Again and again, literature provides an outlet for the upended lives of refugees
By Dwight Garner
Pursued by the armies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a shark for all seasons, refugees are pouring through Europe at a rate not seen since World War II, according to the United Nations. It has rarely seemed truer, as Don DeLillo wrote in “Zero K,” his 2016 novel, that “half the world is redoing its kitchens; the other half is starving.” The starving half, as often as not, is on the run.
Edward Said called the 20th century “the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration.” The crisis in Ukraine reminds us that the 21st century has been no different. Checkpoints, bomb shelters, open latrines, children born in subways, insomnia, exhaustion, exposure, delay and sudden death: The news is both shocking and deeply familiar, a reminder of how often mass exodus has occurred in history, and a reminder that history itself is, as Clive James perceived, “the story of everything that needn’t have been like that.”
Since the beginning, writers have sought to capture the experience of the outsider, the exile, the parched traveler, the wanderer, the migrant. Ovid wrote the letters in his “Tristia” (“Sorrows”) after his banishment from Rome. In “Crime and Punishment,” a desperate man asks, “Do you understand what it means when you have absolutely nowhere to turn?” I am not here to suggest that reading necessarily makes us better, more moral. The Nazis liked Dostoyevsky, too. But Joyce Carol Oates was surely correct when she wrote, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
The unrelentingly grim news is a reminder of how much of literature is fueled by crises of migration and its aftermaths, and how writers have tried to capture the texture of upended lives.
One reason the stories in Anthony Veasna So’s posthumously published collection, “Afterparties” (2021), landed with such force is that they underscored how exile and trauma permanently divide generations. So wrote about Cambodian American families in California’s Central Valley. Immigrant parents and native-born children stared at each other as if through bulletproof glass. One young woman says: “Forty years ago our parents survived Pol Pot, and now, what the holy (expletive) are we even doing? Obsessing over wedding favors? Wasting hundreds of dollars on getting our hair done?”
In Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Committed” (2021), the sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer” (2015), there’s a harrowing boat journey as the narrator flees Vietnam for France. He thinks to himself: If I’m a boat person, then so were the English pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower. The pilgrims were lucky in their public relations, he continues. There were no video cameras to capture them, thin, dazed and lice-ridden, stumbling in the surf. Instead, romantic painters glorified that diaspora in oils.
The grain of the life of the uprooted, of those forced to flee for their lives, has been captured especially well by, to name but three writers, Haitian American Edwidge Danticat, Ethiopian American Dinaw Mengestu and British writer and poet Warsan Shire, who was born to Somali parents in Kenya.
I was familiar with Danticat’s and Mengestu’s fiction. I discovered Shire’s work in Dohra Ahmad’s excellent anthology, “The Penguin Book of Migration Literature” (2019). Shire is the real thing — fresh, cutting, indisputably alive.
In “Children of the Sea,” one of the stories in Danticat’s collection “Krik? Krak!” (1995), Haitians flee political violence in a tiny, leaking boat. She captures not just the heat but the humiliation. “Do you want to know how people go to the bathroom on the boat?” her narrator asks. You don’t.
In Mengestu’s story “An Honest Exit,” an Ethiopian man dreaming of escape to Europe is caught in between, in a port town where he sleeps rough and is beaten by cops. Mengestu particularly underscores his hunger. If a decent meal and a drink were on offer in this place, even if followed by certain death, “the line of men waiting to die would have stretched for miles.”
Shire writes after landing in a grim deportation center, “I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck, I did not come out the same.” She writes: “I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here.”
It’s easy to blur the line between refugee and immigration literature, and I’ve already done so. But each of these writers is in sync with Zadie Smith, who in “White Teeth” wrote, “It makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears — dissolution, disappearance.”
That the current crisis is playing out across Eastern Europe calls to mind the migrations of World War II, and the literature of those migrations. It has been pointed out, more than once, that Western countries are perhaps more sympathetic to Ukrainian refugees because they more resemble their own citizens.
If that’s so, it’s also true that this crisis has reminded the West, and nearly everyone else, how homesick we are for courage and honor. A long chain of norms has collapsed; the moral bottom seems to have dropped out of the world.
It matters somehow that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is a former comedian. Czech writer Milan Kundera has always stressed, in his fiction and elsewhere, the importance of sardonic, irreverent humor as a saving human and even political trait. When someone lacks it, as do Putin and Donald Trump, that’s when you worry.
“I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror,” Kundera once said. “I was 20 then. I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor.”
Christopher Hitchens, in his memoir “Hitch-22,” said something similar. The fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie crystallized his own values, and they are those that any liberal society should prize: “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship.”
Observing the bravery of the Ukrainian people makes us wonder how we’d bear up under similar circumstances. We’d all like to be George Plimpton, helping to tackle Sirhan Sirhan.
How would we bear up? One answer arrives in, of all places, Quentin Tarantino’s novelization of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Watching America’s former president, and some news channels, play footsie with Putin, I found myself recalling this chunk of Tarantino’s novel:
“Cliff never wondered what Americans would do if the Russians, or the Nazis, or the Japanese, or the Mexicans, or the Vikings, or Alexander the Great ever occupied America by force. He knew what Americans would do. They’d (expletive) their pants and call the (expletive) cops. And when they realized the police not only couldn’t help them but were working on behalf of the occupation, after a brief period of despair, they’d fall in line.”
Putin’s nuclear warheads are on trigger alert. If your politics run to the let’s-demolish-government variety, perhaps this is the moment you’ve longed for, for the born-again a moment of double rapture.