To lose one’s place without gaining another, to be alienated from one without being able to assimilate in another — this has always been the fate of the refugee.
In her brilliant essay, ‘We Refugees‘, Hannah Arendt wrote:
We wanted to rebuild our lives, that was all. In order to rebuild one’s life, one has to be strong and an optimist. So we are very optimistic. Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of our daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.
She went on to write about the difficulties of assimilation, of trying too hard to fit in, and still never belonging to any place anymore. Yet, as we know, much of the post-WWII American culture was shaped by refugees like her. In his essay, ‘Reflections on Exile‘, the academic and cultural critic Edward Said distinguished between expatriates, exiles, refugees, and immigrants and argued that modern Western culture — meaning academic, intellectual, and aesthetic thought and work — is mostly the work of the latter three. American literature, in particular, has been such a significant beneficiary of the displacement and migration during and after WWII that it’s hard to argue with Jhumpa Lahiri’s, point, that “Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction.” More recently, Emily Temple of Lit Hub put together a list of “Great American Novels written by immigrants and one of novels by and about refugees.
[Note: Of course, America is not just a country of immigrants as many are fond of saying. There were people thriving here well before the early settlers arrived and nearly destroyed them and their culture.]
Refugees who are dissidents escaping from oppressive regimes have an even more significant cross-cultural impact on our times because they tend to move in mass groups. Entire UN agencies have sometimes been created to help them. Theirs is a vast, collective anguish over loss, estrangement, displacement, homelessness, and isolation. The literature that comes from their lived experiences is not simply an attempt to portray their traditions or eccentricities due to nostalgia. It’s a desperate effort to hold on to some sense of self when there’s no place for that self to belong. It’s a search for an identity that goes beyond labels like ‘asylum seeker’, ‘unaccompanied minor’, ‘deportee’, ‘detainee’, ‘illegal alien’, and more.
The five short stories in this month’s selection are about refugees from different parts of the world: Vietnam, Pakistan, Nazi Germany, Uruguay, Mexico, and Korea. Two are actually excerpts from longer works but we include them here because they stand as short stories, as well. Plot and drama are driven by brave individual responses to communally traumatic events. Along the way, there is love, loss, pain, hope, and joy. What stands out further in these particular stories are these two things:
1. A conventional stereotyping of ethnicities has been carefully avoided so that we, as readers, can see the characters as individuals rather than a monolithic group of dispossessed people. The latter is, of course, how they are often presented in news media.
2. In any story, there are usually several kinds of speech: that of the characters, the narrator(s), and the author (and, I would argue, the translator, if there is one.) This heteroglossia (in Greek: hetero- “different” and glōssa “tongue, language”), as Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin defined it, cleverly adds to the narrative conflict in these stories.
“The War Years”, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (TriQuarterly Review)
This story is also in Nguyen’s collection, The Refugees (Grove Atlantic, 2017). It features a close-knit Vietnamese community in San Jose, California. A family is being pressured by another community member, the persistent Mrs Hoa, to contribute funds toward anti-communism efforts back in Vietnam. Living frugally on income from a convenience store, the parents are conflicted over this. As the story’s narrator, the son reveals how this is viewed in the community while also sharing his own internal drama over it.
Eventually, a private past comes to light and causes a turning point for all. The carefully and closely described details throughout are worth noting. Every single one reveals character or story — nothing is superfluous. They make the characters alive to us, seeming like people we might know; families like ours, even.
Before Mrs Hoa broke into our lives in the summer of 1985, nothing my mother did surprised me. Her routine was as predictable as the rotation of the earth, beginning with how she rapped on my door every morning at six, six-fifteen, and six-thirty, until at last I was awake. When I emerged from my bedroom, she was already dressed, inevitably wearing a short-sleeved blouse and skirt of matching pastels. She owned seven such outfits, and if she had on fuchsia, I knew it was Monday. Before we departed, she switched off the lights, checked the burners, tugged on the black iron bars guarding our windows, always in that order, and then, in the car, ordered me to lock my door.
“The Wanderers”, by Guadalupe Nettel (Granta Magazine; Tr. Sophie Hughes)
Childhood doesn’t suddenly end one day, like we hoped it would when we were kids. It lingers, crouched silently in our grown-up bodies, and later in our wizened bodies, until one day, many years later, just when we think that the burden of resentment and despair we’ve been shouldering has finally made us adults, it reappears like lightning, striking us with its freshness, its innocence, its unfailing dose of naivety, and above all with the certainty that this really is the last glimpse of it we’ll get. We didn’t think it would be like that when we were young. As kids, we dreamt of being independent and doing as we pleased: spending our time however we chose, eating whatever food we liked, going wherever we wanted. Childhood felt like a waiting room, a transitory phase between birth and the life we wanted.
Here’s a classic by Malamud, a Jewish refugee himself and a well-regarded man of letters. He wrote many stories featuring Jewish refugees of all stripes and one of his recurring reminders was that those who dehumanize refugees eventually dehumanize themselves because of their own moral and ethical indifference and inhuman violence. Malamud never glossed over the difficulties of assimilation, the constant fear of the unknown future, and the lifelong heartache of people who have lost everything — all of which we get in this story too. The narrator is a student who gives English lessons to new refugees like Oskar Gassner. They struggle initially but Gassner works hard and gains some semblance of mastery over the language. The jarring ending reverberates long after the reading.
Oskar Gassner sits in his cotton-mesh undershirt and summer bathrobe at the window of his stuffy, hot, dark hotel room on West Tenth Street while I cautiously knock. Outside, across the sky, a late-June green twilight fades in darkness. The refugee fumbles for the light and stares at me, hiding despair but not pain.
I was, in those days, a poor student and would brashly attempt to teach anybody anything for a buck an hour, although I have since learned better. Mostly, I gave English lessons to recently arrived refugees. The college sent me: I had acquired a little experience. Already, a few of my students were trying their broken English, theirs and mine, in the American marketplace. I was then just twenty, on my way into my senior year in college, a skinny life-hungry kid eating himself waiting for the next World War to start.
“Dori and Jina”, by Choi Jin-young (Words without Borders)
Jin-Young is a South Korean writer. Mostly, she writes about the problems of misfits in Korean society. This story is an excerpt from her novel, To the Warm Horizon. The eponymous women here meet while escaping a pandemic that has destroyed the country. They are drawn to each other and, even at such a time of survival and difficulty, they find something safe to hold on to. The writing is intentionally crafted to be simple and clear but the themes, as with all of Jin-young’s work, are complex and intricate. We get two distinct voices and points of view here as the story is narrated by the two characters.
I opened my eyes. The bonfire had gone out. I could hear a babble of voices. Speaking Korean. It sounded like more than a couple of people. It was still dark outside. I woke Miso up and took a peek. There were two large box trucks parked in the vegetable garden. I did a head count. There were more than ten people. Several of them waved their flashlights into the house. I hid in the farthest corner of the room with Miso in my arms. People were busily lighting a fire and heating up their food. They made hot water from the snow and washed their hands and faces. The smell of grilled meat wafted in. I gagged. I held Miso tightly in my arms. So she wouldn’t be able to smell anything. So she wouldn’t be able to see anything. With only a wall separating us, these people ate and drank and spoke in Korean. They called each other honey, you, sir.
“Exit West”, by Mohsin Hamid (NPR Excerpts)
This is another bit of a cheat as it is an excerpt from a longer work. But this novel by Pakistani writer, Mohsin Hamid, is one that now stands strong in a timeless canon of refugee literature. Saeed and Nadia are students living in an unnamed country (which sounds a lot like Pakistan). Militants have taken over the government and violence has become a part of daily life. The couple has to to bribe some of the militants to be allowed to use escape portals that transport them to different parts of the world. They are not welcomed at these places and often have to live in bad conditions.
Hamid’s novels always pack a lot into their compactness and this one is no different. With his precision and economy of words, he makes this much more than a love story or a refugee crisis — it’s also a futuristic vision, a dystopic one, and a modern-day allegory.
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.
While the above are all fictional stories, there’s an ongoing project to capture real-life refugee tales from around the world. Well-known writers are connected with refugees to discover their stories and then write them. Find out more on RefugeeTales.org.
Further, a unique new collaborative fiction, Shatila Stories (Peirene Press, 2018), provides nine stories written by refugees from a camp named Shatila in Beirut.