Tag Archives: David Cameron

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu

How easy it is to feel defeated in these difficult times. Recently friends and I have been asking, what is to be done? What is to be done in response to the increase in anti-immigrant hatred and discrimination in this country? How do we address the issues raised by people who want to keep non-British people out of this country? And how are we to approach the loss of sympathy for those who are seeking refuge? And more such questions. There are things to be done.

What writers and readers can do:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Tell the stories of individuals to prevent referring to migrants as a ‘swarm’ (David Cameron’s word) or becoming ‘the other’
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

In a series of posts I have highlighted ways in which writers and readers are taking action:

Today’s post looks at the contribution of another collection: A Country of Refuge. It is the 5th in a monthly series of blogs, part of my challenge to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

A Country of Refuge edited by Lucy Popescu

This book has a clear purpose as the editor Lucy Popescu says:

I wanted the writers to focus on the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in an attempt to directly challenge the negative press and to cast a more positive light on a situation that, for many, is a living hell. (2)

In her introduction she draws attention to our long history of welcoming people seeking refuge: the Protestant Huguenots fleeing Catholic France in the C17th, the Irish escaping the famine in the C19th, some of the 14m displaced people in Europe after the Second World War, Hungarians in 1956. She could have mentioned the Jewish people escaping the pogroms of Europe in the C19th and Nazi policies in the 1930s, the Basque families in the 1930s …

Refugees, it seems, are always with us. The challenges of migration and movement of people around the world needs to be dealt with in a coordinated way. At the moment we in the UK are getting in the way of solving the problems raised by displacing peoples. The dominant discourse is that migration is a risk for our country.

In A Country of Refuge we can read short fiction, poems, memoir, essays, and a lecture to help us consider the experiences of refugees, of leaving one country to try and make a home and a new life in another.

Two examples from A Country of Refuge

The Dog-Shaped Hole in the Garden is a short story (or memoir, or perhaps a mixture) by Hassan Abdulrazzak. Hassan and his family had lived well in Baghdad, but found Saddam Hussein’s regime increasingly threatening because of their family connections. He was a young lad when they left to begin a period of travelling, eventually settling in New Malden in Surrey, where Hassan ached to own a dog. The story of the family’s assessment by the RSPCA lady is humorous but tells of the separation of cultures, the misunderstandings, the crossed wires, and the adaptations and one or two unexpected sacrifices the family had to make. He twice uses the striking phrase ‘falling out of Eden’ about their losses. Hassan Abdulrazzak writes plays.

One of AL Kennedy’s two contributions is a lecture from the European Literature Days Festival in Spitz, Austria in October 2015. She asks again this question, what is to be done and she gives us an answer.

[But it is also true that] failure of the arts, of artists, helps the cruel among us triumph and begin to oppress us all, even in relatively free societies, including – and perhaps initially – those who are communicators. (205)

She makes the argument for a more careful use of vocabulary, challenging David Cameron’s ‘swarm of people’, and suggesting that noticing the individual people, identifying them, describing them and the people close to them, telling their stories makes it less likely to see them as a swarm. When we are confronted with photographs and the name of Aylan Kurdi, the little boy photographed on the beach, drowned, he and his family become hard to fit into a faceless swarm.

AL Kennedy reminds us of the lack of depth in our public media even when it pays attention to stories, such as Aylan Kurdi’s:

The massive displacement of human beings from their homes all across Europe and the Middle East was rarely examined in anything like depth, or presented as being perhaps of more importance than a variety of celebrity talent competitions and soap operas. (208)

She suggests that artists, writers, must show how important imagination is; imagining different lives, imagining different priorities and solutions, better futures for us all. And above all, imagination can help us escape from ‘othering’ and blaming victims for their situation. She reminds us that:

history teaches us that our greatest wrongs, crimes against humanity and genocide, arise from cultures where hatred has become part of the air the citizens breathe. (211)

By drawing attention to the activities of those who do not accept the culture of hatred, who provide aid, who march against unjust wars, through the best of the arts, she reminds us that we have the capacity to dream a better future.

Three notes

A Staffordshire activist, Michaela Fyson, organised, through crowdfunding, for every MP to receive a copy of A Country of Refuge as a Christmas present in December 2016. Lord Dubs supported the event. Michaela said she was moved to this action because:

there are too many politicians referring to these groups of people as if they are animals – talking about them ‘swarming’, or needing their teeth checked like horses to see how old they are. That is what we need to change.

Lucy Popescu has a track record of exposing mistreatment of writers through her column in The Literary Review and her work with PEN. She is also a mentor with the Freedom from Torture Write to Life Group. (See Lost and Found and Souvenirs).

Lucy Popescu had found it impossible to attract a mainstream publisher to A Country of Refuge. It was published through crowdfunding, by Unbound. Writers describe the books they want to publish and readers are invited to support their publication.

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu. Published by Unbound in 2016. 231pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the fifth 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.

January walk

My companion was my brother Mont, and we walked in early January on a sparkling day on a circular walk that started inland, took in Noss Mayo and part of the SW Coast Path. The fifth walk was about 13km (8+ miles).

Mont and me, January 2017

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

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

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 sixth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-February

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

What is the Prime Minister reading?

In the spring of 2007 on study leave in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada I attended a large international social sciences conference hosted by the University. One morning I found myself at a talk by Yann Martel the prize winning author of The Life of Pi (not yet a major motion picture but still prize winning and much discussed.) What, I wondered, would the author of this rather quirky novel have to say.

218 Life of Pi coverYann Martel blew me away, not by talking about tigers in boats and shipwrecks or the meaning of life, but instead he told us about a recent incident, which had left him very offended and not a little steamed up. And he was doing something about it.

The inciting incident

The incident concerned casual, even impolite behaviour by the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. 50 Canadian artists from all disciplines had been invited to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007. In the visitors gallery the 50 artists stood up, were acknowledged by the relevant minister and in 5 minutes the celebrations of Canadian arts was finished and the MPs turned to other business.

From the shadow into which I had been cast, I focused on one man. The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute. He didn’t even look up. By all appearances, he didn’t even know we were there. (5)

The Prime Minister, Yann Martel told us, was shuffling through his papers preparing for the next business.

The action

Yann Martel, relating this story (it’s retold with slightly less vehemence in the book, which I’ll come to), revealed his complete commitment to reading and books. He began a project that lasted nearly four years, writing to Stephen Harper and enclosing a short book to illustrate why reading is so important. The first book was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.

In reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker. (16)

He received a short letter of acknowledgement in reply from the Prime Minister’s office.

He continued to send a book every two weeks, with a covering letter. It was usually shorter than 200 pages, and where possible in a paperback edition, sometimes second hand. He also set up a website so other people could see his choices, the letters that explained them and the responses of Mr Harper. People would be able to make recommendations. And they did.

The outcomes

In the event the Prime Minister’s office only acknowledged two of the 55 books that were sent between April 2007 and February 2011.

For a while Yann Martel’s small-scale pro-book campaign gathered momentum and followers. He compiled a book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? explaining the project, his book club of two people, and including the letters he sent with the books. Later he included the original in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Both books are currently out of print.

218 St Harper

In October 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was defeated by the Canadian Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. I was reminded, by news of his defeat, of Yann Martel’s project and got hold of a copy of What is Stephen Harper Reading? The book club had finished by then.

Yann Martel said as he ended his project,

I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too wonderful to be used long for such a function. (Toronto Star 2.2.11)

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

218 What you reading? coverIt’s a book about books, and it’s a book about why reading is so important for individuals, including politicians. He describes it as a small book club but it’s actually a course in reading. He goes through 55 books, which he sent Stephen Harper April 2007 and May 2009. Answering the question why it’s his or anyone’s business what Stephen Harper is reading he writes this.

But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. As I wrote in one of my letters to the man, if Stephen Harper hasn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych or any other Russian novel, if he hasn’t read Miss Julia or any other Scandinavian play, if he hasn’t read Metamorphosis or any other German-language novel, or if he hasn’t read Waiting for Godot or To the Lighthouse or any other experimental play or novel, if he hasn’t read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or The Educated Imagination or any other philosophical inquiry, if he hasn’t read … then what is his mind made of? (10)

218 obama2-large

The choice of books is wide ranging: novels, plays, poems, meditations, short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, crime novels, in English and French, in translation and from the last 400 years.

It does the work of good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding. (From the letter on The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.) (95)

The making of art, as I may have mentioned to you before, involves a lot of work. Because of that it is implicitly constructive. One doesn’t work so hard merely to destroy. No matter how much cruelty and sadness a story may hold, its effect is always the opposite. … Art then is implicitly liberal; it encourages us towards openness and generosity, it seeks to unlock doors. (From the letter on The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison.) (145)

Of course, it is a little disingenuous of Yann Martel to reproach Mr Harper in this way for he cannot respond. But then he should have paid attention when Canadian arts were being honoured and acknowledged the gifts he was sent. Martel is occasionally preachy and portentous. But I can forgive him that for the intent at the heart of his action (connecting books and politics), and by providing such an interesting book about books and their importance. And I’d love to be existentially thicker.

A few notes on Saskatoon

People were very rude about Saskatoon, not a large city right in the middle of Canada. They told me it’s so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for two days.

While I was in the University Bookshop the assistant said, ‘Gee I love your accent. Are you from London?’ At that time I was. ‘Have you ever met Madonna?’ I laughed. ‘That would be like me asking you if you have ever met Joni Mitchell.’ ‘But I have. She used to visit her grandmother in the old people’s home where my aunt was.’ That’s Saskatoon for you.

It turns out that Yann Martel and Alice Knipers live in Saskatoon. Joni Mitchell (get well soon) also claims it as her home town. Not bad for Saskatoon. Not bad for Canada.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? By Yann Martel, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada. 230pp

Over to you

You can find the complete list of books recommended by Yann Martell on the University of Montana Library site.

Characters from a famous soap opera?

Characters from a famous soap opera?

What is David Cameron reading? Do we know? Do we care? Is he conscious of British writers and artists and their achievements? What would you recommend to him if you had the chance, or to any other politician?

 

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Filed under Books, Reading