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Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

I love our reading group for two main reasons: I get to talk with others about my favourite subject and we read books I wouldn’t have chosen myself. Sometimes our choices are disappointing, but much more often the choices are very rewarding. This was the case with Lost Children Archive, which we read in March.

This novel already had a good reputation, and the topic of refugees, refugee children and their treatment is sadly and persistently in the news, both in the UK and in the US. This book was longlisted for Women’s Prize and Booker Prize in 2019 and it confronts the events at the US southern border head on. Not only is it topical but this is an innovative and imaginative novel that deserves attention.

Lost Children Archive

The main narrative of the novel is a road trip taken by two adults and their two children from New York to the southwestern states. The adults have left  careers in sound recordings to pursue their own interests: the husband is looking for the echoes of the Apache Indian tribes. The mother is drawn into a search for the stories of children who cross the border separating Mexico and the US. She had met Manuela at the school gates and heard that she is expecting her children, two girls, to arrive at any moment. 

As they drive, they witness the economic decline of many places: abandoned gas stations, ruined motels, the empty highway. Sadness pervades this trip because it is clear to the mother, the narrator of most of the book, that she and her husband will part when they reach their destination, wherever it is. 

As they travel, we are drawn into other texts, about sound recording, about the first nations, and the Elegies of Lost Children. These elegies are created by the author, but reference many other writers: Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, Galway Kinnell.

There is other documentary material provided in the text, not least the Migrant Mortality Reports, photographs and the boy’s Polaroids. The importance of documenting, recording, creating these archives runs through this novel. What does it mean to be American? The indigenous population was all but wiped out, and deprived of land and other rights; the migrants from the south have the ambition to be American; the family who make the road trip find themselves adrift in their own country.

The climax is narrated by the boy and meshes with the stories in the Elegies and Manuela’s daughters who have their mother’s phone number stitched into their clothing. 

An innovative and imaginative novel

I have already mentioned some of this novel’s originality: the use of texts from elsewhere, and other documentary materials. Some readers may be reminded of WG Sebald’s use of photographs. Here, too, they are not of good quality, but they still add something to the narrative, to the documentation of the story.

I am reminded of Sebald’s description of Theresienstadt concentration camp In Austerlitz. The effect of Sebald’s description, written over many pages in one sentence, as here in Lost Children’s Archive, is to force you to stay with the prose. You can’t look away. You have to bear witness to the experiences of the children. 

She gives none of the family a name. This anonymity brings you closer to their relationships. And Valeria Luiselli writes the most stunning descriptions of the landscapes through which the family travel and search.

The effect of all of these devices is to draw together a dramatic story with both individual human relevance and immediacy, with a damning indictment of how children are treated in our world, especially when they are unwanted migrants.

Valeria Luiselli herself is originally from Mexico, but the migrant story is not hers, although she had served as a court translator for South American children seeking asylum in the US. She has written other novels, Faces in the CrowdThe Story of my Teeth, as well as collections of essays. but this is her first book in English.

Our small zoom meeting of the reading group agreed that this is an intense, relevant and strong novel.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli published in 2019. I read the paperback version from 4th Estate. 385pp. Longlisted for Women’s Prize and Booker Prize in 2019. 

Another post about books on refugee

Well-founded fear: a Themed Post about Refugees (from March 2021)

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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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Refugee Tales III

It’s Refugee Week 15th – 21st June 2020 and I am launching my Crossing 25 Bridges challenge to highlight the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) who since 2015 have been making an annual walk

in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and detainees.

In the manner of the Canterbury Tales, as they walk they tell stories, which are collected and published. Some refugees tell their own stories, and some are retold by accomplished writers. 

Human Rights?

The UK is the only country in Europe  that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules. For all kinds of reasons this is wrong. One reason is that it is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrart arrest, detention or exile.
[Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

Refugee Tales III 

In the third volume of Refugee Tales, six stories are told by individual refugees in their own voice and 13 more are presented ‘as told to’ some notable authors such as Monica Ali, Roma Tearne, Patrick Gale, Ian Samson, Bernardine Evaristo, Gillian Slovo.

Tales are told by the stateless person, the orphan, the foster child, the father and the son and more. The people are identified by activities that we can all understand. 

A terrible picture emerges. Each person’s story has a brutal start in their country of origin. These stories are individual, often violent and involving betrayal, torture and always fear.

Once the refugees have arrived in the UK the themes coalesce into a horrific story of the obstacles to being granted asylum. They all involve indefinite detention.

For a moment pause and consider what it might mean to have left your country, often your family, your identity, your language, culture, food and history. There is likely to be trauma in that story. You arrive, looking for safety and find yourself met with a wall of disbelief, distrust, cruel and labyrinthine administrative and legal processes, and ever-changing personnel. And imprisonment, without apparent reason, often removed when signing on as required, and often released again with as little apparent cause. 

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, or detention?

But more significant perhaps than the transgression of the UN Declaration is the inhumane aspects of this policy. Most people are aware of the Hostile Environment initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, in 2012. Fewer people are aware that it involves indefinite detention. More people need to be aware that refugees have few rights to benefits, or a job, and only to meagre accommodation and, until very recently only £5 a day to live off. The current Home Secretary raised it to £5.26p in early June.

Responding to Refugee Tales

I cried a lot, and then I got angry and then I decided to do something.

Here are some things to do:

• Buy and read one of the three collections of the Refugee Tales.

• Listen to what refugees have to say

You are not really going to listen. No one listens
You’re not really going to hear. No one hears.
But I will tell you my story anyway. I will tell you my story because you have asked to hear my story.
But that is all. You want my story from me. I do not want anything from you. […]
Now you have my story. And I still have nothing.
[From The Fisherman’s Tale as told to Ian Sansom]

  • Hear what refugees have to say, be a witness, enter the community that acknowledges these stories and these lives.

So I ask him, why does he want me or anyone else, to tell his story? Wouldn’t it be more powerful coming directly from him? His response is that he needs someone else to hear, a person outside the immediate experience, to acknowledge and record what happened to him and to those whose sufferings he heard and saw. He wants me to be his witness, not because his narrative requires verification, but because of the fact of hearing itself; because it signifies that in a world that so often seeks to deny and disbelieve such accounts, his story has been absorbed by a listening heart.
[From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Be a vigilant witness against evil and heartlessness and stand up for solidarity, beyond all seeming borders or nationality and creed. Jonathan Wittenberg knows the importance of this from researching the history of his own parents who were refugees from Nazism.

As I listen and record, I become a companion in defiance against the silence in which vicious regimes try to bury the knowledge of the crimes they have committed against the dead and disavow the living trauma of those who manage to survive them.
S needs me, us, to be allies. [From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Support my lockdown walk over 25 bridges in support of retelling the stories of flight and detention and the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
  • Join in the weekend of online events with Refugee Tales –  3rd – 5th July – details on their website.

My Lockdown Walk with Refugee Tales

Staverton Bridge, Devon.

My walk this month will, as far as possible, cross 25 bridges. Some may be crossed twice. I hope to walk with friends and family, including remotely. The bridges will be photographed and I’ll put them on Twitter, Facebook and my Just Giving page.

You can donate to the Just Giving page  and the  here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/caro-lodge

Anything from £1 to £100 will be welcome towards my target of £400

Refugee Tales III, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus (2019), published by Comma Press. 201pp

Other connected pages

Refugee TalesEds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in February 2017 on Bookword about the first collection of tales. I was raising money for Freedom from Torture at the time.

Refugee Tales 2, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in April 2018 on Bookword about the second collection. 

Refugee Tales

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

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A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

My god she was angry. Martha Gellhorn was most angry about Spain, where she had been reporting on the Civil War. But she became angry about the Allies’ betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938 which she had visited earlier in the year. She had seen the determination of the Czechs to fight the German ambitions for Sudetenland. On returning after the Munich Agreement in September she found that Germany had taken Sudetenland and more as it increased control over the country.

Annexation of Sudetenland 1938

Martha Gellhorn knew what she was writing about, knew that the expansion of Germany into Czechoslovakia after Munich, would be the start of something terrible in Europe. The book is critical of French and British policy towards Hitler’s ambitions. She called Chamberlain’s approach ‘kid-glove fascism’.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. 
[Chamberlain‘s Speech on Radio on 27th September 1938, before he flew to Munich.

‘Peace in Our Time’ – Munich Agreement 1938

Her book warned of the Gestapo methods, and the despair of the refugee Germans, Jews and other ‘undesirables’ who had found sanctuary in Czechoslovakia, and of the Czechs who opposed Germany’s annexation.

A Stricken Field was the first novel of the American correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It was published in America in 1940, and in London in 1942. With this choice for the Decades Project 2020 (see below) we enter another dark period of the Twentieth Century.

A Stricken Field

By the time Mary [Martha] arrived in Prague the country had become a stricken field, a field that has been the scene of a battle, in this case a battle that had not even been fought.

There were young knights among them who had never been present at a stricken field. Some could not look upon it and some could not speak and they held themselves apart from the others who were cutting down the prisoners at my Lord’s orders, for the prisoners were a body too numerous to be guarded by those who were left. Then Jean de Rye, an aged knight of Burgundy who had been wounded in the battle, rode up to the group of young knights and said, “Are ye maidens with your downcast eyes? Look well upon it. See all of it. Close your eyes to nothing. For a battle is fought to be won. And it is this that happens if you lose.” 
[from a Medieval Chronicle, quoted at the start of the book]

As an American correspondent she was privileged to witness, but also powerless, even when she had information. The novel follow Mary Douglas in Prague as she becomes incensed by the betrayal of the people of Czechoslovakia and the danger to the German refugees there. 

Through her friendship with Rita, a German refugee who has been living in Prague, she sees the worsening situation, the people who have become homeless, stateless, and without protection except for underground organisations such as Rita’s. Peter, Rita’s partner is another Germany activist, part of the communist party and he also assists refugees. He is picked up by the Gestapo. 

Mary tries to obtain a small amount of leeway for the refugees who have been ordered to leave immediately and have nowhere to go. She uses her position to get access to the British Commissioner for Refugees of the Society of Nations, Lord Balham, and a French general who has resigned his commission , shocked by the way in which his country abandoned their Czech allies. They fail in their combined attempts to get the Czech prime minister to grant more time. Despite being the stuff of thrillers this incident is based in real events. The French general comforts Mary:

“There is never one injustice alone, but always many others which follow naturally. If you live, you will see many  more and worse. And if you live long enough, you will see it change.” (197)

But Rita is lost because she has no spirit left after her partner Peter is tortured. Mary prepares to leave and is asked by an unknown woman to take evidence of atrocities with her. 

It is not just a bundle of papers that I am going to have an awful time hiding. It is the proof that everyone is not beaten yet. (285)

She considers her role. Should she carry these papers out to Paris? What good will it do? We already know that she does, because we are reading the novel. But the question that lingers is – so what difference did it make? What difference can truth-telling make? Events moved on. The Munich Agreement was consigned to critical history, Germany took over Europe and millions died. No wonder she was angry. And although we know that it is important that truth is spoken, that people do not give up, we are also reminded that there will be dark and terrible days.

Martha Gellhorn

She was an extraordinary woman, and a brave one. She was the only correspondent to land on D Day in Normandy, having hidden herself in a hospital ship. She had been in Spain, Czechoslovakia, Paris and London and reported on the war from all these places.

The novel shifts points of view, and is not entirely satisfactory in its construction. But the burning fury of author is evident. Peter, Rita and Czechoslovakia succumb, but the foreign correspondent flies out to Paris. She can still write. I found it very powerful. 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940) Chicago University edition. 314 pp. It was published in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1986.

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am indulging my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first four choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

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Devon Voices in World War One

There has been an abundance of tributes to those who made sacrifices during the First World War to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice on 11thNovember. In this post I draw attention to a local project that focuses on the everyday impact of that war upon Devon; and acknowledges the 11,000 local people who died in the hostilities.

There is a bookish connection.

Devon Remembers Heritage Project

We honour and remember the fallen soldiers, airmen, seamen and medical staff who gave their lives in the First World War. Our dominant image of the war is of the infantryman, in the trenches on the Western Front, with his round helmet. Somewhere in this picture there will be poppies.

We must also remember the effects of the war on other people. I have been admiring the Devon Remembers Heritage Project. It has involved ordinary people (that is, not historians), supporting their research into how the war affected life in Devon 1914-18. There have been about 30 projects. In addition there has been an arts programme, some events and other notable outcomes, such as an exhibition and a book. I like the idea of citizen history

Devon During the First World War

Many of the projects have been written up in the book Devon During the First World War. Sadly this book will only have a single print run, but it is available from Devon Libraries.

Devon is predominately rural and projects have explored farming and food production, including in-shore fisheries. The German blockade made it important for Britain to develop more home grown produce, and Devon people responded by finding all kinds of nooks and crannies for their allotments. In-shore fisheries were affected immediately by restrictions but Stephen Reynolds, who had come to live in Devon, worked tirelessly to ensure the work continued and the fish were harvested and fishermen did not loose their livelihood.

Exeter became a hospital centre for the South, taking wounded men from the trains via Southampton, who were cared for in no less than eight hospitals in the city. Some of those affected by shell shock were cared for at Seale-Hayne. Ordinary households in Exeter provided accommodation for the sick and wounded and they received treatment at the local clinics.

Plymouth has always had a central role in defending the country and in maintaining the naval fleet. Some very young midshipmen from Dartmouth were involved in action, sometimes fatally.

Industries all over Devon were affected by the shortage of labour and materials, and filling the gap meant that women and young people were recruited into new roles. An addition the refugee population, especially from Belgium, was welcomed by local people.

In Ottery St Mary, for example, the Verschoren family arrived with three children. The father had suffered a gas attack on the Front and been sent to Britain for treatment. Mrs Verschoren led the three children to safety, and they were settled in Devon. They were liked and well known in the area, and the whole family stayed on after the war. (see p43-44 Ciaran Stoker: Belgian Refugees in Devon)

Women took up roles previously denied them, and I especially warmed to the ambulance driver who was responsible for the transport of patients in Devon, as well as the maintenance of her vehicle. Sometimes her task was to return an injured soldier to his home when no more could be done to help him. (Devon Voices exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).

Devon writers, workers, the Jewish community and Canadian lumberjacks also made a substantial contribution to the war effort in Devon and have been researched by the citizen historians.

Here is an account of a notable act of bravery by 20-year old Ella Trout in September 1917.

Ella was rowing beyond Start Point with her 10-year old nephew, Willie Trout, when she heard a loud explosion from a torpedoed ship. Ignoring the risk of a submarine surfacing, Ella rowed for more than a mile through dangerous cross-currents, arriving in time to rescue a seaman clinging to a piece of wreckage. She hauled him on board, but unable to row back again against the strong current, started to drift further out into the Channel. Fortunately a nearby fishing boat had rescued the eight other seamen from the ship. The skipper took Ella’s rescued seaman onto his boat and towed her boat to safer waters where a naval patrol boat took the crew of the sunken ship to Dartmouth. Ella was awarded the OBE for bravery. (p99-100 Tom Reeves: Lifesaving at sea)

You can find details of the Devon Remembers Heritage Project on their website here: https://www.devonremembersheritage.org

I visited the Devon Voices and the Canadians in Devon War Photographs exhibitions at RAMM, Exeter in October. Both were moving and instructive.

My own choice of object to honour those whose lives were so affected by the war is made by Clare Read, Little Burrow Designs and called We Will Remember Them.

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Refugee Tales – 2 Edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

A group of people walk in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. As they walk they tell their stories. The journey, in July 2017, started at Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed, and ended in Westminster, the seat of parliamentary democracy.

This is a collection of stories about abuses of Human Rights. The stories are about refugees and indefinite detention.

Real as the walk is, and acutely real as are the experiences presented in the tales, there is a significant sense in which Refugee Tales is also symbolic. What it aims to do, as it crosses the landscape, is to open up a space: a space in which the stories of people who have been detained can be told and heard in a respectful manner. It is out of such a space, as the project imagines, that new forms of language and solidarity can emerge. (115)

Refugee Tales – 2

Last year I read the first volume of Refugee Tales as part of my challenge to walk and blog about refugees, raising money for Freedom from Torture. Since the first walk and publication of the first tales, indefinite detention has become more prevalent. It the focus of the second book of tales, collected for the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.

These are not exceptional stories, or only in the sense that they have been told to accomplished writers and written down and presented in a collection. Here are the tales of 11 people whose lives are bound up with the UK immigration practices: the student, lover, abandoned person, walker, witness, barrister, voluntary returner, support worker, soldier, mother and smuggled person.

Reading these stories made me ashamed to be a resident in a country where the policy is so mean-spirited and hostile, so lacking in generosity and humanity, which strips away peoples’ sense of self, their dignity and trust. Furthermore temporary indefinite detention can be seen as an abuse of Human Rights as these stories illustrate.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. (Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. (Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

People are being prevented from making an appearance. They are being hidden, their stories denied. They are being detained indefinitely, and justice is thus abused.

And there are stories of people doing good, doing the right thing, offering assistance and kindness where it is needed. I know who I’d like to be, not on the side of creating ‘here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration’ (words of the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, in 2012). Rather I would support a policy that honours our commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our obligations towards refugees.

From the voluntary returner’s tale:

I’m here yet I’m not.

You’ll never know.

That I was here.

Nor that I still am. (65)

From the support worker’s tale:

It means being in but not of the world. Like a shade from the world below, you’re condemned to float outside, looking in on everything you can’t have, everyone you’re not. (74)

From the soldier’s tale:

Salim is relocated to Glasgow. He has to report in person to the local Home Office outpost every two weeks. At any of those visits he is liable to be detained and removed to Italy. He is still suspended in this purgatory, waiting and hoping and dreading. One could diminish a man to nothing, to chaff, to dust, with this; the only weapon you need is time. (89-90)

Read the stories. They are not going away. Migration remains, and is not halted by hostile environments. In fact it is caused by them.

Refugee Tales – 2 Edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, published in 2017 by Comma Press. 138pp. Proceeds go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

You can find my post about the first book of stories here. Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp Profits go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

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Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Published by Vintage 374pp

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

What is the most pressing and intractable problem facing humans today? My answer would be the responses to migration, to the movements of peoples. I mean racism and the other abuses practised on vulnerable peoples. And I mean the responses of governments and especially of the EU to the people who arrive seeking asylum. Go, Went, Gone confronts these issues.

The story of Go, Went, Gone

Richard lives in Berlin, in what used to be called East Berlin, but in his lifetime it has been reunited with the rest of the city. He has just retired from his post as Professor of Classical Philology, and now faces decisions about how he will spend his time, his life. The description of his dilemmas about confronting retirement is excellent in itself.

Memorial to the Berlin Wall, May 2014

Richard’s attention is drawn to a group of refugees who are causing the authorities some worries as they are on hunger strike and then by camping out in Orienplatz. He visits their camp and notices that they have created a community. He decides to investigate, as he might have approached an intellectual question in his professional academic life. He reads up about migration and draws up questions for the migrants and goes to interview them. Here he reflects on what he reads after he has heard some of the men’;s stories.

Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional information he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. (142)

And when he combines his reading with his previous studies he notices something about the world.

When he considers the path the Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus by way of Anatolia and the Levant all the way to Egypt and ancient Libya, then later into modern day Niger (and then back from Niger to modern-day Libya and across the sea to Rome and Berlin), it’s nearly a perfect three-quarter circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did the movement cease. (142-3)

Never once has this movement halted, never did the movement cease.

As soon as Richard hears the stories of one man after another, the intellectual becomes the personal. He becomes absorbed in their lives, begins to make a difference through language teaching and donations, and becomes a somewhat naïve witness to the treatment of the refugees by the authorities.

My reactions

I was quickly absorbed by this book. The stories of the refugees are full of impact, not least because surviving the fearsome passage across the Mediterranean leads only to yet more suffering. Many of the men who have landed, usually in Italy, find themselves a great deal worse off than before they made their decision to leave, and with little prospect for improving their lives. Everything is a problem: shelter, clothing, work, communications with authorities, language, transport, neighbours, money …

As he learns more, Richard reaches back into what he knew best, classical studies, and makes connections with this knowledge. The centrality of the Mediterranean emerges in all stories. Richard reflects too on parallels with the reunification of Germany and the changes that came with this, especially for those who had lived in the former GDR. German history, however, has little significance for the migrants and they know nothing of Hitler and the atrocities of the 1940s or the division of Germany that followed the Nazis.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, May 2014

The meanings of boundaries of all kinds surface again and again. Humans seem to separate themselves from others to create enclaves; they identify and differentiate themselves from others in ways that cause huge problems. Above all, the accident of birth determines a human’s legal rights, and those who were born in the wrong places suffer over and over. The project of the EU does not help those who are born outside it.

The movement of peoples, and the dividing of peoples, the creation of boundaries to try to halt them have been going on for thousands of years. What arrogance it is that the EU, and German citizens (or any citizens) believe they can stop it. It seems to me that attempts to breach those boundaries are what it is to be human. Towards the end of the book Richard reflects on the new boundaries as he watches a standoff between the refugees and the police in Spandau.

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be; battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.

At the New Year’s Eve party, standing with his friend Peter on his girlfriend’s balcony gazing out into the darkness, Peter told him that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where two halves of the universe met. Is this scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here something like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together, but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? (209)

Richard’s experiences remind us that people can learn and change. His interest in and generosity to the men he meets reminds us of our individual responsibilities and possibilities. He draws in many of his friends into his activities. I also liked this book because it ended in a picnic, or rather a joyous barbeque.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, first published in English translation in 2017 by Portobello Books. 283 pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Go, Went, Gone was the Winner of the English Pen translate awards, which, by the way, included 50% of women writers and translated. You can find the complete list here.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are a couple of recommendations from those I have already included.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

More tales of people on the move. We learn from Exit West by Mohsin Hamid that despite restrictive policies by governments, dangers of migration, intense loss when leaving home, people move. People move, their lives change and move on. Even in times of great upheaval people pay attention to little things. Think of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

This is the second paragraph of the new novel from Mohsin Hamid, Exit West:

It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class – in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding – but that is the way of things with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does. (1-2)

Stories of migration have both universal and individual significance. The individual lives are made up of ‘pottering about our errands’ even as we are ‘teetering at the edge of the abyss’.

The story

The story of Exit West follows Saeed and Nadia from their first meeting in the evening class, through their escape to Europe, to their eventual separation in the US. It begins like this.

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something. (1)

Saeed meets Nadia in an unnamed city where they begin their careful courtship. We are probably in the Middle East, their religion is probably Islam but we are not given any more details. As they fall in love the political situation begins to turn bad, until eventually insurgents take over the whole city and they live in a time of difficult communication and separation.

In the city there are rumours of escape routes through black doors. These doors also provide a route into the city for some insurgents. Saeed and Nadia escape through a black door and arrive first in Mykonos, then London and finally on the west coast of the US, in Marin county. During each difficult episode the couple have been very loyal and careful of each other, even as their experiences undermine their love. They part and make new lives.

We also read cameos of other escapes through the doors, reminding us that the story of Saeed and Nadia is only one of thousands of stories of people moving about the world.

The writing

Mohsin Hamid’s writing is controlled yet relaxed. The tone is not quite as conversational as in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) when a man sits down beside a foreigner and tells his story with increasing tension. In a novel writing class two of the 10 participants chose the opening paragraphs of that novel as most impressive.

In Exit West the style is more mythic. The two extracts I have quoted reveal a narrator who claims a longer perspective than we have. ‘Back then’ he says several times knowing what happened in the years following the story he is telling. In the same way, he explains the behaviour of the characters to us. I especially enjoy the juxtaposition of ‘corporate identity and product branding’ with the impending violence in that first extract.

Measured, usually slow, told in very long sentences (that’s just one sentence that begins ‘It might seem odd …’ in the first extract) the story that emerges is relentless yet not hard to read despite Mohsin Hamid’s refusal to dodge the difficult moments. The death of Saeed’s mother is vivid, horrific, but almost everyday, for example.

My response

Read from one perspective Exit West is a profound criticism of the failure across the world to acknowledge and do anything good about the movements of people, or to deal with ‘the nativists’. There is, however, a strand in the novel that is hopeful, as the nations manage to draw back from genocide and adopt a policy of controlled work camps instead.

On the human level, as in the tiny stories of escape, Exit West shows that humans are generous, loyal, helpful. Ultimately it is a hopeful novel.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton 228pp

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 almost achieved my target thanks to readers’ and supporters’ donations. But donations are still acceptable.

April walk

The Walking Group

I dedicated one day on my walking holiday in Italy to the challenge. The route on the Gargano Peninsula, in Puglia, took us through limestone hills, and scrub before following a Mediterranean coastal path to the bay of Fontana delle Rose. This walk was about 13.2 km (8.3 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

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, walk 7 in Hertfordshire in March

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 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

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

… in May

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