From Timor Leste to Australia ed. Jan Trezise

Timor Leste

a nutshell: this first-of-its-kind book shares deeply personal and often gripping recollections from seven East Timorese families who ultimately made their homes in Melbourne’s City of Casey

a line: “I remember their fear, which for us children translated into terror” (Emilia, Florindo family)

an image: I enjoyed Berta’s anecdote about the first day of courtship with her husband-to-be, Luis, who mistakenly thought he should arrive in the early morning and turned up at the family home when she was out in the fields picking peanuts (Berta, Santos family)

a thought: as demonstrated above, the interviews with family members prompted a mixture of heart-rending and light-hearted memories – I learned a great deal from this book and it is a real credit to the students and community members who were involved in making it

a fact: the chronology of East Timor’s key historical events was v useful, and I was happy to see it originated from the Alola Foundation (an org I came to know through my work with IWDA) – here’s an online timeline

want to read From Timor Leste to Australia? visit here

Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir

yellow book against brick wall

a nutshell: in this moving autobiography Kassindja records how she fled Togo aged 17 ahead of kakia (female genital mutilation) and a forced marriage, ending up in the US where she spent a horrifying 16 months in detention

a line: “I’d been lost, misplaced, like luggage gone astray”

an image: Kassindja’s memories of prison guards mistreating detainees often evoked shocking scenes, particularly how she was ostracised under entirely false suspicion of TB

a thought: among the most poignant moments in this book, for me, were Kassindja’s reunions with other women detained while seeking asylum – her story is full of powerful friendships and unconditional love often in less likely corners, for instance the commitment of her cousin Rahuf whom she hadn’t seen since childhood

a fact: 97% of detained immigrants are people of colour even though 5 of the the top 20 countries of origin for illegal immigrants are Caucasian – it isn’t that white-skinned illegal immigrants don’t come to the US, it’s that they don’t get put in detention

want to read Do They Hear You When You Cry? visit here

The Dancer from Khiva by Bibish (tr. Andrew Bromfield)

cover on kindle (back of plaited hair) with fern in background

a nutshell: written while Bibish was a street vendor in a province of Moscow, this unique & spirited memoir records an Uzbek woman’s determination to live independently despite all odds

a line: “The state is like an X-ray machine, it looks right through me”

an image: with the moon in Central Asia shining brightly at night, Bibish recalls how she used to read a wide range of books while everyone slept (despite her mother’s scolding)

a thought: the author vividly documents her struggles to earn enough money to provide food for her sons, such as her raw despair at being unable to buy bread to ease their hunger as late as 10pm – this evoked horrible parallels with the current situation in my homeland, the UK, where parliamentarians refused to allow meals to be given to children needing food over the upcoming holidays during the pandemic

a fact: Bibish shared many fascinating details about her childhood in a kishlak, and particularly moving was her account of the forced labour & production quota system that pervaded Uzbekistan’s cotton fields – when I googled this I was horrified to learn from HRW that it continues to this day

want to read The Dancer from Khiva? visit here

Weep Not, Refugee by Marie-Thérèse Toyi

a nutshell: this novel follows the endless trials of a Tutsi boy, Wache Wacheke Watachoka (‘Let Them Laugh, They Will Eventually Get Tired and then Keep Quiet’), who was born in a refugee camp to a Hutu teenager raped while she fled Burundi

a line: “Nothing is static under the sun. Rain goes back to clouds, dust feeds life and returns to dust, a refugee goes back home, and a free man goes into exile.”

an image: at one moment, the child viscerally depicts their country as having vomited the refugees out of its bosom, with machetes & bullets, giving their new host nothing to love in them

a thought: there were so many aspects of this book that piqued my curiosity – from the dedication to Mr Bill Clinton to the observations about conceptual/practical intelligence (fluent in speaking French but could they eat a language?) to the eloquence with which Toyi writes of how a nose shape could trigger enmity

a fact: in 2018 I interviewed Burundian journalists running a radio station in exile while I was working with the Rory Peck Trust (under the org’s old management, I hasten to add) and was seriously moved by their stories – you can read the interview via PDF

want to read Weep Not, Refugee? visit here*

(*Sorry for linking to Amazon Kindle – it’s the only edition I could find)

Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández

knitting the fog cover with misty path image, book on tile floor all in black and white

a nutshell: blending narrative personal essays and bilingual poetry, Hernández shares her matriarchal upbringing and her childhood journey from Guatemala to Los Angeles

a line: “Tía Soila has always been a breathing poem who knows how to climb the tallest tamarindo trees”

an image: the scene in which Hernández, her sisters & her mother are to cross the Río Bravo to make the leap from Mexico to the US is one of the most intensely memorable in the book, particularly the moment where one of the sisters worries aloud about their inability to swim and Hernández (“trying to be brave and hopeful”) reassures her that she’ll rescue her

a thought: her mother’s physical violence towards others and corporal punishments on the girls for any misbehaviour made for discomfiting reading; Hernández’s explanation of what her mother had endured earlier in life was telling, but not excusing, nevertheless the writer expresses gratitude in the Acknowledgements for her mother’s courage & sacrifices

a fact: languages & accents play a big role in Hernández’s story about coming of age, and I learned that Guatemala has more than twenty Mayan & distinct indigenous languages

want to read Knitting the Fog? visit here

Nobody Wanted Me by Soledad Castillo

Chapter of Soledad Castillo's story

a nutshell: this is a moving account of resilience from a young refugee, Soledad, who fled her native Honduras aged 14 (having survived disease, sexual assault by her step-father, and child labour) to forge a new life for herself in California

a line: “Many Americans think that we come here to take their jobs, to do bad things, to take advantage of the country. I’m not a bad person. I came here to survive, to do better in this world, to help my family and other people.”

an image: Soledad describes the moment when, aged 12, she fearfully told her mother what her step-father had done; refusing to believe her, her mother tried to hit her and the 12 year old ended up running from the house crying – on returning a few hours later, she found her mother packing the child’s clothes and she was sent away from home into unpaid work

a thought: it’s uplifting to read how sharing her story has changed Soledad’s life – now if she ever feels sad or despairing, she rereads what she wrote to be reminded that so many things have come true for her; that she can get up and go on

a fact: Soledad is currently studying for a degree while working for John Burton Advocates for Youth, a civic organisation that advocates for foster children’s rights

Soledad’s story is featured in Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America (ed. Steven Mayers & Jonathan Freedman)

want to read the book? visit here

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the Dreamers book by Imbolo Mbue against brick wall

a nutshell: seeking a ‘better life’ in NYC for his Cameroonian family while striving for a green card, Jende finds employment as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers exec and discovers how bleak the Manhattan lifestyle is below its glittering surface

a line: “American women do not use love potions.”  “That’s what you think? … They call it lingerie.”

an image: Jende contrasts the 2008 financial crisis with the curse that befell Ancient Egypt, which he blames on Egyptians choosing riches over righteousness, worshipping idols and enslaving fellow humans – the Americans did no such thing, he believes

a thought: I’ll try not to say too much, but the ending felt beyond crushing, particularly in its seemingly normalised misogyny

a fact: Mbue lost her own job in the 2008 crash and was inspired to write this novel when observing drivers, who were predominantly black, waiting on Wall Street

 

want to read Behold the Dreamers? visit here

“I never had this idea of a nation”: thinking global with Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days book by Jenny Erpenbeck against a brick wall

Navigating life inside and outside East Germany was robust training for becoming an acclaimed novelist. That’s not to say Jenny Erpenbeck, born in East Berlin in 1967, has had a one-dimensional career: from bakery sales to book binding, opera directing to writing, her CV is nothing if not eclectic. “My dad used to say it’s good if one chapter in your life is connected to the next,” she laughs over a pot of earl grey, “but in my life none is connected to any other!”

Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck
Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck in Melbourne

Yet, on the contrary, traces of Erpenbeck’s early chapters suffuse her fiction. A sense of social angst and upheaval permeates the author’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The End of Days, as well as her latest book: Go, Went, Gone. Depicting a (formerly East) Berliner’s interactions with African asylum seekers in the German capital, Go, Went, Gone humanises the faces behind news stories, giving space to individuals’ memories of what had to be left in their countries of origin. “It was also exploring my own society,” Erpenbeck explains. “The adventure was not so much about the Africans but German society – how they deal with the issue, what reality the refugees face, and how my reality takes on a different look in their lives.”

It’s a multifaceted approach that contrasts sharply with the blanket anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right AFD (Alternative für Deutschland), who reap their strongest support from Germany’s east. “Often I’m asked why East Germans are especially against newcomers,” Erpenbeck says, “When I try to make sense of it, I’d say it’s the fear of being put in another situation of instability.” Recalling the West’s reluctance to engage with East Germans in the wake of their society’s collapse, she suggests: “Now by behaving badly, so to say, they’re forcing others to listen. It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke.”

As we touch on the abrupt loss of her childhood setting, the author shares the fears she herself held as her world changed. “I know the feeling of being afraid of not making enough money to pay rent, of being put out on the streets, of having to go somewhere your family can’t stay with you, of being divided,” she admits. “We had never spoken about money, never needed to. It came as a real shock, maybe all the more so because the joy of many in the weeks after the Fall of the Wall was so immense.”

“It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke”

At a point when human rights lawyers are calling for EU member states to face punitive action over migrant deaths, Erpenbeck is likewise sceptical of the West’s approach to immigration. “The discussion now seems to be so short-sighted and the solutions so cruel: building a wall, or letting people drown in the Mediterranean,” she sighs. “I must say, I see some parallels between letting people drown in the Mediterranean and putting them into Auschwitz. It is a principle of selection. Some are worth allowing to survive, and others aren’t.” I ask her what answer she would give to the question that she poses in her novel: has Hitler won the war in some respects? “We will see,” she replies.

Our conversation spills well beyond the hour we set aside, meandering from the philosophical to the literary to the pragmatic. Erpenbeck pauses often before she speaks, and returns variously to the refugee crisis: “If you think in terms of ‘mankind’, it doesn’t make any sense to let even one person die.” She continues to tug at the thought, “Just imagine, as an experimental thing, it wouldn’t make any sense to let one of your companions die.” Erpenbeck maintains a quietly optimistic outlook when it comes to the future of humanity, even so. “There’s a beautiful sentence by the greatest German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin,” she says, and searches for the right words: “‘But where danger is, there arises salvation also’. This is my hope.” She looks at me, then laughs at herself.

“I know the feeling of being afraid”

Erpenbeck’s cautious positivity is perhaps an attitude dredged from her upbringing in East Germany. “If you have experienced life in two different societies, or countries, or cultural environments, then the relativity of it all comes to your mind,” she observes. “There’s hope involved. If you know there’s another world somewhere, you’re not caught in one. There are different solutions, different ideas.”

So too might her unusual life experience have exposed to her the flaws in nationalism. “I never had this idea of a nation,” she says. “Of course I love my language, I know my family, I have some friends – fortunately! This is what I know. But the idea of a nation is very strange to me.” Her curiosity about individuals, groups, dynamics is evident. “German law is very strict on who is a political refugee, and where they came from,” she comments, “But if you fall in love and marry, this border falls. Even in law, which is normally so strict about all things, love is accepted as an erosional thing that changes everything.”

And with that, Erpenbeck has also crystallised the impact of her writing in all its change-making, border-eroding, compassion-inducing powers. As we said our goodbyes, she revealed she is fifteen pages into her next novel. The focus? Ah, only time will give the answer to that one.


Want to read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (tr. Susan Bernofsky)? Visit here

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

TW – this review contains references to sexual assault

a nutshell: a short, narrative nonfiction book bearing witness to the suffering of undocumented children navigating the US immigration system, drawing on Luiselli’s work as a volunteer court translator in New York

a line: “It is perhaps not the American Dream they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born”

an image: the writer describes seeing child migrants enter the court system as like being stood with hands and feet tied, powerless, watching kids try to cross a busy avenue with cars speeding by

a thought: rather than writing off these children as “illegals” or “aliens” we should regard them as refugees of a hemispheric war (in which the US has long been complicit), Luiselli argues, all of whom have the right to asylum

a fact: the writer notes the horrifying reality that 80% of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the US border are raped on the journey

 

want to read Tell Me How It Ends? visit here

Elsewhere Home by Leila Aboulela

a nutshell: folding back & forth between Sudan and Scotland (as well as the occasional glimpse of Egypt, England & the UAE) these 13 short stories unveil a little of how it feels to forge a new life far from one’s homeland

a line: “I breed a new fear of not knowing, never knowing who these enemies are. How would I recognise them while they can so easily recognise me?”

an image: in ‘The Museum’ a Scottish classmate invites Sudanese student Shadia along to an exhibition about Africa (alarmingly vague as that is), where she quickly realises nothing represented her or what she missed about home – it was all merely Europe’s version & clichés about Africa, old and cold

a thought: in several of her stories Aboulela presents relationships in which two people are at odds in approaching their cultural contexts; at one point in ‘The Ostrich’ Majdy tells his wife that if she covers her hair in London they will think he is forcing her to, while she recalls her past in Sudan as a “freer woman”

a fact: Aboulela, who grew up in Khartoum and now lives in Aberdeen, won the 2000 Caine Prize for African Writing for ‘The Museum’

 

want to read Elsewhere Home? visit here