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3 fascinating books shed light on the refugee crisis

Recent fiction about the refugee experience invites readers to broaden their emotional borders.

By Lisa Van de Ven

‘We are all migrants’

For most, it’s an international crisis. Others choose to view it as akin to an invasion. By the end of 2016, according to the United Nations’ latest figures, 65.6 million people — a record high — were forcibly displaced from their homes, fleeing war and persecution in regions like South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan. The global refugee population numbered 22.5 million by year’s end. Leaving behind everything for safety, these migrants have looked for places to settle. In the process, they’ve influenced policies around the globe, from Brexit to the United States’ cap on refugee admissions, the lowest in decades. And politicians aren’t the only ones reacting — many ordinary people are drawing lines in the sand based on colour, race and religion. Lines based on us or them.

But what if those same people could see the world from the other side of the line? Fiction has long tried to make an impact far beyond the page. Oliver Twist, for example, was Charles Dickens’ protest against Britain’s Poor Law, while Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird added fuel to the civil rights movement. Taking up this tradition of social commentary, three noteworthy books released in 2017 — Exit West; Go, Went, Gone; and The Refugees — allow readers an intimate view into one of today’s most divisive issues, highlighting how flimsy that line in the sand truly is.

Consider Exit West, a 2017 Man Booker finalist by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. It’s a tale of departures and arrivals, told with an element of magic realism: doors have suddenly appeared around the world, creating portals to foreign lands. A young couple — Nadia and Saeed — finds escape through one of those doors, leaving the frightening reality that is life in a country in conflict. Despite the danger at home, though, the decision to flee isn’t easy: it means facing a world that sees them as interlopers, while wrestling with feelings of separation and loss.

“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind,” Hamid writes, conjuring up the ghosts of exiled memories. Saeed must bury his mother and say goodbye to his father, and these are experiences anyone can grab on to, as are the feelings that result: loneliness, guilt, even anger. The West may be part promised land, but it’s part prison, too.

Everybody, the story makes clear, wants to feel like they belong. It’s something Nadia and Saeed share with the very people who oppose them — people feeling lost to the changes around them. “Everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives,” Hamid writes. “We are all migrants through time.”

German writer Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Go, Went, Gone (translated to English by Susan Bernofsky) explores just that juxtaposition, between the people who have spent their entire lives in a specific place and those who reside there now but aren’t allowed to become part of it. “Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?” Erpenbeck asks as she tells the story of Richard, a German widower and retired professor who slowly befriends a group of African refugees trying to find work in Berlin.

“The line dividing ghosts and people has always seemed to him thin,” Erpenbeck writes, and in Go, Went, Gone those ghosts exist for both the refugees Richard meets and his fellow Germans, too. Europe, after all, has its own memories of crisis and escape; during the violence of the Second World War, over 40 million people were displaced. Richard recognizes those ghosts, not immediately but with time, and this common experience helps him identify other similarities he shares with the newcomers. These men may have a different skin colour, but they ache with the same fear of being left behind as the retired Richard does.

While ghosts and memory are common threads in both Exit West and Go, Went, Gone, Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Viet Thanh Nguyen makes his ghost more literal in “Black-Eyed Women,” the first of eight short stories in The Refugees. A young man, killed on a perilous ocean journey from Vietnam after the war, comes back in spectral form 25 years later to face the story’s narrator, his sister who made it out alive. Now assimilated into American society and working as a ghostwriter, she suffers from survivor’s guilt, refusing to thrive when her lost brother can’t. The story speaks of peril and fortune and the tenuous line between life and death. “Tell me something,” the narrator asks her ghostly brother. “Why did I live and you die?” To which he answers, “You died too. You just don’t know it.”

The Refugees offers perspective on those who left, those who didn’t and those who return again. UN records show that around 800,000 Vietnamese “boat people” found refuge in other countries in the two decades after the Vietnam War, fleeing Communist rule; many others, like the brother in “Black-Eyed Women,” perished at sea. Still, at the heart of each of Nguyen’s short stories is an individual, not a statistic: a refugee teen pushing past his prejudices in pursuit of his own identity, a retired American pilot returning to the country where he once waged war, or a Vietnamese girl striving for the American Dream her half-sister squandered. Behind the massive numbers are human beings, Nguyen establishes — all searching for their own path.

What these works of fiction unveil, then, isn’t an invasion, but it’s more than a global crisis, too. Rather, it’s people trying to survive and thrive. Their feelings of displacement, crises of identity, and financial and physical insecurity aren’t unique to the newly exiled.

By eliciting empathy, fiction can invite change. And by wiping away the line between us and them, these authors reveal a heart that beats for all humanity: experiences both unique and universal, feelings sometimes too expansive to grasp, and people just looking for a place to call home.

Lisa Van de Ven is a writer and editor in Toronto.

This story first appeared in The Observer's April 2018 edition with the title "We are all migrants."

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