958. 302pp. A more recent version was published in the Virago Modern Classics series in 2013.

Related Links

Three other reviews of novels by Rosamond Lehmann on Bookword

Dusty Answer (1927) in July 2020

Invitation to the Waltz (1932) in July 2020

The Weather in the Street (1936) in November 2020

Simon Lavery reviewed The Echoing Grove in May 2020 on his blog, Tredynas Days and noted, as I have, the very long scene set in the Blitz. I enjoyed his reaction to it.

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Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod

Eileen Carnell sent me an email. I asked her if I could use it on my blog. Eileen and I wrote several books together. (Here we are at a reading of Retiring with Attitude at Leatherhead Library in Autumn of 2014).

Dear Caroline, 

A response to your blog of the 10th January: Best Books for … the Long Haul

Hamnet

On Saturday morning there was no possibility of taking a walk. There were chores to do and indoor exercises to undertake but I thought that while I drank my decaff I’d read just for a few minutes. About two hours on, and 71 pages later, I put down my birthday copy of Hamnet*. I was captivated, transported back to 1596, my brain conveyed to a different landscape. I was immersed, time stopped, the outer world no longer existed. This is how I love to read – it feeds my spirit, provides sheer joy, escapism and a sense of well-being. As such Hamnet is a brilliant book to read during lockdown and the terrible connection between the plague of that time and Covid makes it even more timely.

Couch Fiction

I’m not a fan of cartoons. Comics were banned in our family when I was growing up so I never really learned how to read them, not knowing which bit of writing to read first or which part of the picture to look at**. But a second birthday gift this year changed my mind about such reading formats. This is Couch Fiction with its great sub-title A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy. This book is witty, droll and delightful. Phillipa Perry *** is the psychotherapist in question. Flo Perry, her daughter provided the illustrations. 

This book works on two levels. It tell the story of a psychotherapeutic encounter through pictures, speech and thought bubbles. Then beneath each page of the interactions between the two characters there are notes which demystify the encounter providing an easy read of the theory, for example, it highlights if the therapist is moving too fast, her use of hunches, any clumsy interventions and how the person being helped may react, and for students of the process there is some useful stuff on transference and attachment theories. So this is familiar territory for me but a great light but satisfying reminder – a perfect gift for me.

The Best of Me

And speaking of the joy of the familiar and ideal presents I will never tire of reading David Sedaris. In particular his short story about the mouse entitled Nuit of the Living Dead is fantastic. This book The Best of Mewas one of my Christmas presents. Reading what makes me laugh out loud is such a tonic and really does raise my spirits – a treat to come for anyone who hasn’t read it – so witty, so subversive. I was lucky to have heard him reading this story aloud at The British Library a couple of years ago.

Talking Books

I love being read to so Talking Books are a joy to me, especially to send me off to sleep during these troubled times. Instead of watching the news at ten I settle down to listen to stories. Re-reading is also something I enjoy and I’ll never tire of Sissy Spacek reading Scout’s account of her first day at school with that wonderful Southern accent of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve also listened this month to Elizabeth is Missing, How to be Both, The Accidental Tourist (again) and Jane Eyre – hence my opening sentence ****.

Beginnings

Some beginnings are embedded in my brain and while reading I’m looking out for beautiful descriptions and passages that I wish I’d written. I love examining openings, not just of books themselves, but of paragraphs and new chapters. It can often take me a while to read a book because I spend ages re-reading sentences to analyse their construction. I love names too and often make a note of them to steal later for my own novella – swopping first names of some with different surnames – Gregory Page-Turner and Saffron Milford are examples of ones I plan to introduce soon – he a church warden, she a novelist.

And …

I’ve also got waiting for me from Christmas and birthday:

Raynor Winn, The Wild Silence

Sarah Moss, Summerwater

Monica Connell, Gathering Carrageen

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

Mark Billingham, Cry Baby

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather

And with a book token given to me by my brother-in-law for Christmas I am going to order the second and third in the series of Ian Rankin’s Rebus thrillers. 

I’m confident I have enough reading material to keep me going for ages. Who knows when I’ll get my second vaccination or when lockdown will end but I hope I’ll have one or two books left to take on board a train or ferry to Scotland or Ireland again. Roll on Summer.

Notes

* Hamnet and Hamlet were used in Shakespeare’s day interchangeably. This remarkable book is written by Maggie O’Farrell (2020).

** An exception to this rule was Posy Simmonds in The Guardian

*** Her husband is the more famous artist Grayson Perry.

**** Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

From Eileen Carnell

Related posts on Bookword

Best Books for … the Long Haul (January 2021)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 (September 2020)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (February 2015)

How to be both by Ali Smith (March 2015)

The Accidental Tourist (again) by Anne Tyler (October 2015)

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Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers.

Born in 1891 into a working class family in Manchester, she got her education there and began her political activities by supporting female suffrage. She went on to work as a trade union organiser, and was first elected to parliament in 1924 when most Labour MPs lost their seats. She won Middlesborough East by a majority of 972. As a trade unionist she was involved in the General Strike of 1926 but she lost her seat after the failure of the second Labour Government in 1931, returning to parliament in 1935. 

While she was out of parliament she turned to writing, earning her keep as a journalist, and writing her two novels, the subjects of this post. Her return to parliament kept her too busy to continue with fiction writing. During the Second World War she served in the coalition government and became Minister of Education in the post-war Labour government. Sadly she died too young in 1947, having suffered from bronchial asthma, been a smoker and an overworker all her adult life.

It is with some sadness that I realise that my grandfather would have known her as he was also elected in 1935, albeit as a Liberal. Sadly I did not take the opportunity to ask him. I am sure he would have known her, full of energy, small, with red hair and a dramatic sense of colour and style in her clothing.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

Clash was published in 1929 and much of it is drawn from the author’s experiences of the General Strike, such a bold move, such exciting times, but ultimately a failure. The miners, in support of whom it was called, suffered for months in the lock out that followed. Joan Craig is the heroine, and her proximity to the leaders of the unions, her hard work to keep the strike going, and her support for the miners are all drawn from Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences. But Joan has black not red hair.

This is also a love story. Joan falls for the older Bloomsbury writer, Tony Dacre. Much of the second part of the novel is taken up with Joan’s dilemma: follow her heart or continue with her work supporting workers. 

The clash of the title is evident in so many aspects of the story. I was struck by how many of these tensions still exist 90 years later. There is the tension between the North and the South of England. All the excitement of the strike and the pleasure of intellectual company and activities is found in London. Joan is tempted. But in the North there is real poverty, exploitation of workers, and work that she is so good at to be done. 

The North-South divide is also a class divide. Tony Dacre offers Joan the possibility of more comfort and security. The passages describing the hardships of life when the miners were locked out are a strong as any in the novel. The ignorance of the middle class (in both senses of ignorance) is shocking. And the class divide is sharpest in the failed relationships of bosses and trade unions.

There is the male-female tension, played out as she considers the life offered by Tony. His view is that she would have to give up her work, dedicate her life to him if they were together. And he believes that romantic love is justification enough for this. It’s what women do. A clash between intellectual and romantic views of life is also shown. I won’t pre-empt your reading by telling you how Joan resolved these dilemmas. But like her creator she did not disappoint.

My interest in the history of the time was well rewarded by reading this novel, full of action and ideas. I enjoyed it. Thanks to HeavenAli for drawing it to my attention on her blog.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson 

This second novel also draws on Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences, this time in the House of Commons. She had been a PPS (parliamentary private secretary) to several ministers. The amateur detective in her novel  Robert West, is a young male MP, PPS to the Home Secretary, known as Flossie. I chose to read this as a relief from some books that had hard-to-read passages of abuse of women. It is a light read.

A gunshot is heard at the same moment as Big Ben struck and the division bell sounded. A rich American banker has been murdered in Dining Room J. Rob West is tasked with helping the police find the culprit. The Home Secretary was meeting with Oissel to negotiate a government loan but left for the division just before Oissel was found dead. The story features the beautiful but ice-cold grand-daughter of the murdered man, her fiancé who is also an MP, a female MP from the Labour Party, a journalist, the Scotland Yard detective, a Peer of the Realm and the chief Civil Servant in the Home Office. Who did it?

The story is slight, but one relationship caught my attention. Rob West asks Grace Richards MP for some help.

The attitude of Robert West to the modern young woman was typical of that of a very young man. He preferred the intelligent woman. He liked to be seen about with one who was also making a name for herself. But while he was interested in her he expected her to put her own affairs in the background, and devote herself to his. When she was no longer needed she might be permitted to pick up her own threads again, but she must not trouble him. This he called allowing a woman to lead her own life. (120)

He asks her for help.

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? (123)

There is an edge in this little exchange which makes me think that Ellen Wilkinson had encountered this young man’s attitude many times. 

I would love to have met Ellen Wilkinson, heard her make a speech, watch her navigate male-dominated politics. I enjoyed her two novels, and that will have to do.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp

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Beowulf – 1

The Anglo-Saxons have never left us: swear words, place names and the foundation of our language. We have some great archaeological Anglo-Saxon finds including several hoards containing jewellery, such as the Staffordshire and Lenborough Hoards – hidden and never reclaimed – and the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. And there is Beowulf. Beowulf’s story has survived for about 1500 years, composed around the 6th or 7th centuries and written down in the 10th or 11th centuries. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon.

Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel. Grendel is a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in a battle to protect his people that is his last. His body is set alight in a funeral pyre and a barrow made in his honour, high on a cliff to warn ships of the rocks below.

Origially the story would probably have been told in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Some of the There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations and retellings.

When I taught history in Coventry, many moons ago, I used to love the unit on Anglo-Saxons as it enabled me to retell the story of Beowulf and Grendel, and to explore the Sutton Hoo Ship burial. After the tale of heroic actions, in which Beowulf’s arm was claimed to have the strength of thirty men, he survived almost a day under water and he died fighting a fire-breathing dragon, after retelling his adventures some child would always ask, ‘is it true? Did it really happen?’

The story of Beowulf has been retold many times, in translations, novels, films and other adaptations. In this and further posts I plan to look at the enduring appeal of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and its retelling in books. In this post I look at some of the straightforward renditions of the poem. In future posts I’ll consider some more imaginative versions and the attraction of the Anglo-Saxon tale.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

This recent translation was the work of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. We get the whole poem including quite a bit of elaborated history, moments of glory, family events, repeated account of the heroic deeds, and interludes. Heaney has concentrated on telling the story, finding many synonyms for the characters and repeating the reminders that all this was done by God’s power.

In off the moors, down through the mist-band
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. (24)

Many of the characters are introduced by their reputation before we actually meet them: Beowulf, Grendel and his mother as well as some of the kings that Beowulf serves. The verse story confirms the two children’s versions I read.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber in 1999106pp

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff 

As you expect from this great writer, this retelling of the story is very accessible and full of the details for which she was famed. It is helped by Charles Keeping’s illustrations, which while being of their time add considerably to imagining this tale of impossible heroics. As in so many of her stories Rosemary Sutcliff stresses the loyalties that tied together the royal houses of the Danes and the Geats, respected by the kings, seafarers and warriors, as well as the debts that must be repaid when demanded. 

In the great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round. It was the time of evening, with dusk gathering beyond the firelight, when the warriors called for Angelm the king’s bard to wake his harp for their amusement; but tonight they had something else to listen to than the half-sung, half-told stories of ancient heroes that they knew by heart. Tonight there were strangers in their midst, seafarers with the salt still in their hair, from the first trading ship to reach them since the ice melted and the wild geese came North again. (8)

Illustrated by Charles Keeping

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1961 and reissued by Puffin in 1966. 108pp

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo 

This is a more recent version than Dragon Slayer, and is written for slightly younger readers. The story is faithfully told, but without all the genealogical detail of the original and its many diversions. I find the illustrations by Michael Foreman to add less to the retelling than those of Charles Keeping. In this retelling again the  emphasis is on loyalty, courage and indebtedness. 

Hear, and listen well, my friends, and I will tell you a tale that has been told for a thousand years and more. It may be an old story, yet, as you will discover, it troubles and terrifies us now as much as ever it did our ancestors, for we still fear the evil that stalks out there in the darkness and beyond. (13)

Michael Morpurgo notes his debt to other translated versions, including Rosemary Sutcliff, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Alexander. 

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, published in 2006 by Walker Books. 150pp

See also Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf  by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is about slavery, slavery in the US. It is about the terrible things that were done to enslaved people. It is about the damage that was wrought on them before ‘emancipation’ (1863) and after. It is about physical damage, but also economic damage and psychic damage, damage to relationships and to communities. This was lasting harm, for individuals, their descendants and for American society, up to and including today. 

The harm done by slavery disrupts the narration of the story of Sethe and her family. It is mutilated, and so like all readers, like the characters in the story, I had to make some kind of sense from the turbulent events. It starts with the rage that was evident in the present time of the story (1873-4), returning later with the arrival of Beloved. The novel opens in rage:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). (3)

After slavery ended (1873-4):

The novel is set in the time of the so-called reconstruction of the south following the Civil War. Eighteen years earlier Sethe had escaped from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky (oh the irony of the name) over the river to Cincinnati to join her mother-in-law. Slave Catchers arrived to return Sethe to the plantation with her children. She killed her 2 year old child and was prevented from killing the other children. By the time the story starts only the now grown up new-born lives with Sethe: Denver, a recluse.

Things change when Paul D, a former slave also from Sweet Home, arrives at the house. He throws out the baby’s ghost and the three of them settle down to live together. Then another young woman arrives claiming to be Beloved, the name of the murdered child, and more chaos ensues.

I find myself asking how many ways can people be damaged? There is the physical damage. On Sethe’s back are the scars of whippings, which she calls her tree. There is the economic damage. None of the Black characters find it easy to get work. The psychic damage is revealed in Paul D’s case by the tobacco tin, sealed inside are his memories of which he cannot speak. And then there are the wild dreams of Beloved, dreams that evoke the terrors of the Middle Passage and routine rape of female slaves. There is damage to relationships, the most shocking of which is Sethe’s killing of her own baby. 

[Sethe knew] That anybody white would take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful magical best thing – the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work in the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter. (295-6)

This is not an easy book to read. But the salvation, such that it is, will come from the community made by the neighbours in Cincinnati who look out for Sethe and her loved ones.

“They don’t know when to stop”: Publication 1987

Toni Morrison in 1998

When this book was published the US had been through yet more difficult times. In the previous decades the KKK still operated, Black children were still being killed in churches, Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated and Civil Rights Acts passed. I am reminded of the last words of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother whose freedom from slavery had been bought by her son’s labour.

Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for the occasional request for color she said practically nothing – until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to  Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever. (122-3).

Toni Morrison was influenced by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. In the Foreword to the Vintage edition she says that she had just decided to live off her earnings as a writer and given up her job when the idea of the book came to her:

I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. (x)

While collecting material for The Black Book, Toni Morrison had come across the true story of Margaret Garner, who in 1856 killed her own child rather than allow it to return to slavery. She was drawn to this material.

The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellent landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts. (xi)

And she writes of the need to reveal the vocal ghosts, to unsilence their voices and the memories of that awful time.

I hoped … that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. (xiii)

I find these statements powerful and attractive, full of good purpose and her intentions for the novel fulfilled.

The present day

Toni Morrison was born in 1931 and died in August 2019. She had been given countless awards and her writing remains highly regarded.  She wrote 11 novels for adults and some for children. Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997) complete the trilogy begun with Beloved.

Beloved continues to be relevant today. The struggles in the US to accommodate their history continues, evident in both the Black Lives Matter campaign and in the attempted coup by a mob of white-supremacist Americans on the Capitol on 6th January 2021. 

And in the UK we have our own history of slavery and the slave trade to come to terms with. Do we need an equally powerful novel to help us see our history?

My thanks to Dr Kasia Boddy for her lecture on Beloved hosted by Literature Cambridge in January 2021.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp

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The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

This book bowled me over. We chose it for the January meeting of our book group, and the next day I found it on the shelf at our new (yes NEW) bookshop, and began reading it immediately. The Shadow King tells a great story, especially of the women warriors who fought against Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. Because I have visited Ethiopia and because the history of the first half of the twentieth century absorbs me I was predisposed to like this book. 

What I found was a novel, worthy of the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize, and all the critical acclaim it has garnered. In addition it is written by a woman of colour from Ethiopia. 

The Shadow King

The Shadow King tells a very good story, and all the better for being based in truth. It has some very appealing elements: such as the ultimate success of the underdogs. When Mussolini invaded, a latecomer to the European scramble to colonise Africa, he brought his mechanised army to defeat the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians had very little with which to prevent the invasion. They did have the memory of the successful campaign against the previous Italian invasion in the 1890s, as the weapons retained from that struggle. They also had a determination not to be conquered, inspired by their Emperor Haile Selassie. And they knew the terrain, and how to work with the people who lived there. 

The story begins in a very small and restricted setting. Hirut is a young girl, an orphan, who has been taken in by Kidane, who owed her parents. She lives in a tiny shed with the cook, and under the watchful and jealous eye of Aster, Kidane’s wife. 

Hirut hears Aster shouting her name, calling for her in a voice threatening to break from strain. Hirut looks up from the slow burning fire she is tending in a corner of the courtyard. She is hunched into a stool, next to a pile of onions waiting to be peeled. The cook is behind her in the kitchen, chopping meat for the evening meal. Aster should be drinking coffee in bed, tucked inside a soft blanket, perhaps looking out the window and gazing at her flowers. This should be a quiet morning. Hirut stiffens at the intrusion. (11)

The quiet morning is interrupted by more than Aster’s slightly deranged attempts to implicate Hirut in the theft of a missing necklace when Kidane returns from recruiting troops. He takes an old rifle from Hirut, the only thing she has from her father, because the Emperor needs all the weapons he can get. And we can see that her life, Aster’s, Kidane’s and even the cook’s will be upended and broadened by the campaign to drive back the Italians. 

Aster and Hirut join Kidane’s army to support their men by caring for the wounded and providing food. When things go badly and the Emperor leaves Ethiopia for exile in Bath, it is Hirut who suggests a way to provide the people with the inspiration of a shadow king. Hirut and Aster become his bodyguards and when needed take up arms with other women to fight the Italians. 

The story also is told from the point of view of a photographer in the Italian army. His commanding officer is known for his ferocity, and his cruelty is shown to the reader early in the story. But Ettore is Jewish and as anti-Semitism is promoted in Italy he becomes more and more detached from the official view and the actions of his commander, while powerless to refuse commands.

The climax of the story comes when Fucelli has captured Hirut and Aster, and waits for Kidane’s army to come to rescue them.

At times the novel is hard to read because of the atrocities committed. No one who survives comes out of the war without damage. Everyone has had to compromise themselves.

The telling of the story

While Hirut is the central character and the person we see gradually changing from that insignificant servant girl into a strong warrior, we also see the war from the perspectives of other people. What is clear is that the opposing sides have little understanding of each other. Here is Ettore looking at Hirut, who is in prison and refusing to respond to her captors.

That he has not managed to see more than a resolute and stubborn girl is proof of the Ethiopian native’s unfamiliarity with all that he finds commonplace. She has no reference points that intersect with his: no myths or fables, no ideas on science or philosophy. She is unlearned and unschooled, illiterate and limited. Unknowing and thus, unknowable. She lacks the imaginative capacity to consider an existence beyond her frames of reference: these mountains, her village, the hut where she was born. What rests behind that face and in that mind are sturdy, thick thoughts of survival and routine, and nothing else. (339)

Hirut has been stubbornly refusing to respond to Ettore, or any of the soldiers. She has been studying the enemy’s routines and waiting for signs of the rescue. She has her pride too.

Because this is one thing that neither the ascari [African soldiers in the Italian army] nor Fucelli nor this stupid soldato staring at her with a gaping mouth will ever know: she is Hirut, daughter of Fasil and Gerey, feared guard of the Shadow King, and she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her. (338) 

Many scenes are framed by the photographer, and in the final battle by a film crew. This device, showing us photographs, describing the way the light falls, what Ettore captured in his images, is powerful way of telling of the story. It reminds us of the fascist dictators’ love of images. But it also has the effect of putting a distance between us and the most difficult passages. Two photographs bookend the text, but while they are both of women it is not clear why they were chosen. The narrative based in Ethiopia is interrupted every now and again by sections on his meditations on leaving his country. The only section that I found jarring was a long vision by Haile Selassie towards the end of the novel.

For the most part, Maaza Mengiste’s narrative is skilful and even lyrical. Her prose has rhythm and pace, even littered with Amharic and Italian words. She manages to convey what matters to the characters, the stories of the Ethiopian characters, the conflicts of Ettore and even Fucelli’s fears. These are people living through the upheavals of the 1930s. 

The plotlines wind around each other, and details are revealed, small actions and major battles without reducing the tension: the action of spies, the cook, the ascari, Haile Selassie in exile, and Hirut’s part in the armed struggle. The themes are played out at an individual level, Hirut and Ettore, but also at macro level: Italy vs Ethiopia, evil against humaneness.

Maaza Mengiste  

The author published her first novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze in 2010. She was born in Addis Ababa in 1974, but has lived most of her life outside Ethiopia, and now teaches in New York. Her own grandmothers were involved in the war and her researches were extensive as she revealed in this podcast from History Extra (link here. )

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste published in 2019 by Canongate. 429pp

Shortlisted for 2020 Booker Prize

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The Book of Old Ladies by Ruth O Saxton

This book fits right in with this blog’s series on older women in fiction. I am pleased to have had my attention brought to it. And I am pleased that Ruth Saxton has drawn attention to thirty-one works of fiction that challenge the stereotypes so common in literature, and in the beliefs of society at large about the lives of older women. Many of the novels and short stories have been featured on the blog: either in the list of suggestions or reviewed in the 50 posts published so far in the series on older women in fiction.

This is the 51st in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books with links to the reviews here.

So what is The Book of Old Ladies about?

The subtitle reveals some of Ruth Saxton’s purpose in writing this book: celebration. In this case the celebration of ‘strong characters and vital plots’ of older women, works of fiction that make older women their focus. 

She describes how her reading life in the US began with some good young female protagonists (Jo March, Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre), but when she got to college there were no women writers on the literature syllabus. Even when women were allowed onto reading lists in academia, older women, she observed were ‘simply beside the point’. While women writers and women as protagonists have achieved a better status in recent decades yet there is still, she claims, a paucity of fiction about older women. This was important because

As I aged, my focus turned from the girl and the mother to the grandmother, or the woman my age, and I began to look for plots that might help me map a possible future beyond the familiar fairy tale where the old woman is stereotyped either as the wicked witch of the fairy godmother. … I kept running into the same old stories in which the older women are simply beside the point. (2-3) 

Early searches brought elderly female detectives to her attention, such as Miss Marple and Mrs Pollifax. She observed how they were able to detect because they were invisible. We might add that as outsiders they are able to see what the characters and perhaps the readers cannot. The Miss Marples of this world are no guide to aging and old age.

I wanted to read the novels in which fictional older women prepare for the journey of aging, inhabit the territory and become increasingly their truest selves. (4)

For Ruth Saxton this means finding examples of older women who do not behave as if their life is behind them, who challenge the notion that marriage and motherhood are the pinnacle of a woman’s life, that old age is all downhill. We need more women in fiction who are more than the wicked witch or fairy godmother; both stereotypes refer to how the older woman stands in relation to others. We need more old women who are characters in their own right.

Organising the examples

Her analysis divides the chosen texts into five categories:

  1. Romancing the past (the continuing story of marriage and romance for women, which will drive out creativity and artistic success);
  2. Sex after sixty;
  3. Alternate realities ( the older women consider their current situations without much attention to their pasts);
  4. Never too late; and 
  5. Defying expectation.

The discussion of thirty texts under these headings is an interesting approach, and with only a few pages to discuss each one inevitably makes the originals appear thin. But organisation into themes brings more depth.

She includes a novel that I also admire greatly: Margaret Drabble’s recent novel The Dark Flood Rises, and concludes with a personal note about how the book was influenced by a car accident. You can find my review of The Dark Flood Rises here.

Some reflection on vocabulary and the cover

Finding a suitable phrase to describe women over 60 can be problematic. When we were writing The New Age of Ageing we had long discussions about the language used about older people in English culture and how we should refer to older members of our communities. Every phrase brings with it a great deal of baggage. To call women ‘old’ is difficult, and over the years I (and fellow writers) have used the softer ‘older’. Even the word ‘women’ is experienced by some as less polite than ‘ladies’. And the combination of those two sets of words can be difficult. Try them (out loud)!

Old woman
Old lady
Older woman
Older lady

And the subtitle uses that coy expression ‘of a certain age’. We are afraid of age. Our society does not treat old people well. We find all kinds of ways of avoiding what is seen as a stigma or even a fault – being old

The cover is also intended, I suspect, to allay fears of too fierce an approach. It is pink, with silhouettes and the main title in elaborate, curly lettering  – a kind of Jane Austen appeal?

I am not sure enough of the nuances of American culture to know whether these observations apply across the Atlantic. 

Despite these reservations I am grateful to Ruth Saxton for drawing my attention to many texts previously unknown to me, and for offering some new perspectives on familiar books. Even on the occasions where I have taken a different slant on a text, I am still thrilled to find a writer who shares my ideas that books about older women are undervalued. 

I would make the same point about women in society in general – older women are undervalued. 

The Book of Old Ladies: celebrating women of a certain age in fiction by Ruth O Saxton, published in 2020 by She Writes Press. 295pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

My full list of about 100 novels featuring older women can be found here.

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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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